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The Enchanted World of Yoko Tanaka

Whether she’s working with paints or pencils, artist Yoko Tanaka rarely strays from her chosen palette of soft, smoky tones that lend her pieces a hushed, otherworldly quality, and a rich undercurrent of emotion. The somber figures depicted in her works are frequently placed in spare, but fanciful settings, lending them a fabulist, folkloric air.

Born and raised in Japan, Yoko earned a law degree before moving to California to attend the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. Post graduation, her dreamlike, atmospheric paintings quickly earned gallery attention, with numerous shows in Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver.

“Sharing” by Yoko Tanaka | 2007 | $7,000 | W: 48.0″ D: 2.25″ H: 26.0″ | Oil on Wood

In the oil on wood painting above, robed figures collect fruit in an orchard full of winged horses. While one of the subjects has an 1870s style high-wheel bicycle and the others ride ethereal ponies, she teases toward a rich and mysterious narrative that exists beyond the painting’s borders. Perhaps it was this very storybook quality that brought literary agents calling.

“I was pursuing gallery exhibitions, painting large paintings that needed to be hung on a wall. Painting to me meant one original piece and they had to come from the depth of my feelings. This attitude changed when I was contacted by my literary agent, Steven Malk, in 2005,” explains Yoko, in the online magazine Words & Pictures.

“He suggested that I try to illustrate for children’s books. At first, I said ‘No’ to him. I thought my works were too dark for children and I wasn’t sure if I could work as an illustrator. He said, ‘No problem. I will find the right projects for you.’ He did find me the right projects and since, I’ve enjoyed working on children’s book illustrations very much.”

“Sharing” by Yoko Tanaka at PAGODA RED gallery

Since then, Yoko has continued to make a name for herself as fine artist, while becoming a sought-after visual storyteller in the world of children’s literature. Her first self-authored book was published in February 2020 by Candlewick Press. The wordless story is entitled Dandelion DreamAmong many others, Yoko has also illustrated books by Kate DiCamillo (see below), R.L. LaFevers, Karen Foxlee, Sara Pennypacker, Laura Godwin, and Keith McGowan.

Two illustrations from The Magician’s Elephant by Cate DiCamillo, Candlewick Press.

In an interview for Tiny Pencil, Yoko explains a bit about her artistic process. “When I have ideas for what I want to paint or draw, I usually see the finished images clearly in my mind in three-dimensions with full color,” she says.

“Even with sounds and smells sometimes. They are so realistic and alive. The only thing I have to do is hurry to transfer the images onto canvas or paper before I lose that emotional connection. So I usually draw a very quick sketch and then jump straight on to painting.”

“Set of Eight Small Prints” by Yoko Tanaka | 2005 | $1,600 | W: 5.25″ D: 1.75″ H: 5.25″ | Paint, Wood

In the small prints pictured above, Yoko’s skill at infusing small gestures with a deep sense of melancholy is evident. A paper airplane takes flight, but the meticulous execution makes the act feel unexpectedly dark.

Detail from “Set of Eight Small Prints” by Yoko Tanaka

Despite her gothic flair, there is an innate humor which emanates from Yoko’s work. Take the paired paintings “Collaboration with Scissors.”

Three heavy-lidded girls sit knitting—but there is something sly in their expressions—a hint that they might be up to something more than scarf making.

The knitters shift their eyes ever so slightly to the girl in the middle, who holds a pair of scissors in her lap and will presumably make the final cut to their double-ended project. This painting is paired with a single, unadorned pair of the eponymous object. Achieving a kind of trompe l’oeil effect, the antique frames serves as visual trays, presenting the works for inspection. Taken together, the two works form an amusing narrative sequence.

Collaboration With Scissors” By Yoko Tanaka | 2008 | $4,280 | W: 30.5″ D: 1.0″ H: 25.0″ | Paint, Wood


Shop art by Yoko Tanaka

Now settled in London after years of globe-trotting, Yoko has returned her focus to her fine art practice. We are proud to offer a selection of her one-of-a kind works.

Yoko Tanaka

Shop art by Yoko Tanaka

Yoko Tanaka

b. Japan


  • 2005: Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA: BFA in Illustration, with distinction
Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan: BA in Law


  • Current: PAGODA RED, Chicago, USA
  • Nov 2012: Auguste Clown gallery group show, Melbourne, AU | http//
  • Oct 2011: La Luz de Jesus gallery “La Luz de Jesus 25” group show, Los Angeles, CA |
  • May 2011: Mondo Bizzarro Gallery “The New Lost Generation” group show, Rome, Italy |
  • May 2011: CAFEAND gallery “Animators VS Earthquakes” group show, London UK |
  • Jul 2009: Ann Nathan gallery “Circle and Oval” show, Chicago, IL |
  • Nov 2009: David B Smith Gallery 3 person show, Denver, CO |
  • Oct 2009: Mondo Bizzarro Gallery “NATURAL BEAUTY Pop Surrealism from USA” Group show, Rome, Italy |
  • Mar 2008: Billy Shire Fine Arts 3 person show, Los Angeles, CA |
  • Feb 2008: Limited Addiction Gallery ” Anniversary group Show, Denver, CO |
  • Apr 2007: Bologna Book Fair Bologna, Italy
  • Mar 2007: Hemphill Fine Arts “TUG OF WAR” group show, Washington D.C. |
  • Sep 2006: Billy Shire Fine Arts “Young Blood” group show, Los Angeles, CA |
  • Aug 2006: Renowned Gallery “New Expressions in Fine Art Printmaking” group show, Portland, OR
  • Jan 2006: “Drawn to Expression” group show, Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA |
  • Dec 2005: Ann Nathan Gallery “Thoughts” show, Chicago, IL |
  • Dec 2005:Santa Ana College Retrospective Show, Santa Ana, CA |
  • Nov 2005: “Narration and Marketing: Contemporary Illustration National Group Exhibition” at Bradley University, Peoria, IL |
  • Apr 2005: “SI – LA, Illustration West 43 Show” at Froden Gallery, Los Angeles, CA |
  • Mar 2005: “The Bird House Show” at The Drawing Club, Los Angeles, CA |
  • Mar 2005: SYM-BOOK-SIS Project Show Tokyo, Japan |
  • Jan 2005: Ann Nathan Gallery group show Chicago, IL |
  • May 2004: Art Chicago Chicago, IL
  • Apr 2004: Bologna Book Fair Bologna, Italy
  • Mar 2004: Motel Gallery group show Portland, OR
  • Feb 2004: Society of Illustrators 46th Annual Exhibition New York, NY
  • Dec 2003: Ann Nathan Gallery group show Chicago, IL
  • Jan 2003: GlobeART Gallery group show Rouen, France

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