Artist JooHee Yoon combines a creative life of producing his own work and teaching illustration and printmaking at RISD
Illustrator JooHee Yoon lets her imagination run wild in her latest book release, Assuming…., written by the late Scottish poet and translator Alastair Reid. This new edition was originally published in Portugal, then available in Dutch and Korean, and now an English edition has been created for American readers.
The initial publication of Assuming… came out in 1960. “A Portuguese publisher, who had seen my illustrations at a local exhibition, contacted me to see that I might be interested in working with them to reinvent this book,” Yoon said. “I loved Reid’s writing the moment I read it.”
Yoon describes Reid’s text as deceptively simple at first. “The text is so imaginative, almost like a stream of consciousness, and with a very dry sense of humor and also an element of critique regarding human nature,” she explained. “I had never read anything like this before, especially in a book aimed at children.”
As an illustrator, Yoon appreciates the open nature of words. “The text is always in the first person, so the reader doesn’t know the main character’s name or gender,” she said. “Previous editions always featured a boy, so I thought it was time for an update. I thought it would be interesting to expand on that and have both a boy and a girl , as well as a dog sidekick.
This international collaboration recalls Yoon’s childhood. “I had a lot of picture books from Europe when I was a kid in South Korea,” she recalls. “It was really interesting to be surrounded by books from many different countries, with very different styles and illustration techniques. I think variety is what has really stuck with me, and in my own work today I tend to explore many different materials and approaches.
Yoon decided to study illustration and printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she now teaches. “I learned to work by superimposing layers of color through screen printing, and this process made a lot more sense to me than mixing paint and putting it on a canvas,” she said. “Working with a limited color palette was also something I found enjoyable, almost like solving a puzzle, trying to figure out where each colored shape was going to create a discernible image.”
Part of Yoon’s excitement is the temperamental nature of this job. “The engraving process involves specific steps, a lot of planning and control, but at the same time there is an unpredictable quality,” she said. “Ink can spill, layers don’t reset, and that element of surprise and unforeseen errors leads to interesting results that I couldn’t have imagined.”
On his website, Yoon shares a variety of his books and illustrations. “I think each of my books is an exploration of my interests, so they stand out in different ways,” she explained. “I’m an avid reader, so I like to find old texts that I think are worth seeing in the light of day.”
For his first project, To beastly, Yoon curated a collection of animal-themed poetry for children. “Some of the poems are old favorites and some are newer discoveries I came across in my research,” she recalls. “I wanted to shine a light on poetry, which I think is especially fantastic for children because the rhythm lends itself to being read aloud and the content can be fantastic.”
Although he is an illustrator, Yoon wanted to make sure that the text of each poem was highlighted. “My solution was to create a project where each poem took center stage and was vibrantly illustrated,” she said. “This book also incorporates flaps that open, which adds to the visual narrative and an element of surprise.”
As an educator at RISD, Yoon encourages her students to experiment with different approaches. “I think the more students are exposed to methods and techniques, the better, because it’s hard to know what you’re good at if you don’t try it first,” she said. Explain. “Working with traditional materials alongside digital tools is another key part of my classes.”
Along with technique, Yoon advises his students to slow down and maintain their health. “Slowing down might seem counterintuitive, but a career as an illustrator doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “Our world is moving at such a fast pace now, it may seem like we have to keep up with that speed. But doing something fast doesn’t mean it’s better.
Despite this wisdom, Yoon is not immune to the challenges of creating a career in the arts. “I’ve been working full-time for 10 years now, which has its perks, but also comes with an unpredictable schedule and income,” she said. “Managing my schedule can be tricky, as I tend to think about my projects even when I’m not actively working on them.”
Yoon stresses the importance of gratitude and determination. “I was lucky enough to create a career with my art, but the early years took a lot of perseverance,” she admitted. “When you’re first starting out, no one knows your work or who you are, so believing in me and that I would eventually succeed as an illustrator was a big part of where I was now.”
His mentors, as well as his own patience, have also been key to his success. “I think time is also an ingredient of a successful illustration career because it’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint,” she said. “Now that I divide my time between teaching and my illustration projects, there is a greater sense of stability.”
Even better, teaching keeps Yoon open-minded. “It allows me to think about illustration with a different perspective and not take things for granted,” she said. “I’m constantly learning along the way, which is great.”