An Interview with Hanyu Mu

Award-winning illustrator, Hanyu Mu, shares her tips to navigate artist's block and breaks down her creative process

Hanyu Mu Good Morning #4

Hanyu Mu is an award-winning Chinese illustrator and animator based in Atlanta, Georgia. Mu’s artwork is atmospheric and alluring, capturing our attention with her varied mark-making and focus on storytelling.

In our interview with Mu, she discusses maintaining a healthy work-life balance, nurturing creativity, and breaks down her illustration process from the spark of inspiration to the final touches and presentation.

Illustrators’ Lounge: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into illustration?

Hanyu Mu: Hi! My name is Hanyu Mu, and I am an illustrator and animator originally from Beijing, China, and currently residing in Atlanta. From a young age, I had a deep fascination with art and drawing. I vividly remember spending hours doodling and sketching, letting my imagination run wild on paper. Drawing became an integral part of my life, and it provided me with a sense of joy and fulfillment that was unique to me.

As I grew older, my passion for art continued to blossom. I was exposed to various forms of art, including Japanese, European, American, anime and manga, as well as traditional Chinese ink painting. These diverse influences sparked my interest in animation, games, and illustration. I was captivated by the power of visual storytelling and saw these mediums as powerful vehicles for self-expression.

My journey into illustration began during my time in high school when I received systematic art education. This formal training allowed me to express my world independently through a paintbrush, further fueling my passion for artistic creation. As I explored different art forms, I found myself drawn to the world of animation and illustration, where I could blend my love for storytelling with my artistic skills.

After completing my animation studies at university, I felt a desire to delve deeper into illustration and bring more aesthetic elements into my creative process. This led me to pursue further studies in illustration, and I came to the United States to hone my craft.

Illustration has become my chosen path because it allows me to convey my emotions, thoughts, and imaginative ideas to others visually and compellingly. I find immense satisfaction in creating artwork that resonates with viewers and evokes genuine emotions within them.

Overall, my passion for art and drawing, combined with a love for visual storytelling, guided me into the world of illustration. It has been a rewarding journey, and I am continually inspired to push the boundaries of my creative expression through my artwork.

Book Illustration #1

IL: What unexpected challenges have you faced as a professional illustrator and animator?

HM: As a professional illustrator and animator, I have encountered a few unexpected challenges throughout my career. One of the most notable challenges has been dealing with creative blocks and periods of low inspiration. As an artist, my work heavily relies on my imagination and creative energy, and there are times when I face moments of uncertainty or struggle to come up with fresh ideas.

Another challenge has been adapting to the ever-evolving technological landscape. With the rapid advancements in digital tools and software, staying up-to-date with the latest trends and techniques can be demanding. It requires continuous learning and flexibility to incorporate new technologies into my artistic process.

Additionally, balancing creativity with commercial aspects has been a challenge. While I am passionate about creating meaningful and emotionally resonant artwork, I also need to consider the market demands and client expectations. Finding the right balance between artistic expression and commercial viability can be a delicate task.

As a freelancer, managing time and workload can also be challenging. Juggling multiple projects and deadlines while maintaining the quality of my work requires careful planning and organization.

Lastly, like many freelance artists, I have encountered periods of financial uncertainty. The nature of the industry can lead to fluctuating income and inconsistent project opportunities, which can create added pressure.

However, these challenges have also been valuable learning experiences. They have taught me to be adaptable, resilient, and resourceful. Overcoming creative blocks has taught me to seek inspiration from diverse sources, and embracing new technologies has expanded my artistic capabilities. Balancing artistic vision with commercial requirements has allowed me to find ways to maintain my authenticity while meeting client needs.

Despite the challenges, I am continuously motivated by my passion for art and storytelling. The joy and satisfaction that come from creating impactful and visually striking works make every challenge worthwhile. Through perseverance and a commitment to growth, I have been able to navigate unexpected obstacles and continue to thrive in my career as an illustrator and animator.

IL: How do you divide your time between professional and personal work?

HM: Dividing my time between professional and personal work is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and nurturing my creativity. I strive to create a structured schedule that allows me to dedicate sufficient time to both aspects of my work.

During weekdays, I primarily focus on my professional projects. I set specific hours for client work, ensuring that I am productive and efficient during those periods.

To preserve my creative energy, I incorporate short breaks throughout the day, allowing myself time to recharge and avoid burnout. This helps me maintain a high level of focus and productivity when working on professional projects.

In contrast, weekends are reserved for personal work and creative exploration. This is when I delve into personal projects, experimental artworks, and ideas that I’ve been eager to explore. Having dedicated time for personal projects enables me to freely express myself and pursue creative avenues that may not align with client demands.

Flexibility is a crucial component of my time management strategy. While I strive to adhere to a schedule, I understand that creative work can be unpredictable, and ideas may strike at unexpected moments. Embracing this spontaneity allows me to explore new concepts and foster a genuine passion for my craft.

