Remembering Kazu Sano — Artist, Instructor, Academy’s 1st MFA Grad


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.

Shortly after being awarded the Academy's first MFA degree, Sano executed this acclaimed poster, kicking off his decades as one of America's leading illustrators.

Shortly after being awarded the Academy's first MFA degree, Sano executed this acclaimed poster, initiating decades as one of America's leading illustrators.

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.

Portrait of Benny Goodman by Kazu Sano

Portrait of Benny Goodman by Kazu Sano

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.

Sano chronicled American society and history in numerous commission for the U.S. Postal Service

Sano chronicled American society and history in numerous commission for the U.S. Postal Service.

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.”

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“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.”

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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.

Kazu Sano, self portrait, 1974

Kazu Sano, self portrait, 1974

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.


  1. Yoshi Hashizume 11:58 pm on
    June 3rd, 2011

    “Still I can not believe he passed away. I was really sad . When I was attending illustration class,I was weak on English.
    He always helped me and he taught me a lot of painting technics. I really would like to say thank you Kazu and I pray may you rest in peace.”

  2. Ambrose L. Kahnke 5:16 pm on
    June 6th, 2011

    “We all have been extremely blessed by Kazu Sano and the self-disciplined dedication he gave to his art. Thank-you to the Sano family for sharing him with all of us!”

  3. Angela Vanden Tak 7:14 pm on
    June 6th, 2011

    “It is truly heart wrenching to see the passing of such an artistic great. He was one of the most influential teachers in my education, not only for his skill, but because of his dedication to the art, and his genuine enthusiasm for sharing with us all the discoveries he’d made in technique. I always remember him speaking with such a passion for what he did, and a warm-natured guidance to his teaching style. His passion for teaching, and learning, was reflected in his willingness to see his students experiment and grow with their own creative voices. May his memory be a blessing to all those who’s lives he touched.”

  4. Christyann Anderson 9:29 pm on
    June 12th, 2011

    “I am so very sad to hear about the passing of Kazu Sano. I knew Kazu back in 1976 when he first came to the Academy of Art College. He was funny, loving, compassionate, and passionate about art. He alway spoke of his love for his Chisako who was back in Japan at the time. He looked forward to the day that she would join him in America. We shared many laughs in those days. I will never forget him.
    I still cannot believe he is gone. Rest in Peace, Dear Kazu. My sincerest condolences to his family.”

  5. Jeffrey Osborn 8:27 am on
    July 4th, 2011

    “I feel so sad to hear of Kazu’s passing. We had a chance to work together (as art director and illustrator) on a couple of National Geographic Magazine projects. Kazu was so funny, so intelligent, so talented. I’ll always remember him lying in front of the ruins of a Mayan temple at Palenque (in Mexico) listening to some music he had brought especially for creating the right mood for his work. I miss you already Kazu-san. My best wishes to your family. Safe travels friend…”

  6. Anna Caiado 4:25 pm on
    September 3rd, 2011

    “I feel shocked. Just got an email from Chuck Pyle inviting for Kazu Sano Memorial? I have tears in my eyes. Kazu was my teacher in AAU some years ago – he was great and so humble…, so kind, so amazing as an Artist . Every class he would bring one of his originals and we would be looking closely to those masterpieces with WOW! faces. And with all that talent he was always so interested in teaching us, trying to feel each student’s passion in art and giving soft directions – His smile and gentleness made me better not just as an artist but as a person. ( Thanks Kazu anywhere you may be !!!) He loved brazilian bossa nova too. This is truly shocking… Hope he feels better now though and I send my condolences to his family that must be missing him so much.”

  7. aaron G. 9:55 pm on
    September 30th, 2011

    “i knew Mr. Sano threw his work. i never met him nor really anything about him other than his art. his art was and still is beautiful. and im not just saying that as a stair wars fan, but in all seriousness its so sad to hear. i love his art and it inspires me to draw and paint. to go do more and more everyday. its his work that is left behind for us. and i plan to both admire his work, and push my own limits thanks to him.”

  8. John (Jack) Hodapp 11:48 pm on
    October 1st, 2011

    “I am shocked and saddened of the news of his passing. I knew him only from my years attending the AoA back in the mid to late 1970′s but he left an indelible mark that’s lasted a lifetime. What a genius he was, is and always will be. An incredible artist who’s talent is beyond belief and a humility to match. A humorous anecdote here… Back in ’77 or ’78, Kazu apparently had issues with his visa or immigration status in the U.S. When the INS payed a surprise visit to the Powell building, I assisted in eluding them from finding him, under the quiet direction of Barbara Bradly, a couple of students and I, nonchalantly positioned ourselves, easels and supplies in front of the fire escape, allowing him time to get away.”

