Tell Stories about Warm Moments in Life, Toronto-based Illustrator Catherine Zhang

Catherine Zhang is an illustrator from China. She graduated from Liaoning University in China in visual design. Her work has often been described as dreaming, fresh, and clean. She received Creative Quarterly, Adobe award, Supernova, 3×3 Illustration Awards, etc. She is currently based in Toronto and works as a freelance illustrator and an art teacher. Her illustration works were exhibited internationally in North America, Europe, and China.

Collage World, Digital Watercolour, 2019

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you currently based?

I was born and raised in the northeast of China. Although my parents are both designers, they never allowed me to learn Art. They separated, I grew up with my grandparents. I never took any classes, I usually paint during my free time. I enjoyed making my own characters and painted what I read from books. I like doing watercolor, but later I found I can make some watercolor brushes in Adobe Photoshop, then I started to make digital watercolor. I would like to see more and more happy warm moments from my own life. The pictures I make nowadays somehow reserved my memories and feelings of my life. I learned all the art basic skills by myself and taking the exam in China. Then I went to Liaoning University for visual design and education for my bachelor’s degree. I am very glad that I can move to Canada, then I started learning at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Illustration because I want to learn more about how to improve my paintings. Gradually I found I can talk about what I want to say by paintings, I like to make different comics to talk about what I experienced. I also feel lucky that I can be an art teacher in private high schools and also work as a freelance illustrator. 

Past time, Digital Watercolour, 2019

What ideas are you exploring in your practice? Is there a theme you are currently addressing?

I enjoyed the time when I was in my hometown Changchun. I grew up with a lot of animals, plants, and natural views in the countryside in my hometown. Most of my paintings are about nature, humans, and animals. I enjoyed hiking in the mountain and enjoy the snow in winter in my hometown. Some of the special things and culture in my hometown. Most of my paintings are including these.

Moreover, I became focusing on how people live their lives. Because I didn’t have a whole family, my parents separated when I was five. I would like to explore more about the warm and happy moments of my life. These are what I like and what I expect. I like to take down my life with paintings. Telling stories that happened around me. Also, I like to do some practice paintings after I heard some music and songs. After I moved to Canada, I got a lot of American cultures and I started to get fitting in this new culture, also I would like to combine Chinese culture and American culture together. The new place makes me have a lot of new feelings and make my paintings have more new things to paint on. I shared my culture and history with my classmates, also I can get more of that from different countries. My paintings got some influence from these different cultures.

In China, we focus more on basic skills, but here in Canada, we focus more on how to imagine, how to make the paintings interesting, I changed my paintings, changed from one character into more characters with some backgrounds.

Cleaning, Digital Watercoloir, 2018, Adobe award

Do you have a mentor or a piece of advice that influenced your practice?

At first, I came to Canada and studied at OCAD University. I met one of my favorite teachers, who is using watercolor mainly. I started to talk with him and try to use his way to mixing colors. He told me that I can combine different colors and mix them as the different parts of an element, where is the highlight, where is the shadow. This is really a good way for me, then I started to mix colors. Not only using one color.

Also, I got an idea that helps me to change my mind, which is about the way to think of one topic. In this way, I can get a lot of things from the brainstorm. Traveling is also a way to influence me. After traveling in Europe, I got a lot of new ideas from my trip, different culture, different countries, and different people.

Natural, Mural Design for a Chinese Café, 2019

What do you find the most challenging in your career?

I think it is about how to carry on with our goal. In the beginning, none of my family members agreed with me to learn art, they never helped me. I started all of that by myself. There were plenty of difficulties after I decided to study art. In the beginning, after I started to look for some jobs to make money, I found it was hard to get one and I need to keep improving myself. I need to get more ideas during this fast-changing world. New topics appear with the development of life. How to keep having a pair of special eyes is a big challenge too. Moreover, I need to keep earning enough to live by myself, I started to work as a teacher, make this as my stable income, using the remaining time to work as a freelance illustrator. No matter what difficulties I met, I never gave up. I keep working for my goal. 

Greek Museum, Digital Watercolour, 2018

What does “community” mean to you? How do you see yourself in a community?

A community is a good place to get more ideas and improve myself. I can get some suggestions by critique and change the wrong things I did. Also, get some ideas to correct and improve. Sometimes I cannot get an idea for my new topic, I can get some help from the community. Actually, New York is a good place to work and live for artists. Plenty of activities there in New York are really helpful. It is also very inspiring to see how other artists living. Share the experience with them together. Although I am living in Toronto, I spend more time getting to New York too. As for some of my paintings which are about nature, Toronto is a good place. Lots of towns are around Toronto in Ontario, I usually drive and take photos or sketch to get enough references.

Is there any advice you would like to share with others?

I think as for all of the students who are having the dream to be artists or designers, basic skills are important. I found lots of my classmates having good ideas but they cannot realize them on the paper, which means the basic skills are really important to express what you are thinking in your brain.

Reading is also important. From reading, I can learn more about different areas. In some of the paintings, we need to respect the culture. Also, it is really helpful to explore in a new way.

Sharing your projects and get what others suggest, do not be stubborn. Others’ thinking is really important for artists especially for designers, we need to gather others’ opinions. In this way, we can improve our work. Also, professors are such a good way to improve. They know more about the area, they can share the experience with you and they also can give you some good way, maybe some working chance.

Keep relaxing, we don’t need to make ourselves under the pressure. Keep working for your goal.

With U, Digital Watercolour, 2020
London Gin, Digital Watercolour, 2020

text & photo courtesy of Catherine Zhang

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