February 19, 2018

Wenting Li Realizes Her Creative Work Life through Illustration, Comics, Paintings and Inspirations Yet To Be Explored

It was Wenting Li’s winsome cover concept for Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” that drew me to her work. Here, she elaborates on her journey to becoming an illustrator and exploring

How did you arrive at the desire to become an artist who makes her art her life’s work?

I remember always being fascinated with drawing, from when I first figured out how to drag pencils across paper. This could be wrong, but the first thing I ever drew was a bunny-bug-person. ‘Look!’ I told my parents, who were not impressed. They have long been my most vigorous critics which has been helpful in keeping my dreams realistic, and also led to some detours along the way. And this would, as my mother likes to say, probably took more years off their lives, but I’m still not sure I’ve gotten to where I want to go, if I’m working on my life’s work yet. But I guess no matter what I’m doing, I do want to be creating things.

Your work spans illustrations, paintings and comics. Which area of practice was engaged first? How did you get interested in each medium? How do you maintain practicing each discipline?

Comics are probably the most recent thing I’ve started doing. The comics that I read mostly weren’t like what I make myself, and I think the disconnect between when I knew about comics and what I wanted to do with comics was a difficult separation to cross. I didn’t think comics were necessarily something I had the capacity to do until I threw out some assumptions. Ink and painting I picked up more seriously at art school. I found this old bottle of Chinese ink my grandmother had left behind during her last visit over a decade ago, and really liked working with it. It’s kind of different from India ink—less emphatic, more transitional. And illustration…it’s hard to pinpoint when that started. I didn’t really understand what it was when I was in high school and racing toward a future in the sciences, but sometime during my first attempt at a degree, I became obsessed with the idea that I could be an illustrator, left the university, and went off to art school. Now I’m out of school, illustration has taken over my life and pays for my bedroom under the stairs, and it can be hard to think about doing other things. There is never enough time in a day, so you just need to sit a bit harder on the lid to make it close.

What methods/activities did you activate to help you actually start working and living your passion? Because “Just do it” is easier said than done.

I credit this podcast—“Your Dreams My Nightmares”—with a lot of my early ideas about illustration, and how to make it work—and I’m sure there’s so much more information floating around out there now. I think no matter how you get somewhere, there is a lot of see-along-the-way. I don’t regret my first school, and not going to art school right out of high school was good for me. I am also very privileged in that my parents helped me pay for a large part of my education and were very adamant that I get this education.

To add my thoughts to the art school argument, I found art school helpful (and revelatory and challenging and sometimes frustrating), and saw classmates both struggle and succeed. If you’re going to go to school, it can help to go in with a plan—certain expectations of what you want to get out of it. If you are lucky, your instructors may take an interest in you and offer guidance, but in large part, this is also your responsibility—do your research. Chase all the opportunities you can, don’t be afraid to get your degree at your pace, try to use all the facilities from different departments that will be difficult to access once you’re out of school, apply to everything you can, and try to start getting work experience as soon as possible, without letting employees take advantage of you as a young person and a student. I started figuring out freelancing while still in school, and that has been so helpful.

What experiences do you carry with you that empower your work moving forward?

I think as an illustrator, just everything in my head is the force behind my work. Illustration, to me, is about making connections and visual metaphors and this all draws from the data bank of being a person in the world. Particular things I am obsessed with include the intensity of solitude, the super vast beauty of the natural world (I spent my childhoods being dragged on long camping trips across the country and the states), poetics, and my entanglements with the important people in my life, particularly my parents.

Being an indie creator, what does independence mean to you?

In my creative work life, I get to work on what interests, inspires or is important to me. I get to be challenged in ways I chose for myself, I set my own pace within deadlines, I can go for a walk outside whenever I want. I get to make a lot of decisions personally and on my own. Also, I get an unlimited number of snack breaks throughout the day. And theoretically, I can go wherever I want—which I want to do, soon!

Love your cover art direction for the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) submitted for the Penguin Cover Prize (2017). Can you tell more about this project? Was this a competition? How did you discover it? What was your process/workflow like toward the final version of your illustration and graphic design?

Thank you! The Penguin Cover Prize is something you should check out if you’re a student—try out as many competitions as you have time for, although be wary of people who want actual work for free (the cover competition is a mock cover). I found the competition probably while I was clicking through tumblr or someone’s portfolio, noticed a student entry and looked up the competition. Because I’m also an obsessive reader and love book cover design, I was instantly interested. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is an interesting book. I first read it in high school, before I was really aware of the larger discourse around race in America, in Canada. Re-reading it as an adult raised some uncomfortable, provoking questions about the work. I wanted that conflict, and the conflict in Scout to come through on the cover—the cast shadow of racism. I’m not a trained designer, so my cover is illustration-focused, with some hand-lettering, and quality design feedback from the wonderful Kevin Pham. Laying something out equals lots of fiddling for me—I was just setting type on a short comic-esque piece for a really cool newspaper my friends run (“The Chunky Omen”) and that was just hours of questionable design decisions on my part. In summary: lots of sketching, lots of drawing (sometimes re-drawing), lots of fiddling.

