Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
New New Yorker and Illustrator Lisk Feng is in the interview seat this week. In addition to making the huge move from China to the USA, she has recently switched from using any/all art supplies available to a much more limited approach. These days she’s only working digitally, but her artwork looks just as hand drawn as before. She’s a recent graduate of the newly founded MICA Graduate Illustration program in Baltimore, MD. Keep reading to find out more about this upcoming and whimsical illustrator.
SHANON WELTMAN: Who are your favorite artists and biggest inspirations?
LISK FENG: When I was little I think my favorite artist or animation studio was Ghibli, always. After that I think I really like Tatsuro Kiuchi, Yuko Shimizu, or those American illustrators that got really famous. I looked at them for a long time. The main reason I wanted to come to America to study at MICA, was because I was a graduate of the Academy of Art which is a really good school in China. After that I felt kind of lost because I was trying really really hard to get into the career and get published. I do publish a lot of books, do really good, but I just felt like I needed to jump out of my comfort zone, so that’s why I came to America. All the illustrators that I really like are Asian. Also, Josh Cochran, I really like his work a lot. That lead to me to start to develop a new style, which is combining screen printing texture with watercolor and hand drawing together. I’ve never done that before, I was always doing hand drawing really traditionally and now I feel I’m more capable of doing different types of works. Now I’m trying to think about doing some editorial stuff.
SW: What are your favorite things to draw?
LF: When I was little, definitely animals and afterwards I got into anime for awhile. After that, I started to think about doing young adult novel illustration. I’d always create a whole world that has a lot of kids in it and they’re doing some really fantastic things, such as an adventure together. I really like to draw things that are really magical or whimsical and at the same time they’re really childish looking. A lot of adults like my work because my work seems really childish and lonely, and they feel emotionally connected. I think my favorite things to draw are whimsical, classical, childish illustrations for young adults and adults.
SW: What about objects?
LF: Actual objects… I still really like to draw people. People are my favorite thing to draw. When I was little I started to draw people first, so after I came to America I always went to NY and saw different kinds of people in the subway and I feel like people are so different from Asians. Especially in NY, they have different countries from all over the world gathered together. On the subway I saw Asian, South American, Americans, people from everywhere. It’s a really magical thing to put so many people into a tiny city, and they’re building culture, building art, doing stuff, it’s really busy everyday. So I will continue doing that in the future, people are definitely my favorite.
SW: Do you think you will move up to NY or do you really like Baltimore?
LF: I really like Baltimore, but I still want to move to NY. I’m moving next month actually.
SW: Whoa! That’s fast. Just curious, what part of Baltimore do you live in? We went to MICA also.
LF: [Laughs] Oh nice! I was living off North Charles street for a year, now I live in West Mount Royal, across from MICA.
SW: [Laughs] That’s nice!
LF: Yeah it’s really convenient because my thesis is really heavy. I think it’s really nice just to live closer to the school.
SW: Mmhmm, for sure. So we’ve talked about who you’re making art for, imagery you like. How do you come up with ideas? Not only the concepts, but the whole thing, the composition, the color. How do you finalize a piece?
LF: First of all, it depends on what kind of job it is. If I have an article, first I will read the whole thing and come up with multiple sketches in my brain. I don’t like to draw gigantic really detailed sketches, then make it one step at a time. I like to draw this tiny little sketch and I’ll draw maybe ten to twenty. Then I’ll pick the one that I really like and then try to draw them a little bigger with a little detail. And then move to computer and directly create the whole thing. For children’s books it’s all so different. I’ve made many children’s books before. I need to create the story sometimes and the story is like, I’ll write 5 sentences. The sentence needs to fully describe the story. Then you pick your favorite sentence of all of them, add little elements to the sentence, make it longer, longer, make it different. At the end you have a whole story with a lot of little elements, but the story is really brief and short. Next I will start to do spreads. That’s my children’s book process.
SW: Do you like to do children’s books the most?
LF: I feel like I really like children, so I like to draw little cute stuff for kids, but it’s a really really boring process to be honest, because you need to spend too much time on it. Too long to work on a project, sometimes half a year or even a year and then I get bored. I want to move on and work on something else. Especially the art director, they don’t like this, they don’t like that, they ask you to revise it over and over again. It’s kind of exhausting sometimes, but I still feel like it’s my job. Illustrators need to do things on time, you say you’re going to finish it, so you finish it. That’s your duty. I’ll still do it, but to be honest I’ll feel really exhausted sometimes.
LF: After the results come out though, I’m really happy! [Laughs] I prefer shorter projects. Now I’m working for Ghibli animations, the next one, but the novel for China. The novel is 200 pages, but I only need to draw one cover and eight illustrations, and the money is good. In one month I can focus on this project, I finish it, they offer me money, and I feel like there’s a finished object in a short time. That’s really comfortable.
SW: How many books have you done?
