I am an illustrator and designer from Vancouver, Canada. My work is a collection of illustration, typography, and design inspired by classic illustration/animation from the fifties and sixties. My work has been featured in art shows in St.Louis, NY, and Vancouver. I have had the pleasure to work on a number of projects for clients such as Starbucks, Lululemon, and Avandeo. — Chenoa Gao
First thing’s first – how did you get into art making? Any specific childhood moments that led you to it, or were you just always naturally creative?
My family is really into art, we spent a lot of time sitting around the kitchen table with these massive and incredibly detailed colouring books everyone in my family would colour. We had all sorts of special colour pencils, water colour sets and blenders. I remember wanting to colour in those books so bad, but I had to wait until I was old enough. I spent hours practicing drawing and colouring with paints, felt pens and coloured pencils. When I was 8 or 9, I was finally allowed to colour one of the pages. I was so excited and I treated that page like it was the most precious treasure. I knew from then on all I wanted to do was draw.
Did you go to art school/college/university? If so, do you feel it helped pave the way to your artistic career?
I originally wanted to go to a fine arts school when I graduated from high school. My family however encouraged me to get my science degree as they thought I would be much happier and financially stable. Five years after I graduated, I was really unhappy with my career and decided to get into a fine arts program. I settled on a graphic design thinking it was more practical instead of focusing on illustration. I don’t regret getting a design degree as it taught me to be very technical with my work, but I do wish I had just jumped in and focused on a fine arts program. Sometimes following your heart is really scary, but now I finally feel like I have found my niche.
What is your way of working? Do you start by hand or is everything done digitally from start to finish?
Research! Coming from a methodological background, I can never start a project without researching it. I usually start with imagery associated with the key words from the project brief. The rest is all digital. I do almost all of my work in Illustrator and set up my file with a mood board off to the side of my working area. From there I start thinking about colour and composition. Then I will start all my sketches, layout and create custom colour pallets by grabbing colour from my mood board. When I am finished with a final illustration, I bring it into Photoshop to add the finishing touches.
What references do you use for your work? Magazines, books…? What inspires it?
Just about everything inspires me! I reference everything from graphic novels, art/design mags, fine art, photographs, colour books, nature, anything vintage and of course other artists. I love seeing what other illustrators are doing and being inspired by their work. I am also a huge colourphile, I collect all sorts of things like Japanese washi paper or beach glass to create custom colour pallets.
You have done a lot of commercial work. How is your personal work different to the work you have made for Starbucks, for example? (how do you stay true to yourself?)
A lot of artists feel you are selling out if you go commercial, I think that is rubbish. If you want to survive and have a fulfilling career, you need to be flexible with your work. I was hired by Starbucks because they liked my retro style which fits with their brand and I loved working for them. Doing commercial work may not allow me to be as bold with my colours or risque with the content, but my style never changes. If the client has an issue with that, then perhaps it isn’t the right project and you let it go. I think people become afraid to say no. Forcing yourself to work on a project so outside of your style, always ends poorly. You want to be hired for your style, not be known for projects you did that you hated.
How is the art scene where you live? Young and contemporary galleries and artists, or more of an older scene?
Vancouver has a pretty vibrant art community that is really diverse. However it is small but it is slowly being cultivated and there are lot more events for fresh artists and designers. There is a community arts project called Papergirl Vancouver, they are making a big push to promote art and artists in the community. They have volunteer cyclists who go around the city handing out free art from artists all over the world, it’s such a cool project.
Tell us about the post cards you made for JJ Art! They are so cool!
Thank you! I loved working on those postcards as the commercial work I do is often very illustration heavy and involved. I really wanted to work on a project that was stripped down and basic with typographic elements. I love old school swiss design posters, which were the main inspiration for the postcards.
You can purchase the artist’s work here