Li Zhang is an award-winning illustrator based in New York. She is a member of the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators and Graphic Artist Guild. Li was born in Jiang Su, China. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in illustration. Prior to moving to the States, she worked as a product engineer for Groupe PSA in Shanghai. Combining rational logical thinking with creative imagination, she enjoys creating intricate, symbolic, geometrical illustrations that celebrate diversity and the power of storytelling through a colorful pattern-based style. Her works are mainly focused on portrait, lifestyle editorial, map, and infographic field.
The main customers include “American Youth Digest” (Reader’s Digest), Sierra Magazine, Modern Weekly, The BUMP, AIM Media, Compassion & Choices, Educational Testing Service ( the world’s largest English test organization, TOEFL, GRE, TOEIC, etc.), Melissa Shoes, Forward Comics Publishing, Dotdash, Lifewire, Pokegreen, Popshot Magazine, Buunni Coffee and so on.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I have enjoyed watching comics and doodles since I was a child. When I was young, because of my parents’ work, I often stayed at home alone and naturally liked “wonderful thinking”. After growing up, I chose the engineering major because of my outstanding academic performance. After graduation, I successfully got a product engineer job for the world Top 500 company PSA Group. But In my spare time, I never stopped learning about painting and art. Drawing is the most important part of my life, I can’t breathe without it like fish can’t live without water. I put my love about art in my deep heart until one day I saw an interview with one of the youngest winners of the Forbes list of artists Victo Ngai and learned about illustration in this industry. Like her, I am passionate about painting. When I saw her experience, as an artist, I could not only fulfill my dream of painting but also earn a living from it. Without any hesitation, I cut off all my retreats and applied directly to the American art school illustration major.
Frankly speaking, in the beginning, my parents thought I was crazy to quit my previous job as an engineer which could provide me a more stable life and bright future (they thought). But I insisted on my choice. With my efforts, they gradually changed their minds and became very supportive and proud of me.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice? Is there a theme you are currently addressing?
I count myself as a visual storyteller. A visual narrative (also visual storytelling) is a story told primarily through the use of visual media. The story may be told using still photography, illustration, or video, and can be enhanced with graphics, music, voice, and other audio. The most interesting part of being an illustrator is you can tell a narrative through your own visual language. I like to use mixed media such as pencil drawing, oil pastel, paper collage, etc. I want to experiment more, which are not only limited 2D medium but also 3D tools to tell more interesting stories.
Currently, I am considering doing a private series project with a theme about “The relationship between human emotion and health”. Because of instinctive high-sensitivity, I am easily affected by the surroundings, which is easy to get huge inspirations but also suffering from unstable emotions. Especially now, because of the effect of COVID19, many people are not in good mental health status. I hope through my creating artwork process, I can get cured by my work which can also raise people’s resonance to a certain extent. That’s part of artistic magic.
You worked as a product engineer before moving to the US. As a successful illustrator now, what do you think of this experience of yours back then?
So far as I can feel, I think learning methodology is similar for everything even for abstract fine arts. Luckily I’ve got the quick-learning method after many years of training to be an engineer. And as a former product engineer, the most important thing I’ve learned is the working process on how to make plans and execute plans. No matter the project I do is a private project or commercial project, it’s always helpful to have a proper working process to improve working efficiency. I do believe that logical thinking is also beneficial for creating artworks. For some long-term project, I still use the working process learned in my previous company, it’s called “PDCA”, Plan- Do-Check- Act Cycle. No experience in life is useless. Those things will come around to benefit me later. Just as Steve Jobs said in one speech ”Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
What does “community” mean to you? Has your local community inspired you as an artist?
Community to me is a sense of belonging and an organization. It could be an innate environment such as your family which you can’t choose. It could also be the place you’d like to be there. Like you can choose the dream school or city to live in. For me, I chose New York as my first place in the States because there are many artistic communities such as the Society of Illustrators, etc. The best thing about living in New York is the creative atmosphere in the city. There are many great art shows, art communities, art galleries, and museums in New York. Also, there are full of great creative artists who are very supportive and motivative. You can always get many inspirations and motivations here.
What are you working on right now?
Besides some commercial works, I am working on some private projects which are different city map illustrations. You know currently because of COVID19 reason, we can’t travel around so I want to start my virtual travel journey through creating city maps, in which way I can put my imagination into my artworks and avoid the risk of being infected.
Is there any advice you would like to share with others?
For me, art is not only my life passion but also my way of escaping from reality when I am down. You get to find what’s your real passion. Through the dream-chasing journey, you will get to know yourself more. There are always challenges along the way. I changed my attitude about all the challenges from negative to positive. When I look back, I feel very grateful for all the things that happened during these years. Those tears-late nights I have suffered through became my own special treasure that nourishes my soul. Without those, I wouldn’t become a more independent and stronger woman. Life is full of ups and downs, never lose hope, and always believe in yourself.
text & photo courtesy of Li Zhang