Where are you from and how long have you been illustrating?

I was born and raised in Singapore, and I moved over to Canada in 2007 with my husband. I currently live and work in Toronto. I did my very first paid illustration when I was 14 or so, but I didn't pursue it as a career until I was in my 20s. I think I started doing illustration work in 2003 and moved on to do it full-time and exclusively in 2005. Which means I've been at it for 5 years now, full time.

Can you give us a brief account of how you got to where you are today?

Being stubborn and lucky I think. Stubborness helps me stick with things that might otherwise be unpleasant. Luck comes in the form of clients, opportunities and friends. I have some wonderful friends in Canada that have really helped me grow as an illustrator since I got here.

I started rather tenuously like most  illustrators; I didn't have a portfolio or any proper work to show, even though I had been working for a couple of years as a designer before. So I quit my job, did a really bad comic (which helped get my drawing skills freshen up a bit), hacked together a portfolio and foolishly believed I was good enough for real work. Turns out at least one person thought I was, and I got my first real gig illustrating an article for the in-flight magazine of Singapore Airlines. Things were pretty slow going for the next year or so,  and my husband (fiance at the time) was not making much money either, so we pretty much burned through our savings. Before we ran out I decided to go back to being a designer for a bit, and when I did things suddenly took a turn and I started getting illustration jobs from magazines. After about a year at the design firm, I quit that and resumed illustration full-time. This time it worked out better and I cultivated a relationship with a magazine that, while not particularly fun, paid me enough to pay the bills in a month.

Things were going ok in Singapore, then we decided to move to Canada. The move was pretty much like starting over; I had to try to find new clients and adapt my work to suit the market here. I did nothing for 6 months I think; moving everything, setting up the house and making initial introduction emails took up all the time. It was frustrating but again, things eventually got going. It's been three years since I moved here and despite the recession last year was pretty good, and I hope that with things looking brighter all round this year, it will be an even better year in 2010!

I know what you mean about being stubborn! That was something I was always told was a bad trait when I was younger but it's served me well since then, particularly in that first 6 months after graduating. Can you expand on what you had to do to adapt to the Canadian (and I guess American) market? Are there different aesthetic preferences or is it that you've shifted your focus from say, narrative to editorial for example?

The North American market is a lot more developed than the Singapore market for sure. It is more competitive, but at the same time there is a greater appreciation for the art and what it can do. Ironically, it also feels like people get pigeonholed more here.

So, I've had to streamline my portfolio more, to give it a more consistent overall look rather than being a collection of 'look at all the stuff I can do'. The children's and educational markets have been quite good to me thus far,though that's where the problem with pigeonholing comes in. I enjoy drawing things for children - but I do enjoy drawing other things too, and trying to sell yourself on more than one thing seems to be a little more difficult here.

Aesthetically, I've developed my drawing style I think, to be less cartoony and to, of course, include people of various ethnicities. Most of the people I drew before moving here looked pretty Asian, even if they did spot blonde or chestnut hair, but usually no one cared. It's more sensitive here, and for some of my current clients it is necessary to show racial diversity in the work.

Concepts are probably the hardest thing for me to adapt to, and something that I suspect I will never quite master. Years of living in a place where thinking different is generally seen as an annoying habit have permanently dulled my ability to generate intelligent visual metaphors. I'm trying to get cope by being efficient - not all illustration work requires heavy-duty conceptualizing, so I just try to target stuff that doesn't require such brain work. I am trying to improve my sense of composition too, so that even if I can't draw a smart picture, I can at least draw an interesting one!

 I think you're selling yourself short there Charlene! Take this image for example-

That's a great idea and you've realised it so well too! Definitely not an easy one to do and you've managed to make it clever and beautiful. I reckon that's always a winning combination. I know of a few illustrators that work under more than one name in order to market their different styles, have you considered doing this? (Maybe you already do and Charlene Chua doesn't really exist!!)

Thanks, I'm glad you like that piece! It was fun to work on, but it's a bit of a rarity in my book. And it's in the ink style, which I find allows me to think quite differently from my usual vector-based stuff.

