In just four years, Zheng Wei Gu went from bedroom hobbyist to big-budget films. Gary Evans finds out how…
Prepare to feel very, very jealous. Guweiz, who took up drawing aged 16, recently completed artwork for the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell, featuring Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson. He’s 21.
Growing up in Singapore, the artist – real name Zheng Wei Gu – focused on doing well at school, passing exams and getting into a good university. He planned to become a pharmacist. Then he saw a video on YouTube, a tutorial on how to draw an anime face. He gave it a go, and managed to replicate the picture pretty well.
“It was probably a video meant for 12 year olds,” he says, “Given that I was 16, it wasn’t too hard for me to end up with a decent copy. Still, I filled up a few pages trying to copy the steps.”
Over the next year, Guweiz spent every free moment drawing. Then he enlisted for national service (a mandatory two years spent as a fulltime soldier in the Singapore army), which gave even him more time to draw and think about drawing. Yet with no formal training, he was “drawing blindly” and making plenty of mistakes. As the artist puts it, “I was like a random guy who decided he was going to start making gourmet soup, but with only memories of the really good soups he’d tasted before.”
Guweiz searched the internet for references. Photographers became a good source of inspiration. He stopped drawing blindly and based work on the real world. Social media became his art school. He used it for advice and feedback, for validation that he was moving in the right direction. His posts often reached hundreds of thousands of people.
But it wasn’t until 2014, a year and a half after Guweiz took up drawing, that he decided to properly study the fundamentals. That’s when things really opened up. “It was kind of like tasting bland soup so many times – one fully realises how far it is from the desired quality,” he reveals.
Out on his own
Guweiz’s professional career only got going in September 2016. He started working as an illustrator for Legend of the Cryptids, the battle card game by Mynet Inc. Things moved quickly. He recently completed promotional art for the big-budget film Ghost in the Shell.
“I’m making a pretty good living for a 21-year-old artist working full time. That fills me with a sense of urgency though, reminding me that I’m really on my own, and essentially out of the system, while most people my age can expect guaranteed jobs when they obtain their degrees.”
Initially, he found it difficult working with art directors, particularly having to pitch idea. But they’ve all been positive experiences – even the first time when someone painted over his work. “I just thought it was a really amazing thing that I’m getting guidance on how to make an image better,” Guweiz says.
When completing work for a client, the artist believes the most important thing to remember is that he’s telling someone else’s story. But because he secures assignments based on his portfolio, he usually gets to put his own stamp on things.
“My Ghost in the Shell piece for Paramount is a pretty good example,” the artist says. “The brief gave me a
good idea of what’s going on, and as an independent contractor I had a quick verbal discussion and pitch with the client side, and then sent in a few of my sketches.
“None of those made it to the next stage, but what they did was to convey to the client what kind of general impression I was aiming for. A quick prompt later and I was able to come up with a sketch and composition that the client and I both really liked.”
asking key questions
Guweiz says that an image’s success usually comes down to how solid the underlying idea is. He reveals that an idea often takes a few days to “mature” in his head, but a new project always starts with the same questions: “What’s the impression you want to make? Does your subject and general content in the piece help to make that impression? Is there a better subject or a better composition?”
The artist splits his personal work into three main categories: colour sketches (usually an environment and simple character, focusing on mood and story); character drawings (zoomed in on a character); and photo studies (to sharpen his skills). Next comes the camera angle – the position from which the viewer sees this image. Guweiz uses brightly coloured boxes to show where major shapes go.
By keeping things simple, he can easily move stuff around and adjust contours. He’s looking for the most “readable” image possible. For speed and flexibility, he works digitally. If he feels he’s lost his way then he goes back to an earlier draft to see where he went wrong. It’s a kind of reverse engineering that helps him to correct any technical mistakes.
I was like a guy who decided to make gourmet soup, but only with memories of the good soups he’d tasted before
Guweiz maintains a simple, but disciplined routine. He wakes up at 7am, eats breakfast, and paints for the rest of day. A film or documentary plays while he works, but never music. He uses Photoshop and draws on a Wacom Touch, the same one he’s had for years, even though he recently invested in a 27-inch Cintiq. How long he works depends on how well the work’s going. Sometimes, he’s still at it come 2am. He always tries to start a new piece before going to bed, so he doesn’t wake up to a blank canvas.
The shadow of Shanghai
Guweiz generally describes his work as fantasy, but can pinpoint the biggest influence on the look and feel of his art, the foundations for everything he builds on family visits to Shanghai. “I harboured a strange and probably unhealthy love for the hazy smell in the air, especially when it came with the occasional fog that would roll around and obscured the Huangpu River and the Oriental Pearl Tower, the view from my uncle’s balcony, dustcovered plants, grimy suburbs with cluttered apartment stairwells and winter days spent playing arcade emulators with my cousin. I suppose that’s why I associate greyish days and greying places with happy thoughts, and because of that I tend to gravitate towards greyish, ambiguous moods.”
Guweiz is thinking big for his future. And why not, considering all he’s achieved in four years? He continues to work on monthly illustrations for Legend of the Cryptids, but wants to create character design for a AAA fantasy game or film. He’s even considered moving into art direction.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty as to how I can get there,” he says, “but I’m also aware that self-improvement is my only option of having a shot at these goals. Not being in a real-life art community with professional peers is a disadvantage I have to overcome.
“Given my slow start in art, personal work and consistent study is the reason behind why I was able to start making art as a career in the first place. I feel it could easily be my downfall, if I let complacency take root…”
Not being part of a real-life art community with professional peers is a disadvantage I have to overcome
Wanderer “This is one of the first pieces where I framed the composition around the character. I learnt I needed to be more accurate with shapes, to direct focus around the image.”
After Practice “I was inspired by photos of zebra crossings, with blurred traffic in the background. The challenge was to explore multiple colour schemes, seeing what worked.”
Nier Fan art “There are character designs that look simple but achieve a level of appeal that just stuns the crowd – me included. 2B, from the new Nier: Automata, is such a character.”
Flute “Landscape portraits are a bit of an oxymoron, but once in a while I find such compositions powerful to use. The horizontal orientation of the flute and pose suit the scene.”
Flats “Sometimes I like to build a sketch around one idea. In this case, I thought a sitting pose on a sidewalk bench could look cool.”
Pipa “This was an exercise in values, shapes and edge control. Getting the basics in place was satisfying and resulted in an image that could be read easily.” Lady Maria “The Dark Souls and Bloodborne franchises have always been a great source of inspiration for me. I learnt that there’s beauty in structure and form, even when we hold back on colour.” Rooftop “I like low camera placements because they enable me to have full control over the overlaps going on in the background.”
Greyhound “I tried to achieve a cinematic feel, based on armour references. The pose may not make much sense, but there’s value in presenting compositions that make a strong first impression.” Arrest “One of my earlier pieces, but I feel it’s aged well because I paid attention to painting accurate forms. I was happy with the slightly warm colour scheme being applied to a rainy setting.”