Saturday 15, 02.2014

Interview with illustrator Charlene Chua

*Some of the images in this interview might be considered NSFW.
Interview with illustrator Charlene Chua

Charlene Chua is an award winning illustrator from Singapore, currently living in Ontario, Canada. Most of her work is oriented towards advertising, newspapers and magazines editorials and children’s books.

With about 10 years of experience as an artist and having won awards like SILA’s Illustration West, American Illustration, PLAY! Illustration and Spectrum, Charlene has worked for agencies like Ogilvy Interactive and The Gate Worldwide, before deciding to become a freelancer.

She is now her own boss, with an agent who helps her manage her projects, and works for clients like The Wall Street Journal, Dove, Penthouse Magazine, Google, National Geographic School Publishing, Maxim, Oxford University Press.

Aside from her sharp and detailed vector art, proof of many years of exercise, what I found particularly exciting when doing this interview was her vast experience in the industry. When someone has experience with working in advertising agencies, as well as on their own – and then also with an agent to represent them, a lot of interesting stories and lessons come up in conversation. So, if you are an illustrator/graphic designer working with clients of any kind, this interview might teach you a thing or two 😉 The same goes, probably, for all freelancers.

The tool you eventually use to make the art can be learned through just using it more, but if you don’t have good fundamentals then no matter what medium, it won’t be as strong as it could be

Interview with illustrator Charlene ChuaYou were born in Singapore and now live in Ontario, Canada. How did you get there, what is your story?

I was born and raised in Singapore. I lived there for over 25 years. My husband is Canadian; he was working in Singapore when I met him.

I always wanted to leave Singapore, so shortly after getting married we planned to move back to Canada.

We originally wanted to go to Vancouver because it was nearer to Asia, but after researching the cost of living and job prospects, we decided that it would be better to try Toronto instead. Toronto seemed to have better rental rates at the time, and was the centre of business for Canada. It is closer to New York and Europe as well. Not that I actually go there for business regularly, but I guess, psychologically, it seemed like a better prospect?

Do you have art studies, or were you self taught?

I am mostly self taught.

I’m always happy to meet people who are great at their work and learned by themselves (no school). Any advice in particular here for people who want to learn to do what you do (vector art)? Like good resources, particular steps/milestones they should follow?

I think that regardless of the art you want to create, you should always work on your drawing and painting skills first. The tool you eventually use to make the art can be learned through just using it more, but if you don’t have good fundamentals then no matter what medium, it won’t be as strong as it could be. I am still learning about how to use color and texture, mostly outside of Illustrator.

To learn Illustrator to create art, you should get familiar with using the Pen and Pencil tools, as well as using the Pathfinder tools to create additional shapes. Illustrator treats things as shapes, and unlike Photoshop it is not easy to ‘flatten’ your layers as you go along. You have to get used to working with a lot of pieces and grouping them together to help make things easier to edit.

I have not checked online for tutorials for a long time, but I think these days there are many good websites with tutorials to teach you how to use the software. I would suggest picking a tutorial with a subject that interests you, and then try to follow it. You don’t have to follow the tutorial exactly, but if you try to follow the instructions you will probably learn the key points of the tutorial.

Interview with illustrator Charlene Chua

Illustration for Tully’s Coffee packaging

The main advantage of being employed is a steady paycheck. The biggest downside is that a lot of your creative energy goes into creating work on the behalf of your employer

You have worked as an illustrator in an agency like The Gate Worldwide. What do you think are the advantages of working in an agency, as opposed to freelancing, for an illustrator? How about the disadvantages?

Well when I worked at Ogilvy and the The Gate, I was a mainly a graphic designer. I did do some illustrations here and there but my main job was designing things like websites and advertisements for their clients.

The main advantage of being employed is a steady paycheck. It’s much easier to plan for things when you know that you’ll be paid on a regular basis. Your days are pretty much set too, you go to the office for a certain amount of time and then go home. Some of my earlier jobs required me to work very long hours but working at The Gate was quite regular. Working in an office gives you the opportunity to meet new people and make friends, and in a way gives you some sort of social life. You also have an excuse to dress up if you feel like 😉

The biggest downside is that a lot of your creative energy goes into creating work on the behalf of your employer. There are many restrictions and as a graphic designer, you don’t really have much say in what the final result will be. It’s not easy to explain to a client why something will not look good if you make the change they requested, and that you may have a better solution. There is no time, or your accounts person already assured them that the change would be made. It can be somewhat frustrating and unfulfilling, and it takes a lot of effort to want to do even more creative work when you get home.

[Tweet “Working in an agency may be a good way to start your illustration career if the firm uses a lot of illustration work.”]

Do you think it’s important for artists who want to work with clients to first get a job in an agency, before going out on their own?

