Interview with Charlene Chua

Charlene Chua is one of the best freelance illustrators specializing in digital and vector illustration.

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Charlene received many awards for her works that express a wide range from children illustrations to pinups and ink style illustrations.

We were impressed by Charlene’s talent and hard skills in this field so we wanted to know more about how is the life and the work road to be a professional illustrator.

Charlene has been very kind? to be the first to open our series of interviews with Indeziner.

1. Hi Charlene, thanks for taking time to accord INDEZINER our first Interview! Tell us a little about yourself…When did you start drawing and when did you know you will follow a certain path in your life?

Hi! Thanks for inviting me to take part in your inaugural interview – I hope it’ll be an interesting article for your readers!

My name is Charlene Chua and I am an illustrator. I have been a full time, freelance illustrator since 2005. I was born and grew up in Singapore, and I moved to Toronto, Canada, with my husband in 2007.

I have been drawing since I was a little kid; I know for sure that my mother keeps drawings I did when I was 5, and there are probably some photos of me drawing on the wall or something when I was even younger.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist first, then when I was a teenager I wanted to be an illustrator. At the time I just thought it would be cool to draw pictures for a living. However it took over 10 years before I finally decided to try and make illustration my profession.

2. How was your training to become a great digital artist. How was your start and where have you learnt your techniques. Have you studied certain books, tutorials or attended any special courses?

I am mainly self taught. When I graduated from secondary school in Singapore, I really wanted to study illustration but there were no courses for it in the country. My parents could not afford to send me overseas to study and I was not interested in taking out a huge study loan. So I enrolled in a local polytechnic that had a course in Visual Communications. After a year in the program, I thought that it was not to my liking and I left.

Somehow, I managed to get a job as a designer with a multimedia company afterwards, and spent about a year drawing cartoons for a training CD-ROM, as well as designing some brochures and websites. I worked at several other companies afterwards, and actually I all but stopped drawing for 3 years or so.

When I met my future husband, I had about given up on illustration. Fortunately, he encouraged me to give it a shot, and so I started drawing again. I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I started drawing comics again, and did a couple of indie comics that were actually quite awful. I also did a few pieces in Freehand, and after some mucking about, managed to put together my first portfolio. I emailed some samples to some editors at local magazines, and one of them was kind enough to give me a gig.

As time went by, I got better at drawing and at working with the programs I use. I picked up what I know from books and from various forums and help boards on the net. I’ve learned a lot from my friends too; sometimes another person’s insight into how or why they do something is more helpful that a how-to manual.

3. Do you remember your first freelance project? If so can you tell us more about it?

It sort of depends on what you want to define as ‘first’.

My first ‘gig’ was when I was a kid. My mom and I put together this short comic for a local kids magazine. I was terribly happy to just see the work in print!

My first ‘real gig’ was when I was a teenager. My uncle was an illustrator at the time, and he got me to do this background illustration. I can’t remember what magazine it was, but I remember the background was a lot of red, and had a Japanese crane to the side. It was also the only illustration (excluding the kid comic above) I ever delivered that was not digital ? I did it with an airbrush. Again, I was stoked to see it in print. I even got $200 for it, which was a lot of money to me back then!

My first ‘Gee Whiz I Really Am An Illustrator’ gig was after I started drawing again and put together my first real portfolio. The magazine editor who I contacted got the art director of Silver Kris (the in-flight magazine of Singapore Airlines) to contact me. He asked for a full page and spot for an article about ‘Flying with Kids’. I was very excited and happy, but also really worried about botching it up. I spent a really long time on the sketches and the final artwork, and kept thinking that the art director would hate it. But it all worked out fine in the end ? the client was happy and the work looked good in print.

4. How is a typical day from your life. (both work and free time)

It really all depends on how busy I am. This year, work has been rather constant, so my days are likewise quite similar. I prefer to work in the evenings, so my day usually begins late. I wake up at around 11 or noon, and start the day by checking my emails and replying them. I get down to work and do an hour or two before preparing lunch for me and my husband. I work for a few more hours, make dinner, and then either work more or try to relax.

I do try to get 8 hours of sleep, and keep regular sleeping hours (even though bedtime is 4am).

I find the older I get, the more detrimental it is for me to keep on pushing myself to work, work work. So I try to unwind or do other household chores when I don’t absolutely need to get work done.

5. Tell us a little about your family support. Probably your husband is your number one fan. Is he helping you in your work with ideas or in other ways?

My husband is great; he’s wonderfully supportive but also very patient and tolerant. He comforts me when I am having a bad day, and keeps me from getting depressed when I think I suck or when I don’t get a job. He is a writer, and we do have fun discussing stories and possibilities, although how he constructs something interesting with words doesn’t always translate to an interesting visual.

