Lee: A (digital) stroke of genius

To local illustrator Lee Xin Li, technology is not the enemy of traditional art forms but instead, has opened endless possibilities for the way we produce and appreciate art.

For an artist like Lee Xin Li, whose art serves to capture childhood memories, the message is more important than the medium. Rather than seeing digital or traditional art as competing forms, Lee thinks digital technology has instead supported the development of the art scene in many ways.

Lee Xin Li having a photo taken with his map of Singapore, drawn from the perspective of a resident tourist rediscovering his country

How were you introduced to art?

My uncle is an architect. When children my age were reading kids’ books, our library at home had books on things like tallest skyscrapers in the world. These books got me interested in buildings, which I would doodle as a child. I read a lot of Tintin in primary school. I really admire the Canadian animator Guy Delisle, whose graphic novels depicting travels of Jerusalem, Shenzhen and other places, inspired me to start illustrating.

What motivates you to work on illustration?

It began as a personal exploration. My interest in a place drives me to research it and draw it. It’s a bonus when people find meaning in my work and share their stories about a place I drew, building up its informal history. Illustrations help make local architecture more accessible. When you see a drawing of a familiar place, you may remember the times you had noodles or beer there, making it more relatable than, say, a 4,000-word essay on the Golden Mile Complex. While local history, landscape and food are my core inspirations, I’m always on the lookout for new sources too, especially things containing an element of travel and adventure.

How has your background in architecture influenced your drawings?

Holland Village drawn with a combination of past and present landmarks, inspired by stories from a friend who grew up there. The iconic windmill, for instance, is no longer there.

My training influences how I perceive space. You can’t “unsee” some things, like wrong proportions, or details that don’t feel quite right. It can be an occupational hazard, but that bit of realism helps. When creating an artwork based on an actual location, after the initial sketches are done, I’ll start looking for relevant resources such as photos or maps of the place. If I want to draw a building I haven’t seen, and the photos I have of it, from different angles, are still not enough to tell me where some part of the buildings is or how it should look like, my knowledge in architecture can help me to make realistic guesses.

I may think, “this stairwell is impossible” or “that structure wouldn’t work”, and use these to guide me during the drawing process.

What are some ways technology has enhanced the creation of art?

For one, technology has made my work more portable, since I can work with my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil on the go now. With more powerful processing capabilities, I can create bigger pieces. I started doing 360-degree illustrations last year. It’s interesting to sense spatial qualities in a virtual dimension — I can imagine myself being inside a tank or a fighter jet, through drawings.

How do you think tech shapes the way an audience interacts with artwork?

In an age of connectivity, the flow of information is a lot faster. New avenues of sharing like Instagram posts and Facebook Live create both a broader reach and more distractions. For instance, during my exhibition, people were Instagramming and tagging photos. People can also create memes out of artwork, making it more personal to them. As an artist, such considerations may alter how you compose your work. You may choose to make it more social media-friendly by creating Instagram hotspots, or by changing the presentation of your art to make sure it is visually clear and direct, and thus easy for an audience to take in to cater to shorter attention spans.

Lee with his two-part exhibit titled “In Our Time”, part of the 2018 “Imaginarium: Into the Space of Time” exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. It comprises a 16.8m mural and an area where visitors can hang their own drawings.

Digital or traditional art?

A fellow illustrator mentioned that while digital art can provide the aesthetic, it doesn’t feel as right because it can’t recreate the element of ‘accident’ — the rawness and tiny touches — present in hand-painted brushstrokes and shades. To me, both forms have their own merits. I still do drawings in my sketchbook — the tactile feel of the materials is something you can’t get on an iPad or MobileStudio Pro. Pragmatically speaking though, if I want something that can be done quickly and uploaded, I’ll do digital art.

How do you envision digital art evolving?

Technology creates more tools we can use and many more possibilities. I hope these tools can be more environmentally-friendly, durable, accessible and affordable. While I can’t say where I would like to see digital art heading, that uncertainty means there is a world to discover, and I prefer to keep my options open to new projects.

Any words of advice to those thinking of exploring digital illustration as an art form?

If you have an interest, just try it to experience it first-hand. If it doesn’t work out, at least you will learn something new about a machine or tool. What’s important is to understand that digital art is only the development of art in response to technological breakthroughs. The methodology or technicality might have transformed, but the fundamentals of creativity, design sense and expression of ideas are relatively consistent. You don’t need to take a pro-tech or anti-tech stance. Traditional or digital media, it’s ultimately about communicating in a way you find comfortable and effective.

Photos of sketches from Lee’s sketchbook
About the artist
Lee Xin Li graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a Master of Architecture in 2015, and currently works as an illustrator at DP Architects, one of the biggest architectural firms in Singapore and globally. While drawing has always been a part of his life, it was in 2013 that Lee really began independent illustrative work, citing Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki, and The Adventures of Tintin as some of his stylistic influences. He was previously commissioned to create work for Spring Court Restaurant, Fuji Xerox, MUJI, Estée Lauder, among other brands. Xin Li is currently working on illustrations for Supermama and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. Find out more about Xin Li’s work at leexinli.com

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