Not really, if you want to work as an illustrator. I think some work experience is important, because you get to know how to deal with other people in a business environment. If you work in a design or advertising firm, then you also get to know the challenges that the other teams face in getting the project done.

Illustration is a very specialized activity and the illustrator is usually called in only once a lot of work already has been done by the agency to win the job. It really is a great privilege to be selected. So it helps if you can empathize with the agency folks and try to bring your best to the table while being mindful of their jobs as well.

Working in an agency may be a good way to start your illustration career if the firm uses a lot of illustration work. If you go freelance, you could try to work with them on a freelance illustration to get your career started.


You do many illustrations for magazine columns/articles. When you get a commission like this, what is the process? What are the steps you take, from the moment you get the brief, until it’s ready to be delivered?

I actually have a short article on my site talking about the basic process of illustration.
Usually, once the job in confirmed, I do thumbnails, then sketches, then final art, then tweak. That’s the barebones process.
Actually I have a collection of articles, though most of them right now are more client-oriented.

Surely you’ve had bad experiences with clients, too. What was the worst thing that you had to deal with, in your career?

Most of my illustration clients have been surprisingly good to me. I don’t recall a client who has been particularly mean or spiteful. The worst experiences I guess would be the times I did not get paid for my work. I had one client run me around in circles with strange explanations as to why he could not pay. The amount was small and in the end I told him he could not use the work if he did not pay for it. As far as I know he didn’t use it but all the same it was saddening and frustrating working on that project.

I have had quite a few instances in the past of my work being used commercially without my knowledge, usually on websites or apps. This can be very depressing especially if business is not booming for me. There was a Facebook game that was popular and they were using an image of mine. When my agent asked them they said they had no idea because the art was ‘stock art’ from their 3rd party provider.

Get on the phone and talk to your clients. Prove that you are a human being that can listen

Problems in dealing with clients probably come mostly from poor communication. What should an illustrator generally make sure they do, to avoid misunderstandings in communicating with a client?

Talk to them. Get on the phone and talk to your clients. Prove that you are a human being that can listen. Try to speak clearly and don’t talk like a speeding train.

Keep your emails polite and short. Be professional. In answering emails, be clear. For example, if you made a change, let your client know by writing something like:

“Hello XXX, I have made the change that you requested yesterday. Please find the edited image attached. Let me know if this is approved, or if there is additional feedback. I look forward to your reply.”

Don’t take a shortcut and just say:
“Hey, it’s done.”

Interview with illustrator Charlene Chua

Illustration for The Wall Street Journal fashion column

An illustrator’s agent is like a business partner

You are working with Erika, the agent who represents you. What are the advantages to having an agent?

An illustrator’s agent is like a business partner. The agent usually represents a number of illustrators, and their job is to find new business and secure jobs for the illustrators.

A good agent is good at helping an illustrator build business and also frees the illustrator from having to deal with every new project enquiry. I used to have to spend a lot of time answering emails or queries from people who did not really have projects for me to do. I can use that time now to work on my own illustrations or experiment with new art styles.

[Tweet “A good agent is good at helping an illustrator build business and also frees the illustrator from having to deal with every new project enquiry. “]

An agent can also offer insight into the industry that may help the illustrator. Because they deal with clients more regularly, they could have a better understanding as to the particular trends of the year. They may be able to let an illustrator know if a certain topic or motif is popular or not, and whether ideas or experiments are applicable to the illustrator or not.

Later Edit: Charlene Chua does not work with agent Erika Groeschel at the present time.

Working with an agent: it takes two to tango, and that is true in the illustrator-agent relationship

How do you think an illustrator can get to be selected for representation by an agent? What is the criteria?

Most agents look for illustrators that are already quite established for representation.

The reason is because agents are business people; they make their money from commissions from the jobs they bring to the illustrators.

New illustrators may have exciting work, but it remains to be seen if that work will be in demand. Will they still be in demand in a few years? Can they adapt their style? Is the illustrator cut out for the market they specialize in? What kind of clients do they attract?

These are the kind of questions that an agent must consider before taking on a new illustrator. The market is tough, there is a lot of talent and not quite enough well-paying jobs to go round.

If you are looking for an agent, first, look at your own portfolio. Can you answer the previous questions in a satisfactory manner? If the answer is yes, then you should look at the agents website next. Different agents specialize in different styles or clients. You can tell by the kind of artists they represent. If there is a news section, you can also get an idea of the clients they service from the jobs they have done. You should be able to write to an agent’s artists to ask them their experience of working with the agent; most good agents will have no fear about what their artists say about them.

An agent really is a partner; if you have the chance, try to talk to an agent before agreeing to work with them. It takes two to tango, and that is true in the illustrator-agent relationship.

Interview with illustrator Charlene Chua

Illustration created for The Wall Street Journal

Most of your illustrations are vectors. Why is that? Is this the style you feel most comfortable with?

