Illustrator Profile - Victo Ngai "I draw inspiration from everything that touches me"

By Robert Newman   Thursday April 2, 2015

Victo Ngai says that illustration lets her “create my own magical world.” That’s the perfect way to describe her rich and lush illustrations, which are fantastic, hand-drawn images filled with wonder and delight. Her work appears with great frequency in a wide range of newspapers and magazines, most notably The New York Times and a stunning series of full-page illustrations for fiction pieces in The New Yorker. Victo has also done a remarkable set of illustrated magazine covers for Plansponsor, Computerworld, Variety, and more.

Victo grew up in Hong Kong, and lived there until she was 18. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and moved to New York City, where she currently lives and works. In addition to her ongoing editorial work, Victo creates illustrations for ad campaigns, books and book covers, and recently completed drawings for the animated movie The Wound and the Gift. Victo has a large Facebook, Twitter, and social media presence which she smartly uses to showcase and promote her work.

Like the artists she references as influences, including Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige, Victo works with a restrained and limited color palette, which makes her illustrations all the more remarkable for their power and richness. Detailed and precise, her work has glimpses of comic book drawings, classic children’s book illustrations, the work of Japanese painters, and much more. Each illustration is a visual and sensual treat, a complex and layered story filled with sensual imagery and stylings. Her work ranges from fantastic giant animals and surreal situations to smart and insightful commentary for stories about social and business issues. The result is a dynamic mix of highly accomplished craftmanship and a remarkable artistic vision.

No one in my family works as an artist but my mom’s side has always had an appreciation and interest for art. I went to many gallery shows and museum exhibitions with my mom as a kid. My great grand uncle was a surgeon with a passion for meticulous Chinese ink painting; drawing with him was one of my first art encounters.

My parents were both very busy when I was growing up and we moved around quite a bit. Being the only child and always the new kid on the block, I was by myself a lot. That’s when I started drawing to entertain myself. I would make up creatures and friends on paper to go on adventures with.

I came to the States for college, and graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA majoring in Illustration. I did two in-house internships during college; that’s when I realized that freelancing was inevitable as I am too stubborn and tactless to work in an office.

I work from home with my studio intern Dawson, an apricot ball of fur rescued from a Texas shelter. I prefer to work in a safe solitary environment where there’s no pressure that someone may look over my shoulder and see the mess I make or the experiments that fail. I am always a bit weird about showing work in progress. The close proximity to my fridge is also very nice.

I use more or less the same hybrid techniques in all my work. I draw the lines with nib pens, sometimes with brushes or Rapidographs. Then I create layers of textures on paper with various media (pencil, charcoal, crayon, paint…). Everything is then scanned and colored in Photoshop.

That was my first published piece in junior year of school, a half page illustration in Plansponsor. It was originally an assignment for Chris Buzelli’s class but his wife, Plansponsor creative director SooJin Buzelli saw it and decided to print it. We have been working together regularly since and she’s one of my all time favorite art directors. Having such a highly-regarded publication as my first client set my career up for some of the top jobs in the market, for which I am forever grateful. The experience was also a great confidence boost. Being an international alien, I only had one year after college to get a work VISA to stay in the country. Many friends opted for company jobs for that reason. I often wonder if I would have dared to leap wholly into freelancing if I hadn’t worked with SooJin.

My Chinese upbringings, American college education, travel experiences to Japan and Europe, my mom, teachers and friends from RISD, and my mentor Chris Buzelli.

I really admire Chris Buzelli. He’s the perfect example of “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be” (one of my favorite quotes, by Paul Arden). It took him 7-10 years, working multiple jobs at the same time, to arrive where he is today. He’s not afraid to reinvent himself. He dynamited a profitable yet unrewarding portfolio a few years into his career and started from scratch. He’s also one of the most generous and kind-hearted people I know, never hesitating to share information which many others may regard as trade secrets, and always looking out for his friends and students, even strangers in distress or dogs under attack on the street!

