October 17, 2009

Ninja Bunny Problems? Here’s the Solution!

An Interview with Illustrator and Graphic Designer Charlene Chua

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any image to increase it to original size

Getting to know Charlene Chua (pronounced 'choo-wah') is a lot like the first experience of seeing her illustrations and varied selection of other art pieces in her portfolio: both she and her works have an easy-going air about them, and a jolly good sense of humour to boot. If you’d like, you can add such adjectives as professional, realistic, playful and even ‘nicely naughty’ if you tend towards alliteration. You may also detect that there seems to be some contradiction present in ‘both’ she and her offers, kind of like finding out by accident that your Grandparents enjoy sky-diving as a hobby. Not because of the inevitable shock at finding out your potential inheritance source has been jumping out of planes from heights several thousand feet up in the air, but more along the lines of ‘wow, where did THAT come from?’ A strange analogy, yes, but one that does strike close to home.

Charlene – like many of this generation’s set of exciting young illustrators – has developed a – well, for lack of a better word – COOL and yet definitely unique style of her very own. Her skills with capturing the right mood or amount of detail works in many situations, ranging from children’s books to property brochures and even sultry erotica! Her playful manipulation of vector-based graphics immediately grabs your attention – and holds tightly on to it in case you might have missed anything along the way. She is also adept at combining her expertise using computer-based illustration with more ‘traditional’ media to create and add subtle nuances, striking textures and unique effects to her presentations. In addition – and perhaps here she is more unlike many of her compatriots than like them – she maintains not one, not two, but several different on-line outlets for sharing and promotion of her work. She may even be – gasp – one of the most organised people we’ve even met, illustrator or otherwise! Oh, the humanity of it all!

Ziggy Nixon is very pleased to have caught up with this dynamic young Toronto-based artist to learn more about her views on contradiction, the perfect figure and unyielding love for barfing cats:


Charlene, welcome! As mentioned above, you have not one but in fact several fantastically structured and beautiful web-sites up and running, including your ‘home page’, your site for
children’s works and the ever-popular sygnin.com (more later). In addition, you freely share your sketches and even unpublished works, you’ve recently contributed to an iPhone application and it appears also that you maintain a blog on an admirably regular basis! And if all that weren’t enough, you also are a regular contributor to Photoshop Creative and Official Painter Magazines. So my question is simply: how do you find the time during the day to manage all of this?
Wow, congratulations for checking up on what I have done so thoroughly! You haven't been stalking me have you...? (ZN: why, no... I wouldn’t call it ‘stalking’ per se...)

Anyways, again thanks for noticing! I do try to keep posting news about my work, and other stuff I do that is illustration-related. I don't have a set weekly or monthly schedule to update things, but when I do have something new I make sure to update my blog, and at least a few key illustration sites. I'm not sure how I find the time myself – sometimes I just do it at the end of the day, before going to bed. Other times I do it between working on different projects.

However, I do spend a lot of time at home. And I'd like to think I'm reasonably good at managing my time and work. It also helps that my previous work experiences (as a web designer, designer, interactive producer and project manager) taught me the basic skills of time management and the necessities of being efficient. It also helps that I know HTML and enough about Wordpress to hack around on-line, so that I don't need to rely on favours or the whims of some private company to manage my various web-sites for me.

You’ve done some terrific work for your personal promotions. How important is it for you to maintain such a high presence, either through the web, mailers or via other means?
I think it's becoming ever more important to maintain a high profile, particularly with people who enjoy one's work. The Internet has changed – and continues to change – the way we interact with one another, and also how we perceive each other. What I mean is, for example, in the past you could count yourself as a successful illustrator if an Art Director could find you in certain trade publications, or maybe had even heard of you because you had won a prestigious award or something similar.

These days though, they can also hear about you from reading the news on any number of design-centred links, or see your work featured on a popular website or yes, even a blog. Still, it's almost impossible at the moment to tell what the best place is online to reach buyers of illustration and so I personally feel maintaining a high profile is important to reach potential clients. That, and, you know, hype builds on hype. The more you get around, the more people hear about you which just naturally leads to the fact that the more people see your work, the more they that might want to work with you. You can, of course, do promotional postcards to achieve the same effect (
that’s what I do); but unless you're really rich and have a innate hatred for trees, it simply isn't practical to send out news updates and promotions as frequently off-line as it is on-line.

Can you describe a typical day in the life of Charlene Chua?
My day usually starts with me getting up around noon. I dislike mornings intensely; I've never been productive at that time. But I have a pretty normal routine – I get up, make coffee and feed the cats if my husband hasn't already. Then I turn on the computer and check my email.

As such, the first part of my day is spent replying to emails, calling clients, sorting out contracts, and more. Typically after a few hours of doing this, I’ll realise that I haven't eaten, so I’ll make lunch or drag out some left-overs from last night’s dinner. Then comes a bit of a rest afterwards to facilitate the heavy work of digestion.

Once that's done, I get down to my art. Usually this means either making sketches or touching up some ‘final’ artwork. I do make mental notes of what I want to get done by the end of the day and I can usually meet my targets. But sure, there are times when I unreasonably try to fit in 5 things or more and inevitably fail.

