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Meeting and talking about illustration

Stephen Chung illustrated for the Macau Post Office

Stephen Chung illustrated for the Macau Post Office

21 April 2011
by Liz Farrelly

I was lucky enough to be part of the UK Design Curators tour organized by the British Council  as part of the Connections Through Culture programme, which toured four cities in China, last October. Late on a Sunday evening, a bit exhausted, we hit the Charm Café in Hangzhou, and were instantly revived by its, charm, and an array of cute stuff on sale in the gallery/shop. Our Chinese hosts had been patiently waiting as we negotiated the resort town’s traffic, and when we settled down at the café tables to hear talks from architects, fashion designers and educators, it was clear that we had landed into a lively design scene.


During the requisite mingling session, I met Stephen Chung, who’d come all the way from the island of Macau, where he is Associate Professor at the Macau Polytechnic Institute. Stephen had been a graphic designer, illustrator and advertising art director in Hong Kong, during the boom years of the 1990s. After studying for a Masters in Illustration at Syracuse University, New York, he began teaching and researching into, “The future development of the illustration profession in China”; now he’s writing up his PhD.


Stephen asked me about Illustration in the UK, as I write about Illustration and Graphic Design, teach at University of Brighton, and am part of the curating team for Pick Me Up,. And I wanted to know more about Illustration in China. That evening our conversation only just got started, so back at our desks we began emailing. Now we both know a little more about the practice of Illustration in each other’s countries. Stephen asked me about the latest developments in Illustration in the UK; so I pinpointed a few trends and protagonists…


Illustration in the UK

Scale; illustrators working at larger scale, in environments – bars, restaurants, shops – to create permanent murals and installations. This necessitates creating costumes, dressing up, performance and location scouting, and was stoked by a crossover between street art, graffiti and Illustration, since the late 1990s. Some illustrators were graffiti writers before they went to college, others started drawing directly on to walls, working in collaboration with their studio mates, and setting up collectives that stage exhibitions and events. See the work of Riitta Ikonen, Kate Moross, Lizzie Mary Cullen, Ian Stevenson and the Scrawl Collective.


Hand-made; a DIY attitude that spawns zines and objects, as well as limited-edition prints, using all manner of printing techniques. The results are sold via a “Shop” page on personal/collective websites, and various dedicated “graphics” galleries. This self-instigated work doesn’t rely on a commission, but has found an eager and growing audience; and it creates income. See the work of Nobrow, Peepshow and Le Gun. With Pick Me Up, we particularly wanted to tap into this DIY energy, and get the public inspired to have a go too, which they did.  

Many of these younger Illustrators are represented by a new generation of smaller, “boutique” agencies; representing between 5 and 20 illustrators. They create a strong “house style” and help build a close working relationship with Illustrators and commissioning creatives, especially in advertising agencies, which ultimately leads to more freedom in their commissioned work. See Breed, Agency Rush, Heart, Toy and Dutch Uncle.


The “gag”, the “pun”, is paramount in UK Illustration (developed by the likes of George Hardie and Alan Fletcher in the 1960s/ 1970s). And that humour perfectly suits the UK advertising industry. For many young UK Illustrators, working with advertising agencies and developing their 2-D work into moving image is the “holy grail”, at least if we’re defining success in commercial terms. See Airside, Studio AKA, and the work of maverick advertising agencies, We Are Fallon, Mother London, Weiden and Kennedy London and Kessels Kramer.


