An Chen explains how her design background informs her illustrations

An Chen talks to CR about how she approaches editorial projects and enjoys transforming concepts, and the illustration scene in Taiwan

“I remember anime and comics were my main creative source. I used to make my own comics and remember being torn apart by my mom because studying was the only priority a teenager should have had,” Taiwanese illustrator An Chen says.

“It wasn’t until it was time to select my university major that I started to think about my career path. At the time I went to a big book store in the city and read a graphic design magazine called IDN, I saw a digital illustration and I remember I was so attracted by the vibrant and vivid colour and shapes. It was then I decided to become the person who could create that kind of image.” 

All images: An Chen

After that decision Chen completed her BA in graphic design in 2012 and spent four years as designer before transitioning into illustration around three years ago. To broaden her knowledge, Chen did a masters in children’s book illustration in Cambridge. “It’s a quite specific course, we didn’t learn how to create beautiful illustrations, the main instruction of the course was to observe things surrounding you, and depict them through sketches,” explains Chen.

“After a period of observational drawing, our interests would reveal themselves, which we would then pursue further with narrative imagery. I think that’s the main essence when creating art, it should be genuine to yourself.” 

Now based back in Taiwan, Chen has found the illustration scene to be thriving thanks to a lot of art book fairs and illustration markets. “I would say we have a strong influence from Japanese culture so our illustration industry is more product oriented, like Hello Kitty and Kawaii culture,” Chen notes. “Illustrations are more to be seen on stationery products rather than publications. I think that’s why editorial illustrations aren’t paid very well here.” 

As well as contributing illustrations to different book projects, Chen has been commissioned overseas by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe and the New Republic. The illustrator takes inspiration from geometric forms and she feels her background in graphic design has definitely had an influence.

“My illustration methods are hugely influenced by typography. You can observe in my work that I often shape my illustrations with bracket serifs or make them italic,” says Chen. “For the texture side I love 1950-60s matchbox design very much, especially those from the Soho Lipnik factory. I use mono print to reproduce the old printing texture they have.”  

Keeping to a relatively digital creative process, for her editorial work Chen says the most enjoyable element is taking an existing topic or issue and transforming the concept into her own style. “I enjoy studying other illustrators’ editorial work as well, there are so many brilliant and smart ways to convey the same tedious topic. I think that shows the level of an illustrator’s creativity and talent,” says Chen.

Some of the challenges Chen has faced during these types of projects have been dealing with clients who don’t always understand her work. “Sometimes they just want something to fill the page. I know this is the case when they ask me to change my characters, my colour palette or even the texture I use,” Chen explains.

“I felt very offended early in my career, but now I am better at accommodating my clients, even if I feel underappreciated. It’s all part of the mental strength one needs to remain professional and productive.” 

Ultimately, being an illustrator for Chen is more than work, it’s a lifestyle and identity. “I am happy that my art can be seen and liked by people I look up to or people I’ve never met,” she says.

“All I can hope for is that people can be cheered by my strong shapes and vivid colours, feeling happy and positive having happened across my work.”