New York based Chinese illustrator Lisk Feng brings in her fantastical approach to storytelling in both her commercial and personal works. Her illustrations often reflect her unfettered imagination and a love of warm colors.
Lisk was born and brought up in China, and came to the US to do her MFA in Illustration Practice from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2014. She has been based in the US ever since, and has become one of the most sought after independent illustrators there. Among other projects, she has worked with a number of editorial brands like The New York Times, Monocle, Atlanta Magazine, Mr Porter Magazine, Wissen Magazine, Time Out New York, Yue Hui Magazine, Fast Company Magazine, Life Magazine, etc. We spoke to Lisk about her childhood, work, inspirations, and New York City, among other things. Read on:
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I was born in Haining, China, a town surrounded with rivers and sea. It’s a very small, green and beautiful town. My parents are artists which gave me the wonderful chance to try out different art forms since I was young.
I left the town when I was 18 years old to study illustration at China Academy of Art. That was a life changing experience for me because I got to see a bigger world and in China, that was the hardest school to get into.
My school days weren’t all that good, and there were still some memories I definitely don’t want to even talk about. However, I think those tough days made me who I am now. I bet all art kids have something inside their mind that is hard to say out loud. I just remember feeling happy when I went home from school because my mother was always doing these oil paintings and teaching drawing to kids.
What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
I started reading manga when I was in the third grade. I was also playing violin at that time. In fact, I actually wanted to be a musician. One day my father brought home a vintage Doraemon, a story about a blue cat robot from the future taking care of a boy who is not so smart. I realized I wanted to create stories like this and create a world that is full of whimsical tales.
When and how did you realize you wanted to pursue illustration in particular?
When I was 15 years old, I started doodling on the computer using a mouse. I didn’t even know what a tablet was at that point. I went to my father’s studio in Beijing and saw a tablet there for the first time. I tried it out and loved it. It took me a year to beg and finally get one through my mother’s financial support. After that I started doing illustrations, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
You went to the US to study at Maryland Institute College of Art? How was that experience? What were some of the main learnings?
I went there for the grad program in 2014, and it was an amazing experience. It was the first time I stepped out of my own country. The most important thing for me during the course was screen printing. I had never tried it before, and when I decided to do it, I fell in love with it at once. It taught me to simplify instead of adding things on top of a drawing. The logic was totally different. It led my style towards the direction I had always wanted. My current style, as you can see, looks a lot like printmaking.
One day my father brought home a vintage Doraemon, a story about a blue cat robot from the future taking care of a boy who is not so smart. I realized I wanted to create stories like this and create a world that is full of whimsical tales.
What made you stay back in the USA to work?
I think it was the professional part. There are a lot of connections and good clients in the US. I know there are other places where I can work on good projects, but I really like the system of working with clients here. They are very well-trained, and even young artists know practical things like how to get an agent or how to deal with paperwork because the schools here offer these classes. I personally improved a lot in these things after I graduated.
You especially work with a lot of editorial brands. Is that something you have chosen consciously?
It wasn’t actually a choice I made. When I graduated, I moved to NYC without any jobs or commissions. I was actually pushing myself into doing books, but suddenly I got my first job from The New York Times through my school. They invited Josh Cochran to our gallery thesis talk, and he saw my works and introduced me to the art directors at the newspaper. After that, I got commissioned four times directly from different departments at The New York Times. Other clients probably saw my works there and contacted me. I also got an agent and more jobs in one month’s time. That was a lifesaver chance.
I am now pushing myself to do children’s books after several years of doing editorial work. It feels really awesome to do some longer projects again.
What’s been your most challenging project so far and why?
It must be a piece I did for CIO, a financial magazine. I sent out at least ten sketches, but the art director wasn’t very happy about them. That happened in the fourth month of my career, and all my works were editorial at that time. I just did them that way because I was freaked out about everything at that moment. So whenever I got a job, I try to do it perfectly as per the magazine’s directive; it didn’t matter if I personally liked the piece or not.
The art director ended up calling me and asking me a question that I still remember. She said, “What’s your favorite thing to draw in the world?” And I said, “People”. Then she asked me to do a sketch with people. And I realized all my older sketches were clichéd.
Could you pick one personal project of yours and tell us about what inspired it and its making?
It must be the recent work I did for a really fun show called Mango and Papaya in the New York City. The theme for the piece was Love & Naked. I started this piece with only the keywords in my head. I just wanted to enjoy the moment when the crayon touches the paper, and to see what magical things will happen because of that. I was addicted to it, and kept creating the shapes and colors on a huge piece of paper. When I enjoy doing a piece, I will love it no matter what, even when other people don’t think it’s one of my best works.
How do you balance between your commercial work and personal projects?
I doodle a lot. I love sketchbooks and treat them like personal projects.
Do you follow any particular work rituals? Also, tell us a bit about your workspace.
I am a freelancer, so I work out of my home. I love working in my pajamas. My work desk has a super tall table and chair, and I love working on it.
How much and in what specific ways does technology help you as an artist?
I started doing art on a computer when I was little, so I was never afraid of the digital media. I use it pretty much for everything. But I have told myself that it is just a tool. I don’t take it too seriously. If you are a good illustrator, you can handle all kinds of tools. The only thing that makes a difference is your hand.
How does New York inspire you and your work? What do you like and dislike most about it?
New York has a very unique style of living. There is art everywhere. Even in the MTA train, they use works by the best illustrators in the world. I love being a little stone in a huge shore, and that pushes me to roll myself further.
What I dislike about New York is that it can be really expensive and harsh. The competition can make someone successful but it can also pull someone to the ground in just a second. It tells me what the true world is.
When I enjoy doing a piece, I will love it no matter what, even when other people don’t think it’s one of my best works.
Who are the visual artists around the world that you really admire?
I really love Hayao Miyazaki. He is the best. My color sense is quite influenced by his animation.
What are some of your biggest inspirations in life (Books/Art/Movies/Music etc.)?
I do music myself, so whenever I find time, I play the guitar. I used to sing jazz in China when I was in college. I also love books and video games.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on an 80-page book with Nobrow.
You can read the rest of the issue three here.