“We should seek a situation in which the craft and the content complement and complete each other.”

Brooklyn based, Chinese illustrator Xiao Hua Yang on his surreal illustrations.

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As soon as I saw the hues, blue and purple sprinkled with glowing stars, I knew I had to interview Xiao. His work evoked a profound sense of bittersweet loss, hope and sorrow all wrapped into one. These emotions translate not just through his paintbrush but also his pen, as he provided me with the longest script yet! This is a truly insightful, profound and philosophical interview which I hope you will enjoy.

Please introduce yourself!

Thank you for having me here Noor. My name is Xiao Hua Yang. Friends call me Xiao as well. I am originally from Shanghai, China. Now I am based in Brooklyn, New York, mainly working as a freelance illustrator.

I wanted to interview you because it seems like your artwork is very well thought out. Each piece is quite simple, but with enough detail to convince of a story. Your work seems to convey a very raw human experience. Please tell us about your art journey so far.

I grew up in a normal household. I don’t remember exactly when I started drawing, though the memory is quite vague now, I do remember enjoying the drawing classes in my kindergarten. It was always exciting and I looked forward to it. It was not until I started attending elementary school that I realized that I really liked drawing. But it’s still hard to say that I had a “passion” for art. All I knew was that I liked it and enjoyed it quite a lot. I guess I have always known that I wanted to do something art-related but I didn’t know what that would be. Later I came to the United States and received more professional training and became an illustrator.

I have been trained in realism and there is a tendency in me, especially when I first started, that I always have the urge to add more to an image to make it look busier and more realistic. In my mind, that meant “finer”. I have always been relatively skilled, and with this more-is-better way of thinking, I always kept on elaborating more and more on an image. This continued for a while. Meanwhile, I had been taking in other thoughts and ideas. I learned about Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and his famous quote “less is more”. I didn’t think much of it at the very beginning, but with time, I started to appreciate it more and more. It offered me a new way of seeing and processing visual information. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying one is better than the other. I think both “more is more” and “less is more” hold some truth in them. Depends on the actual given situation, one solution may just be a bit more suitable than the other, or the solution should be somewhere in between the two.

Though I started to appreciate the simplicity in certain work more and more, my own work more or less remained the same. It is a constant battle between the urge to complex imagery and to simplify and strip away excessive information in them. Then, in the past several years, I started to realize they don’t contradict each other and a good image should provide the audience with good “content”. It’s just that the content takes different forms. It could be a lot of intriguing tiny details in a drawing, it can also be a well-designed composition, or it can be a well-thought-out story the creator wants to convey.

Excessive details that serve little to no purpose would then become redundant and bland, and the simplicity that exists solely for the sake of being “less” lacks depth and character. With that in mind, I always try to push myself to show more content in my work and the form of the work — whether it’s rather decorative with all kinds of tiny details or it’s clever with a simplistic approach, becomes less relevant, as everything should serve the purpose of telling a story and delivering the content.

I have been told by people that my work is rather melancholy and emotional, in another word, not the most positive and happy ones. I have thought about why that might be. I think we are, not to dismiss the complexity of human beings, more or less the product of our environment and personal experience. We are who we are because of what we have experienced and how our surroundings shape us. And I am not an exception. I think from an early age, I have always been fascinated by mysteries, tales, stories. As I grew older, I started to pay more attention to literature, philosophical ideas and I see and perceive what’s happening around me and in the world. Maybe that’s where all the “raw” feelings come from(though to me, the process of making is merely a fluid visualization of my static and vague thoughts).

Some of your work also has a handmade quality to it — do you work in traditional arts? How does this help you at all?

