Thank you so much, Shirley, for taking the time to speak with us about your stunning illustration work!
We'd love to start out by asking, how did you first learn to paint?
I started early with small group art lessons. Students of various experience levels would work out of the teacher’s converted garage studio, and the teacher would rotate between students, creating the opportunity for everyone to learn from each other’s progress and setbacks. I first learned to paint by starting with watercolor paintings of still life subject matter (fruits, plants, sculptures, etc.), practicing skills like painting subject matter from life / in-person, mixing various colors and shades, and applying the paint mixture to get various effects. A lot of the learning was by trial-and-error, just experimenting with different ratios of pigment-to-water, timing of paint application, brush types, etc. One of the great things about learning to paint with watercolors is that you can see the results almost immediately, as quickly as water dries.
When did you first decide to try our natural pigments, and why?
I first heard about Natural Earth Paint when it sponsored a show with the Warrior Painters at Gallery Nucleus (Alhambra, CA) earlier this year. Since my artwork draws inspiration from nature and wildlife, I wanted to incorporate natural, sustainable materials into what I make as well as how I make it. The powdered pigments also appealed to me for their versatility; they came with recipes to make four types of paint (watercolor, gouache, oil, tempera), allowing me to mix various types and amounts of paint as needed. I also appreciated that the pigments come in flat recyclable paper packaging, because I don’t need any more half-used plastic paint tubes in my collection!
What art supplies do you use in your creative process now, and how do they work together?
Since my ideas often come to me in words, images, and photographs, I keep a journal for notes and thoughts (including descriptions of projects I plan to do), a brush pen and sketchbook for roughing out visual studies, and a camera with a zoom lens for taking reference photos or whatever catches my eye. Once I choose a project to tackle and have a basic idea of what I want to convey visually, I’ll usually do a few more sketches to explore different compositions and piece together elements of the design to see if they work together. After further developing my design, I might look at a few online references to see how artists have approached similar design elements, and further refine my design. At this stage, I have a pencil line drawing of my design in its final scale on suitable paper, as well as references for color, lighting, subject pose and expression, etc. I use tracing paper to trace over my original design so I can save and refer to it as needed. Then I take out the brushes, paints, and palette and get to work on executing the piece, in as many sessions as it takes.
How would you describe your artistic style?
While I can’t say I have a single style, I often use color and scale to spark visual interest, and I enjoy using intricate linework to define naturalistic textures and organic shapes.
What artists inspire you the most?
That depends on the day, but my J.A.W. Cooper and James Jean books enjoy pretty heavy rotation. I also regularly return to the works of Charley Harper and Kawanabe Kyosai.
Do you have any tips for artists who are interested in creating illustration-style work like you do?
Whatever you want to illustrate, practice getting your subject’s recognizable, characteristic details into your design, and don’t worry too much about the rest. If your subject is a specific plant or animal, look at scientific illustrations / anatomical drawings / botanical illustrations of that plant or animal in various poses, stages of growth, color variations, etc. When possible, take photographs to use as references from real life, and incorporate observation-based details into your design to make the artwork feel lifelike. To put it another way, the human mind is good at taking what’s on the page and filing in the blanks, so you just need to give your viewer enough solid rungs on the ladder to climb the rest of the way up themselves.
What challenges did you face when you started painting and drawing, and what made the learning process easier for you?
Drawing from observation, getting the proportions of what’s in 3D space looking correct on a 2D surface—was a challenge. Paintbrush and water control was a challenge, resulting in many pages of blotchy flower petals. Today, being able to draw and paint quickly enough to for plein air painting is a challenge. It all takes time and practice. One thing that makes the learning process easier for me is picking projects that have elements that can challenge and reward me. For example, I designed one of my projects for the challenge of perspective drawing and the reward of drawing cute animals. Also, having friends with the same interests who can be activity partners helps make social what can be a pretty solitary activity otherwise. You can relate to, encourage, and motivate each other.
What have the benefits of engaging in creative work been for you?
Working on creative projects gives me space to appreciate life’s little details and push myself to develop my visual language skills and creative toolkit. I also enjoy being part of L.A.’s diverse artistic community, meeting fellow artists and art enthusiasts at shows and online.
Where can our audience see more of your work?
I’m on Instagram @shirleyhuangart. My next show is at The Hive Gallery (Los Angeles, CA) “Rising Stars of LA” in June.