I think it would be nice if I were able to work non-stop; but sadly my body is only human and not particularly sturdy. I have an alarm clock that reminds me to stretch every 20 minutes, with a longer break every hour. I have to take a rest, which helps to ensure that I don't burn myself out. But work will then continue until later in the evening when I make dinner and repeat the whole annoying digestion routine again. The last part of my working day is dependant on how much work needs to be done. Sometimes I continue working until around 3 a.m. Midnight is a good wrap-up time for me, as it gives me a few hours to chill before bedtime.

Most of the time, that is my life. It is quite boring!

Why the move a couple of years ago from Singapore to Toronto with hubby and two cats in tow?
My husband is a Canadian citizen, and we were planning anyway on moving here at some point. Singapore was just not the right place for me and it was extremely difficult to be an illustrator there. We took our cats along with us as, well, they're family. Even when they do barf all over the couch.

In the
Dove ‘Pay Beauty Forward’ campaign, you worked with layered backdrop illustrations in order to support their moving at different speeds. Have you also worked with ‘pure’, high-end cell (or any kind of) animation before?
Nope. I'm not an animator and I tell my clients that up front.

I have been asked several times to do character designs for animation but I tell the clients each and every time that while I would be happy to help them, it would be better if they worked with a character designer with an animation background. It’s just that to me, animation is an entirely different speciality with it's own nuances. I could not do traditional animation, that is, drawing a figure in multiple poses in order to make it move. That would just bore me to no end.

Some of your illustrations remind me of Roy Lichtenstein’s work, then there are others that strike me almost as something the Disney studios might have created. I’ve also seen a description of your different influences, ranging from several accomplished graphic artists, classical designers and more. Do you find that at this stage in your career that you are more or less influenced by others’ styles?
Ah, the Lichtenstein pieces! Those were a one-off as the client wanted it to look that way! That, and we were pressed for time so that was the best solution to the problem.

With regards to styles, I think that I am currently influenced by a broader range of people than I was even earlier in my career. But at the same time, I don't think that my style is evolving to become more like anyone in particular. If anything, I am hoping that my style is continuing to grow into something that is uniquely me, while still being applicable and accessible to as large an audience as possible. Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen, I guess.

I was intrigued at how ‘attractive’ you could even make something as seemingly staid and benign as a
property brochure. How does such a ‘practical’ assignment including the conceptual processes differ from, for example, a ‘Maxim’-like or even children’s magazine related illustration?
Glad you liked those pieces! It helped that I didn't find the brief boring; I mean, sometimes the product or article is boring but the brief can still be highly interesting. I like those briefs. They present a problem that requires an artistic solution, and I enjoy coming up with that solution.

You see, some people prefer working without any restrictions on their work; but I'm the other way around. Give me carte blanche and it's difficult for me to do something. I guess I like solving problems, and you can't solve a problem when there isn't one, can you?

With regards to concepts, it really all depends on the needs of the project. My work is generally not considered very conceptual from an illustration standpoint – the visual solutions it presents are more direct and easy to understand, even at first glance. Conceptual illustration tends to be heavier in metaphors and allusions. I tend to just look at briefs individually and consider their nature, as well as the nature of the intended audience.

For example, illustrations geared towards kids generally work better when they are simple and bright, whereas something like the
Maxim work doesn't need to be anything other than fluff. Sometimes it's about getting a point across as quickly and clearly as possible; other times it's about giving a certain flavour to an article... it really all depends.

You mention that within the ‘
Robina Land Corporation’ mural that the entire image contains about 50 different buildings and locations, plus also lots and lots of peoples, logos and other ‘landmarks’. How much R&D and ultimately time do you put into your different assignments, that is, beyond what is contributed from the client’s brief?
Robina was a unique and interesting project that I enjoyed working on. It was tough and there was a lot to cram in; but I'm proud of the fun chaos that is the final work! Robina was done – oh I dunno anymore – in about a month or a month and a half. It was one of the longer projects I have worked on.

The amount of research again depends on the project. Some projects are very clear or have tight deadlines (or both) and there is not much time to research things extensively. Still, the most common research for me is to look for images online as references for the artwork to be created.

You’ve worked on images featuring immigrant children and also various works which show a ‘realistic’ selection of different ethnic groups in them (vs. perhaps some sort of idealistic corporate image). As an immigrant yourself, is this an important theme for you?
Hm, no, not really. Sure, I am asked to depict people of various ethnic groups for my work depending on the brief, but it’s not something I’m aiming for. In my personal pieces, I tend to choose a light skin tone, usually because it suits my colour schemes better.

Your piece for the
‘Work/Life’ publication features a pretty stark contrast ranging from subtle beauty illustrated in an almost serene pose to something that might be interpreted as mythological or even chaotic horror. Is this in anyway reflective of some of your own feelings or what were you trying to portray here?
Um, not particularly for ‘Work/Life’. To be perfectly honest, I was running short on time so I cobbled together something that came to mind. Perhaps there is some subconscious interpretation at work in the piece. I’ll have to think about that.

But in terms of how much I identify with an illustration, it just depends on the piece. Some of my newer ink pieces have more of 'me' in them I think. I don't normally try to project myself directly into my pieces, even though for the personal work I do think that some aspects of me do eventually find their way into the art.

Continued in
Part 2


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!

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