I was trained in traditional media. Gouache, oil, charcoal, etc. So I guess brought some of that into my digital work. Besides that, I consciously try to make things not too “slick” or smooth, in another word, “digital”. Lately, there have been some interesting discussions on “flat illustration” and where digital illustration is headed. If you are interested, here is one such discussion. There is no doubt that digital tools provide us with unprecedented efficiency and convenience but at the same time, the standardized digital tools strip away much of the “coincidence” we may encounter when using traditional tools. For example, when painting in Photoshop, with most of the legacy brushes, we get lines that are plain and flat, lines that are quite “predictable”, whereas when painting with a real brush, a slight tilt can leave a noticeable change in the characteristic of the line, not to mention how various materials react quite differently to the same brush, even within the same stroke, there seems to be more “realness” to it that’s quite observable and tangible compared to a digital line. Although I think the world is moving towards a more digitized way of communication — everything becomes smaller, lighter, more compressed, even so within the art world, especially the more applied aspects of it, I think the traditional way of making art will hold its place for a very long time. Digital tools have sped up most of the process exponentially, and they have opened whole new worlds of possibilities that our predecessors wouldn’t even dream of. We are truly lucky and blessed to live in this innovative era. However, I have always felt a slight disconnection with digital tools. For example, when I draw with my tablet(Wacom Intuos Pro), I am drawing on this tablet that’s connected to my computer. Though every inch of my tablet, in theory, should respond to a corresponding pixel/pixels on my screen, there is a deep disconnection between my hand, the tablet, the computer processor, the output on the monitor, my eyes and my brain. In a way, the newly crowned iPad and various apps have improved the process by allowing the users to see what they are drawing right away so that they would have a way better grasp on what they are drawing. Another aspect that I like better in traditional ways of working is that the materials don’t play a dominant or essential role in what you are trying to make. Let me give you an example. Of course, we know that there are different grades of paints, some are of better quality, they may be purer in pigments, more long-lasting, less susceptible to oxidation. But overall, the more skilled an artist is, the less pronounced the quality of the tools they use may be — a good artist should be able to use student-grade tools to make some quite amazing work. This is somewhat the case in the digitalized ways of making work, but only to a certain extent. Of course, there is also a process of familiarizing oneself with all the tools and their characteristics within a digital app, but the result of not knowing certain tricks or not having the right tools is more pronounced with the digital tools, and it affects the outcome greatly. A well-trained painter can spend hours in a drawing app just to try to find the right brush to their liking, not to mention all the layer and filter tricks they may not be aware of. And I think that’s one of the culprits behind the fact that everyone wants to know what brush is used in a digital painting and that everybody seems to have a collection of hundreds, if not thousands of brushes.

Back to your question, yes, I do find my earlier training in analogue work very helpful and it is helping me to embrace the convenience and efficiency of digital work more, but at the same time, it reminds me to keep a healthy distance from it in order to remain the person who utilizes it, not the one that chases after it all the time.

Your use of colour is very carefully thought out, with each piece containing a specific theme, like purples or sunsets, often on the dark end of the spectrum. What role does colour play in your work?

I think we as human beings have intrinsic feelings towards certain colours. We experience awe when we are surrounded by the right colours at the right time. Most of our responses are innate, though some are through nurture. I try to use colour as a channel of expressing my emotions and thoughts, whether they are conscious or subconscious.

I personally am very interested in those “between” states. And this obsession(I still don’t know if this is the right word to use here) has grown over the years. Many years ago, I got to read Embers by Sandor Marai. Fantastic book, beautifully written, very poetic, but it was the underlying sadness(with a twist of indifference and acceptance) and the remarks on change and in-between stages that really spoke to me. In fact, my project Before Dawn was inspired by this book. Here are some excerpts of it:

“It was gradually getting light, slowly, as if the sun were stalking the world, feeling it very gently with the tips of its rays. The animal stood still at the edge of the clearing and looked into the undergrowth, sensing danger. Instinct, the sixth sense that is more acute than smell or sight, moved in the nerves of its body. It could not see us and it was upwind from us, so the morning breeze could not warn it; we stood motionless for a long time, already feeling the strain of keeping absolutely still — I in front, between the trees at the edge of the clearing; you behind me. The gamekeeper and the dog were some distance back. We were alone in the forest in the solitude that is part night, part dawn, part trees, and part animals, that gives one the momentary sensation that one has lost one’s way in the world and must someday retrace one’s steps to this wild and dangerous place that is truly home. It’s a feeling I always had when out hunting.”