6. What are your hobbies other then things related to your work?

Uh. Shopping for groceries? I like watching my husband play video games ? I tend to be a backseat driver and tell him to watch out for the enemies, or ‘oh you missed the shiney thing over there’. I’m watching him play a game right now, actually.

7. What was the most funny proposal you received to work on?

I’ve received a lot of requests over the years that have left me somewhat puzzled. I can’t remember them all though. I do get the odd email for a job with a reference attached that is totally different from what I do, which makes me wonder if the person even saw my work to begin.

8. You create very nice children illustrations, seductive women illustrations and all kind of abstract illustrations. Is there something that you have not tried yet but you would like to?

Maybe something more artistic? I haven’t had much time to explore and develop my art for its own sake. If I get the time and don’t have to worry about paying bills, I would like to do that.

9. We know you are using Illustrator and Photoshop and before you used Freehand. What tools would you improve in these programs and in what way? Have you tried other mediums?

I would like Adobe to increase the RAM usage of Illustrator ? currently I believe CS5 tops out at 4G of RAM, even if your system has far more than that. Photoshop 64bit uses as much as you can toss at it. The ability to rotate the artboard in Illustrator would be nice as well.

Most of all though, I wish that Adobe would rename Illustrator to something else, like Vectorworks or something like that. It’s just sad that when you search for ‘illustrator’ on the net, the first few hits are for a program that most illustrators don’t even use to create their work.

I have worked a little with ink in the past couple of years. I am a horrible painter and too much of a control freak to ever to be completely comfortable without digital tools these days.

10. What was the most difficult thing you have done till now (biggest challenge you achieved)?

For illustration work, I think it’s the current project I am working on. It has been going for over a year and it is difficult to manage a large, long term project without becoming bored, tired, or worried that you’re getting complacent. I keep saying I need a sabbatical once this is done.

11. Where do you see yourself after 5-10 years. What are your future plans regarding your work on one side and your personal life on the other side?

I hope that I will still be doing illustration, but that all depends. I try to plan for the future but not quite so rigidly. Illustration is a tricky business at this time ? jobs are harder to come by and growing one’s business while still being happy with what you do is even harder. I would like to get the big purchases of life out of the way i.e a house and car, but on the other hand I do wonder if I really do need these. So, really, I think that if I have any long term goal, it would be to simply be happy with my life.

12. Do you have other designers that you admire and in case so is any special designer that you had as a model when you start doing illustrations?

I did admire several illustrators and artists, some of which had a great sense of design in their work. Lately I’ve taken a renewed interest in Patrick Nagel and I am hoping to collect more books featuring the photography of Helmut Newton. I also really enjoy my Charlie Harper and Eric Carle artbooks.

13. What do you think about the way design community evolves today? What are the pros and minuses?

When a community is at its best, it can provide good advice and encouragement. What I noticed is that places that have large communities lack community ‘spirit’. It feels more like everyone has their own gallery where visitors can leave notes about how awesome you are. Which is nice, but is not really what community is about.

The only communities (and I don’t really know if these qualify as communities) that I don’t like are the ones that are centred around creative contests that really are just giving away work for free. It’s one thing to have a sponsored contest now and then, it’s another to have it as an ongoing creative competition where people put up their creative efforts for clients who can pick and choose what they want, and even whether or not they want to give any money for it.

14. Charlene, thanks a lot for the interview! In the end can you give an advice for new illustrators?

Being an illustrator is not easy, and these days it’s really hard because the traditional markets for illustration ? publishing and advertising, are under huge strain because of the economy and the shift to digital delivery. Prices for illustration have also not kept up with the times. Making a living by drawing pictures requires not only talent and hard work, but also a large amount of patience, perseverance and self control. One does not become an illustrator overnight; it is not uncommon to take years to establish yourself, and even then you can expect to earn less than your friends with full time jobs as designers or animators. You have to really, really love creating pictures that communicate (not just pretty pictures) and you must really, really love working for yourself (and this includes doing all the boring paperwork and taxes). Many new illustrators fail because they only want to paint cool stuff; they also expect to have a bunch of well-paying jobs by the end of their first year, as well as a bunch of high profile clients awards. Be realistic about the scene and keep trying ? if illustration really is for you, things will work out, eventually.

Thanks for interviewing me ? it was a pleasure and all the best to you and your site!

Charlene Chua Around the Web

3 Responses to “Interview with Charlene Chua”

  1. Jennifer Lewis says:

    What can I say after reading this interview… Charlene you are awesome!

  2. Peter Young says:

    I agree with Charlene that places that have large communities lack community ‘spirit’. Seems you are cool only you are on Twitter and you have thousands of ignorant followers.

    I work in web design and I am more interested in professional comments regarding my work. Is great that everyone likes you but sometimes you need to be shown your mistakes more then to be followed.

  3. Albert says:

    Very nice interview. Charlene made some beautiful illustrations.