Illustrator Profile - Gracia Lam: "My goal is to uncover hidden treasures and messages in everyday life"

By Robert Newman   Thursday May 14, 2015

Gracia Lam creates quiet, beautiful images that tell powerful stories. Her masterful combination of elegant technique and nuanced storytelling has been showcased in high concept illustrations for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Real Simple, and other publications. There’s a classic sensibility and a modern edge to Gracia’s work that creates a visual tension that is spare and intimate—and lovely to see. With a graceful mix of painting and drawing and a restrained color palette, Gracia creates what she describes as “visual dialogues” with her work.

Gracia burst on to the scene six years ago when several of her student pieces were selected for American Illustration 27. Since then she has appeared in many top magazines and publications, and keeps a high profile with a very active social media presence. She has four illustrations in the current American Illustration 33 annual, and had 10 selected for the most recent Society of Illustrators editorial and book show. Gracia is a frequent contributor to Nautilus magazine, and last year was the featured illustrator for an entire issue.

Gracia is based in Toronto, but spends a lot of time working and traveling in Hong Kong, where her family lives.

I was born in Hong Kong and raised in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada. After college, I stayed in Toronto on my own to pursue illustration while my family moved back to Hong Kong. I am currently living in downtown Toronto and share a studio space with two other designers and illustrators. The flexibility that comes with being a freelance illustrator allows me to spend around three months living and working from Hong Kong while I visit and stay with my family there.

I grew up in a family of artists in other creative disciplines. My mom is a piano teacher with a very calm demeanor. I have extremely close relationships with my two sisters who are both dancers. My father is a modest businessman. Though no one in my family is a visual artist, the environment in the household definitely spawned creativity and workmanship. We were all encouraged to pursue and develop our own skill sets.

Throughout college, I taught little kids art in different community centers around the home I grew up in. I also worked at a company that mass produced portraits and landscape paintings that were sold on TV and in malls. I was hired as one of the many artists in their production chain; the job generated a moderate income with extremely flexible hours. During that period, I had many opportunities to work on my own portfolio and client work, and was able to pursue illustration full-time after a short couple of months.

I grew up training to become a ballerina. Throughout the 14 years of training, I have always felt that I was able to express myself clearer as a visual artist. After high school, instead of applying for dance college, I built a portfolio and went to interviews for art college. I was accepted into Ontario College of Art and Design’s Graphic Design program. I was exposed to the illustration field during first year courses and later switched programs to train in illustration. During my third year, I applied for and was accepted into an exchange program at Rhode Island School of Design and studied illustration under many notable instructors (such as Chris Buzelli) for a spring semester.

I have worked from home for many years but recently started to share a studio space with friends. Being around people and having a reason to change out of my pajamas and brush my hair is a very motivating transition. Not only has the work day become verifiable and structured, the quality of my work is elevated because of the need to perform and excel when others are around.

One of the best things about our studio is board game night. Every Thursday, friends are invited to hover around a table as we aggressively manipulate and deceive one another to win.

I have always loved the process of reading a given story and conceptualizing ideas from specific words into images. Being able to invent new visual dialogues that offer unexpected twists or elements of surprise is a thrill I chase after. My visual language is created using mixed media, combining hand painted and drawn elements, scanned, manipulated, and finalized with digital execution in Photoshop.

My illustration career was catapulted because two of my illustrations that were created during school were selected into the American Illustration 27 annual. This event had a domino effect and opened many doors for me. Shortly after my pieces were published in the annual, Kelly Doe—an art director and a judge for the AI that year—gave me my first editorial assignment for The New York Times. Days after the illustration appeared in the newspaper, a new creative agency at the time called The Loud Cloud approached me. I signed them on as my rep a month later and have been consistently presented with unbelievable opportunities one after another.

Shortly after graduation, I heard from a number of people criticizing my illustration style. Although my ideas were original, my style resembled some artists whom I admired (and continue to admire) greatly.

This feedback had a very powerful impact and greatly influenced my work. I valued the guidance from established illustrators and held their concerns in high regard. So ever since then, I have been working diligently to improve with each piece. My goal is always to generate original work that responds to the problem at hand.

