Illustration of a person sitting on a windowsill in a room filled with shadows

Pei-Hsin Cho’s detailed, deeply personal practice

The illustrator and animator’s ethereal pieces are an avenue to talk about emotions that can’t always be put into words

“At some point, I started to feel that words failed me in expressing feelings,” explains London-based illustrator and animator Pei-Hsin Cho. Visuals opened up another channel, creating drawings “to fill the hole in the language of emotions”.

She uses typically muted, dimmed palettes and there are at times mournful or weary expressions on her characters’ faces, yet there’s a softness and care to Cho’s visual art. She makes room for symbolism too, with subtle touches that enhance the emotion she’s trying to capture and figurative cues that buff the edges of difficult themes.

Illustrated portrait of the writer Yoko Tawada for the New Yorker
Illustrated portrait of the writer Yoko Tawada for the New Yorker

This underscores the animated music video she created for Portland-based indie musician Alis Hows (TzChien) relating to the rise of domestic violence in lockdown, visualising the desire to escape through birds’ murmurations.

Elsewhere, she has earned editorial commissions from the likes of the New York Times and the New Yorker, including an appropriately dreamlike illustration for the latter’s flash fiction series, and has also illustrated her first picture book adapted from an Oscar Wilde piece.

Cho studied fine art in high school and further education, before majoring in animation at the Taipei National University of the Arts. After freelancing for a year, she returned to education and found her way to the illustration course at the RCA in London. Her work became imbued with her experiences of moving her life from Taiwan to the UK for her studies, and she found that uprooting herself from one culture and emerging in an entirely different one helped her observation skills.

Those newfound skills seem to manifest themselves in her illustrations, which are rich in detail. Texture is another big part of her work, and relates to the way in which she experiences her feelings and the world around her. “The emotions I feel are always complicated, they have textures and layers, rich like all the other things we can see via our eyes. They are more than just sad, happy, or angry.”

Illustration of a person descending from a smartphone into a pouch
Illustration for the New Yorker’s flash-fiction story, What We Have Learned, What We Will Forget, What We Will Not Be Able to Forget

She became aware that “expressing emotions is rare and sometimes even discouraged in my family”, and found that, as a child, one of the few ways she could surface those feelings was through writing. Yet animation was a new playground altogether. “Growing up in a traditional Taiwanese family, I was taught to be obedient and follow rules, so the freedom in the animation world and in storytelling just amazed me – so many possibilities!” she recalls.

While studying animation, Cho learnt about relevant techniques and software, but her most important education was in storytelling – something she developed even further on her course at the RCA. “I learnt a lot on how to ‘think’, and I was encouraged to think, and do things differently and out of the box. Especially in the way of storytelling – I practised more experimental ways to achieve visual storytelling and rethink illustration, instead of just telling stories through characters.

“It felt irrelevant at the time when I was making illustrations but not actually drawing, but it’s really helpful now looking back,” she says, “as sometimes expressions are different in different languages and cultures. I’m not good at expressing myself in either speaking Mandarin or English, but the courses at RCA definitely enhanced my skills in storytelling.

“No matter in what format, at the end of the day, my work is always centred on emotions. I try my best to visualise them in my drawing, from the texture of graphite, the story layout, to the metaphorical elements or symbols.”

Illustration of two characters in the countryside walking together
Commission to create a tutorial for Adobe
Illustration of three figures lying down in a row, as one opens curtains
Illustration for the New York Times
Illustration of one person looking into the eyes of another person, whose face is a mirror
Illustration of a person cradling a pillow