Updated: May 19, 2021
This week we will be talking to illustrator Xinmei Liu who talks about how she designs comic books as well as discussing her personal work which focuses on her cultural background, social issues and childhood experience.
Image description: a landscape image depicting 2 collaged illustrations. The left depicts a beige tower block covered in green vines while the left depicts 3 grey tower blocks in front of a blue nights sky. In bold white in the centre reads Xinmei Liu. The bottom centre reads at cat mover.
Can you tell us about the kind of artwork you create?
I am an illustrator so a big portion of my work is commissioned by clients. Up till now I have been creating art for mainly editorial and publishing projects. For these artworks, I use a combination of analogue and digital tools, and the outcome is a digital file for display on screen or for printing. I also experiment with printmaking and riso printing, although these processes are mainly used for my personal projects, free from the pressure of client satisfaction and practicality.
What drew you to a practice in illustration?
I think the art of illustration is essentially the art of problem-solving, and I am really attracted to solving these visual “puzzles”–visually putting together an idea. When I was in school, I enjoyed looking at picture books for adults, especially the ones by Taiwanese artist Jimmy Liao, and just wanted to be able to create those images myself. That was probably the reason I went to art school to major in illustration, besides I was not interested in anything else at the time.
How do you go about creating one of your illustrations?
When I get a commission, I start with sketches with pencil on paper. Usually I write down a few keywords that summarize the main idea/purpose of the piece I am going to create. Then I brainstorm on the paper, jotting down really loose thumbnails only I can understand. When I settle down on a few that I like (or I feel the client might like), I tighten them on my iPad and send them over.
After I get the feedback from the client I start creating the final art by blowing up the sketch and printing it out before transferring it to bristol paper on a lightbox. Then I draw with pen and ink, and scan the drawing and colour it in Photoshop. The process is the same for my personal work, just without all the waiting for client feedback.
Xinmei Liu, Road Trip, ink and digital, 2020
Image description: an ink drawing of a black car driving down a beige highway. The car is filled with 3 passengers and boxes of face masks, hand sanitisers and sanitising wipes squeezed between the seats.
What kinds of materials and processes do you enjoy using?
I still enjoy drawing on paper with pen and ink, even though digital tools might be faster and more convenient these days. However, no software can bring about the whimsical textures of India ink on paper created with a dip pen. When the studio was accessible I also enjoyed etching. It is such a highly hands-on process that allows me to feel the materials, but also unpredictable and often surprises me with the result.
You have described your work as being focused on your cultural background. How do you go about exploring this in your drawings?
I get subject matters from my experience and from what I’ve seen in the environment I grew up in. When it comes to the Asian or Chinese culture, or the culture of my hometown Shanghai, often there’s a certain association that people make. For example, when you think of Shanghai, you might think of a woman wearing Qipao sipping tea on a balcony. But I have never seen something like that in real life as I grew up in the city and it’s a scene that only exists in movies. I’d like to show in my art the city as I experienced it – a living community where people hang their sheets and clothes outside their windows.
Can you give us an insight into the experiences you've had during the pandemic and how you've adapted to still create art?
There really isn’t much to do but to create art. I had to stop going to the studios for my etching and riso printing projects, but had more time sitting around to work on ideas. I finished grad school during the pandemic, and started freelancing and luckily got a few editorial assignments. The pandemic hasn’t impacted the illustration industry that much, but I know some other industries haven’t been this lucky.
Xinmei Liu, Escalator, ink and digital, 2020
Image description: a portrait ink painting depicting an escalator filled with school children. On the left are boys dressed in white shirts and red ties and blue backpacks. on the right are girls wearing white shirts, blue skirts and pink backpacks . Both look miserable and stare out to each other.
Can you tell us about your work with Paradise Systems and how you've been designing comic books?
Paradise Systems is a small independent publisher based in Brooklyn, and we translate a lot of comics by Chinese cartoonists and publish them in the US. I work with founder Orion Martin and editor Jason Li on many online and print projects. Since we have such a small team, my work really extends from layout design to all kinds of tasks including translation, social media management, fulfilling orders etc. I wouldn’t describe it as “work” but rather a passion project, and at the end of the day I am just sharing comics that I like with more people.
What one thing would you like to change about the art industry today?
It is so hard for new people to get into and stay in the field right now. An art school education costs so much, and even that doesn’t guarantee you will have the necessary resources to step into the industry. Art shouldn’t just be a game for the elite.
Are there specific artists or ideas that inspire your projects?
I am inspired by the works of Guy Billout, who is a great illustrator and educator and also my advisor for my MFA thesis. Guy taught me to put all thoughts on paper because only by doing that can I really know if an idea works. I also draw inspiration from Chinese and Soviet propaganda posters, vintage designs on ads and packaging, and calendar posters in 1920s-30s Shanghai .
Xinmei Liu, Cityscape 1, ink and digital, 2020
Image description: a portrait ink painting depicting a beige towerblock with many windows with clothes hanging from them. Crawling up the left side are thick green vines.
What projects will you be working on next?
My next project will probably be a vacation, hopefully by the ocean (I am fully vaccinated now)! But after that I’ve been thinking of an auto-biographical coming-of-age project to reflect on the transition from my high school life in China to being first an exchange student and then an artist in the US. I don’t know the exact format for it yet; it could be a comic or a series of connected images.
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