Victo Ngai: How to draw suc­cess

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By XIAO LIXIN in New York xi­aolixin@chi­

Be­ing nom­i­nated for and even­tu­ally named one of Forbes’ 30 Un­der 30 movers and shak­ers might be hugely ex­cit­ing, not only be­cause of the money but also be­cause of the in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion. Yet Victo Ngai, a win­ner of 2014’s award in the cat­e­gory of Art and Style, seems sur­pris­ingly cool about the honor.

“I was in­deed sur­prised when I was told I was among the fi­nal­ists in the se­lec­tion, af­ter be­ing rec­om­mended by the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, my uni­ver­sity, but not as much as later, when it was ac­tu­ally awarded,” said Ngai, a 27-year-old, New York-based illustrator from Hong Kong.

“This ti­tle helps ex­pand my client list,” she said, “but it doesn’t change things as much as peo­ple out­side my pro­fes­sion ex­pect.”

“What makes me hap­pi­est about be­ing a Forbes hon­oree is that, af­ter my story got spread on so­cial me­dia, many peo­ple in Hong Kong and on the Chi­nese main­land have started to know what il­lus­tra­tion is and been in­spired and en­cour­aged by my ex­am­ple,” Ngai said.

Even read­ers with no art back­ground who see Ngai’s il­lus­tra­tions in pub­li­ca­tions like The New York Times and The New Yorker mag­a­zine rec­og­nize her unique style: de­tailed swirls of lines and a sig­na­ture pal­ette of bright and lively red, green, blue, or­ange and brown, all cre­at­ing a tra­di­tional Chi­nese feel.

It’s a style that comes from her dis­tinc­tive cul­tural back­ground.

“I was born in Guang­dong prov­ince,” she said. “I moved with my par­ents to Hong Kong when I was one and grew up there. Hong Kong has left me with a lot of child­hood mem­o­ries, but also im­pacted my il­lus­tra­tion style. The ex­pe­ri­ence of living in a city with streets al­ways crowded with peo­ple, tall build­ings and cars has some­how led di­rectly to my pref­er­ence for de­tail and rich­ness in my work.”

Many of her il­lus­tra­tions of­fer a win­dow for her to re­call her early child­hood mem­o­ries in Hong Kong or the fun mem­o­ries she has with her friends in the US. One work is ti­tled Bowl­cut.

“When I was a small kid, par­ents in Hong Kong were so into giv­ing their chil­dren a neat bowl cut hair­style, so was my mom,” said Ngai. “But I did not like my hair that way, since ev­ery kid had the same hair­style and I wanted to be dif­fer­ent and unique. So in my early il­lus­tra­tions, I put those feel­ings into my work.”

De­spite the fact that she had never had any pro­fes­sional art train­ing be­fore be­ing en­rolled in RISD, one of the world’s top art schools, Ngai, as an only daugh­ter, drew a lot while she was home alone. It was her way of cre­at­ing her own mag­i­cal world to en­ter­tain her­self. Her mother al­ways sup­ported and en­cour­aged her to fol­low her dream.

Her first big break was a half-page il­lus­tra­tion pub­lished in the mag­a­zine Planspon­sor her ju­nior year. It would even­tu­ally help get her free­lance ca­reer off the ground.

“It was ac­tu­ally an as­sign­ment for my pro­fes­sor Chris Buzelli’s class but it was seen and cho­sen by his wife, Soo­jin Buzelli, cre­ative direc­tor of the mag­a­zine, and was printed,” said Ngai.

“That case was very im­por­tant for me as an in­ter­na­tional stu­dent, as I only had one year to get a work visa to stay and work in the coun­try and I started to do part-time work in my ju­nior year,” Ngai ex­plained. “If it was not for this very smooth start, I don’t know if I could have de­cided to work as a free­lancer, rather than join­ing a com­pany to do rou­tine of­fice work.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from RISD in 2010, she moved to and has been work­ing in New York as an illustrator.

Her unique style helps at­tract com­mis­sions from both pub­li­ca­tions and com­pa­nies, as well as fol­low­ers on so­cial me­dia like Tum­blr. And her style is still evolv­ing.

“It’s bor­ing to draw in the same style with­out the slight­est change for 10 or 20 years, isn’t it?” she said. “No one’s work can re­main to­tally un­changed be­cause your sur­round­ings, where your in­spi­ra­tion comes from, keeps chang­ing con­stantly, oth­er­wise your work is in­sin­cere.”

“My work now may look dif­fer­ent from my very first works but un­der closer ob­ser­va­tion you no­tice it is a grad­ual change,” she said. “I tried to make some changes from my pre­vi­ous ‘too crowded’ com­po­si­tions and leave some space in the work called Horse Too Big and I like it very much.”

As a young artist not yet reach­ing 30, she is al­ready re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful in terms of the praise and hon­ors that she has re­ceived: Apart from the Forbes award, she has also won two gold medals from the US So­ci­ety of Il­lus­tra­tors and The New York Times named her works note­wor­thy il­lus­tra­tions in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

Again, she down­plays th­ese hon­ors. “It’s just what peo­ple say,” Ngai said with a smile. “How should we de­fine suc­cess? The an­swer is yes, in my case, if suc­cess means be­ing so­cially and pro­fes­sion­ally ap­proved and rec­og­nized by those who pre­vi­ously did not think I could make it.”

Ngai still lives and works in a 55- square- me­ter apart­ment in Man­hat­tan. Small as the place is, the cre­ativ­ity and imag­i­na­tion that come from it seem bound­less.


Bowl­cut Ngai harked back to her child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing given a reg­u­la­tion hair­cut in the il­lus­tra­tion ti­tled Bowl­cut.


Leap Full page for Planspon­sor about tran­si­tional man­age­ment, go­ing from point A to point B.


Horse Too Big Cover for CIO Europe on an ar­ti­cle about com­pa­nies that are too big to be nim­ble, and are un­able to re­act fast. The idea is that the big horse is be­ing con­fined by the page while the small ones are free to leap from page to page.

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