There are constantly countless balls to juggle, from managing the business, to making art, to taking care of myself and my dog, but there’s never enough time. I am a bit OCD, I want to get everything done and done perfectly in a finite amount of time. As my boyfriend Kyle says, every time I clean my apartment, I do it spring-cleaning style. So the biggest challenge is time management and setting priorities.

I draw inspiration from everything that touches me—as cliched as that may sound— sometime consciously, most of the time not. After all, art is an extension of the artist’s life and experience.

Here are a few artists on my bookshelves who I always go back to…Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Mary Blair; I love their bold colors, confident brushstrokes and fun perspectives. Andrew Wyeth and Eyvind Earle: their use of white shape designs never fail to knock my socks off.  John Singer Sargent and William Turner: magicians with light and atmosphere. Yoshitaka Amano, Gustav Klimt, Virginia Frances Sterrett, Kay Nielsen, Aubrey Beardsley: the fluidity of their lines and the decorative details in their art are very close to my heart. Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige: best guide to limited palettes.

Lately I have been delighted to discover many great artists previously unknown to me through the Facebook Monthly Picture Collections and The Picturing on curated by Irene Gallo, another of my favorite art directors.

The most memorable one would be the feature film The Wound and the Gift. It was my first animated project, an assignment which required 4-D thinking and close collaborating with my team for over two years. It was a very different experience from my usual fast turnaround solo editorial jobs. Also, it’s quite magical to see my drawings come to life on a big screen with movements and music.

I would LOVE to collaborate with fashion houses on print patterns and store installations. It would also be amazing to work on animated music videos and commercials.

I was lucky enough to get a portfolio review with Jordan Awan (former art director at The New Yorker) through a reference by New York Times art director Aviva Michaelov, and started working with The New Yorker a few months later.

I started out doing music reviews and other smaller illustrations and eventually got to work on the full-page fiction pieces. I love those assignments as the stories are very well written and inspire beautiful imageries. However, it’s challenging as well as I didn’t have any experience with fiction beforehand and had to learn on the job. Unlike conceptual illustrations, the visual communication of fiction relies not as much on metaphors and symbolisms but more on capturing the right moment through compositions and body languages. With much insightful input by art directors Chris Curry and Jordan Awan, I managed to force myself out of my comfort zone and started exploring alternative camera angles and drawing people in a more natural style. This opened up a whole new set of visual languages which I didn’t know I possessed.

Working with The New Yorker has taken my career to another level for which I am very thankful. Besides improving as an artist through the collaboration, the exposure the publication offers has brought in some unexpected clients, including Linda Hoaglund, the director of The Wound and the Gift and a few big advertisement accounts.

I really love Christoph Niemann, Chris Sickle (AKA Red Nose Studio), Jillian Tamaki, and John Hendrix. Their work always looks so genuine and fun. I look at them when I am going through rough patches with jobs as they get me excited again and remind me of why I became an illustrator in the first place. These artists are also incredible authors who constantly generate their own content, which I aspire to do one day. Actually John Hendrix just came out with a new book with Abrams called Drawing Is Magic. It emphasizes the fun of drawing and treating sketchbooks like a playground; I highly recommend it!

I do a little of everything (except paid directories) as I see building a freelance career as establishing a brand. I like to maximize my exposure. Entering competitions and public speaking is great, as they let my brand seem more “legit” and desirable. The accolades also make it easier for art directors to pitch me to their clients.  Social media has helped my career quite a bit as well. Unlike traditional promotions, it’s a two-way street that introduces my work to some unexpected places and clients. I have noticed lately that having a large online following often allows me to ask for a higher fee from advertising clients. However, personal connection is still the best promotion in my opinion. Some of the best jobs have come through referrals and meeting art directors in person.

I like to draw, I like to world-build, I like to problem-solve and I like getting paid doing what I like.

“The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. The moment that you feel that just possibly you are walking down the street naked…that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” —Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

I highly recommend checking out Neil Gaiman’s entire “Make Good Art” speech as it’s filled with great advice and inspirations.

See more Victo Ngai illustrations, new work, and updates:
Victo Ngai Website
Like Knows Like Video Interview with Victo Ngai


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