I have considered marketing that style under a different name. I've also wondered if I should spin off the pinups I do under my 'sygnin' pseudonym. But it really comes down to resources - I don't know if I have the energy and money needed to market a second persona.

That, and it would be confusing to answer the phone if someone called up looking for a person that doesn't exist. I've always wondered how illustrators with secondary personas handle that - I guess it's not so bad if you go by a pseudonym like Art Boy or something... but it would be odd to say yeah I'm Charlene and also Danielle. I'd like to hear other illustrator's opinions on the matter, really.

Do different influences inform the separate styles or do you think they just show different sides of your personality? Also can you name some of your influences for us?

I think it's a little bit of both? I'm quite bad at naming influences! Let's see, the one's I remember, from earlier in my youth - Ernie Chan, Boris Vallejo, J Scott Campbell, Jim Lee. Slightly later - Bruce Timm, Marc Hempel, Yoshitaka Amano, various manga artists whose names I simply do not know. Recently - Kazuma Kaneko, Patrick Nagel, Vargas, Schiele, Klimit. I say influences because these are the people whose work I actually studied in one sense or other, first by trying to copy their styles when I was a teen and later trying to understand the work and incorporate elements of that into my own. There are many other people whom I admire and numerous works that I have seen and thought 'wow that is amazing' but I either never took the time to pay particular attention to what they did or else didn't get their names.

By the way, I think I've answered this question in different incarnations several times before, and the answer is always slightly different! I don't think I'm lying, but sometimes I forget to mention someone or feel more inclined one way or another depending on when and how I'm asked!

You've managed to break into two separate illustration markets in your career, starting from scratch both times. This shows a lot of determination and tenacity, what advice would you give to new illustrators trying to get going with their careers?

Um, just keep at it? Getting a career in illustration going is tough, because it's usually a slow process. Which means that you won't be earning a lot for the first few few years. Practically, this means that you can forget about buying that dream loft you wanted since you were 15. Heck, you probably should put off even RENTING the dream loft for a good long while. Save your money if you can - use it to pay off your student debts and loans first. If you're happy living with your parents, you can save a good deal by continuing to live with them. Start figuring out how to pay your taxes - you probably won't need to pay anything if you're not making much in the first place, but it's good to know how the tax law works in your country so that you're not in for a nasty shock when you do get to the point of paying tax (Canada's cumulative tax is something like 30% on average for a single person with no children - that means for every dollar you make, you have to put aside $0.30 to give to the taxman).

I know most people say some inspirational stuff as advice for aspiring illustrators, and yes I do think that it is important to keep being creative and inspired too. But I do think that ultimately, if you want to make a living off your illustrations, you need to be able to look at your finances too and understand if this is really the thing for you. If you choose to ignore it from the start, it could easily snowball into a problem you'll not be able to solve as a freelancer - things like paying off debts, handling your credit scores, that sort of thing.

Ok, I hope I didn't make that sound too scary!

What can we expect to see from you in the future? Any particular plans for your work or big projects in the pipeline?

I wish I could say. Right now it seems like it's work, work and more work. Which isn't a bad thing, really. Although sometimes it feels like I'm batting a neverending stream of tennis balls.... the problem isn't so much batting them at breakneck speed, it's when the machine stops tossing balls at you. By that point you're so used to batting you start feeling really edgy when it stops and you start wondering when the ball machine is going to start up again, and while waiting you either pace around the court or else keep bouncing a ball anyway in anticipation. It's a bit hard to pull yourself out of it, to say right, the ball machine's done, I'm going to go do something else now and come back later.

I think every time I've named some big project I wanted to do in an interview, it ultimately got canned because something or other came up. So no, I suppose this time I don't have anything spectacular planned, you'll just have to stay tuned to see what I manage to cook up when I do get time off work!

Thanks Charlene it was really good talking to you. See more of Charlene's amazing work at www.charlenechua.com and check out her livestream at www.livestream.com/charlenechua


  1. Great feature. It is nice when Illustrators give a lengthy article. You really get a sense of who they are.

  2. always great to read more about you, charlene. and i can't believe it took me this long to chcek out Patrick Nagel's work! amazing.