Do you have usually a sketchbook on your person? What’s your frequency in making time to sketch? Is this one of the major ways you practice drawing and sharpening this skill?

Always! Drawing is a compulsion, and of course I make a lot of bad, loose sketches for work. But what I really love is drawing the world around me. I love-love drawing people, and I try to make time to go out and paint forms at the museum, in coffee shops, outside when it’s not winter. Probably the nicest place I’ve painted are out east at the city beaches—my travel kit is permanently full of sand now. I’m also part of a science/nature drawing group and we spend time drawing the natural world together.

What are your creative and storytelling influences and why?

A lot of creative/ storytelling influences come through reading though—short stories, longform articles, newsletters, restaurant menus, weird informational signs in national parks. And just looking at things. I love starting out through and into windows.

What is your vision of satisfaction and growth, as it relates to your livelihood?

I’d like to always be doing creative things. I want to do more illustration adjacent kinds of work, like teaching myself more about animation, even design, maybe trying in-house work for a while. Making more things with my hands (masks, paintings, weird socks), and sharing a studio space with cool people—I have to move out of my current space soon. I’m almost a year out of school, and not yet sure where precisely where I’m going!

How is creativity and art a coping mechanism in these turbulent times?

I think for everyone, looking at art and creative work is a visual respite from the other things we can’t look away from. Artists also make work for marches, for Black Lives Matter and anti-Islamaphobia and gun safety and abortion rights and general editorial issues—and these images move us, hopefully a little bit toward where we are going.

What is the one tool that helps make your work more accomplished and pleasant, as a result, making your life good?

Photoshop is super useful. Even if I’m making something without the computer, it gets cleaned up in Photoshop. And if you’re hardpressed, you can do everything in Photoshop, including layouts, making invoices, writing contracts, putting together a zine. I certainly have, probably in ways that would make a designer’s eyes bleed.

How do you get the word out about what you do? How do you attract people to your work?

In the professional sense, cold mailing and emailing hundreds of art directors who I think might hire me. Sometimes meeting up with a few of them! I have a large spreadsheet of contacts that I researched last summer. It’s an exhausting and weirdly constant process, and some information I just can’t find. It’s possible to pay for subscriptions to access this sort of information, but I’ve only heard negative things about these databases, and if it’s necessary to double-check the information you’re paying for, I figured I’d just find it myself. Being a part of the arts community also helps—I’m not always on top of this, but going to gallery openings and showing up is important. And then there’s social media, which I maybe use more casually than professionally, but you could theoretically email me through my Instagram profile which I would be very excited about if you did.

In running your creative business and managing all of those moving parts to live and keep yourself busy, how do you take care of yourself?

Also something I need to work on. The last few months I haven’t been sleeping too much, but it’s hard to find time for all the work I want to do and the friends I want to see, and I’m young right now. I try to structure my life by doing normal things like packing lunch the night before, batch cooking for the week during spare evenings, cleaning the sinks in our basement regularly. I need to go on more runs, maybe I’ll go do that right after this interview. I like to run with silence and just myself, and that’s a really nice time being alone.

If an aspiring illustrator approached you and said, “I love to draw and want to become a working artist,” what’s your response?

That’s amazing, working in the arts is really different and special, and a lucky way of looking back at the world. Have you done your research? Do you know what to expect? Your investments and sacrifices may not necessarily pay off right away—it can take years, but if you’re very lucky and able to do the hard work, it’s possible to make the way smoother. Reach out to people doing the work you want to do, and be respectful and thank them for their time (write them an email). Do you care about monetary wealth, and do you have a game plan? If you’re going to art school in the states, especially a private school, think very hard about your student debt, against your future salary expectations. And there’s a lot out there! Creative work is very diverse, from fine art to UI/UX.

What is your patronus charm (spirit guardian) and why?

Can I tell you what my dæmon might be instead? I don’t really like to look into mirrors, but my friend Andrea has to look at me all the time and decided my dæmon would be a spider. Someone else asked me if she really is my friend—and really, Andrea is one of my closest friends.

How does the city of Toronto, Ontario, contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

I love being in the city. Walking around it especially while intensely alone and often after sunset, but also with others. It is full of interesting, strange things. It’s a great place for being a creative person—there are more events happening all the time than you could possibly go to, things like free lunchhour concerts at the COC, lectures on ethics at the University of Toronto, gallery openings, early morning creative talks, design festivals… The city also invests in the arts, and has area-specific opportunities, grants you can apply for, and councillors who will champion arts causes, like creating a new tax class for cultural buildings.

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Portrait photographed by Rena Rong. All other images courtesy of Wenting Li.

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