Valerie Chua is a self-taught illustrator based in Manila. More well-known for her beautiful traditional works that features fashionable girls with accents of nature, she graduated with a degree with a degree on BA Humanities at University of Asia and the Pacific and now works as a freelance artist, getting featured on a lot of publications and creating illustrations for several magazines.
When I asked my followers on Twitter and Tumblr which illustrator they’d want me to interview next, a lot of them said Valerie Chua! Little did they know that I already interviewed her. So here’s what she had to share about being an illustrator.
Hi Valerie! At what age did you start creating your art and who were your initial inspirations?
I drew a bit when I was a kid, just like everyone else, although it wasn’t something I did constantly. When I was in high school, I became friends with people who like drawing anime so I followed suit. I never thought of it as something that I’d do for the rest of my life so I took up a different course in college. I like anime a lot so most of my works stemmed from there. I started reading Western graphic novels mid-high school so I tried to combine them a bit when I decided to paint a few years ago.
Who are your favorite illustrators? How did they influence you to become who you are now?
I was an faithful follower of Dave McKean’s work when I was in high school. My first few works were more surreal, composite and dark like his. When I started travelling to places like China and Japan, I became more and more attracted to their art and illustration. Their works are very fine and ethereal (especially their brushwork), simple yet intricate at the same time. As of now, I look up to contemporary Japanese illustrators for inspiration and also the Mori (Forest) Girl subculture. I’d like to emanate the same feeling in my work.
What’s your cure for creative block?
Whenever I have an idea and if I have a paper and pen around, I make small sketches. If not, I write descriptive sentences on my phone. Whenever I couldn’t think of anything to make, I always go back to them. Lots of good ideas come up whenever you’re doing simple activities like showering or washing your clothes so I think it’s nice to document what you have in mind and work on them whenever you have the time to. That way, you can never use I have nothing to draw as an excuse.
What motivates or drives you to keep producing art?
For now, there’s a place where I want to be. I keep recreating that place (or feeling) in my work. It’s not something I can explain verbally. I think that as long as I am longing for that place, I’ll keep making works. Sometimes I paint for others. It’s good to know that there are people who tell you that they like what you do. I also just want to make excellent works. Every time I make a new work, there’s always something I dislike about it. So I keep creating to make up for the what’s lacking in the previous work.
How many hours do you usually spend on a piece?
I sometimes can’t count the hours. I have a habit of abandoning a piece halfway and working on it again several months later. I usually create sketches regularly and I fish them out of my sketchpad when I want to work on them. Usually they take almost a year before I decide to work on them. As for the painting activity itself, the length varies from 5 hours to 30 hours.
Your art usually features female subjects in earthy themes, do you think this has become your niche or signature style when it comes to illustrating?
I think so! I like nature a lot. My works used to be edgy and more ‘concrete’ a few years back. I used to draw a lot of portraits from fashion magazines and I learned to deviate from them. My parents don’t pay much attention to my work and whenever my mother gets to see my work before, she mentions that she prefers this “other” work that my portraits (perhaps because of its lack of specificity). I guess that these instances have driven me to avoid creating very real subjects. I think females are fairly easier to draw than males. I’m not a technically skilled illustrator (nor am I adventurous) so I stick to something I’m familiar with. I think the medium I use contributes a lot to the character of my work as well. :)
Out of everything that you’ve done, which is your favorite piece to date?
Whenever I get asked this question, I say that my current last work is my favorite. I can’t help but be critical about each and every one of them so I try to exceed a bit on whatever I’m currently working on. (There’s a theater quote “you’re only as good as your last production.”) It’s hard to choose a favorite but here’s what I’m currently working on:
What’s keeping you occupied at the moment? Any personal or professional projects that you are working on right now?
I’m working on a couple of private commissions and some merchandise for a US-based musician. I’m also trying my best to come up with massive amounts of personal work before the year ends. I’d like to help out local young emerging illustrators so I have a couple of projects up my sleeve for them as well.
Have you ever considered changing careers? If you were not an illustrator, what kind of job are you most likely to take instead?
I have! Just last 2009, I completely stopped drawing for 5 months to pursue a career in music. I hooked up with a alternative funk/rock band and we did studio recordings and live performances. It was an awesome experience. I love singing and during this time I couldn’t sit well with painting at all. But of course music wasn’t sitting well with me so I had to leave it. I never really took art seriously before. When I was in college, I was set on being a marketing person. When I graduated, I only applied for teaching positions. If I’m not an illustrator right now, I’d get into a traveling job, be a teacher or maybe join the lottery, get enough money and open up an art school and hire people to teach.
Have you tried digital painting? If yes, how do you find it? If not, would you want to try it out?
I used to do digital painting back in high school. I think people who do digital painting are amazing. Although I think trad art gives a different kind of experience. You can splash paint, let it drip or swing your brush around to get effects. I like that thing about trad art. Fighting against time and nature–that’s an adrenaline I long for that digital art can’t fully give. And I think not having an undo button makes it a bit nerve-wracking (especially when you’re working on paper). I like that sometimes. I’d like to be proficient in Adobe Illustrator though! I think it would be very useful especially that some areas of illustration isn’t so far from graphic design.
If given the opportunity, what other things (styles, mediums) would you want to try and get your hands on?
I’ve only tried oil once before when I was a kid. I don’t really know how to oil paint but I’d like to try it one day. I love abstract figurative works as well and I miss messing around on a canvas.
I also saw your cover videos on your YouTube channel. Ever thought of pursuing a possible career in music some time in the future? You have a really lovely voice!
When I was in high school until mid-college, I wanted to become a rockstar. Haha! I don’t really have a musical ear. I was born partially tone-deaf and I worked my way out of it during my teenage years. During my brief band stint, I learned that it takes a lot of talent to succeed in it, more than skill, and that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did when I was singing/playing the piano leisurely. Di pala ako pang showbiz!
You’ve also done some part-time modeling. Is it something you might consider on a regular basis?
Thanks Robbie for these entertaining questions! Natuwa ako dito! I don’t really consider myself as a model. Feeling lang! Haha! I think real professional models have it tough because of the demands of the industry and I don’t think that’s something I can handle. I get to model for magazines sometimes because I happen to have acquaintances in the staff. I don’t get paid professionally though. :) I’m absolutely happy with just modeling for my friends.
What major obstacles have you encountered in your career that really tested your will?
I didn’t apply under a company or agency so I am in full control of my time and right now it’s so difficult to get my ass up and paint. I have pre-painting fear. I am so afraid, that some of my linearts are stored for weeks or months. Any errors I make are irreversible so I get terrified before I start a work. I think it takes a lot of courage to start.
Tell us a personal fact that you think might surprise other people about you.
I still have trouble distinguishing left from right. I also play tetris everyday.
Do you have any advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in illustration?
To get by, sometimes you need to know the ropes, meet new people, go out of your comfort zone, and of course, you need to constantly improve your craft. Illustration is a little different from fine art because you need to learn certain technical skills to fulfill the needs of your work. It also involves a lot of storytelling. You can’t convey (more often a direct and concrete) message if you don’t have a good grasp of what you want to draw so it’s important to maximize your strengths and tackle your weaknesses.
I believe that the most important thing is to work hard, never stop making works no matter how difficult it gets and be kind to the people you meet. One of the things I learned is that there is always someone out there who believes in you and your work more than you do. You’ll never know that you might come across someone who was touched by your works or someone who would like to give you a big break. Always work hard and do your best, you’ll never know when you’ll hit a nail. So hit it good. :)
Personally, I think those are some really great words and tips right there from Valerie. I hope that everyone got inspired by her story and from the things she shared.
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