Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
It’s serendipitous that this week’s Artist Yao Xiao illustrated the official cover image of Katy Perry’s single “Dark Horse”, because Yao is coming at you like a dark horse. Here from China on a U.S. Artist Visa, she’s currently calling New York City her home. Her illustrations have a sophistication in her variety of marks and use of true to life details, with every space of each composition given the same level of careful drawing mastery. I got a chance to chat with her on July 4th morning, before a fun day of overeating and trying to see the sliver of a view from our roof of the Macy’s fireworks. Check out Yao’s Facebook and Tumblr and enjoy the interview.
SHANON WELTMAN: So, first question, where do you find the inspirations for your illustrations and artwork?
YAO XIAO: I’ve thought about that question and I was just drawing this morning. Right now, I’m pulling inspiration out of a lot of circus posters and vintage woodblock prints. I was just looking at George Barbier and this book a lot [shows George Barbier book]. Lots of really beautiful prints, posters… and it’s got like a theatrical feel to it, but is still very flat and design-y. So I’ve been looking at this book a lot and I look at a lot of folk Chinese art, because of my background. I’m from China and my grandparents live in the country, so they have a lot of folk painting on the walls of their houses. I look at a lot of those and folk art from different regions and some Buddhist art. I’ve visited a lot of Buddhist temples when I was in China, and they always have these designs that were built to draw people in and give them this sense of light headedness. It’s religious art but it’s very detailed and overwhelming, but beautiful at the same time. Also the color from those types of art, red and gold, black and white, which I use in my work a lot.
SW: Yeah, cool! What are your favorite things to draw?
YX: Hmm… well [Laughs], I like drawing pretty ladies. If we can phrase that professionally. [Laughs] I like to draw a lot of floral decor and I’ve been drawing inspiration from fashion drawings and street fashion. I really like things that are not necessarily primary but things that are mixed from a variety of cultures or subcultures. I like things that are both eastern and western. I draw a lot of figures, people, but I try to make my people look like male and female, or somewhat androgynous. They can be from a lot of different places and they have all these culture and fashion influences in them. I really like making these types of work based on where I’ve been and my background. I just want to make things that look unique and people can see different influences in them.
YX: I hope I’m not yapping your ear off…
SW: Feel free to talk a lot, we want to hear as much as possible. The reason we do these interviews is [that] people will see amazing artwork and really not know the personality of the person that went into the work. As artists we’ve become so nameless at times. Faceless at times, it’s just, like, producing this thing that’s awesome, we forget that these people have emotions and hobbies, rituals and ways of doing things. So talk! It’s cool. [Laughs]
YX: I wanted to know, which pieces did you guys see of my work? I have different collections, some of them are more editorial, some of them are more decorative…
SW: I don’t remember where I started seeing your work, but whatever I saw originally just led me to your website. I checked everything out, was following you on Facebook. I guess this leads into my next question and it relates to the last — how did you get to work with Katy Perry? You’ve drawn her a few times.
YX: Yeah, a few times. Ah, that started as an illustration for Entertainment Weekly last year in September, that was for their Fall Music Preview. They didn’t have anything really specific in mind, but I made this really elaborate drawing of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus as human cyborgs. They were changing out their old parts, because they were three female artists that fall that were dramatic changing their styles. I think they timed it so it was three days before Miley Cyrus did her thing. I did some research and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess she is changing her style!’ That was before she dramatically went blonde and sexy and whatever. I did that drawing and Katy Perry was in it. I think she was changing out of her blue wig and changing into more of a punk look, with dark hair and mustard sweater. I think it turned out well, she saw the magazine, she saw the illustration and she really liked it so she had her manager email me.
SW: Oh cool!
YX: Yeah, so that was really out of the blue, she just saw it, I got this email. I was at SPX then, it was the second day. I was getting up really early to check my email and was, like, ‘Hmm, Katy Perry’s manager just emailed me. [Laughs] That’s interesting.’ Then I did a poster for her that had really close deadline. And then I was going to do a project for her that fell through. It was for her Prismatic Tour, the really big tour she’s doing. The deadline was too close and it didn’t work. So she got back to me in January to do the cover of her single. So that’s most of the work I’ve done for her and we still have a working relationship, doing stuff.
SW: Have you ever gotten a chance to speak to her or is it all through her manager?
YX: All through her manager. We’ve talked on the phone so much I feel like I know her now, but I’ve never actually spoken to Katy Perry herself. I’ve sent her some cards [Laughs], I was like, ‘I’m going to send her some stickers!’ [Laughs] It was fun. That wasn’t something I was trying really hard to get but I really like the “Dark Horse” art that I did. They didn’t have a lot of direction, they were just like, ‘Yeah she really loves your art so do whatever you want!’ So I was like, ‘Ahh!’ And then I literally got, in my inbox, the songs. This is the song, do what you want. I listened to the song a whole bunch of times and did sketches. It was really nice!
