New York-based illustrator Xinmei Liu is an only child, and says that as a kid she’d copy the images from her picture books to stave off any loneliness. “When I played with my cousins we used to make narrative drawings with captions, and I think they were my earliest illustrations,” she says.
Liu’s parents are scientists so art school never seemed like the obvious choice growing up, though she had always enjoyed drawing and painting. “When I was deciding on college majors, I realised art was the only thing I was passionate about, so I went ahead and applied for art schools,” Liu explains. “I didn’t fully know what illustration was when I chose my major, and I thought they were just drawings in books. But I enjoyed it anyway when I got to know the field better.”
Originally from Shanghai, Liu finished her education in New York attending the School of Visual Arts to get an MFA from the Illustration as Visual Essay programme. “New York has a great art and design community. There are just so many things happening– exhibitions, art book fairs, show openings, museums etc, so I can always be inspired,” she says.
“If I need resources for a project, they are usually readily available. Plus, so many talented people are in New York, and I find it important for artists to be around people in the same field. As an illustration student, I really enjoyed discovering works and projects by fellow artists, and I could easily talk to them face to face since a lot of them are in the city too.”
Having graduated, Liu now works as a publishing assistant at Paradise Systems, a Brooklyn-based independent comics publisher sharing stories from the US, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as taking on freelance illustrations commissions. Liu’s client list continually grows and she’s already worked with the New York Times, Medium, Scholastics and Amazon Publishing.
“Honestly, what I enjoy the most is knowing that my art is needed somewhere,” she says of her commissions. “For professional illustrators, commissioned works are our basic source of income, and it’s very common to work on projects we don’t feel very passionate about. But whenever there’s a chance to work with a dream client or on an exciting project, it is always a great feeling of fulfillment (like crossing off an item on a checklist) and I am grateful that my art can be used to promote something I care about.”
Liu’s illustrations have a nostalgic element to them both in the textures and colours she uses, and also the clean, simple linework. Beyond the aesthetics, the illustrator is also keen to inject fun and satire into her pieces, playing with surreal situations or surprising visual gags.
“Recently I am really into Chinese propaganda posters from the 80s and vintage printed advertisements, and my works have referenced those elements,” explains Liu. “When I grew up in Shanghai, many of the objects I was surrounded by had really great designs and imagery on them, like those picture books that I copied drawings from and the packages of candies and popsicles. I think my illustration style has been influenced by those designs in my childhood in some way.”
For Liu, the concept is one of the most important aspects when working on a new piece, so she takes her time. “I do a lot of sketching when I work. When I have time, I produce as many thumbnails as possible until I get the strongest idea. Then I often overwork my sketch to a high level of precision (some of my professors advised against that, but I find detailed sketches more comfortable to work with),” she explains.
“The sketching process is basically my thinking process, and the rest is pretty relaxing. I transfer my sketch onto textured drawing paper on a lightbox. I use a dip pen and India ink when I draw. Then I scan the line drawing and colour it in Photoshop.
Though most of Liu’s work has continued during the pandemic, she misses the community of the illustration world. “My MFA Thesis Show was moved online, which was a huge bummer. What I miss the most is events like art book fairs and show openings, or just regular drink and draw gatherings where I can stay connected with my artist friends (and online events just aren’t the same),” she says.
This sense of support forms part of her advice for anyone thinking of moving into illustration as a career. “This is a career path that requires a lot of hard work and determination, so you need to be really passionate about making illustrations,” she notes. “That said, be confident about yourself and don’t question your talent because of a difficult client! Also it’s important to stay connected with your community and have each other’s backs. Help out other fellow artists whenever you’re able to.”