“I try to be as genuine as possible when it comes to creating.”
Taiwanese, London-based RCA Graduate and Illustrator, Jason Chuang on his award-winning work.
Today, I sit down with award-winning artist Jason Chuang who talks us through his journey from Taiwan to the UK, and how he has shifted into illustration, alongside the behind-the-scenes of his artistic process. We dive into his inspirations, cultural background, as well as how his life experiences have shaped him including his 4-month military experience which informed his first graphic novel. This was a super interesting conversation and I’m happy to hiatus the podcast on this episode.
Please introduce yourself
I’m Jason Chuang, a freelance illustrator from Taiwan now based in London!
I wanted to interview you because I love how you translate your emotions into your work and also how you do it. Could you tell us more about your art journey to get to where you are now?
I’ve been drawing since I was a kid — when I was 7 or 8, I met one of the most influential art teachers in my life. He started his class with storytelling. I was deeply drawn into these worlds he’d bring to class.
In secondary school, I’d do comic parodies of animes and movies to entertain and my friends (because I found classes boring haha). It wasn’t until I was 19 however, that I was introduced to illustration. Before that, it was more fine art stuff.
But then, I figured illustration was the best way to communicate my experiences. So, I’ve stuck by it till then so I’ve just been honing my skills since then and I think people find my work beautiful and relatable, which I find wierd and wonderful at the same time. So now, I take commissions so that’s where I am now.
What’s the difference between painting and illustration?
Good question, but hard to answer! I remember thinking illustration was just drawing. But I read some article or something where the main difference or one way of looking at it is fine art poses questions and illustration answers it. That’s how I understand it to some degree, though there is a lot of overlapping and interplays.
For me, illustration communicates ideas and I’m drawn to it because of its immediacy. It’s hard to answer though!
How did you switch from painting to illustration?
Sometimes there’s not a lot of difference in the medium. For illustration, it’s a broad term. I painted traditionally until 19, and then I did a foundation course where I found out about illustration, alongside digital art. After that, I did a mix of both. Now, I mostly do digital.
Like I said before, the immediacy of being able to draw a message in a short amount of time is great. Digital means I’m in full control — and whilt some people say it’s not ‘real art’, digital is just as valid a medium as any other.
What has been the advantage to your art practice, in doing a Master’s at Royal College of Art?
I did my Masters in Visual Communication and I graduated in July 2021. What I liked most was we were given room to explore. We were encouraged to branch out to other areas, and do things which weren’t familiar to us.
For example, I’ve down a documentary short film. I collaborated with a bunch of friends and made a graphic anthology and I made an animated short film. I never thought of doing any of that until I went to RCA, where they guide you and push you out of your comfort zone, where we collaborate and learn from people from other disciplines. It also makes me think about the possibilities of illustration and how I can push the boundaries.
You have won a whole host of awards, to name a few, iJungle Illustration Award (Comic Gold Medal 2018), the Cheltenham Illustration Award (Winner 2020), the Creative Quarterly issue 62 (Winner 2020), and the Brightness Award (Jury Selection 2020). In your opinion, what distinguishes or makes ‘award winning artwork’?
For myself the most important part of the image is the message that it’s conveying. It has to have something that sparks intrigue. It doesn’t have to be super obvious — I prefer it if the thing is not obvious at first glance. I’m interested in reading into subtexts within an image.
It should trigger an emotional response, either positive or negative, in a way that seems fresh or genuine.
I went to an exhbition yesterday, ‘Paintings Now’ with 20-something experimental artists. I saw this Belgian artist quote which spoke to me. She said ‘it’s important for an image to be problematic, otherwise it satisfies you and you’re left with nothing’. I think it’s a great line to tie what I’ve said together.
So there should be a dialogue right?
Yeah — it’s important to know how much to show and to reveal and leave stuff to the imagination.
This is what draws people in and make them think, in my opinion.
How do you come up with imagery that’s not abstract for your abstract messaging?
It all goes down to the way I work. I’m very interested in the surrealist movement. It speaks to the way I work and think as my images are highly reliant on the subconcious. When I start my personal work, it’s quite intuitive. I keep a visual diary by my bed and I doodle on it at the end of every day. It records my whole day — all my emotions distilled into an A5 paper that may not even make sense.
Sometimes I see life within them and take it and develop it further. I like surrealism because it has that dreamlike quality which I see in a lot of my doodles. I take it further and develop it from there. I use a lot of references, like taking photos to try and match the thing I draw. And then I combine them together.
Your colour schemes are quite surrealist actually! They tend to be quite pastel or soothing. But you express in this article that you have difficulty with colour — how do you get over this hurdle?
I’m not very good with colour actually! When it comes to colouring artwork, I just want to naturally use all the colours!
But I’ve come to the realisation that the use of colour is very important for communication so I restrict myself, especially when I look at classical paintings and retro posters. They use minimal colour palettes so I adapt that to my work. It’s constant trial and error -I change the colours a lot before arriving at the final artwork.
A lot of your work seems to be directly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints — can you tell us more about this?
Japanese woodblock painting, or Chinese inkpainting really inspire me because I really love the interplay with essence and absence. It’s like an Eastern method of painting that’s different from classical European painting because it aims to capture the essence of the subject by leaving blank spaces for breathing room, achieving a harmonious and well-composed scene.
