Jillian and Lauren Tamaki

The sisters Tamaki are a double threat. From their respective apartments in Brooklyn, the two graphic artists raised in Calgary have managed to conquer the Big Apple with their distinctive art. Jillian is a freelance illustrator who also creates bestselling graphic novels. And younger sister Lauren is similarly accomplished, combining a busy freelance illustration practice with fulltime design gigs that let her multiple talents shine.

If the two feel a rivalry, it doesn’t show. “Lauren is really attuned to culture, fashion and trend, both contemporary and historical,” says Jillian, 34. “She understands context very deeply and also has a good sense of humour and light spirit. Lauren, 31, says of her sister: “She’s illustration royalty. She’s set apart by the fact she has technical skill and storytelling ability.” Certainly the last two qualities are what Jillian has become known for.

After doing a foundation year in fine art at Queens University in Ontario, she returned home to take a Visual Communications Design degree at Alberta College of Art + Design. While her intent was to study design, the curriculum’s second focus, on illustration, seduced her “immediately.” “When I entered ACAD, I don’t think I knew illustration was even a thing,” she recalls. “I was glad the program was so focused on drawing fundamentals and emphasized both design and illustration,” she adds. “It made me a much stronger drawer. I graduated feeling really prepared.”

Jillian’s solid grounding helped her take off almost immediately. After graduating in 2003, she started freelancing in Calgary and then landed at an Edmonton video-game company, while continuing to freelance. With enough clients she went freelance full time and moved to New York in 2005. Since then, her clients have included the likes of the New York Times, New Yorker, National Geographic, Penguin Books, Oprah Magazine and WIRED.

At the same time she pursued a love of comics and with cousin, Mariko Tamaki, created the graphic novel Skim, in 2008, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. This year, the pair published This One Summer, a whimsical coming-of-age story. The novel had a two-week run on the NYT bestseller list. Inspired by her sister’s example, Lauren followed a fashion design degree at Ryerson University in Toronto by entering ACAD’s Visual Communications Design program. The twin focus of her courses helped her to realize she could have a dual design and illustration career. “The training just makes me a more valuable employee,” she explains. “The more arrows you have in your quiver, the more marketable you are in a competitive market.”

While in school, Lauren did freelance design and illustration for clients such as Murale, Good magazine, Swerve magazine and Theatre Junction GRAND. After graduating in 2011, she visited Jillian in New York and landed a job at Bumble and bumble, where she immediately made a splash in the graphic arts community with the wallpaper she designed and illustrated at the uptown salon, as well as holiday cards and the illustrations she created for B&b’s first rewards gaming app. She continued to do freelance illustrations for clients such as GQ, Wall Street Journal and Cole Haan and in 2013, she made the leap to New York’s Arch & Loop design firm, where she reunited with the beauty and fashion clients she loves.

She is now doing a lot more designing for the Web, forcing her to learn new skills on the fly. She is not fazed because of the “fearless attitude” that she and her sister learned at ACAD. The hard deadlines, high professional standards and, especially, the demanding but supportive instructors, made them realize they could do just about anything they set their minds to. “They helped us to get ready for the real world,” says Lauren. “You can’t put a price tag on that.”

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