SW: That’s so cool! When you work on portraits, you get them so accurate, how many sketches do you work on? Do you trace at all, do you just do one? What’s your process with portraits specifically.
YX: I do do a lot of portraits. Now that we’re talking about this I need to add that to my things that I like to draw. I do draw a lot of people and I draw them many, many times. I would draw them first without looking them up. I want to get a feeling of what I think they look like, kind of my feel of the person. So I would purposefully not look at reference photos first and just draw them. Then I’ll look them up and kind of match up what I missed. Like, ‘Oh yeah I guess Miley Cyrus does have dimples over here, not over here.’ They get closer as I look up the photos. These are all just done on copy paper. I’ll just go through sheets of copy paper and then, if it’s an editorial or commercial drawing, I will make a detailed pencil sketch of everything else like the clothing, the background, the composition, and then draw those people as well as I can, to get them as close as I can to just kind of show the art director and editor I’ve got the look down, don’t worry. I like to do that because sometimes they will get back to me and say, ‘Oh you need to work on the look or something.’ Then I just sketch a face. They don’t really get the process, that I can work on that later, this is just the sketch. So I’ll draw them as well as I can and then send them a note saying, ‘I will work on this later. They will look like them, don’t worry.’ [Laughs] And then I do some more sketches if they still don’t look like them. Usually at this point I will just blow up my pencil sketches, trace them with the lightbox onto my final illustration. If they still don’t look like them, I will layer a few pieces of paper onto my pencil sketch and just draw them some more until it really look like them. Eventually, before I transfer everything to my final drawing, I will either mesh them together in Photoshop or have one drawing underneath it. I don’t like to change things once I start transferring onto my final art papers. So I’ll have like one blueprint and I’ll trace that on the lightbox, so that once I get to the really nice paper, all I have to do is just to trace everything in pencil and ink it. I won’t have to stress too much about changing the drawing. That’s how I do it. Other times I will transfer the blueprints, I will do more corrections on it in pencil, but before I ink, everything is absolutely set in place. I won’t really do impromptu changing when I’m inking, everything will be laid out in pencil. I actually have a step by step of one of my illustrations of how much drawing I do.
SW: That would be great if you sent us that. We’ve shown other people in the past, it’s always really cool to see that.
YX: Yeah! I did that last year. That’s actually the Entertainment Weekly illustration. There’s a lot of corrections that I made on paper. Also, it was really funny, out of the three people, I had to go back and change Katy Perry’s face, many, many, many times. I was on the phone with the art direction, piecing together her face in Photoshop, like, ‘Does it look like her yet??’ I was really surprised, her’s was really hard. [Laughs] Can I add something to my list of things I like to draw? I actually like to draw a lot of antique objects. I totally forgot but I try to stick some in every one of my drawings. I do a lot of that for The Wall Street Journal, in my editorial spot illustrations I always stick in an antique watch or like a typewriter, or a little vintage mirror or something. If there’s a thing, it’s a vintage antique thing that I would do extensive research, find a lot of reference photos and then mesh one together myself. If it’s a piano it’s a vintage piano. Like, I would do little retro objects in there whenever I can. I also like to draw a lot of really nice suits.
SW: What’s been your favorite job so far?
YX: That’s hard, I’ve gotten a lot of jobs where I’m like, ‘Yes! This is my favorite!’ The best art that I’ve gotten out of my commission jobs I think is the Drake’s Duck poster I did for Drake’s Cake last summer. I got to draw this vintage train with people wearing vintage outfits going into the train, out of the train. Just got to draw like a million people, dress them in 1940’s clothes and basically color every single person. It was really, really fun. I always imagined I’d do something like that soon, but it took so much time. I just needed to knock out so much time in the studio, but every time I do that, it’s really fun. That piece also got into the Society of Illustrators, got into American Illustration, I was like ‘Wow, a lot of people really like it too.’ I really loved that job as far as commercial jobs. Also, I do really like the illustration I did for Entertainment Weekly, also for the same reasons. I got to do a lot of really intense drawing and put in a lot of detail in things that I just like to draw. Little robotic hands and intricate, strange architecture, pretty ladies, crazy colored hair and portraits, everything I like.
SW: Cool, I didn’t realize the Drake’s Duck thing was an ad. I saw it got into all these other things, I thought you just did it. [Laughs]
YX: I would love to have just done it [Laughs], but it was an ad, one poster in a series of posters. It was at Columbus Circle. They printed out all of the posters and exhibit them in the circle of Columbus Circle, down in the subway station. I was really happy, I didn’t make it to see it because I didn’t realize it was there! [Laughs] I never go out to Columbus Circle.
