One of Tarin Yuangtrakul’s most important challenges as an artist is finding balance: between creation and marketing; information and inspiration; work and free time. ‘Some artists just think and do it,’ he says. ‘I have to write a list of rational reasons.’
I meet graphic designer, illustrator and artist Tarin Yuangtrakul (or Tab, as he calls himself) at Maharat Pier, a bustling cluster of galleries and coffee shops next to Chao Praya River in central Bangkok. While I am waiting for his ferry, a live band is playing covers from a balcony at full volume. The sun is blazing and the place is crowded.
‘Last time I was here it was quiet’, he tells me when he arrives. ‘Now I think they are turning it into some tourist place.’
We circle around the buildings until we spot an empty table in the air-conditioned coolness of one of the many Starbucks that have found their way to Thailand since my last visit. It reminds me of how much it has changed. Everywhere, there are modern coffee shops and restaurants, with rustic interiors and professionally designed logos and menus. In 2012, Tab created a font called ‘Rush’, inspired by the hastiness and unfinished look of much of the graphic design in Thailand. I am curious to hear if he thinks anything has changed over the last few years.
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘The art and design environment is really evolving. It’s a good sign that people pay more attention to art and design. I am just afraid that it is a fashion that will disappear. I would like people to consider art and design important parts of society, because they are everywhere. In Thai culture, many people still don’t know what designers do and unfortunately praise academic occupations more.’
A productive pastime
Growing up with a father and a brother who are architects and a mother who is an interior designer, it was only natural for Tab to follow an artistic career. As a child, he loved to watch them work and started improving his own drawing skills, but in high school, he chose to major in science and mathematics.
‘If you choose art, you have to study Chinese and more hours of Thai language and social studies, which I don’t like,’ he says. ‘I like science more.’
But he always knew he was going to end up working with art in some way, and eventually he decided to apply to the four-year graphic design programme at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. In his last year of high school, Tab discovered MTV Playground, a now-closed online community where students could showcase their creative work. He was inspired by all the interesting art on the website, which was widely different from the art that he had grown up with, and while most of his fellow students were studying hard to prepare for university, Tab was drawing.
‘It wasn’t that important to pay attention if you were going to art school, so I brought paper and pencils to the classroom and tried to create artworks instead, like pencil drawings, coloured pencil drawings and posters. I posted them to this website, got feedback and got to know people from different countries and cultures. I was so excited by all these new things and really pushed the boundaries of my own art.’
While he was waiting for his examination results, Tab’s practice began to pay off. Through Behance, another online art community, he met John Mark Herskind, founder of the non-profit organisation Designers Against Child Slavery, and got the opportunity to create a piece for an exhibition in the United States. Around the same time, one of his other projects, ‘Without Me, You Can See The Answer’, was featured on Behance. Tab believes that was the starting point of his professional career. Since then, he has graduated and built a neatly presented online portfolio of freelance work, with detailed descriptions of the ideas behind his projects and photographs of every step of his work process.
‘The way you present your work is essential these days,’ he says. ‘It’s very interesting
to see the progress. Sometimes the progress photos are even more attractive than the final work. A video of someone doing calligraphy, for example, can be more interesting to watch than the final work. Yes, they are still beautiful letters, but when you see them being created, when you see the strokes, the hand movements, the craftsmanship, it’s more interesting. I think it adds value to the work.’
Neatness is a common denominator in all of Tab’s work, from his detailed portfolio and artwork to his curated social media channels and minimalistic letterpress business cards. Even his sketchbook is meticulously and beautifully organized with neat notes, tiny sketches and Tab’s logo hand-embossed on the first page.
‘I love to create an identity and design things,’ he says. ‘I ordered my business cards and my embosser just because I like it. I know that it could be useful in the future, but it’s also for personal use, just for fun.’
But he also emphasizes the importance of consciously creating a brand:
‘In this field, it’s impossible to make a career without recognition. You have to balance your inner artist’s way of thinking or feeling with the strategy to sell your artwork, to sell your identity. You have to make your clients believe in your potential and understand that your work suits their products or brand.’
Research and execution
As I leaf through his sketchbook, Tab tells me about a project where he is using the binary system to create a visual identity. He believes his interest in science affects his creative process and the way he approaches art:
‘I like to gather ideas before I work. It’s like writing a hypothesis. Some artists just think and do it, but I have to write a list of rational reasons for the elements in the artwork or design. Even if it is fine art.’
During his graphic design studies, the importance of having logical reasons for your decisions became even clearer to Tab.
‘Graphic design is not pure art,’ he says. ‘You have to gather information from the outside. You can’t only use your instinct or emotion to create your work. You have to think of the market and do research to come up with design elements, like colours, shapes and styles. I like this part of the investigation: to gather ideas to create an artwork. Sometimes I like to use my imagination to create, but I’m trying to find a balance between the outside and the inside.’
Today, Tab is freelancing full-time, and he tends to change his working environment throughout the different stages of his working process. In the ‘thinking phase’, he likes being around other people, but in the ‘production phase’, he always stays at home, where he has more space and tools. I ask how he avoids getting distracted while working from home.
‘It’s hard to say because I’m always distracted. But I think there are ways to stay focused. Like setting an intention. For example, I have to clean my desk before working, or turn on classical background music to create a calm environment. And when I have a work mindset, I make a list of the things I need to do. Then I look at my to-do list, or a sketch on the desk, to remind myself to accomplish something. I keep a visual reminder of what is really essential.’
Finding your limits
Despite working a lot, Tab thinks he has enough time for other activities. Last year, however, he became acutely aware of the danger of working too much.
‘I used to work a lot, and it was fun at the time, because I didn’t know that it would hurt me in the future. I kept drawing and drawing and noticed that my hand hurt, but so what? It hurt, but I thought it was normal.’
But when the pain did not go away even when Tab stopped drawing, his boss made an appointment for him to see a doctor. She gave him some exercises and told him to be much more careful about using his hand in the future.
‘This experience changed my way of thinking. I can work now, but it’s not the same anymore. It’s like I can feel something inside my hand. So, I have to be careful about using it. Instead of working hard, my goal is to work well and be happy in the present. I don’t have any regrets, because if I hadn’t been working that hard, I don’t think I would have been the same person today. But I can’t sacrifice my health, so now I’m focusing more on happiness than on work. Maybe I will produce less work, but I will have a happier life.’
The last sunrays have disappeared behind the rooftops on the other side of the river and most of the other tables are empty. I realise that I have missed my chance of taking photographs for the article with the setting sun as a backdrop, but after letting Tab’s words sink in, I decide not to worry. After all, this is my first interview since high school, and losing track of time usually means you are doing something right.
‘You have to do what you love,’ Tab concludes. ‘You have to really be interested in that subject, in that field, or you will never create good work. When you are really into a field – art, design, biology or anything – you will find a way to develop your professional skills and make money. But the first step is passion. Even if there is no idea of money, I still love to draw. It’s just what I love to do.’ icon-dot-circle-o