Interview April 8 via email
Tell us a little about yourself - your history, upbringing etc anything you thing will help enlighten us.
I was born in Irkutsk City. Irkutsk is one of the largest cities in Siberia and despite what everyone thinks, people do live there. It’s not all taiga, bears and ice and we do have summer. It can get as hot as 30°C. I’m an only child and I’ve always loved it. Looking at my cousins I saw they had to share their toys with siblings. I really pitied them. I studied Chinese language and International Trade at university, which is a far cry from any kind of art.
You are self-taught? Was it a process of training or compulsion with improving results?
I was always very crafty from when I was young and spent numerous hours drawing, but like all parents make you believe, I was told that it would be impossible to make it as an artist, so I never pursued it. When choosing a university, I was considering to attend a college where you can major in costume design. But eventually I chose another university that has an exchange program with China, 3 degrees upon graduating and a promising future in International Trade. I guess the choice was easy, but wrong. After I graduated, I felt like something was missing from my life. I started to draw a bit every now and then and was getting more interested in arts, read more about artists and the business of illustration. I love Instagram and am grateful that it gives me an opportunity to see how other artists and illustrators work. I started to put more thought and labor in my artworks and I was posting them online not hoping for anything, just to keep true to myself and motivated. Surprisingly I started getting really good feedback and a lot of support, so it kept me going.
I strongly believe that drawing is a skill that everyone can learn. It just depends on how much you want it and how much you are willing to work for it. I also am a strong believer in the rule of 10,000 hours. I draw 4-9 hours every day.
I look a lot at how other artists work and constantly read about illustration, new trends and techniques. I’m a big fan of trying new things. Maybe a new technique could become my favorite. I can’t be sure before I try. I also watch a lot of interviews with other illustrators and tutorials on different topics on sources like skillshare.com for example.
Your work has a distinctive look and is quintessentially Beijing? What was the process of developing your style?
I think my artistic style is something that I didn’t consciously choose and develop. This is just the most natural, comfortable and most attractive way for me to draw. It just comes down to drawing, trying and seeing what works best for you and for the purposes of what you are drawing.
Did you always know you would work commercially or do you have a gallery exhibition of works hidden away in your studio?
This is one of the questions I ask myself a lot. Where am I going and what do I want to become? I wish I had enough time to do both, but right now I don’t. I do enjoy working for other people. The process of creating works with ideas from somebody else broadens the mind. But I can also draw something just for myself on topics that are interesting for me and that could be exhibited in a gallery. I love to produce things that everyone can use, like my mugs, the calendar, greeting cards and more that’s still to come.
What was the first piece you ever sold?
If I remember it right, the first commission was for an American friend back in Irkutsk. She asked me to draw a sweet painting with an owl for a nursery. I was so inexperienced and we didn’t discuss money at all. I guess I was too shy and insecure to talk about it and decided to offer it as a present. I gave the couple the painting for their newborn and they gave me a nice gift in return. It was actually more of a trade than being piece that got sold.
You’re a commercial success story. What was the process from realizing you wanted to sell your art and getting to the stage you’re at now? Did it take long to start getting corporate contracts?
When you are in the middle of it, it never looks like success. The process is hard and I don’t sleep a lot, because I’d rather be creating than sleeping. I’m that hooked on creating art. Unless you rent a studio shared with other artists, it’s a very lonely business. I just sit at my desk with my cat Totoro and draw. When I don’t draw I feel very guilty, when I watch movies, when I stroll in the hutongs, when I read books, every minute I think: I really should be drawing right now.
I like creating art for other people. I think all artists thrive on their ego and when people pick you out of so many artists, it’s very flattering, but at the same time it’s terrifying because people expect great things from you. Even now every time when I turn in my assignment to the clients, I feel like a nervous wreck. I can love it, but it all depends on whether or not the clients like it.
Another important aspect of being an illustrator is networking. I consider myself a socially well-adjusted introvert, so it’s always really hard for me to go up to people and start the conversation about myself and how awesome I am. I’m not the best sales person, but I do try to be one as good as I can.
I like working with local businesses when I can, becoming friends with the owner and talking directly to them. Actually, my first business client was Jing A and it’s funny how we started working together. I was just sitting outside the Tavalin Bagels shop in Sanlitun sketching the shop front, because I knew they were closing and I loved their bagels. This way I wanted to at least save some part of it for myself. While sketching, Richard (Media Manager of Jing A) pulled up in the Jing A Keg Egg. I loved it and thought it was a cool thing to sketch. Alex (one of founders of Jing A) came by and complimented me on my work and asked if they could use it in their social media posts. We exchanged contacts and after a while they contacted me to create a poster for an event. Since then we work together regularly. They literally found me out on the street.
You take personal commissions, is it important for you to keep the nature of your work personal? Do you have a particular commission that meant a lot to you?
I really love doing personal commissions. They restore my love for humanity. Most of us are sweet and caring and all of us have great stories to tell. Most personal commissions are gifts to make somebody happy and I love helping people with doing just that. I always try to ask the clients about all the little details, what they would like me to include, some inside jokes, things they dream about, stories, things they enjoy,…. I think this is what makes it such a great present.
One of my favorite commissions was a Beijing Hutong Map. It was a gift for a boyfriend with all the couple’s favorite places and things they love about Beijing. I think it will always be great to look at, even if they move away from Beijing or when those places no longer exist. It will always bring back nice memories.
Your work is very sweet and sometimes romantic, is there a darker side to Liuba?
I have some artworks that are much darker than the usual stuff I create, but they are all personal works. I don’t see anything bad in dark and twisted, but it’s not very commercial. I wish I had more time to create some darker works.
What is your dream future for your art? If you could go anywhere/do anything, what would it be?
I recently visited Australia and was amazed by the beauty of the country, the ocean, the atmosphere, it was right up my alley. I’m really looking forward to visiting the United States, but I’m not really sure where I would want to end up living. I would want to have a beautiful studio in my house with a store in the front, so I can have my cat there chilling right beside me when I draw. That would be ideal! I want to continue doing commissions, creating small-scale things, creating personal art, but also art suitable for a gallery show. In the future I also hope to be able to illustrate children’s books.
What do you have in store for us in the future? Any plans?
I will have more new products for the upcoming Beijing Flea Market on the 14th of May at the Bookworm. I hate cheap ugly mass produced magnets and hope that I can create some nice magnets for Beijing. I always try to bring some illustrated, handmade, cool magnets from places I visit. I will also have more greeting cards, prints, new phone case designs and maybe more. My boyfriend and I are working on a children’s book, which is terrifying to share, but I hope that we will see this project through. It will probably be a self-published Beijing based story and I will distribute it at the Christmas markets. I’m working on my Taobao shop right now and I might establish an Etsy store this year, once I figure out how to deal with international shipping. I have a thousand of other projects that I want to work on, but I don’t like to talk too much about it unless it’s 100% certain.
Liuba is a self-taught freelance illustrator, gallery artist and maker of little things. During her free time she goes out to explore her city with a sketchbook and markers in hand. She is still very curious about different ways to express herself, from painting on unusual materials, designing menus and wedding decorations to teaching art to kids.
She has done commissions for such Beijing institutions as Jing A, Kenny's Burgers and The Hatchery. Find more of her work at www.liubadraws.com