The imaginative world of Shaun Tan

Tales from outer suburbia

Shaun Tan. Page illustration taken from “Tales from outer suburbia”. 2009.

Shaun Tan is an australian artist, writer and illustrator. His work is a combination of reality and fiction, usually depicted by creatures, monsters and beautiful dream-like environments. Published books as Tales from outer suburbia, Lost and found and The arrival are clear examples of these imaginative worlds, going from short stories to graphic novels.


Shaun Tan. Double page illustration from “The Arrival”. 2007.

The arrival (2007)  is a 128 page graphic novel without a single word written. The story told is about an immigrant seeking a new life, arriving to a completely new and alternate world. For me, this book is Shaun Tan’s true artistic and storytelling potential.

First, let’s revisit the concepts described on the previous post:

dudeRegarding form, this illustration (left) is an example of the level of detail that the artist can accomplish, which marks a big contrast to illustrations created for Tales from outer suburbia (2009). Created in a sepia-toned color palette (all illustrations in the book use the same palette), curved and geometrical shapes are repeated through the background and foreground which create a sense of depth with the help of perspective. The use of simplistic/geometric shapes vs. their inner detail create an appealing and interesting contrast, finally depicting an industrialised city. We can see that there are very few shapes that we could think of as trees or natural landscape, but the use of curved lines in the composition gives the artwork an organic sense to it.  The value of the illustration is cautiously done, establishing the main character (winged creature) as the focal point. Along with value, the position of this character reinforces the focal point since it’s placed on an important intersection of a 3×3 grid  see example above), which is commonly used to place objects of interest in multiple art disciplines such as cinema or photography. The contrast of scale is also an important attribute here, since we can see the size of small houses and suburbs in comparison to the main character. All the illustrations contained in this book are done with graphite, which I think that they were digitally enhanced later on to give the sepia-toned look.

dude2Regarding content,  this art piece is functioning as storytelling and visual narrative. I believe that the artist wants us to submerge in a world completely different from our own, which may have been a compendium of dreams, observation and morphing of natural shapes to create a detailed but yet simplistic style. Thinking about the main character (immigrant), I think it was imperative to make him feel out of place by creating a world out of imagination; the long shot or panoramic view of the city also helps us to realise the sense of scale in this new world, so that we as readers and viewers could empathise with the story’s main character and his sense of wonder, amazement and overwhelmed feeling. I think that the use of sepia in its different values relates to remembrance, which may derive from the author’s personal memories.


The ideas and analysis relate directly to the method used in the previous post, where looking, describing, analysing and interpretation must combine to deliver a final opinion about art. I think that the work of Shaun Tan is an interesting perspective on surreal art, combined with his personal voice and experiences  related to childhood, curiosity, oddities, nostalgia and deep human values that makes us empathise with characters living in fantasy worlds. I enjoy the simplicity yet complex approach of his work.


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