I appreciate all kinds of art that deal with a variety of subject matters. “What is reasonable is real; that which is real is reasonable” — I think they all serve a purpose to a corresponding audience. I, happen to prefer dealing with things that weigh a bit more. Thus, the colour becomes a great tool for that. In addition to other elements in my work, colour communicates emotions very effectively and the plasticity and subtlety of which also help me greatly to convey an idea to my audience.

You always tend to feature people with no faces. There seems to be an innocence or vulnerability about them. What are the significance of the people and their movements? Who or what do they represent and why do you feel the need to express them?

Very good question Noor. First of all, from a more biological point of view, I think I have a brain that’s quite male — I am more interested in things than people, visually. Not that I am not interested in people at all, I just find that things capture my full attention more often. Cars, space crafts, natural sceneries, shapes…you name it. However, my fascination with people has always been there, and it is growing more and more pronounced each year. Instead of the appearance of a person alone, I am also interested in characteristics, temperaments and how sometimes the looks may be the perfect manifestation of a person’s inner state and how in return the inner state feeds on the looks.

One of the main reasons for me to draw people without a clear face, now that I have thought about it since you asked the question, is that I am quite lazy and the face is hard to draw. Haha, well, that’s one reason for sure. But more importantly, I think I believe to a certain extent that a well-defined face would break the ambiguity that I want to cultivate in the imagery. When the face is not clear, the character could be anyone — it thus is anyone. It could be you, and it could be me — because they don’t have a clear face. Once assigned with a clear face, clear identity is applied. Usually, this is not what I want in my work, for I think it dispels the illusion. Besides that, it’s been proven that human being’s imagination is such an amazing thing that when we are not provided with enough information, it gets to work and tries to bridge up all the “information gaps”. At least this is how mine works. With the commercial work I do, sometimes I will have to draw a clear face, but I always try to do it in a fashion that brings in some ambiguity; with my personal work, I can just do whatever I like. Although it seems I have developed many reasons to not draw the faces clearly, I do think there is a way to not only draw the faces but at the same time, retaining the ambiguity. I don’t know if you are familiar with Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics. Even if you are not a comic artist, some of the ideas and concepts that he shares in the book are still applicable and quite universal. In the book, he dedicates several chapters to talk about the “face” problem that we all face, no pun intended. :) I highly recommend this book to all your audience.

Body language and gestures suggest a person’s inner state. Since most of my work deals with a rather sombre and melancholy atmosphere, I tend to give my characters body languages that are more reserved as they go “inward”. I rarely think about what or who they represent, rather, I think about if they should exist in a given situation, in another word, if it’s appropriate for them to be there. So it seems that I care more about maintaining the flow of the entire piece than the significance of a given character. To me, in most cases, Macro>micro.

You have done a lot of client work — how do you approach this work? What is your process like? For example, when you are asked to illustrate for an article, can you breakdown your process to get to the final illustration?

I still consider myself new in commercial illustration. With each new commission, I deal with a new problem and try to come up with a unique solution. Generally speaking, there is a framework that I stick to, but I always try to deliver the best I can.

Usually, I would get a synopsis of the article and a draft of the actual article. The summary/synopsis gives me a very rough idea about what kind of article that I am dealing with and the general tonality about it. After reading the draft of the article, I would be able to figure out more about it. It’s quite like seeing someone from a distance — you wouldn’t be able to see the details clearly, but it’s not hard to make out the build of the person. Then when you walk closer, now you can see a bit better.

Besides delivering good work and meeting the deadline, the most crucial thing, in my opinion, is communication. Sometimes a client may have an idea/concept for a piece that you don’t find very attractive. Now it’s your job to communicate with your client to tell them why and to show them if you have a better solution. In some other cases, as an artist, you may have too much fun exploring a certain direction that goes a bit too far, but so if you are communicating with your client the whole time, they can quickly spot it and stop you before things go completely off-rail.

If you can do these things well, the rest of the job is just to try to do the best you can to deliver the best product to your client.

Some of your work, like this one, is quite abstract — what does your abstract work represent to you? How do you distill down your ideas into a visual output? Do you have a specific creative process for this?

