Psychology major and proclaimed films and literature addict, Lia Liao’s interests are at the forefront of her artwork. She blends conceptual and narrative themes to create illustrations that are atmospheric and emotive.
Since graduating in 2019 with an MA degree from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Liao’s editorial work has featured in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and PBS. Her work has been recognised by the Red Dot Design Award, Society of Illustrators and 3×3 International Illustration Annual.
We spoke with Liao about her career so far.
Illustrators’ Lounge: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into illustration?
Lia Liao: I studied psychology in college and spent a lot of time reading novels and watching movies. By writing reviews, I felt language can easily lead to misunderstandings, which made me start to use images to express myself. I drew as a hobby for four years and after I graduated from college, illustrations became part of me, where I can be true to myself and free to express my feelings.
IL: You majored in psychology but did you always plan to pursue a career in illustration?
LL: I didn’t start to draw until college, and always considered it as a hobby rather than a career. It was when I got accepted into the illustration MA program in MICA and fully engaged in the system that made me think about being an illustrator as my career. It showed me that as long as you think and draw, there are plenty of opportunities.
IL: You have worked with some very notable clients including The New Yorker and The Washington Post – how did these opportunities come about?
LL: It’s important to keep reaching out to contacts. I meet so many illustrators that are afraid of not being good enough so choose not to reach out until they are ready. But in my opinion, as long as you keep working hard and improving, you will never be satisfied with yourself. So don’t be shy and reach out confidently to tell the market that you’re welcome to any challenges and opportunities.
IL: What unexpected challenges have you faced as a freelancer?
LL: Time management. Sometimes commissions all come together in one week and I get super busy, and sometimes there will be a long time I have nothing to do at all. But that gives me time to do my personal work, so it’s hard to say it’s a challenge.
IL: Your illustrations invite people to think, layered with symbolism and metaphors, has this approach received pushback from art directors who may have been wanting something more literal?
LL: Yes sometimes. I was struggling with this before, what if the market wanted something more direct instead of my work? But I think it is not only the market that is choosing illustrators, illustrators are also choosing their market. If I compromise my way of thinking, I will lose my personality and identity. But when it comes to actual commissions, I always make several sketches ranging from literal to symbolic for the art directors to choose.
IL: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process – from the initial concept to the tools you use?
LL: I spend half of the time brainstorming and thumbnails until I come up with a perfect solution for the topic, after that I will do some colour sketches to build up the proper atmosphere and emotion for the image. Basically, I won’t start drawing before I can imagine a clear final stage of the illustration in my head, which makes my actual drawing process quite fast. I work digitally, Procreate most of the time, and with some collaboration with Photoshop.
IL: How important is it for you that the final image matches the vision you have in your head?
LL: It is the anchor. For me, drawing is more about designing a system than an experiment. Everything that appears in my illustration has its own position and function, to light up the main element or evoke a particular emotion.
IL: Are you working on any personal projects?
LL: Yes, in the long-term. I keep working on my personal work which is related to movies and novels, but my personal project will be totally about myself. It goes with my process of self-defining. I used to doubt myself for gaining inspiration from other artwork which makes me more of a translator than a creator. My personal project will still be a translation but to the one source I know the best of all.
IL: What advice would you give to others looking to make a living from art?
LL: Give it a try. Art is such a diverse market that needs all kinds of voices. I used to think I started drawing too late and the four-year psychology study was a waste of time, but it actually helps. And the illustration market today is growing, considering metaverse and remote working, so why not.
IL: Finally, one of our goals here is to widen people’s pool of inspiration. Who are the artists/illustrators that inspire you?
LL: That would be Tomer Hanuka. He made so many amazing pieces based on movies. It helped me see that what I do for a hobby could actually become my career. Among all others that inspired me, I think he is the one that had the most impact.