Q&A with Freda Chiu

Freda Chiu is a Sydney-based freelance illustrator, with a diverse client list including Penguin Random House, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Google and Sony. She is also an Educator at The University of Technology Sydney. We spoke with Freda to hear more about her journey into the book industry, her creative process, and working on ‘Good Selfie’ with Turia Pitt.

You do a lot of work for the publishing industry – can you tell us a bit about your trajectory? Did you always want to be an Illustrator?

When I was in primary school, I told my parents that my life dream was to be an artist “drawing portraits at the markets while working at Woolworths on the side”.  So, while I didn’t know I’d wanted to be an illustrator specifically, I always knew I wanted to do something art-related with my life! My grandma was an exhibiting artist in Hong Kong so I was very inspired by her growing up.

After high school, I studied Visual Communications at University to become a graphic designer, but quickly realised I preferred the expressive nature of drawing. During this time, I got a job working in the children’s section at a book store where I stayed for eight years.  Although it was a retail job, being surrounded by beautiful books and passionate people nurtured my love for them. I remember the first time I picked up Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and was in awe at how something made for children could be that beautiful and impactful!

After graduating, I got my first freelance illustration gig at Penguin Lantern where I had interned as a student, then did a few illustration jobs here and there for local businesses and publications. I also took part in a lot of group and solos exhibitions which allowed me to develop my voice. Because my work has a strong narrative element, most of the jobs I got were related to publishing in some way, and things snow-balled from there.

Can you talk us through the process from the beginning of a book illustration project to the finished result? How much input and collaboration do you have with the book team?

Although the brief and level of interaction with the book team is different for every job, generally my art making process is similar. I love that there is a great deal of trust involved between the book team and illustrator too. While I’m sometimes provided suggestions, the illustrations are never dictated to me. After reading the brief, I always start with research, brainstorming, then turn a couple of ideas into refined sketches before sending them to the book team for review. This is followed by back and fourths between the client and myself, before getting approval to make final art.

For Good Selfie by Turia Pitt, the process was very collaborative with the design team and author, as it was self-published. The look and feel of the book was prompted by my initial illustration for the first chapter, so it was a lot of fun to make something for the design team to use as inspiration! After analysing the brief, I read the book copy a few times to understand the core ideas from each chapter. I also researched the author, as I wanted to capture her bright personality and energy. The book was written to feel relatable to teens, so it was important that the illustrations were exciting and to consider cultural representation in the character designs.

After that, I began brainstorming ideas which involved big, messy brainstorm maps and thumbnails. Because the chapter openers described abstract concepts, I approached the illustrations similarly to an editorial illustration brief, relying on word associations to capture core ideas. From there, I refined two of my favourite sketches alongside some colour options, and sent it to the client and design team for review.

After the client chose her preference and the colour scheme was established, the talented Evi Oetomo and Susan Le from Evi O Studio worked their magic and designed the text and layouts. For the next few months, we worked simultaneously – I illustrated the rest of the chapter openers and cover, sending concept sketches to the team for feedback before moving onto final art. Meanwhile, the design team worked on layouts and text separately with Turia, checking in with me every so often so we were on the same page.

Once the illustrations were painted by hand, edited digitally and sent, the rest was left out of my hands. After that, it was a matter of twiddling my thumbs and waiting excitedly for a few months before Good Selfie was out in the world!

We love how bright and bold your work is. Can you share with us your favourite materials, be it analogue or digital?

I used to work exclusively with analogue materials, but nowadays I enjoy working digitally too. When I’m working analogue, my favourite mediums to use are Windsor and Newton gouache and PrismaColor pencils. I love the versatility of gouache because depending on how much water you add, you can achieve the opaque effect of acrylic or transparency of watercolour.

Digital art is still fairly new to me as I only started learning a year ago, but I’m so excited by the possibilities! When painting digitally, I try my best to retain the hand generated quality of my analogue work using Photoshop brushes with my Cintiq tablet. I love the honesty that comes through with hand-generated art— the slightly wonky lines and imperfections, so I think consciously about this when painting digitally.

How do you manage your time on projects, particularly when you are working on such an ambitious number of illustrations at the same time?

To stay on task, planning is key and I use a scheduling app like Google Calendar to plan out milestones on a day to day basis. For the middle-grade kids chapter book, The Extraordinary Life of Neil Armstrong published by Puffin Books UK, I drew eighty illustrations and a cover from start to finish within three months, which is the most ambitious project I’ve worked on to date. I gave myself strict quotas to reach each day and developed a reward system to motivate myself.

Learning to work more quickly by painting digitally to imitate my analogue work has been a huge game changer too. For commercial projects nowadays, I’ll paint digitally if the deadline is tight. Working digitally in these situations saves a lot of time in the sketching phase and post-production.

Which Illustrators inspire you?

Oh, so many… Yuko Shimizu, Jillian Tamaki, Sophie Blackall, Maurice Sendak, Tove Jansson, Anthony Browne, Charles Burns, Eric Carle and Jon Klassen are just a few to name! Shaun Tan in particular has always held a special place in my heart- I admire how considered he is with what he puts out into the world and his strong artistic voice.

Is there an area or subject matter you’ve not explored in your work that you would like to in the future?

I’m always open to exploring new subject matter if it’s interesting and aligns with my values! I think illustrating a book that helps kids deal with difficult human experiences like death would be challenging but rewarding. I would also love to illustrate an adult book of weird and spooky stories.

And finally, any exciting projects planned for 2020?

As well as introducing new materials in my art process, I have always been talking about wanting to write and illustrate my own children’s book. Now that I’ve stated it in writing, I’ll have to do it!