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Interview with Charlene Chua

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Read Time: 19 mins

Charlene Chua (who is also known by her nick-name, Sygnin) is a Toronto based illustrator and a digital artist. She worked as a graphic designer, a web producer and an interactive project manager before taking the plunge into illustrations full-time. Charlene has a varied and effective commercial style of illustration.

She has accomplished projects for variety of media like: advertising, editorials, childrens' books, and more. Her work has appeared in the "Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles' Illustration West 43 and 45," and "Ballistic Publishing's Exotique 4," as well as several other art books. We took the opportunity to talk with this talented artist about her work and her experiences as an illustrator.

1. Hello Charlene, welcome to VECTORTUTS! Give us a little background bio of yourself; tell us where you are from and what made you pursue digital arts.

Hi! Thanks for the interview VECTORTUTS! My name is Charlene Chua, and I am a full-time illustrator based in Toronto. I was born in Singapore and pretty much lived there until I moved over to Canada with my husband in 2007. My background is a varied mix, but it has always revolved around applied arts; I was a graphic designer, web designer, web producer and an interactive project manager before I decided to pursue illustration as a full-time career. Illustration was always my first preference (well, unless you count in childhood dreams of being a paleontologist), although things being as they were in Asia, it was not a very desirable job prospect at the time.

2. What are your memories about your very first brush with vector illustration. Did you receive any formal training? How much do you think your art has evolved since then?

I do remember the first time I used a vector program. I was studying Visual Communications at a school in Singapore and part of our course was an introduction to graphic software. This was back in 1997 or so and graphic software was beginning to take over the industry, but it was still very primitive compared to the versions on the market today. I think some of the lab computers may still have Photoshop versions that didn't have layers, and we all worked with a single Undo (which was still better than no Undo button), I think. Or maybe I'm suffering from early senility and am remembering things wrong!

Anyway, one of the classes was an introduction to Freehand. Freehand was the industry standard Swiss Army Knife in Singapore – it was used for everything from logo design to brochures to packaging. Like many people my initial response to the Pen tool was that it was a horrible and baffling tool that seemed to have a mind of its own. Another student in the class who was more familiar with the program had to show me how the Pen tool could be used to make bezier curves with anchor points and handles. It took me a while to get used to it though and at the start I hardly used Freehand for anything other than layout.

Eventually though, I did begin to enjoy working in Freehand, as I realized that it was perfect for giving me the results I liked (which at the time were things like flat color and smooth, uniform gradients). Being a failed air brush amateur, Freehand helped me do what I wanted with the airbrush without all the headaches, figuratively and literally. Over time I started to finish artwork with the program, and that has evolved into the way I work today.

The way I work has obviously changed a fair bit since I started with Freehand, partly since I switched over to Illustrator which offers a much bigger tool bag than Freehand (which is pretty much dead these days anyway). I work a lot faster now thanks to years of practice working my images in my style, but at the same time I would like to think I am still evolving and trying to find new things to do in vector.

3. You started with Freehand, what made you switch to Illustrator? What are some of the pros and cons of working in Illustrator for you? What are the other programs or software that you use?

For one thing, it drove me crazy that there was no color calibration between Freehand and Photoshop at the time. The colors would look vastly different and I could never tell which one was more correct. I'm sure my setup was not calibrated as well as it is now back then, but still, the color variance really bugged me.

The turning point though, came when I needed to export a particular piece I had done in Freehand MX as a hi-res TIFF file. The image was about letter size and I was trying to export it at 300dpi. I had used a fair amount of blurs and lighting effects (I forget what they are called exactly but they basically work the same as lighting modes). The export, which seemed to hang my computer, took over 5 hours. Exasperated, I tried opening the file in Illustrator and exporting it from there. Illustrator took less than a minute to do the same thing.

Now, I may have been doing something wrong in Freehand – perhaps there was a command somewhere to Flatten the image or something that I was not aware of. But here's the other thing: when I tried to find help online, there was hardly any information about Freehand apart from marketing pieces and general product reviews. Illustrator, by contrast, already had a healthy user base who contributed a lot of user-generated help by way of forums, tutorials and sites such as yourselves.