Actually most of my illustrations are not true vectors any more. I do the majority of the work in Illustrator but I bring the final work into Photoshop for additional editing. By the time they are done, they technically are as raster as any other digital painting.

As to the look – it’s a bit embarrassing to admit but honestly I am a bad painter. I did not enjoy painting when I was growing up. I enjoyed drawing a lot and I used pencil crayons, but never did like wet paint. I did enjoy airbrush a little but then computers came into the picture and I found it easier to create gradients in vector programs than by hand with the airbrush.

Over time that evolved into my particular style with graphics. I worked in Freehand at first, then switched over to Illustrator. In the last couple of years I have been trying to slowly get into more painting. I still don’t particularly enjoy painting with wet paint. But I’m learning to enjoy it sometimes.

On your blog, you have a section called “Traditional Thursday”, where you post traditional artwork. Why did you start that? Why stick to traditional art, when your work is done mostly digitally (or is this precisely why)? 🙂

Wow. I totally forgot I had that section. I come up with these ideas that I follow through for a while, then something comes up and I forget about it, or start something else. It’s a bad habit!

I think I did Traditional Thursday to get away from the pure digital nature of my work, and because I still like drawing on paper. There is something about paper, something freeing and immediate and impulsive, for me anyway. I actually do wish I had training in traditional media, or rather, more of compulsion to move into that. There is so much more life and texture you can bring to your art with traditional.

It’s sort of like… I guess, like digital art is an electric organ? You have many options and it can try to sound like a bunch of things but ultimately it sounds kinda like an organ. But if you have a full orchestra, you can have an amazing layers of depth and emotion, with different elements punctuating different parts.

I have half jokingly said that the Cintiq 24 is made for big guys, not small Asian girls

Interview with illustrator Charlene ChuaI see on your blog that you use a Cintiq 24HD. What are your impressions, does using a Cintiq really make your work easier?

The Cintiqs have definitely made my life easier for certain things. It is a great tool for painting digitally or touching things up. I use it for digital drawing and painting. I also use it for my Illustrator work but I know some people find it odd to work on a Cintiq for that. I’m not sure why but I used to get hand cramps when I was trying to draw in Photoshop with my Intuous tablet. I don’t get cramps with my Cintiq.

I do think that my current Cintiq is way too big for me though, and there is not much room for my to place my keyboard in a way that allows me to work with maximum comfort. I have half jokingly said that the Cintiq 24 is made for big guys not small Asian girls.

How long does it usually take for you to do a piece for a magazine article?

Depends on when the client needs it. I have turned things around in a day. Other times I get a couple of weeks. A friend of mine had to come up with sketches and finals in one afternoon!

Inspiration – necessary, or a myth?

Inspiration is necessary, but it depends on how you define inspiration. I mean, what is it really? It’s not like some awesome lightning bolt that strikes you in the middle of the night, nor is it this life-changing thing you see. Well, it can be those things but not like, all the time.

Inspiration is… I don’t know how to explain, really. There have been periods, sometimes long periods when I have stopped creating. I don’t blame myself for being uninspired; inspiration has nothing to do with me not creating. When I stop it’s usually because I don’t want to create, and I don’t want to create because I am sad or frustrated or angry or something.

When I get over those periods, I go back to creating. There are some days that are better than others, when ideas and pictures come more easily. I don’t think about whether or not I am inspired when I create, I just do it, and if and when something should catch my eye or fire up my imagination, I create with that.

Inspiration is not like some awesome lightning bolt that strikes you in the middle of the night

What is your favorite thing in the world to illustrate?

Hm. it used to be sexy girls. These days, I am not sure. I do still draw girls though less often, and with less intent for them to be pinups. I have been drawing a lot of cartoon animals lately.

How many hours a day do you spend drawing?

I don’t have a set schedule. I try to spend some time drawing, usually at night before bed. I just doodle in a sketchbook.

Do you still have time to draw only for your pleasure, except commissions?

Usually, unless I am really busy. There have been periods when I have had so much work that my hand and head hurt at the end of the day and I just had to rest and not think about art.

Is that important, for an artist, to reserve some time to draw for themselves?

Yes, definitely. If you only draw for clients, what are you going to do when you don’t have a job on?

What would your advice be to aspiring illustrators?

The usual – work hard, draw hard, keep your day job until you’re sure you can support yourself!

It’s important for an artist to reserve time to draw for themselves. If you only draw for clients, what are you going to do when you don’t have a job on?


Follow more of Charlene’s work on her: websiteblog | facebook | tumblr | behance | twitter

About Miruna

Hi, my name is Miruna Sfia. I'm 28 and I'm a self-employed graphic designer and illustrator living in Bucharest, Romania. I created Talk Illustration because I wanted to be able to learn from some of the best people in my industry.

If you want to know more about the things I work on, feel free to follow me via Facebook, Twitter or Google+

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