Illustrator Profile - Yinfan Huang: "I think in colors"

By Robert Newman   Thursday December 14, 2017

Yinfan Huang is a New York City-based illustrator (she recently moved to Manhattan), who says she is “deeply inspired by the energy” of the city. In addition to creating editorial illustrations, comics, and live drawing, she has illustrated several books, and is now working on her debut picture book. The work, created with colored pencils, gouache, and collage, is bright and childlike—but very sophisticated.

I was born and raised in South China. I’m the only artist in my entire family. My mom has been working as a banker since she was 16. But she is a very artistic person; she would write beautiful poems and essays in her spare time before I was born. My name actually came from one of her poems, which means “yellow singing sailboat” in Chinese (I have not yet found someone has the exact same name with me in China). I think I inherited her sensibility for literature and art. I still have a soft spot for poetry.

I expressed my passion for art since I was very young and I never stop drawing. But growing up in Chinese public school under a strict educational system I was never allowed to express myself freely. Art was the only way for me to express. But the art education in China was very academic as well; I was rejected by every art college in China. The fact that I was not accepted and couldn’t pursue what I loved was a huge pain to me. But in my heart I always knew I was different and I dreamed of being a professional artist and illustrator. So at the age of 22, I made my biggest decision in life to leave China to pursue my passion in the United States, where I felt I would receive a quality education in my chosen field. Additionally, I knew that living in the States would give me access to one of the best developed illustration markets in the world. This has been a great decision for my life and my career.

I had never been to America before and knew nothing about the cities. So I decided to apply to four art colleges located evenly across the US—one East, one West, one Midwest and one South—and see which one would accept me. To my surprise, all of them did. I chose the one in Midwest which was the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. People often asked me how I chose a small college in Minnesota all the way from China. The truth is, MCAD was the only school which offered me a scholarship and didn’t ask me to take extra semesters of language courses despite the fact that I barely spoke English at the time. That saved me a lot of time and money and I got to finish my BFA in three years. And because I was the only international student at all of my classes at MCAD, it forced me to speak up with my American classmates and teachers, and my English improved rapidly. Although I would say it was not as exciting and resourceful as studying at the more popular schools, I’m glad I went to MCAD and was able to get away from the “trends” so I could focus on finding my own voice.

After gradulating from MCAD, I stayed in Minneapolis for a while. My first job out of college was doing some freelance illustrations for The Children’s Theatre Company for their children’s play catalogs. I have had day jobs too: I worked for a product design company to make stationery mock-ups for their presentation to clients; I also worked for a dioramic studio and would spend eight hours gluing hundreds of tiny flowers onto a tree branch. Although I appreciated those interesting experiences in my life, it was at that point I started questioning if I was spending my time doing the right thing: I didn’t have the time and energy to create illustration after work, and when I did, I felt creatively stuck.

In summer 2014 I took a trip to Portland to attend my first ICON conference. I was blown away and hugely motivated by the energy and encouragements I got from the illustration community there. I was over the moon when I met my favorite artist Souther Salazar at the conference and later he invited me to visit his local studio. He was so kind to me and we had a long talk at his studio about art and career. After I came back from Portland I decided I wanted to focus on doing illustration and move to a more creative and energetic environment. I was debating between Portland and New York; then I chose New York because I figured I wouldn’t do well with Portland’s grey and rainy winters (I’m done with depressing winter!).

When I first arrived in New York in winter 2014, I literally had no family, no friends, nor a place to live. I bounced between Airbnb rooms from Brooklyn to Queens for the first month before I finally found an apartment in Queens. I met a great illustrator, Richard Borge, at the ICON conference that same summer who also lived in New York, so I plucked up my courage and wrote to him and asked if I could visit his studio. Richard graciously agreed to meet up and has helped me a lot in my career and time in New York since. It has been three challenging years for me, but I’m really glad I moved to New York and found a big and welcoming illustration community here.

I work from my home studio in a nice neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens. It’s only a 20-minute train ride to Manhattan. I also have a studio in Chelsea where I make my pottery work. I like the flexibility of living away from the city but having easy access to whatever I need. I go to Manhattan almost every day. I need the energy and inspiration from the city but love to come back to my quiet home in Queens at the end of the day.

I think in colors. When I start a new illustration I first think about the atmosphere I want to convey, and the main color in my head which associates with that atmosphere. Everything else comes naturally once I get the right color. I use primarily colored pencils and some gouache and collage. I also use tons of tracing paper for sketch and color study. Sometimes I creat the background and foreground of my illustrations seperately, scan them to computer and digitally put them together in Photoshop.

After I moved to New York, it was hard to get jobs as as an illustrator right away. So I took a night class in illustration at SVA with Melanie Parks, who introduced me to the wonderful Prismacolor colored pencils. It totally changed my mind about what colored pencils are capable of—you just need to find the right type! I finally found the perfect medium to use comfortably in my work. I started using colored pencils primarly in my work and my style has been settling down since then. It feels right.