  9. Edward Bell 10:02 am on
    October 3rd, 2011

    “This is a tremendous loss. Here was a kind of talent we don’t see very often. His work could take your breath away. Amazingly beautiful portraits, stunning prehistoric landscapes, delicately balanced and carefully thought out scenes of other times. A man of great humor, a friend, a teacher. So, so much will you be missed. Though your passing is hard to bare, your work and memory will warm me forever. My best wishes to your family.”

  10. Patricia Pearson 1:35 pm on
    October 11th, 2011

    “I am so sad and shocked to hear this. I’m not in close touch with the illustration community at this time so it took a while for this news to reach me. Kazu was of coarse a wonderful artist, however I first knew him as a wonderful person. When I came to San Francisco to attend the Academy, Kazu had just graduated I think and was still dropping in to Barbara Bradley’s advanced figure drawing class where I met him. He was so kind and helpful to me and others as well. Through the years he was always fun and funny and sweet natured, while at the same time having more drive than almost anyone I’ve ever known, a unique combination. The world is a lesser place without him.”

  11. Julie Peterson Goonan 12:20 pm on
    November 15th, 2011

    ““I have not been in contact with my old Academy of Art friends since Barbara Bradley’s memorial. I’m glad that I was able to sit and talk to Kazu for a long time at the event. I feel really bad to have just now found out about Kazu’s death. I can’t believe that it has taken me 6 months to finally go on the Academy website to see a tribute to Kazu. I’m in shock as he was my best friend when we were in school together. We kept in touch with Christmas cards every year, but the past year or so we did not. He was so special to me. I wish someone had contacted me about his memorial. My two sons will treasure the Star Wars posters he gave them and I will treasure all of the memories of the time that I was so lucky to have spent with my friend Kazu, we had some fun times and I will truly miss him””

  12. Eloise VanderBilt 5:39 pm on
    December 15th, 2011

    “From 1950-1980 we were missionaries in Japan, and in 1952 we met Kazu. His family lived a few houses from ours, and one day Kazu came over and asked if he could visit our family so he could practice his English conversation. We became good friends and he drew many illustrations for us that we used in our programs. Later our son was thrilled to get a signed Star Wars poster from him. When our children grew up, he designed marriage announcements and birth announcements for them. What a privilege and honor it was to call him our good friend. I’ll miss talking to him on the phone.”

  13. ernest abila 11:21 pm on
    January 28th, 2012

    “Ive been out of the business, but just heard of Kazu’s passing ,he was an artist’s artist,truly gifted,the world is better with all his art work he created,and all the artist’s he has inspired……”

  14. Michaela Lindsey (Cooney) 5:57 pm on
    February 13th, 2012

    “I was so saddened to hear of Kazu’s passing. I knew him when I attended the Academy back in the 80′s. I graduated in ’84. Anyway, what I wanted to share was seeing some of Kazu’s artwork in one of the Academy shows. There was one painting in particular, which was of a Geisha. The painting was small, probably 10″x12″. The background was a blue-grey. I stared at it for the longest time, thinking that it was the most beautiful picture I had ever seen! I am sure he used a six hair brush on much of it. So perfectly rendered. I stood there hoping to absorb some of his artistry and yet knowing I probably never would.

    He had this ability to bring such emotion from the viewer with his paintings by combining his incredible draftsmanship with an amazing use of color. There was also the sly humor in some of his pictures….

    My second story is about the time Eric Joyner had a kind of bachelor party type party for Kazu at our house to celebrate the birth of his first child. Sort of a “say goodbye to your freedom, buddy” party.

    The rest of you who attended, you know who you are… Anyway, I had to get out of there before all hell broke loose, so I went to my father’s house. As I was leaving, Kazu was heating sake on the stove and cigars were being passed out.

    I returned the next morning to a house reaking of cigar smoke and one Eric Joyner with a really bad hangover. Looked like the party went well….”

  15. George Lynch 12:14 am on
    March 15th, 2012

    “Kazu was one of my dearest protoges & friends. He spent many hours in my Gallery (Pantheon) and discussing his problems in getting established. He’s the only man I ever envied.. After his success (fifteen years later) he came to my then home to honor me as his sensei. I have never since felt so honored. nor so devastated by his untimely death. The Art world has lost a great figure with a very kind heart. Rest well gentle Kazu.”

  16. Boon Ma Yang 3:40 am on
    October 22nd, 2012

    “I feel so sad to lost such a great art teacher. I had learn so much as a artist and painter after I took Kazu’s acrylic course. So much of his personality and talented have influence me and my artwork today. I am thankful to have him as my art teacher. I’m just regret I didn’t get the chance to know him more. My heart goes to his family. Would his student back in 2005. Rest In Peace Kazu, your work will continue to inspire.”

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