So, my switch was a practical one. I needed something that worked faster, and the additional support from online didn't hurt. It took a while to get used to the controls in Illustrator but I'm very happy that I made the switch. Overall Illustrator is a much more artistically inclined piece of software than Freehand, and it's calibration capabilities with other Adobe programs make it much easier to work with. Though sometimes I miss some of Freehand's less artistic controls – it had the most robust measurement tools, which made it excellent for designing very precise designs. It was easier to control the curvature of rounded corners, and its duplicate or clone function was more pleasurable to use than Illustrator's Copy and Paste in Front/Back. Freehand also let you create multiple documents which was very handy for designing brochures etc... as I mentioned it was a great Swiss Army Knife whereas Adobe forces you to learn and use two or more programs to get the same thing done.

4. Walk us through the creation of a typical artwork. How much of your creative process takes place using traditional methods? What is the first spark that triggers you to start on a piece?

Uh, quite often the first spark is the promise of being paid at the end of a job!

But seriously, I work on my personal pieces and commercial pieces in different ways. For commercial pieces, I take a brief from the client and once we've agreed on a price I get down to work. Sometimes this involves making very rough concept thumbnails to give some general ideas about what to do for the picture. Other times this is not needed and I go straight to creating a sketch. I tend to make my sketches the old fashioned way, with pencils and paper. Lately I've been using Photoshop more often to do touch up sketching and compositing, but for the most part, I still draw things out by hand on paper.

Anyway, once the sketch is done, it gets sent to the client who then approves it or suggests some changes. It's rare for a client to reject a sketch outright – I don't know if this is particular to me or whether it's the case with most illustrators. My final sketches are always sized to the correct dimensions of a piece, or at least are sized in proportion (it's a bit unruly to have a sketch the actual size of a billboard). Where possible I drop in things like word boxes and gutter lines to make it easier for the art director to see if there are any last minute changes that need to be made.

When the sketch is approved, I scan it in and import the scan into Illustrator. Next, I start the rendering based on that. I don't normally plan out my color palette beforehand. I have a general color scheme in my head and I pick my colors as I go along. The nice thing about working in Illustrator is that if a color doesn't work out the way you intended you can easily change it around until it work for you. Rendering usually takes up more time than drawing the sketch, but on the other hand, I find it the least stressful part of creating the illustration. The main work for me comes from generating ideas and balancing things in a sketch.

5. You don't only make vector arts, although they form the majority of your works. You also dabble in other media as well. So once you have an idea, what determines whether it ends up being a vector piece, or a digital painting or likewise?

Since I moved to Canada, I've felt more at peace with myself and my work, and for the first time in many years I've felt like sometimes I just need to express myself without the burden of trying to communicate anything in particular.

I think you've noticed the ink pieces on my site, under the yume section. Those are my newer personal pieces, made by me and, largely, for me. While I love working in Illustrator, it is well married to the control freak part of my brain. As such, when I work in it I tend to obsess over the precision of things and that runs counter to the more expressionist, perhaps artsy part of me.

So the ink and natural media pieces are a solution to that. I guess the general rule in my head right now is that if it's for work, it's going to be Illustrator plus Photoshop. If it's experimental or promotional, then it can be a mix of digital and traditional, but ultimately digital because I would always sell my services as a digital illustrator not a traditional one. If its for myself then it can be digital and traditional, with a heavier emphasis on traditional techniques and applications.

Space Girl

6. I saw your video demonstrating a rendering of a Spacegirl in Illustrator and I was spellbound by your speed and the accuracy of those crisp and smooth lines. You have the complete grasp over Illustrator tools; please give us some insight on how to develop such skills. I also noticed that you flipped your illustration horizontally at some point before the conclusion, why?

Thanks for watching it! It's sped wayyyy up, obviously, but still quite a quick render. I think the video is actually 48min. I took some breaks in between (doctor's orders!).