Once in a while, I do something a bit different from what I usually do. The series you point out is one of such experiments. In this series, I am using more vivid colours, introducing more shapes that are more “designed” and geometric. The illustrations are way busier looking than I would normally want in my work.

It’s not easy for me to conclude my thought process with words. But I am going to give it a try. Usually, it starts with a set of abstract thoughts and ideas, and along with them, there are usually a few “representatives” that stand out a bit more, whether they are a set of colours, some objects, or a few characters. Then I think about how to put them in the same composition. Since I am mainly working with digital applications these days, it is easy and convenient for me to apply changes to the elements. As a result, I constantly change the scale of some elements, repositioning them, making alterations to them, sometimes, I would even replace or raze some of them, which leads to a very different look. Depends on how complicated the composition is, this stage of constant change could be either brief or lengthy, and it’s usually the latter. When I know more or less what is going to be in a piece and the rough scale and shape of them, then I move the process forward to refining the details. So it’s very much like having the skeleton first then building muscles on top of that.

What kind of stories or messages do you think of when you make your work?

I don’t usually deliberately try to deliver a message when making my work. Based on my own experience, every time I tried to deliver an obvious message in my work, the quality of my work sort of suffers. It would become “grounded”, sometimes too “clever”. I am not saying obvious messages in one’s work is bad, I am saying it doesn’t work with mine. As a spectator myself, when I look at other people’s work, one thing that I can really appreciate is the ambiguity in their work, that extra room the artist leaves to the audience to pause, rest, think, savour…the room for interpretation. What is the artist trying to say? What is the story between these two characters? Why this colour theme? What’s the motivation? Does it reflect part of the artist’s personality? Questions like these keep me engaged with the piece. Whereas when I quickly get a slogan(this is more of an extreme case of “message”) from a piece of work, I see it as a complete object that’s just there instead of an exploration that is full of random encounters and involves my part of participation. It becomes plain and bland.

Where do you get your inspiration from? Please share some names.

A big chunk of the inspiration for my work comes from my personal experience. It could be the way I grew up, the education I received, the places that I visited, the worldview that gradually formed(still changing all the time), memorable events and people over the years. I am not an avid reader, but I enjoy reading(mostly) and reading definitely has inspired my work. Great stories bring me to other worlds, give me experiences that I will never experience if it wasn’t for them. I have mentioned Sandor Marai above already. Muxin, Borges, Murakami, Kawabata, Coelho, Hesse, King…their stories give me great joy and a continuous stream of inspiration.

In terms of visual inspiration, I was very much into Dali when I was younger. And I read manga when I grew up, so some of that must have left some marks as well. Then there was Picasso, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Vermeer, Van Gogh…

I am quite open to all sorts of art forms, I am into music, installation art, photography, poster design, concept art for movies…there are so many talented people out there and thanks to social media, now everybody has a channel to be seen.

What would you say to artists and illustrators who would like to express themselves or emotions better through their artwork? Any practical tips you can suggest?

I don’t know if I am the one who should give advice to people. Hopefully, I am not pointing people in the wrong direction.

Instead of diving into the technical part right away, I think one needs to have something they want to say first. A story that they want to tell, a special experience that is worth sharing, an idea that they have been contemplating for a while…in other words, the piece needs to have interesting content to start with. If we give some fabric of poor quality to a good tailor, doesn’t matter how good the tailor is in his craft, the end result won’t be ideal. But if we give him some good fabric, with the tailor’s skills, the result could be quite breathtaking. We should seek a situation in which the craft and the content complement and complete each other. I think the same idea applies to us when we create our own work. Then, we can worry about other aspects of it — colour theme, composition, materials, you know, the more technical part of it. And it takes time to be fluent in utilizing them. Good technique can greatly elevate the work, but from time to time, we see work that’s kind of “bad” and “naive”, yet something about them is unmistakenly raw, loud, exciting, and ingenious. That’s why I always believe there is something more than just pure technique.



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Design. Draw. Do.

Design. Draw. Do.

Hi! I’m Noor I make videos and write daily about art, productivity and creativity (the sketching, painting kind). https://youtube.com/c/DesignDrawDo