My life experience is my major influence, I think a great piece of art always comes from the heart of the artist. I’m also influenced by naïve art, Scandinavian design, bright colors, a child’s imagination and honesty, Marc Chagall, Japanese textile designer Katsuji Wakisaka (he was a former designer at Marimekko), books by Alice and Martin Provensen, Ann and Paul Rand and Olle Eksell.

I really admire my former teacher Lindsay Nohl from MCAD. She is an illustrator, teacher, gallery-owner, speaker and many other things. She has a lot of extremely varied interests and is really passionate about bringing the art community together. I’m always amazed by her energy and the new ideas/adventures she comes up with next.

I’m deeply inspired by the energy of New York City. The city itself is filled with inspiration. I like to observe people on the street and in the subway and draw them down in my sketchbook. I put together my drawings of people in the subway  and some cool buildings in the city into zines. And I like to go to bookstores to look at books; nothing beats touching the paper and feeling the weight of an actual book, not to mention the amazing book designs. I’m particularly drawn to books from different cultures and even in different languages (although I can only look at the visuals for the most part). I go to galleries and museums a lot, too. I try to look at everything, not just illustrations: fine art, sculptures, textiles, photography, graphic design…

Time management is really difficult. As a creative person I tend to go with the flow but a routine is necessary to get things done.

I started doing children’s book in the past year and it was a lot of fun! I’ve illustrated a well-received Chinese children’s book entitled Stories of My Dad and a middle-grade novel, The Secret Hen House Theatre. I love reading children’s novels and I connect strongly with each character in the book. It’s a dream came true for me to illustrate children’s books and I plan to do more.

I would love to publish my own picture books. And it would be fun to see my work turn into big scale; I’ve always wanted to work with window display and murals!

I really enjoyed working with SooJin Buzelli. She is very professional, has a sharp eye for art, and is not afraid to hire young illustrators. I was so thrilled when SooJin commissioned me to create my first illustration for PLANSPONSOR which later appeared in American Illustration 35. I came up with many, many ideas for that assignment and SooJin and I had a back and forth discussion about whether or not the ideas I submitted matched the concept. She pushed me to create my best work in my style yet; at the same time the artwork fit with the article perfectly. I learned a lot working with SooJin and I especially appreciate her open brief on each assignment, which frees an artist’s imagination.

I love the art of Laura Carlin, Lilli Carré, Christian Robinson, Carson Ellis, Maira Kalman, and Brian Rea among many others. I like these people because their passion and skillsets are versatile; they all do something more than traditional illustrations and they are constantly reinvent themselves. I also have had the pleasure to meet them either in real life or online and they are not only amazing illustrators but also incredibly nice people.

I always consider myself a multi-dimensional illustrator. I do a lot of 3-dimensional work such as embroidery, clay sculptures, and plush toys  outside of my 2D illustration. Recently I have been focusing on making ceramic arts based on my illustration. I have a small handmade business called In Fun Handmade where I make and sell ceramic home decors, accessories, and illustrated paper goods.

I regularly show my work in galleries such as the illustration-based gallery in Minneapolis called Light Grey Art Lab.

I also do special live drawing events for brands like Warby Parker and custom commissions for people.

Last year, I adopted a four-week old kitten who I named Sesame. Taking care of him from the very beginning and watching him grow has been a great inspiration to me. I started drawing our daily life in a comic strip and posted them online every day. I never considered myself a comic artist, but I got an overwhelming response from people saying they related to my comics and my comics made them laugh out loud or smile. So I started drawing more about my life in NYC, things that confused me, modern romance, etc. I try to keep every comic relateable and universal, yet completely personal.

I like to keep myself busy by doing all types of interesting projects!

Last year, I started a small business combining my long-time passion for illustration and handmade crafts. I’ve been doing craft fairs across the country, selling my handmade ceramic home decors, accessories, and illustrated paper goods. I also have an online shop.

I’m always learning new things outside of my comfort zone. I learned to make ceramics. I took classes in business and branding. I think the fact this industry is always changing makes it more exciting and unpredictable. I think about illustration as the root of a flower; from there you can branch yourself to different things. I’m very open to all the possibilities that illustration brings.

My first and foremost goal is to always create new and fresh work. Then I try to share my work to as many platforms as possible. Entering competitions like American Illustration and World Illustration Award has been great to me. And I always try to build relationships with people both online and offline.

Self-promotion is hard. It’s extra hard for me as a non-native speaker. I think it’s important to choose the kind of promotion which you feel the most comfortable, and remember it is part of the business.

Do personal work, do the work that speaks to you, and don’t give up.

See more Yinfan Huang illustrations, new work and updates:
Yinfan Huang website
Rep for book projects (Sean McCarthy Literary Agency)
Handmade Products
Instagram: @yinfanhuang
Twitter: @yinfanhuang
Handmade Product