This influence is always there in the backseat. I’ve conciously tried to bring forward this as a part of my heritage.
There was a turning point in my practice when I went to New York, because before that I was never convious about style or being Asian or anything. But in NYC, I met this high-profile art director who told me my art wouldn’t sell because of it’s Asian look.
I was shocked because firstly I didn’t know my art was so Asian, and secondly I didn’t know it was a negative thing! From then, I decided to use it more prominently, and not be ashamed of it. I wanted to use this platform as a way to inspire other Asian artists to show their culture. And I think people appreciate my art!
Some of my friends said I shouldn’t take it so seriously, but I just thought it was wrong.
It’s so important you brought that up! We don’t realise when racism happens a lot of the time so it’s important to learn how to identify it. Let’s dive into the culture a bit more — Having moved from Taiwan to the UK, how does your specific cultural background play a role in your work?
I grew up in Taiwan. Prior to moving to the UK, I didn’t realise what Asian art is because everything is Asian! In Taiwan, I was taught to classically paint both Western and Asian. I always preferred Western. After moving to the UK, I realised art was the one thing I was never judged for (except that one time in New York). But since the incident. I realised that having an Asian background is an integral part of me. It influenced me a lot. Since the experience, I’ve been trying to integrate the background into my work.
I think people appreciate what I do because I try to be as genuine as possible when it comes to creating. The Asian style in my work is a vehicle to deliver my message. It makes me happy when they tell me it resonates with them. It’s wonderful when the audience can see past the aesthetic and see the message behind the work and connect with strangers. It’s a magical thing!
I’m trying to experiment with what I can do and break out of stereotypes. Some very different work I’ve done will be coming soon on Instagram.
You have done a few graphic novels which I LOVE. The boy, in particular, has this kind of muted style that I love in particular — it really reminds me of The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is one of my favourite picture books. Can you tell us more about this work?
I’m honored that my book The Boy reminds me of his work because I’m a big fan of Shaun Tan! The Boy is my first graphic novel, in 2018. it came from my military experience in Taiwan. It was only 4 months but it was bad enough for me. I later altered it so it was more universal and approachable.
The Boy is a 68 Graphic Novel, completely done in pencil. It follows the story of a boy who has a vivid imagination but who feels trapped in life. It follows his journey in and out of his daydreams until at some point, he vanishes. The ending is open but all the clues of what happened are embedded in the story.
The story itself is very personal and I’m surprised I got so much positive feedback for the book (including winning an award). People still ask me if I will do any reprints!
Despite the time lag of when you drew this and when you were in the military, how did you translate this into drawings?
I write it down in words first. I bought a small sketchbook into the military so I wrote stuff down because it’s faster than drawing to record ideas. I also have a folder on my phone full of writings.
It’s interesting because Joon Ho also talked about his time in the military and how that influenced his art journey.
I mean, it’s not the worst thing in the world. But time kinda just stretches. It’s a real experience that definitely kind of helped me creatively. I’m thankful for the experience at the same time.
I think a lot of artists have an unhealthy relationship — if I don’t work I feel bad, and then I overwork. It’s a vicious cycle. When I was in the military doing drills or whatever, I would just imagine all kinds of different strange scenarios like flying away when doing jumping jacks; or I’d see bars appearing on the moon through my window. That kind of thing is included in my book. I think it’s a good medium!
You have a lot of different visual styles — which do you prefer? How do you determine which style to use? Do you have any plans to narrow down which mediums/styles you use?
What I choose depends on the subject matter. Naturally, my work is surreal and dreamlike, as I draw a lot of inspiration from my subconcious. I’m concerned about how to put my work across in the most effective way. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself — I don’t plan to stay within labels.
I like asking this question because artists generally tend to only show one aesthetic through social media — what are your thoughts on this?
I actually draw very differently in my sketchbook — I also draw with crayons on cardboard. I really like them but it doesn’t suit my instagram aesthetic. I get work from there so it needs to look coherent like a portfolio.
Your work seems to encompass themes which are very philosophical. How would you recommend artists (who mainly focuses on drawing from life or photos) express emotions visually?
I mentioned. that I have a visual diary before — just doodle, draw lines that don’t make sense to others. It’s a way to loosen up because my natural style is quite tight. It allows me to draw whatever and not care what others think.
Apart from that, I think everyone works and thinks differently — there’s no one way. For me, I draw straight from my head which makes me think I lack observational drawing skills.
The best advice I can give is to be yourself and be genuine. don’t try to be someone else. Emotions are tricky to express because they’re so universal but the reason you have them can be so personal.
I was never shy of expressing my emotions because I use symbols that are almost like shields. When viewers look at my work, they get an overall message but never the whole picture.
It’s important to remember that what you’re seeing on Instagram is the good stuff.
Where would you like to see your artistic career progress?
I’m figuring my way into this artistic freelance career. It’s quite complicated! Narrative is really my vision — what I want to do is have my own story published. To have a graphic novel with just my work — eventually see my work on the big screen! I’d love to collaborate with writers or directors, or even become a storyboard artist or writer myself!