I was very lucky last night to attend an event with Shaun Tan at the British Library. He gave fascinating insights into his creative life and the artistic, emotional and intellectual processes underlying his picture books.
Tan’s focus has been art ever since being labelled a ‘good drawer’ at primary school. To this day he uses the light box his father made him. 95% of his work is done by hand rather than digitally, mostly using techniques learnt at school. He showed slides of wonderful published and unpublished drawings, and a clip from the film of Lost Thing.
Lost Thing was influenced in part by Orwell’s writings. Political ideas are often the starting point for his books, though by the time they’re finished the politics are well in the background. He never aims to change the world, though is pleased that The Arrival has altered some people’s views on immigration. In any case, political concerns are secondary in his work to personal and emotional issues. The Red Tree is intensely personal. To an extent he creates his books as a form of therapy, a way to explore his anxieties.
Tan is drawn to the strange and surreal in literature and art. He questions the concept of normality. He loves characters who are baffled, anonymous, displaced. Difference is a abiding theme in his books, partly because of his background as a mixed-race child in a monocultural Australian suburb, though he believes feelings of difference are universal. Most of his works are open to interpretation. He deliberately works on his drawings until he is baffled himself. His early drafts do too much interpretation for the reader. He strips them down, removing moralising endings for example, to rid them of his opinions. He likes to ask questions rather than answer them.