LF: In China I’ve published three books, two children’s books and one illustration collection book. The others are collaborative. I do a lot of illustrations for novels, especially young adult novels. I’m not sure how to count, but only myself, three books.
SW: Can you describe your process? You mentioned screen printing and watercolor. Can you walk us through how you make a typical illustration?
LF: I’m really interested in it [all]. First I want to say thank you America, I’m so glad I came here. If I didn’t come here, I wouldn’t have a chance to use screen printing anymore since I’ve graduated. After I started screen printing class, I feel like it’s extremely horrible, the process is really really long and then you can only use three to five colors. Limited color palette! Which is insane for me, because my own image style is a really abundant color palette. I use every material, I use watercolor, pastel, crayon, color pencil, even marker, watercolor, gouache all in one image. Everything I can find on my table and then to produce an image that people cannot tell just what material it is. That’s what I like, but after I came here, the screen printing teacher told me ‘you need to simplify’. Simplifying is always harder than adding more stuff on to something. It’s a really painful process. After that, I’m really into it. I feel like this is something I really want to try. My images start to become simple. Also, limited color palette to make it more consistent, especially for my books. They look better than before. I put less effort in it and results turn out to be really good, so it’s a smart choice. My process of making illustrations right now is, especially with the screen print style, always start with sketches directly on the computer. It’s easier for me to arrange the layers to make it a limited color palette. Sometimes if I do pencil lines first, I will scan it in and then scan the pencil drawing, erase some parts of the lines. Change the color of the line so it will have a limited color look. After that I will make brushes or I scan a lot of textures that I made by myself. For example I bought a plastic transparent roller that you put ink on and roll on paper. It’s really dry so you get some texture, just like a screen print. Scan it in and use the texture to lay on top of the drawing to make it look like a screen print. I also discovered some really nice brushes. Kyle’s brushes are really nice. There’s a lot of stuff online you can download. I also make my own brushes sometimes, just like a stamp. You scan it in and then put it on top, they look like hand drawn. My drawings are all digital right now, but they look really hand drawn. So I’m really happy with the result. I’m thankful for spending a year and a half in a screen printing studio and my thesis, half of my drawings are screen printed. I’m really enjoying the process right now.
SW: That so interesting! I can kinda tell that you use so many materials, but only because I do that when I work. It doesn’t look like one thing which is cool!
SW: Can you talk a little bit about your experience at the MICA MFA Illustration? It’s relatively new and wasn’t available to us a few years ago. Whatever you’d like to say about it.
LF: First of all I want to say, Whitney Sherman is the leader of the program and then Jamie Zolar is the co director, so I feel like the program has superstar teachers. And then at the time same time, I’m on the second year of the program and the first year class only has six students left. Twelve students entered the program and only six students are left. So I feel like, its a really tough semester because people are dropping the program. The first semester is extremely hard because the director gives us kind of a hard time, forcing us to do something that really doesn’t matter to us. Focused on sewing. She wanted us to do a sewing project to combine with pop-up books and bookbinding. Three things you put together to make a project — in three days! How can you do something?? I don’t know how to sew. So at last I made a touching book, like a cloth touching book. For the cover I sewed the letters on top of paper. [Laughs]
SW: Oh, that was the ship right?
LF: Yeah! That one is my three workshop projects. Other people are doing pop up cards and they sew one line on top of it to count as sewing. People feel a lot of pressure around the first years project. Extremely hard working. After that, the second years work changed. I don’t even know how it happened but everyone now turned out to be really really good illustrators at the end. We’re winning stuff, this years 3×3 just came out, one student is silver, the others are bronze. Also, Sarah Jacobi won the Society of Illustrators Gold Medal, Jun got the AOI New Talent. Our program is new but we’re winning stuff, so I feel like the first year of training is really important for us. The second year, we have a lot of really really great illustrators come such as Jillian Tamaki, Josh Cochran, those famous illustrators gave us feedback. The program invited art directors from Candlewick and Penguin to give us feedback. I did get jobs from Candlewick, so I’m really thankful. The program invites people to come and I got something really nice. Josh Cochran also became good friends with me. I got to see him many times after that, he likes my work, we got to talk to each other. Also, Soojin Buzelli and Chris Buzelli got to be our friends. We got to NY, setup the meeting and then we talked to each other and I feel really happy about it.
SW: Aw! That’s a lot of really cool people.
LF: Yes yes, I didn’t expect them to invite all those people. The first semester I really wanted to drop. [Laughs] The only project that I really like from the first year is pattern design. [Laughs] Julia Rothman came and gave us a really nice workshop. I really liked it. The others are… mm, but we learn a lot of things from it.
SW: Last question, totally not about anything to do with your career as an Illustrator: What is your favorite American food?
LF: Hmmm…. favorite American food. That’s hard. I would say, bagels? Especially NY bagels. Burgers are really nice, [Laughs] but overall I still love Asian food more.
SW: Yeah… [Laughs] it’s better.
LF: Yeah… they’re better. [Laughs]
Photograph by Adam Kuban