When I was in school, the reason why I wanted to become an illustrator was the allure for self-expression and I didn’t really seek to communicate with the viewers. Now I understand that illustration is a powerful means of communication and bringing stories into light can leave the audience feeling touched. I am drawn to invent visual dialogues; through illustration my goal is to uncover hidden treasures and messages in everyday life. I aspire to delight the audience with intelligence and wit.

I truly admire the creations by a great friend of mine, Alëna Skarina. We met in college, where her aesthetics had already been deeply established. She is a self- proclaimed cat whisperer, and assembles the most intriguing artwork, including subjects like animals, mushrooms and tubular forms. She paints intricate details with traditional mediums and always successfully achieves the astounding combination of colors, design, and craftsmanship. Her integrity of lines leave the audience in awe. I am continually mesmerized by her aesthetics.

The isolation had been the biggest reward as well as challenge in working on my own. I imagine a lot of illustrators may experience this sometime in their career. Working by myself gives me space to fail, to explore, and to be independent. However, the desolation easily creates segregation and detachment from my peers. This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to step out of my home and work at a studio with a few others in the same field.

One of the most notable experience this past year is working with Len Small, the art director for Nautilus, a science magazine. The tremendous work and talent that are packed into each issue of Nautilus is intimidating, so I felt overwhelmed with nerves when asked to be the main illustrator for its tenth issue.

The articles and topics in the magazine are thought-provoking, which urges me to create images that are parallel to its precise and elegant writing. It is also exhilarating to have so much trust and freedom from an art director. The experience of working with Len is remarkable because he earnestly encourages a compassionate and collaborative process. He accepts suggestions and gracefully offers guidance. Some of the best pieces in my portfolio over the past year are pieces created for Nautilus.

I love looking for inspirations in cinema. Specifically, I love the films from Wong Kar Wai, Sofia Coppola, and Sarah Polley, to name a few. I’m infatuated with the different ways different directors tell stories and love deciphering how events pan through time, what colors and tones can emote, and the way subjects and objects are edited and composed into the frames.

To me, the contents that are narrated into a piece of illustration are a condensed version of a film. Each piece needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. The climaxes of my illustrations are equivalent to the plot twists—the surprising element that can linger in the audiences’ minds.

I am currently working on my dream assignment that I’ve created for myself. My illustrated book is called Audrelane Park. It is a series of illustrations that synthesize children's playground games with the games that adults play—narrated through the story of a romantic relationship between two women. Audrelane Park is a book that quietly uncovers how human beings never grow up. Through a collection of 20 playground games, we will witness the evolution of first love from the beginning to its inevitable end. For example, the game of Tag explores the flirtatious chase between the women when they first meet; the game Mother May I reveals the underlying need for our parents’ approval; and Simon Says symbolizes the struggle for dominance over one another. These images are intended to emphasize how both playground culture and adult relationships can be simultaneously genuine and cruel.

The project has been a dream because it will be a benchmark for my artistic career that propels me to take on a position beyond an illustrator and actively initiate the roles of a long form storyteller, artistic director, web developer, and an entrepreneur. This is an opportunity for me bridge my background as an illustrator who specializes in other people’s stories and answers questions for clients, into an artist who seeks meanings from within and asks the viewers questions.

I always reinvent my illustrations whether consciously or not, because I am flexible and susceptible to change for different forms of publications. Fitting my work into various subject matters from business oriented magazines, to science articles, or from conceptual illustration to narrative and decorative approaches is difficult. However, accepting a diverse challenge from varying clients and assignments expands my realm of creative exploration.

Shows, along with printed annuals and curated exhibitions, have always been essential to my continued progress as an illustrator. Entering a selection of my year’s work into competitions is still a vital avenue to promoting my work. I think it is important to recognize the significance of the shows these annuals hold each year. They can be as influential for any practitioner as they were for me. For one, the panel of judges are always some of the year’s most recognized and relevant professionals in the industry. From renowned illustrators and designers, to art directors in the editorial field, book publishing houses and advertising agencies, the list is boundless. The stage is filled with distinguished individuals that formulate high levels of aesthetics that are broadcast into our world.

Undoubtedly, and especially for students and young illustrators, I think that entering work into illustration shows and annuals is necessary. It is an opportunity to have an equal chance to showcase your work in front of trained experts who are also potential or future clients.

See more Gracia Lam illustrations, new work, and updates:
Gracia Lam website
Gracia Lam at the Loud Cloud creative agency