Since graduating from Sichuan Fine Art Institute in 2012 with a BFA in integrated arts, illustrator Zoe Liu has led an interesting career that has seen her dabble in the worlds of game design and tattoo art. We sat down to hear more about her fascinating creative journey so far.
The work of illustrator and animator Zoe Liu is instantly recognisable. Cleverly designed and beautifully realised, her self-proclaimed "weird but cute" style has graced the pages of Scientific American, The Shanghairen and Creative Quarterly. She's also picked up dozens of awards along the way and been selected for the AOI Illustration Competition.
Now based in New York, Zoe follows her passion for telling stories with bold colours and playful figures. Her latest ventures include exploring the world of animation, specifically an interview series where she talks to 16 people from different identity backgrounds in Asia and asks them about gender and identity issues. To learn more about her work and hear why waiting ten years before returning to university was a good decision, we caught up with her to get the inside story.
Tell us about your history as an artist. Was it something you always wanted to do?
I love drawing very much and have done it since I was a child. For me, it was as natural as eating and sleeping. When I was a kid, I would draw comic strips of my classmates and pass them around the class, and I also drew my teachers as cartoon characters, which was a big hit among my classmates. But my teachers didn't seem to be very happy about it.
How would you describe your art style?
Weird, but cute.
Who are your biggest artistic inspirations, and why?
Zdenek Miler. He directed Little Mole, which was my favourite cartoon as a child. I also really like another animation director called Jan Svankmajer. They are all Czech artists. Their works are very imaginative and have a strong personal style. I personally love Czech art, including many Czech authors and directors, and these masters have inspired my artistic work.
What themes and topics do you most like to explore in your work?
I've always enjoyed drawing imaginative children's books. But I'm more interested in topics related to women's rights in Asia these days.
You're an illustrator now, but you used to work in game design and as a tattoo artist. Tell us about that journey!
I am a person who wants to try to do whatever I like, and I wish I could split into five versions of me to try different lives (the real me can lie at home and be lazy).
When I was in the game company, I worked as a game character designer and UI designer. I think there is less freedom working in the game industry than in illustration because game art has its own unique rules, so you can only work within that framework. When I was a tattooist, customers often made fun of me because I didn't look like a tattooist; I don't have a single tattoo, and I'm a complete introvert.
How did those jobs prepare you for being an illustrator?
My life experiences have helped me as an illustrator, not just in my jobs but also in the books I've read and the people I've loved, all of which influence my creations.
What do people not know about being an illustrator that you wish they did?
Many illustrators I know have a bad cervical spine because you must sit at a desk for a long time to draw.
What advice would you give someone looking to become an illustrator?
Don't learn whatever illustration style you see is currently popular; try to find your own style by going your own way.
Which project are you most proud of and why?
One of the projects I drew was related to my grandfather, who I grew up with and was very close to, so I drew the story of an adventure I went on with him. I wasn't with my grandfather when he passed away because of the pandemic, but my dad showed him this project I drew, and he said my grandfather was very happy to see it.
There's a ten-year gap between getting your BFA and your MFA. What was the benefit of waiting?
This period has helped me to figure out what I really want. I value my time back at the university, and because I had worked so hard in Shanghai, it was like a relaxing holiday to go back to study.
Tell us about the interview series you recently conducted with 16 different people.
I learnt a lot from them through this interview. The interviewees included a full-time mother, a Chinese artist, a university professor, a construction worker and others of different backgrounds. We discussed a lot of gender-related topics, and I got a lot of insightful answers.
You animate as well as illustrate. How did you get into this, and what's the best thing about it?
Whether it's an illustration or experimental animation, they are both tools that help me achieve self-expression. If I'm good at singing, I might as well go for it. Compared to illustration, experimental animation takes longer to create but can portray precisely what the creator wants to say.
What do you do if you're feeling a creative block?
I will stop drawing and go out for a walk.
Do you have an average day/ creative process? If so, what's it like?
I don't, I'm not really cut out to be a freelancer, and my daily work schedule is entirely determined by my deadlines.
What are you working on right now?
I'm drawing a story about how to hide your egg money in a museum.
Do you have a dream project, and if so, what is it?
I want to draw a picture book to introduce philosophy to children.