Overall, creating a balanced division between professional and personal work is crucial for maintaining my creativity, staying motivated, and ensuring that I produce both impactful client projects and deeply fulfilling personal artwork. It allows me to grow as an artist and bring a sense of fulfillment to both realms of my creative journey.

Black & White #1
Black & White #3

IL: Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects you have worked on?

HM: Certainly! I have had the pleasure of working on several projects that hold a special place in my heart. Each project allowed me to explore different aspects of my artistic abilities and brought unique challenges and rewards.

One of my favourite projects was an animation short film that I created during my junior year in university. It was a significant undertaking that required months of hard work, collaboration with fellow students, and meticulous attention to detail. Seeing the final film on the big screen during the screening event was an incredibly rewarding moment. The excitement and sense of accomplishment we felt as a team was unforgettable.

Another favourite project was an illustration for a children’s book, Night on the Galactic Railroad. The opportunity to bring a story to life through my artwork was both fulfilling and delightful.

Recently, I completed a conceptual illustration project based on my personal experiences. This project allowed me to merge my passion for illustration with an imaginative animated world. Designing characters, environments, and visual elements to enhance the visual experience was truly thrilling.

Each project I work on holds its significance, they collectively contribute to my growth as an illustrator and animator. I cherish the diverse opportunities that come my way and look forward to continually challenging myself with new and exciting projects in the future.

Night on the Galactic Railroad #1
Night on the Galactic Railroad #4

IL: Your work on the picture book for “Night on the Galactic Railroad” is very striking and seems to be a much looser style than your other work. Can you tell us more about this project and how you arrived at the style and tone for the book?

HM: Thank you for your kind words. This project was a unique and memorable experience for me, as it allowed me to explore a different artistic style and tone than some of my other works.

The decision to adopt a looser style for this picture book was a deliberate and thoughtful one. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a classic literary work with a profound and imaginative narrative. I wanted to ensure that my illustrations complemented the poetic and dreamlike essence of the story.

During the initial stages of the project, I immersed myself in the original novel and other visual adaptations. This helped me gain a deep understanding of the story’s themes and characters. As I delved into the emotional nuances and visual symbolism of the book, I felt that a looser style would better capture the ethereal and emotional atmosphere.

The looser style allowed me to convey a sense of wonder and mystery, essential elements of the story. It provided room for imagination, allowing readers to interpret the visuals in their unique ways while connecting with the emotional journey of the characters.

Moreover, the looser style also added a sense of movement and spontaneity to the illustrations, mirroring the magical and unpredictable nature of the galactic journey undertaken by the protagonists.

To achieve the desired tone, I experimented with various artistic techniques, including watercolour and ink washes. These traditional mediums provided a fluid and organic feel to the illustrations, creating a sense of depth and emotion.

In summary, the creation of the picture book for Night on the Galactic Railroad was a delightful and immersive journey. By embracing a looser style, I sought to capture the story’s poetic and dreamlike qualities, inviting readers to embark on a magical and emotional adventure alongside the characters. It was a project close to my heart, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute my artistic vision to such a beloved literary work.

IL: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process – from the initial concept to the tools you use?

HM: My creative process is a dynamic and iterative journey that evolves with each project. It typically begins with a spark of inspiration, whether it’s a specific idea, emotion, or visual image that captures my imagination.

Ideation and Conceptualization: At the initial stage, I brainstorm and sketch out various ideas, exploring different concepts and compositions. I draw from my personal experiences, interests, and the project’s requirements to develop a strong foundation for the artwork.

Research and Reference Gathering: I often research to deepen my understanding of the subject matter or the visual style I want to achieve. This may involve studying historical references, gathering visual inspiration from various sources, or delving into relevant literature.

Thumbnail Sketches and Composition: Once I have a solid concept, I create thumbnail sketches to experiment with different compositions and arrangements. These small-scale drawings help me quickly visualize the overall design and choose the most effective layout.

Refinement and Drafting: From the selected thumbnail, I move on to creating a more detailed draft. This may involve refining the linework, exploring colour palettes, and experimenting with various visual elements to enhance the narrative and emotional impact.

Digital Rendering: As an artist who leverages digital tools, I transition to the digital realm to bring the artwork to life. Using software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, I meticulously refine the artwork, adding layers of depth, textures, and fine details.

Exploration of Mediums and Techniques: Depending on the project’s requirements, I may employ a combination of traditional and digital mediums. Watercolour, ink, and gouache are some of my favourite traditional mediums that I sometimes integrate into the digital workflow.

Feedback and Revision: Throughout the process, I actively seek feedback from colleagues, peers, or clients. Constructive criticism helps me refine and strengthen the artwork, ensuring that it aligns with the project’s vision and resonates with the intended audience.