Speed anything is always about showing off your proficiency with something. The key is knowing how you do whatever it is you're doing. There are many, many ways to work in Illustrator and all I am demonstrating really is the way I work with my methods at near top speed. I have a set of hotkeys and shortcut keys memorized in my head so that I don't need to look at the keyboard to activate them anymore. And there are some routines that are semi-automatic to me just because I've done them over and over for years. I also do have customized palettes, which saves a lot of time since I don't have to remix commonly used swatches again and again.

The flipping trick, it's an old trick that most kids who wanted to be comic books artists in the 80s would know. It comes from an old book called, "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way." Flipping the image, according to the book, helps you spot mistakes more easily. My theory is that you grow used to seeing things in one way, so when you flip it, you can see things with a more unbiased eye. Again it's something I've been doing for years, with tracing paper, a lightbox and now the computer. Don't do it too often though, otherwise you get used to seeing your picture from both sides and you can't tell the mistakes anymore!

7. What is your favorite Illustrator tool, trick and technique? Is there any special effect that you usually use or any tips you might want to share?

My favorite Illustrator tool is probably lighting modes. It's the same as in Photoshop – set something to Multiply and it immediately turns anything white transparent. I use it a lot on shadows. Though I hear that CS4 works with gradients in a new way so maybe this trick is about to get obsolete!

8. You have done a lot corporate work, what do you strive for in bringing forth what the client wants? Do you enjoy doing that as much as your personal work?

When it comes to client work, I always have the brief in mind and I try to realize that in the best way possible. Sometimes, this means I have to be very exact in depicting things, and other times I have to come up with interesting ideas. I have a range in my style and I consider which is the best to use depending on the nature of the picture, as well as the budget and the time I have to work on something. Ultimately, I want to make something that the client will be happy with, and hopefully something I can be proud of when it's done too.

I enjoy my client work, though somewhat differently from my own pieces. Client work is challenging as I have to consider the illustration in a larger context. So I enjoy the challenge of making something given the restrictions of a piece. When it comes to my personal work, I enjoy just messing around with ideas or techniques, or drawing something I like over and over again.

9. You also write for Photoshop Creative and Official Painter magazines please tell us a little more about that. What are the kinds of articles that you have written? You also have a familiar sounding website, Vectortutes.com, do you plan to write tutorials?

I've written different kinds of articles for both magazines. The editors (both very nice ladies) usually contact me with an article idea in mind already, and they tell me how many pages the article is supposed to be. Then it's up to me to create the tutorial artwork and write up the article. The articles I write tend to be for the beginner to intermediate readers, and I try to make tutorials that can be accomplished. I hate it when I read a tutorial that has brilliant artwork, but when I try to follow the tutorial I just can't get the same results because the instructions are too vague.

By a odd coincidence I bought vectortutes.com around the same time (I think) that you guys started with VECTORTUTS and the other sites. I hope that hasn't caused a lot of confusion! Originally I wanted to make vector tutorials and put them on the site but I just haven't had the time to write any good ones. Maybe eventually I might get around to doing more, though I would prefer to write a book or something if that were the case.

10. You have a wide range in style from children's illustrations to portraits to abstract art to sexy seductive women, how easy or difficult it is for you to switch drawing between them? What are the things that you keep in mind while catering to such a wide range in audience?

It's usually not a big headache for me to switch between my own styles. If a client mentions they like the look of a particular piece, then I know how I drew that and I can give them something similar. The only real problem so far has been the clash between the sexy girl pictures and my children's work. Obviously the two don't exactly go well together from a thematic standpoint, although the weird thing is that I've had jobs whereby the client liked my girly pics, but wanted something done for kids.

Anyway, to reduce the confusion I've removed most of the girly pics from my current site. I have relaunched sygnin.com (my original site name, and the nickname that most people who like my girly pics know me by thanks to DeviantArt) as a separate site to house the pinup pictures.