SW: Oh no!
YX: And then I saw a photo of it, I was like ‘Oh! They have it on the path to the subway.’ You just have to have the duck and something New York in it, that was the only requirement. You basically do whatever you like or whatever you’re good at. I was really happy about that.
SW: That’s inspiring to see a commercial job go so far.
YX: I just like it when they really like my work and let me do whatever I want. [Laughs] The same with “Dark Horse”, it is one of my favorites because that’s all that I draw. It’s got like vintage armor, these flowers, these colors and crystals, gold, typography. It was just really good. I do like when people give me instruction, it’s a challenge. The thing I like the least really is lack of time, there is very little I don’t like about commercial work. It’s really when I don’t have enough time, I’ll make the best image I can, but I wish I had another half day. It would be so beautiful!
SW: Yeeaah, that’s how it goes.
YX: Yeah, that’s usually how it goes. You just, like, don’t sleep or something. The cover that I did for The Wall Street Journal, “The Best of 2013”, is also one of my favorite ones. It’s also, almost like a self promo piece. I just had so much freedom, they were like ‘Do that thing you do’ [Laughs] I was like ‘Yeah! I love when people say that.’
SW: Yeah, that’s awesome! Do you primarily live off of your illustrations or do you have another job?
YX: I do have another job, but I could live off my illustration. I do like my other job, it’s just contract based and also art related.
SW: What’s the job?
YX: It’s based in Brooklyn, not very far from where I live. It’s basically, like, also drawing, but it’s a different style. I do a lot of infographic type stuff, some graphic design, some branding. It’s still an art job, so I’m just drawing every day all the time. I’ll draw when I’m at my job, I’ll draw when I come back.
SW: That’s cool.
YX: Yeah, it’s pretty nice. I have a contract with them, also having extra income is nice.
SW: Mmhmm. Do you have any advice for anyone on how to land a big client? You’ve worked for a lot of different people. Is it just happening organically? Could you give some advice on how to get to that point?
YX: To me, what I think is the most effective, is if you don’t already have a lot of clients or if you don’t have steady work, every time you get anything, just make the best work you can. I guess that’s obvious? [Laughs] But, I think now, sometimes, I find myself wanting to slack off, but I’ll catch myself and try really hard not to do it. But when you don’t have any work, everything you get out there into the world is basically your self promotion. That’s why a lot of my commercial work kind of looks like I just did it, it’s my thing. I basically treat everything I’ve got as my promo. So if I don’t have anytime to do a special promo, every time I do a job, that’s a promo. I would do it as perfect as can be. There can be no mistakes. It has to look perfect because people are going to see this and they’re going to hire me! That’s what goes on in my mind. People are going to see this in The Wall Street Journal, it has to be perfect so that they call me back! Not just The Wall Street Journal calls back, but maybe someone will see your work and want to call you. Like Katy Perry! That’s very little room for slack, I would treat every commercial job or something you did for a friend as your big glittering poster telling people what a great artist you are. Like, ‘this is what I draw, this is what I draw best.’ Everything is a portfolio piece basically.
SW: That’s a good way to look at it.
YX: I did a series of steampunk icons and posters for my friend who runs a circus. The pay wasn’t that great, because it was a thing I did for my friend! But, also I saw that as an opportunity to advertise myself as someone who can do this. But if no one is paying me or telling me there’s a project like this, I might not get to it in a million years. Whenever there is an opportunity to self advertise, I will do it and use the artwork after the fact for other things. ‘Can you draw vintage people, crowd scenes?’ Here’s a poster I did for so and so, and I draw women of color and politics, this is thing I did for The Wall Street Journal. I would consider everything I do as a marketing opportunity for something else.
SW: Cool! That seems to be working out very well for you, that’s awesome.
YX: Thank you! It’s constant working, you just have to work all the time. I took some time off because my U.S. Artist Visa just got approved. So, I took some time off and it’s really hard to push yourself to get back into it. I was like ‘yeah, I can take time off! I can take time off some more.’ Then I was like, ‘no you can’t, you have to do this or you’re not doing it.’ You really have to be on top of it all of the time, now I know. [Laughs]
SW: Last question, totally unrelated to anything. You were born Year Of The Horse, if you could be any other zodiac animal, what would it be?
YX: Man, I can’t be a cat because the cat doesn’t make it. Um…
SW: Isn’t it Vietnam where they use a cat instead of a rabbit?
YX: Oh, maybe?
SW: I know the story is different in each culture, cause the cat didn’t make it because he slept in all day. [Laughs]
YX: Yeah, [Laughs] the cat doesn’t make it. I can’t be the cat, they’re lazy. Can’t do that… I don’t know if I want to be any other ones? Maybe the tiger? If I can’t be a horse, I’d be a tiger. That’d be pretty cool.