Illustrator Mengxia Liu tells stories through busy, vibrant scenes

Having grown up in a busy Chinese market, Mengxia Liu echoes a feeling of community through her illustrations

“After spending two years in the Chinese People’s Army I came to Birmingham in the UK to study for a masters degree. Before I came, I had never travelled outside of China,” says illustrator Mengxia Liu. “This meant I was really excited about everything I experienced in the UK. I wrote many diaries and did so many doodles to try and record all my experiences. It was at that time that I suddenly realised I was a person who, basically, loves to share stories through drawing.” 

What Liu enjoyed most about studying in the UK was the freedom to experiment. “I think the British approach to education has had a great influence on my illustrations. My teachers at BCU constantly encouraged me and helped to build my independence as a practitioner,” says the illustrator. “That was very important to me.” 

Liu creates reportage style and editorial illustrations and she uses a vibrant colour palette to create a warm and lively atmosphere. “I remember when I graduated from university I longed to find a fixed style so that I could quickly work on a project illustrating the local market in Birmingham. It was then that I realised style can be mainly about appearances: it is just a coat over the content you are exploring,” says Liu. “Right now, I don’t actually know how to describe my style, but I have been exploring the way we see the world and how to represent it.”

Rather than focus on aesthetics, Liu has instead tried to incorporate the ideas of art historian E.H Gombrich and the work of David Hockney, as well as Chinese painting theory. “One thing most of my illustrations have in common is their distinctive use of non-linear perspective,” she says. “So if I was to choose one thing that defines my work, formally, then it would be my working through how perspective is depicted.” 

Liu’s work is often inspired by community and society. As well as vivid studies of just two or three characters, Liu also creates sprawling crowd scenes, which are inspired by her childhood in China. Liu grew up in a very typical Chinese open market, where her parents owned a shop. “If you’ve never been to China, then you can just imagine something like the market scenes in the original Ridley Scott Bladerunner movie. My entire childhood was spent doing housework and taking care of the shop with my parents,” says Liu.

“Although I didn’t read children’s picture books at all, I experienced different people and their stories every day in the market. This experience led me to be interested in humans and society. Today, all my current personal projects are a reflection of my past environment to some extent. For example, I’ve produced work in the Birmingham Bullring Open Market and at the Frankfurt Christmas Market. For me these are both familiar and strange settings. In this way they inspire me to see the same things differently and to try to express that in my work.”

For these reportage illustrations, Liu is less concerned with narrative in the traditional sense and more interested in how stories and characters are intertwined. “To help me to think about the whole project I spend a few days sketching on the spot and walk back and forth, many times, just to observe and wait for the stories I need to happen in front of me,” Liu says of her creative process. “For other pieces I look at my notebooks and hunt for inspiration, as I’ve now made a habit of recording the inspiration in my daily life.”

After getting inspiration, Liu likes to use different materials to create her illustrations, often gravitating towards gouache, acrylic, watercolours and colouring pencils. “I like to use gouache mixed with bright acrylic to create a heavy texture. I am fascinated by the transparent and refreshing texture of watercolour,” says Liu. “I also like to use coloured pencils to superimpose colour. I use this when I need to create a particular colour space. I don’t tend to use fixed techniques in my pictures. Generally, I decide which tool is more helpful for me to express what I want to express according to the different needs of the picture.” 

Though Liu often works on instinct she’s always wary of not making her scenes feel overwhelming because of the different stories woven in. “In the preparation of a painting, it is the prediction of the entire finished product and my struggle with these uncertainties in the process that are my biggest challenge,” explains Liu. “Of course, this is also the most interesting part of painting and why I love it.”

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