Speaking about Illustration in China, Stephen stressed the “different by connected” aspect. “In the creative industries, China/Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan are closely related, what we call the ‘One Strait Four Regions’, so they influence each other”. And he went on to describe each…


Illustration in China/Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan

In Hong Kong the Illustration profession grew in tandem with the rise of the design and advertising industries, which bloomed in the early 1980s, and slowed down due to the worldwide economic depression. Hong Kong’s market gradually shrunk from the larger China area back to its SAR (Special Administrative Region) scale, so it’s no longer the leader among Chinese cities. Many young illustrators work part-time, and fee competition between illustrators is common. Little more than half have a stable workflow, so many illustrators search for clients direct, rather than through agents or commissions from advertising agencies. Some illustrators have moved to China and, says Stephen, “…it sounds like they are doing very well. I always advise Hong Kong illustrators to explore the Chinese market, while it is still growing but isn’t too big”. I told Stephen about a new agency in Hong Kong, Hatch, run by my some-time writing partner, Mike Dorrian, out of Start Creative’s Hong Kong office. 


In Macau, with a population of around half a million, the market is smaller than Hong Kong. “Victor Hugo Marreiros is the best know Macanese (Chinese Portuguese) Graphic Designer and Illustrator. He blends a Portuguese style with Chinese elements, and experiments with painting in Photoshop. Another place to see good Illustration is the Macau Post Office, as it regularly invites designers and artists to design stamps, offering total artistic freedom, with good results!”


Stephen identifies the Taiwan scene as the region’s most sophisticated; there are less commercial constraints as more Illustrators work with the cultural sector. “Children’s book publishing is also flourishing in Taiwan, winning many prizes at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. K.T. Hao’s Grimm Press employs Illustrators from Europe too”.


Taiwan also boasts some major comic book stars “…very popular in the ‘big China region’”. The pioneer, Tsai Zizhong, creates comics strips from the classical philosophical works of Confucius, Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. “He’s successfully raised the younger generation’s interest in classical literature, through his comics”. Another artist, Ji Mi – Jimmy – is a superstar in picture book publishing. “It’s like a graphic novel but for children and adults. His combines simply rendered figures with sophisticated compositions, brilliant colour and soul touching stories; conceptual but very human. We call it, ‘a Western face with a Chinese heart’. His books, characters and licensed products are bestsellers all over China”.


And on the mainland… “Even though some people say that the profession of Illustration doesn’t yet exist in China, I think it has already come, although it’s still at a chaotic, immature stage”, declares Stephen. “Having been separated from the outside world for more than 30 years, Illustration was re-established in China right at the beginning of the digital era. So, it didn’t experience the evolution of skills and tools that the rest of the Illustration world went through during the last half century”. The first society of illustrators in China, the “Society of Illustrators of Shenzhen” was set up in the neighbouring city to Hong Kong.


Again, Stephen points to a boom in advertising and publishing as increasing demand for Illustration; China’s came in the 1990s. “At that time, artists from Hong Kong and some local, self-taught talents started developing Illustration. Most came from the international “4A” advertising agencies, so they knew what would be demanded of them, and the value of Illustration”. He adds that many Chinese Illustrators are technically very proficient; “due to the rigorous art school training, originated from the Russian academic heritage”.


But “cut-throat” price competition has led to a drop in fees. Stephen identifies three issues that are currently hindering the development of commercial Illustration; client concern about costs; the fact that Illustrators still need to develop personal styles and problem solving skills; and clients and art directors preferring to use photography and celebrities in creative campaigns.


But, China is determined to grow its “cultural and creative industries”, and, says Stephen, the first areas receiving a “push” are the Animation and Comics industries. “‘Creative clusters’ have been set up all over the country, with many focusing on the Animation industry, doing OEM (subcontracted work for “branded” products/series) for Western and Japanese animation companies. It’s like a heat wave; and it’s overshadowed the role and the profession of Illustration. People are confused about the difference between Illustrators and Animators”. He goes on to explain that young illustrators in this “Four Regions” area are constantly criticised because their style is considered to be too derivative of “manga” – the big eyes, kawaii (naïve/cute) Japanese comic style. “Now the Chinese government has launched a policy that encourages the cultural industries to develop its own cultural and national style, as they want to slow down the trend towards ‘Westernization’ and ‘Japanization’ among the new generation”.


Our conversation continues…