11. Temptress, sultry beautiful women is also something that you love to draw. Why is that? When did you know you could draw them so well? How did that evolve?

I just like drawing such women. Who knows, maybe that's just an expression of who I really want to be or something. My women are always thinking about something, but they're not about to just tell you what it is they want or why. It's a game of cat and mouse. That's what I think when I draw them anyway.

When I was a kid, I picked up a copy of "Conan the Barbarian" and it was a lovely piece illustrated by Ernie Chan which featured Conan, Red Sonja and Valeria. I just loved how the two females characters were so capable in the story, and they looked far better than Conan. A few years later, I think (embarrassingly enough) that I was watching the first 90s X-Men cartoon on TV and I just liked the female characters. I picked up some X-Men copies, including some Jim Lee ones, and for a while there was trying to draw like every other hot 90s comic book artist.

The main problem was that while I liked drawing the girls, I hated drawing big muscular guys in tights. Then one day I noticed a manga magazine and I just really preferred the look of the guys there. And it seemed easier to draw anyway. So my style evolved to incorporate elements of manga and anime, in the hope of balancing both the guys and girls. It, um, didn't really work out so well for the guys since I still preferred drawing the girls.

For a while there I was obsessed with drawing the perfect girl, and to be honest I think I did it with the Goth Girl and Basque pictures. They were what I wanted to draw, and having done them I found it harder to come up with new pinup drawings that I would be satisfied with. I also got a bit bored of just drawing girls with no backgrounds. I still draw girls (they are especially good for warmup sketches) but it's not as high up my list as before and now you know why. It's cool to do up the odd piece now and then, but it would take a lot to get me going on a large new collection at this point.


12. Do you have a favorite piece you have created? And if you do, why is it your favorite?

Oooo.... that's a hard question! That's like asking which of your children you like best!

Well... I think quite often I think the newest thing I do is the thing I like best. And then I do something else and that becomes my favorite piece. I do have some old art from when I was 16 or so that I like a lot. I am still very proud of it, not because it looks awesome but because I do remember doing it out of love and frustration at the time. I also remember showing it as a portfolio piece for getting into schools and getting lukewarm responses from the teachers because it wasn't a still-life painting or some kind of classical Asian art. One picture is of a knight with a celtic sort border and the other is an indifferent sort of fantasy girl running a sword through her chest (which has been a running motif with me over the years).

13. Do you feel things are changing for the design community? Are things getting better globally and locally? What goals do you have for yourself?

I would be quite afraid if the design community wasn't always changing. I mean, design exists in response to the needs of society, and society should be constantly morphing.

At present I think that there is a lot of overlap between quite a few of the design arts thanks to technology. The tools have become more accessible, and knowledge flows much more freely over the Internet. Where twenty years ago, you would have a layout artist, a designer and an illustrator, these days one person could do the job of all three. There's a good and bad side to this obviously. I could make a list of both good and bad, but I think that would go on for a very long time! Maybe we could keep that for another article in the future?

As for things getting better or not... again it's a very long list of yes and no. Right now, with the world economies going down the toilet, I have a feeling that the general mood is going to have an impact on the design industry. I think the perception is that there will be fewer jobs going around, or jobs with lowered budgets. I don't disagree with this, but I don't think it will be a disaster for the industry. Things will eventually bounce back.

My goals... hm, I don't know really. I have ongoing goals which are pretty boring, like trying to get new clients, explore my art. Oh oh I know! My big goal is to be happy! Or.... not be unhappy!

14. Charlene, thanks a lot for the interview! Any advice or words for someone who's looking to make illustration and digital art their career?

Thank you for interviewing me! It was a lot of fun.

Advice for anyone who wants to be an illustrator? Same as always – have cash to spare! Like any freelance job, income is usually not a certainty and it can take a while to build up a client base. Be realistic – either save up cash, live with your parents or get a second job to keep yourself alive for the first little bit. Be patient and keep trying. Build a portfolio with a strong and consistent style.

Charlene Chua on Web:

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