Final Touches and Presentation: Once I am satisfied with the artwork’s visual narrative and emotional impact, I add final touches, adjusting colours, contrasts, and lighting if necessary. I then prepare the artwork for presentation, ensuring it meets the technical requirements and is ready for its intended platform, whether it’s for print or digital display.

In summary, my creative process is a blend of imagination, research, experimentation, and technical skill. It allows me to craft visually compelling and emotionally resonant artworks that bring my ideas to life and invite viewers to embark on a journey of imagination alongside me.

Sketch #1
Sketch #3

IL: How do you deal with artist’s block?

HM: Dealing with artist block is a common challenge that all creatives face at some point in their careers. When I encounter artist’s block, I employ several strategies to overcome it and reignite my creativity:

Take a Break: Sometimes, stepping away from the project or the creative process for a short while can be beneficial. Taking a break allows my mind to rest and reset, preventing burnout and giving me a fresh perspective when I return to the work.

Seek Inspiration from Nature: Nature is a boundless source of inspiration. Taking a walk outdoors, observing the beauty of the natural world, or simply spending time in a peaceful environment can help clear my mind and open the door to new creative ideas.

Experiment with New Techniques and Mediums: Trying out new artistic techniques or experimenting with different mediums can break the monotony and revitalize my creativity. Embracing the process of exploration allows me to discover unexpected approaches and styles.

Embrace Playfulness: Playfulness and spontaneity are powerful tools in overcoming artist’s block. Engaging in creative play, such as doodling, scribbling, or creating without any expectations, helps me tap into my inner childlike imagination.

Connect with Other Artists: Talking to fellow artists, joining art communities, or attending workshops and art events can provide support, encouragement, and new perspectives. Sharing experiences and ideas with other creatives can be inspiring and motivating.

Review Past Work: Looking back at my previous artworks and accomplishments can remind me of my growth and achievements, boosting my confidence and motivation to overcome artist’s block.

By incorporating these strategies into my creative routine, I can effectively navigate artist’s block and continue to produce meaningful and inspiring artwork.

IL: What advice would you give to others looking to make a living from art?

HM: Embrace Your Unique Style: Develop your own artistic voice and style. Embracing your uniqueness will set you apart from others and create a recognizable brand for your work. Don’t be afraid to be authentic and express your individuality through your art.

Stay Persistent and Patient: Building a successful career in art takes time and perseverance. There might be setbacks and challenges along the way, but staying persistent and patient will help you navigate through them and grow as an artist.

Showcase Your Work: Create a strong portfolio that showcases your best work. An online presence, such as a website or social media platforms, allows you to reach a broader audience and attract potential clients.

Be Open to Diverse Opportunities: Be willing to explore various artistic avenues. Art has numerous applications, from illustration and animation to concept art, graphic design, and more. Be open to diverse opportunities, as they can lead to unexpected and rewarding experiences.

Value Your Work: Understand the value of your art and set appropriate pricing for your services. Be confident in communicating the worth of your artistic skills and the time invested in creating each piece.

Embrace Criticism and Feedback: Be open to receiving constructive criticism and feedback on your work. It can help you grow and refine your art. Use feedback as a tool for improvement rather than taking it personally.

Balance Passion and Business Savvy: While passion drives art, it’s essential to balance it with business acumen. Learn about the practical aspects of freelancing or running an art business, such as contracts, invoicing, and client management.

Stay True to Your Vision: While commercial projects can be rewarding, don’t lose sight of your artistic vision and personal projects. Balancing commercial work with passion projects can keep your creativity alive and fulfilling.

Remember, making a living from art requires dedication, resilience, and a willingness to evolve. Embrace the journey, and never stop believing in the power of your creativity and the impact your art can have on others.

Good Morning #3

IL: Finally, one of our goals here is to widen people’s pool of inspiration – who are the artists/illustrators that inspire you?

HM: As an artist and illustrator, I observe and learn from various talented individuals. My favourite artists are Matsumoto Taiyo and Amano Yoshitaka:

Matsumoto Taiyo: His iconic manga and art style, best known for works like “Sunny” and “Tekkon Kinkreet,” have had a profound impact on me. His ability to craft rich narratives and emotionally resonate characters through his illustrations is truly inspiring. Especially his solid foundation and relaxed brushstrokes, every time I look at his work, both the content of the stories and his artistic skills make me linger and never want to leave.

Amano Yoshitaka: His ethereal and intricate illustrations, particularly in the “Final Fantasy” series and “Vampire Hunter D,” have left a lasting impression on me. His unique blend of detailed linework and dreamlike atmospheres has influenced my approach to creating fantastical worlds.

These artists have contributed significantly to the world of art and illustration, and they continue to motivate me to push the boundaries of my creativity. By broadening my pool of inspiration through their distinct styles and storytelling techniques, I continually strive to develop and refine my artistic voice.

You can find more of Hanyu Mu’s work on her website, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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