An Interview with Illustrator and Graphic Designer Charlene Chua
Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
Click on any image to increase it to original size
Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
Click on any image to increase it to original size
Charlene, I wanted to ask you if there is one piece – or even a combination of pieces – where you’d say ‘that’s probably the most like me?’
Oh boy... most like me? That's tough. I can't really think of one piece that would be that at the moment, but my mind is kind of very occupied with work right now... so I'm probably not thinking very clearly!
Let’s go a little farther with that question: How much is Charlene Chua like the strong yet incredibly alluring figures of her pin-up imagery?
Not as much as she would have liked to have been (past tense)! I think I'm past wanting to be one of my girls; there was a time perhaps that they were somewhat of a reflection of my ideal. I suppose they still do embody an ideal in a sense, but it’s not necessarily something I want to be anymore.
Does that make sense?
Yes, I understand you’re most likely not lounging about in a Wonder Thong (Samurai Sword sold separately); but is the ‘inner’ you more, I don’t know, Julie Black Belt or Rock Chick or who exactly?
I don't think I've done a piece that is totally representative of me. It's a bit hard, since I think there are quite a few aspects to myself and I don't really know how to represent everything in one image. And besides, I'm not really interested in presenting myself as a single image to the world.
Still, I just did up a private piece that I think does include a particularly personal aspect of myself at this moment in time. It’s called ‘Princess’ and I did it with a brush pen, adding the colours in Photoshop. There is an interesting story behind the piece that I share in my blog, namely that I had originally drawn her with a face – but while I was inking her I realised that the piece had a lot more meaning for me if I removed this and just left her face ‘blank’. Of course, this isn’t some kind of a tell-all or end-all image. It's just a brief reflection or allusion to some things that are going on in my life right now that make me see some things in a certain way.
Usually the personal stuff goes that way, like, the very personal stuff. Pieces like this are pretty rare and even when I do one, sometimes I won’t even put them on any of my websites. There are some paintings I have or even drawings in my sketchbooks that would give a greater insight to the person I was or what I was feeling at that particular time. But I'm not ready to share that with the world.
I suppose it’s just that I would simply like the world to see me as a dependable illustrator at this point in time. If later I wanted to be known as an artist or a fine artist or however you want to phrase it, then I might want for my audience to see and appreciate my work at a more personal level like that.
One piece that resonated with me was your very alluring depiction of Velma from Scooby-Doo. I think this is because I was the kind of kid who was more attracted to the Velma’s of the world than, say, the Daphne’s. Do you have any similar experiences, perhaps in the opposite direction (e.g. general tastes, taste in men, who you wanted to be, etc.)?
Um, in not liking the most popular person? Well, I think I liked Jon in NKOTB (New Kids on The Block – okay, I was 12, you have to forgive my bad taste) which was totally out of the accepted ‘norm’. Everyone else liked Jordan or Joe at the time.
Or in my case, in Singapore at that age, all the girls liked one particular Hong Kong singer, but I wasn’t into him. I also liked Chesney Hawkes. That was a looonnggg time ago, fortunately. So, yes, there is a little of that aspect you describe in me as well.
In addition to your well-known work with vector-based illustration, you have also utilised various techniques including ink brush, ink pen, water-colours and more, even often combining technology based techniques with these. What is the difference for you creatively speaking between these methods and ‘pure’ vector work?
I like working in Illustrator a lot; however, it is a very specialised piece of kit and sometimes it can feel somewhat constraining. It's often easier to coax out a particular look with a different medium.
I do try to mess about with paints and inks now and then. But I think that I am a terrible painter, so I don't want to have to rely on my hack painting skills for work.
Do you ever find you need to work on a piece with one method to help escape or take a break from another?
Oh definitely, that's where the ink pieces come from these days. They offer me a break from constant work in Illustrator, and allow me to explore compositions and themes that are not offered to me in client work.
What do you think ultimately pushed you in the direction of almost-but-not-quite pure technological based illustration vs. ‘old-fashioned’ illustration? You’ve mentioned not being very good at drawing, but I don’t believe that for a moment!
Actually, these days the work I’m doing for client projects is almost 100% digital. I bought a Cintiq and it makes drawing on the computer a lot easier. It also allows me to makes changes to sketches more easily, and is just nifty for quickly putting together compositions, particularly the ones with severe requirements.
And okay, I guess my drawing skills are alright, it's really my painting ability that is highly suspect. That’s another reason I like working digitally, because it let’s me try out different colours without ruining the entire piece.
You started only relatively recently dedicating ‘all’ of your time to your illustration career. How can I phrase this gently (hm, I can’t): what took you so long?
That goes back to my pre-Canada days. You see, there was not much of a market for illustrators back in Singapore. I was working as a designer and then producer and project manager for interactive agencies. I was even making pretty good money – even though the work was driving me mad with boredom!
