Josephine Yeh: “I wish to raise awareness about the diversity of people”

Josephine Yeh (1997) is an art illustrator from Singapore. She mainly illustrates “people’s facial features and expressions, varying cultures, gender and age, to simply explore the beauty of humans”, in her own words. Yeh was born in Singapore but spent her childhood in Taiwan. After high school, once back to the City of the Lion, she decided to develop her career as an illustrator. Currently she lives in Maastricht, the Netherlands, where she studies Psychology and where this interview took place.

Can you explain the motifs of your illustrations, where do they come from?

It all began as a personal project to know the different cultures, because I find them interesting. I started drawing people from different places and I really enjoy it because I do not only study their features but I also study their costumes, designs, patterns and symbols and the history behind them. I wish to bring forth understanding and respect among different cultural communities. I also get a lot of inspiration studying my favourite artists: Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso.

I am trying more and more to go off of the pen because it is freer to explore ink

How is your technique?

My favourite way of expression is through collective lines and dots, black ink on paper. I always draw first with pencil, even if I am trying more and more to go off of it because it is freer to explore ink, then I ink the illustrations with black pens or brushes and in the final stage I edit it in Photoshop. But the editing is very minimal. Without the predisposition of colours, the viewers can fill in the gaps by themselves, or simply just appreciate the clarity and playful execution of lines and dots.

And where do you find the models?

I find some of the references on the internet and then I try to combine them or I add my own patterns to their faces, clothes or backgrounds. I do not find that many people to paint, also because in real life l can’t find the diversity that I need for my projects.

And what about the reference lines, why don’t you delete them?

At first, I practised drawing faces in pencils and used circles as a helpful tool to indicate the bright part of the faces while shading. Somehow, I find keeping the circles interesting and hence developed my art style upon them.

The type of competition I have in Singapore is way more intense

Back in Singapore, how is it to be an illustrator there?

Being an artist there is very difficult because only the best succeed. Intense competition causes many aspiring artists to find much difficulty to gain publicity in Singapore. Therefore, the type of competition I have there is way more intense. It is very different from Europe because I have the sensation that people here are more supportive with artists. In my opinion, in art, there is no right or wrong and this is not a very popular idea in Asia yet. In the future, I would definitely consider the western countries more if I want to continue as an illustrator or become an art therapist unless I am able to build my fan base in Asian countries too.

So, do you think that a career as an illustrator is more reachable in Europe?

There is definitely more market in Europe for arts. However, due to the openness and support artists receive, it would also mean another type of competition. Back in Asia, I was brought up very humbly and was taught that the title of ‘Artist’ is not one that you call yourself, but something others give you as a symbol of recognition and respect. Here, when I tell people that I want to become an illustrator, they get surprised, they say “You are an actual illustrator, do not say you want to become one. If you do not do it, nobody is going to take you seriously!”

My peer favourite artist is… It is difficult to choose one. Iliana Melukis is one of my favourites. She is a Malaysian about my age and likes painting people as well. She has a lot of K-pop, Japanese and Malaysian influence.

If I want to see art in Singapore… I go to Esplanade, it is a musical theater and usually they have installations that change every month. They also have photography exhibitions, especially in the tunnel. Arab Street is also an interesting hot spot of informal art in Singapore. If you do graffirti everywhere you get a fine. I also spend much time in my mother’s studio, SEEDztudio, with her art students.

When I am homesick I feel like… going back to my grandparents’ house in Dajia, Taiwan. They live in the outskirts of Taichung, the central part of Taiwan, where there’s lots of nature and friendly people. It is very chill and cozy, and I love going to the Jianggong Road Night Market, to have some local delights. If you want to know more about night markets, do not miss: 5 things that you may not know about night markets.

If I could go to eat anywhere I would go to…my grandma’s and have her bamboo shoots and meatball soup (zhu sun gong wan tang), it is my favorite! Sometimes I also miss 北港香菇肉羹, which is a food stand close to my grandparents’. I love the rou geng fan there, which is rice in a thick soup with sliced meat and mushrooms.