Kazuhiko Sano, an award-winning artist and instructor at the Academy of Art University’s School of Illustration, passed away May 31 after a long illness. Sano was also a graduate of the Academy, having been awarded the university’s very first MFA degree in 1978. He leaves his wife, Chisako, and children Utaro and Yukio.
Sano’s brilliant career was jumpstarted by his iconic poster for Return of the Jedi just six months out of school. His output included, but was not limited to, more than 450 book covers, 80 paintings and drawings for gallery shows in his native Japan and countless posters and other commissions. His work illuminated the pages of National Geographic magazine and included numerous commissions for the U.S. Postal Service. His portraits included images of some of America’s most famous entertainers.
His clients included ABC, American Express, American Red Cross, AOL/Time Warner, AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Der Spiegel, General Electric, IBM, Lucasfilm, MGM.UA, NBC, National Geographic Society, Oracle, Paramount Pictures, Reader’s Digest, United Airlines, United States Postal Service, Universal/MCA, Visa and the Walt Disney Company.
A member of the New York Society of Illustrators, Sano began teaching illustration at the Academy in 1986. His friend and colleague Chuck Pyle, director of the School of Illustration, recalls that Sano’s dedication to his craft as an artist, and to his students as a teacher, were “second to none.”
“He always insisted on immersing himself in the story more deeply than his client,” Pyle recalls. For Sano, Pyle says, “the easy answer, the obvious, was merely a portal to the right answer, the one that caught the humanity of the characters and gave the viewer a sense of story and context far broader than the requirements of the assignment. He believed in Howard Pyle’s dictum ‘Live the story!’ He said, ‘Do not just look at trees, go and touch them, sit under them, smell them, and know them.’ Kazu believed in stealing their essence, and in fact the essence of everything he drew, before putting it in paintings, yet, he believed that it was essential to sublimate that knowledge, that accuracy of detail, to the core artistic truth of making a painting that tells a great story.
“As a painter, starting from his beautiful drawings, he wrestled with the surface and quality of each mark to make it say the most about being the illusion of reality, yet still be a beautiful mark on canvas. Even on his deathbed he came alive talking about breakthroughs in painting technique and his ongoing exploration of making brushstrokes and lines count. All this he invested in each assignment; all this and more, he invested in each student.”
Pyle says the Sano family has asked that no flowers be sent, and that instead donations should go to the Kazu Sano Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Chuck Pyle Studio at 469 Amber Way; Petaluma, CA 94952.
To learn more about the career and art of Kazu Sano, visit his website. His book Retrospective 1980–2000: The Art of Kazauhiko Sano is available for purchase at the site. Recommended: Kazu Sano’s friend and fellow Academy graduate Robert Hunt has posted a beautiful tribute here.