But you know, you get used to a lifestyle with a steady paycheck. And my partner at the time was also rather conservative about his career choices. So for me, being an illustrator seemed like a nice thing to do but something that would be ultimately too risky to try in the face of ‘reality’. It was only after I became involved with my future husband that I felt I could move forward creatively! He was very supportive – or, let’s say, at least that he didn't discourage me!
Several of your works – for example, ‘The Hunted’ – show a very strong influence of Asian art styles. However, you have also commented that you have never been particularly drawn to Asian art, at least as an inspiration. Is there some kind of contradiction here?
My life is full of contradictions!
Yes, when I was a child, I was put off by Chinese brush painting as it was forced upon me as being part of 'my culture' (I am technically half-Chinese). Writing lessons for Chinese meant perfectly writing those arcane letter-forms over and over. And art lessons were simply exercises in rigorously adhering to the teacher's work, just literally copying everything.
Also, as a kid, I wanted to paint fantasy pictures and the limited nature of Chinese brushes was extremely frustrating. Lately though, the work put out by contemporary illustrators with an Asian influence has interested me a lot. I’ve even come to realise that while I still don't agree that Chinese culture is 'my' culture, I think that I am finding it easier to identify with a general kind of Asian-ness.
At the same time, it also annoys me that a lot of American-born Asian artists tend to see their own Asian-ness through rather Anglo-cized eyes – where their work typically features a lot of clichés, you know, ‘Asian elements’ like dragons, tigers, lotuses etc. I do on occasion use these, too, which allows me to achieve a perceived Asian look. But I'm hoping I can eventually work more South East Asian elements into my work as that is probably more true to my heritage – a mix of Colonial influences mixed in with Malay, Hindu, Buddhist and other ethnic elements.
Perhaps I'm just setting myself up for a new contradiction, I don’t know.
When you named your ‘alter-ego’ Sygnin – a close spelling as you’ve said to the Norse god Loki’s wife ‘Sigyn’ – were you aiming to have this be where you could indeed let your most mischievous side free?
No, not really. The story is that at the time, I created a bunch of email addresses named after goddesses and female heroines (since things like Facebook didn't exist and chat programs were only starting to happen). After a rather disastrous relationship, my ex-boyfriend kept on bothering me at my main email address. So in order to get away from him, I created a new address after considering the story of Sigyn, which I thought was appropriate to the situation. This exact name was taken, however, so I changed the spelling slightly. Read up on Sigyn's story and you'll get a sense of what I was thinking at the time.
In terms of the pin-up selections: yes, in one way this art-form has seen a resurgence over the past few years as the realities of the world seem to often favour erotica over porn. However, a couple of ‘criticisms’ (which aren’t, but I want to get your reaction):
Do you ever get challenged that these depiction’s of almost goddess-like figures set a bad example to younger audiences about their own bodies and the public pressure they feel to achieve some sort of Barbie-esque physique?
Yes, I think it has been commented upon in some places. But you know what: I’ve come to realise that no matter what you draw, if it's a ‘figure’ then someone out there will have something to say about it. You simply can't stop people thinking what they want, no matter how silly it may seem to you personally.
Besides, I think Barbie does a much better job of imprinting questionable standards upon young girls than I do.
In addition, do you ever think that your work with the pin-ups has hindered your opportunities in the fields of, for example, children’s illustration or others?
Well, I did discuss it with some friends of mine once. It was for that reason that I eventually spun off Sygnin.com as my pinup artwork site, keeping charlenechua.com as my main portfolio, where I then downplayed the pin-up girls.
Still, for the next revision of my self-named page, I think I’ll bring the pinups back as a main part of my portfolio and spin off the children’s work into a separate site. But it is quite ridiculous if someone were to think that just because I do children's work I don't have a desire to draw anything else, or vice versa. This is just contemporary pigeon-holing at work, which is frustrating sometimes. I don't want to be a one-trick pony because I do have different interests; but at the same time, it's hard to not be thought of as a jack-of-all-trades when you show strikingly different things in your portfolio.
In terms of the more ‘adult’ illustrations, in order to get the image and ‘atmosphere’ of these images just right, have you ever worked with real pin-up models or photographers of same?
Nope. It would be fun, but it would also be more time, effort and cost. I'll just make do with what I dream up, using a few references off the net for support.
You’ve mentioned before influences from both the worlds of video games and also comics. However, your images of even your more ‘adventuresome’ women are certainly more believable than many of these tend to be. Why do you think the women in these genres are portrayed so anatomically ‘freakish’ and how important is it to you to at least have your characters remain as believable as possible?
In terms of maintaining a sense of reality, I just don't like drawing women with boobs that take up half their body, nor do I feel inclined to emphasise their crotches. On the other hand, I'm not overly trying to be ‘believable’ per se either, that is, anatomically speaking, with my pinups. I just don't think that over-sizing certain bits makes for a more attractive female. And I just find a lot of dynamic poses just don't really work well for pinups.
Sure, in some cases a nice action pose is great for foreshadowing and all; but it really doesn't say much about the character other than she's about to rip your head off for looking at her wrong (or at all). Perhaps the thing about classic pinups is that they are playful and require some maturity to understand their intent without having to slap you in the face about it. I just find figures that have obvious ‘porn star roots’ to be rather crass. Still, I suppose if you were a 14 year-old boy you wouldn't care; but clearly that's not the audience I hope my work attracts.
Has that changed based on your location and / or the source of your assignments?
It hasn’t changed in terms of assignments, as I haven't really gotten new work involving sexy girls since I moved to Canada. Well, except a piece coming out in Penthouse this coming December (not shown here).
You’ve contributed both a very abbreviated ‘How To’ video and also a fantastic page on your web-site called ‘How I Work’. Is it important for you to share your experience and/or know-how with the rest of the world?
It is important to me, where I hope that it helps enlighten people who are curious about illustration or working with an illustrator. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about ‘How I Work’.
Still, the How-to video wasn't really meant to be released like that; I was testing out a video capture software and figured I would try to ‘speed-render’ a girl drawn with vector-based graphics. But it took off on the web, so there you are.
Others have asked you about your taste in music, but I see potential for a lot of influence through literature, for example, either science fiction and/or fantasy or even some of the great classics... or even romance novels come to think of it. What books do you gravitate towards and is / are there any writers that you enjoy the most when you need a good creative jolt or even nice break from it all (with the requisite snuggle time with the cats added in for good measure)?
Oh man! I wish I had more time to read! I feel like such an uneducated idiot sometimes since it's really rare for me to read anything but briefs these days.
When I do read a book a lot of times it's a non-fiction book. The last fictional author I read was Haruki Murakami. I also enjoyed a few of Banana Yoshimoto's books.
As it seems my questions are appearing more and more to be like the check-in form for a nice long stay at the Betty Ford Clinic (or worse), I would say that there seem to be some ‘perceived’ conflicts in your life. For example, you love food – and have contributed some lovely illustrations for ‘foodie fan’ forums before – yet, you do not eat much. You have also professed to not liking ‘itchy’ lingerie, yet many of your pieces could act as the public face of the industry. Is there something to all this in terms of what makes Charlene Chua tick? Or is my conspiracy theorist personality taking over again?
Urm, I'm not sure how to answer this.
As I said, my life does seem to be a series of contradictions. Yes, I wish I could lead a simpler life and just be happy with what I have. Then again, I think that would be rather boring. See? More contradictions...
Charlene, to close out the interview: what could you tell us that you’ve never mentioned before in an interview that will neither ruin your career nor marriage, nor land you in jail, get you deported, etc. (not necessarily in that order)?
When I was a kid, I thought it would be awesome if I could use a sharpener to sharpen my fingernails. That... didn't work out so well.
In case you were still in the lobby getting popcorn when the opening credits were running, Charlene Chua is an award-winning illustrator whose work has appeared in magazines, brochures and advertisements, as well as on CD covers and billboards.
Charlene spent her youth growing up in Singapore, where she divided her time between drawing, reading comics and failing her Mandarin classes. She started her working life in 1998 as a web designer, eventually rising ‘up’ through the ranks to be a senior graphic designer, web producer and interactive project manager, with companies like Ogilvy Interactive and The Gate Worldwide. She decided to pursue illustration as a career in 2003, eventually moving over to full-time illustration in 2006.
Over her somewhat new but very busy career so far, she has worked with a wide range of briefs and far-reaching variety of illustration projects from North America, Europe, Singapore and Australia. Just to name a select few of her clients: Dixie Cups, Dove, FHM Singapore, IGN.com, Las Vegas Weekly, Maxim Singapore, National Geographic School Publishing, Oxford University Press and SlimFast (which she obviously does NOT personally need). Her work has appeared in the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles' Illustration West 43 and 45, American Illustration Tribute, and Ballistic Publishing's Exotique 4, as well as several other art books. She illustrated the children's picture book 'Julie Black Belt' for Immedium Publishing, and the short story 'Eidolon' for Image comic's Liquid City anthology.
She has also maintained a busy exhibition schedule since taking up illustration full-time, including shows in Singapore, Canada and throughout the United States. In 2007, she indeed moved to Toronto, Canada, with her husband and two cats. She now spends her time illustrating, working on comics, watching video games and again, reminding everyone that her last name is 'choo-wah', not choo, chui, choi, chew, or even in heaven’s name Chewbacca nor any other garbled variations that you might be able to come up with.
All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Charlene Chua, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. For further details to illustrations, commercially available pieces, and much more, please visit www.charlenechua.com for full details!