Illustration January 25, 2016
Priscilla Tey’s Pinch of Darkness
by Lauren Festa
Illustration Month is our chance to highlight ADC Members who consider themselves illustrators, whether professionals, students or just really keen amateurs. The common thread is that they have a passion for drawing that just couldn’t be contained. Want to get featured? Resolve to become an ADC Member in 2016 while you sip green juices. Priscilla Tey is an illustrator, picture book author, visual development artist and a sheep & gnome enthusiast. While keeping her sheep obsession at healthy levels she balances that off with her fascination with gnomes. These tiny creatures among others are brought to life by the illustrator through stories wherein these wonderful characters wander. A graduate of RISD, Priscilla has worked for and been featured in Candlewick Press, PlanSponsor Magazine, Evan Yionoulis / Illustration Mundo / Illustration Friday, 3×3 Magazine, Society of Illustrators and more.
New York, NY
When did you ‘discover’ your own talent and then later, turn it into a viable working gig?
I’ve always enjoyed the arts and dabbled in different aspects of art making since I was a kid, so the whole discovery process was quite gradual. Going to RISD for my undergrad, being surrounded by opportunity and meeting professionals, that’s when I probably realized I might actually be able to make this work.
Winning my first “Game of Life” round when I was a kid, whilst wielding the “Artist” occupation card could have been another pivotal event that helped the process.
How long have you been an illustrator?
My first real paid illustration gig was about 3 years ago, storyboarding for a feature film, so I guess that’s how long I’ve been a professional illustrator.
Self taught? School?
Definitely a little bit of both. I always meddled with art as a kid, so there was alot of mistake-making and learning from there. My secondary school also gave me a good art education that opened my eyes to what kinds of art was out there.
Then, there was of course, RISD. I probably learnt the most during those 4 years. The teachers were so diverse and from so many different backgrounds and the students had so much to bring to the table. I learnt from my peers just as much as I did from the faculty. I’ve always been a huge proponent of exercising independence and teaching oneself new skills, but there’s something about being in a community and learning from one another in the context of a school that is completely invaluable. It opens your mind to new ideas and the notion that art-making need not be a solitary endeavour. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to teach that to myself.
Was a career in the arts encouraged from a young age?
Growing up in Singapore, there was definitely a stigma that being an artist was impractical and sets you up for a life of eating only bean sprouts and rice. Thankfully, my parents filtered those perceptions out and were rather supportive of my artistic endeavors. My mother was a creative professional in her younger days so I was always surrounded by strange gadgets, crafts, fabrics and books with lots and lots of pictures. She was a mechanical engineer / industrial designer by trade. My dad was an electrical engineer, so you could say this was a household of perfectionists and they definitely encouraged me to work hard at anything I had passion for. It probably also helped that the household was always filled with music, my cousins were musicians and we all had an appreciation for the arts as a whole.
My parents were always collectors of things so I grew up amongst objects from different cultures around the world from Navajo pots to German toys, which today form the foundation upon which I build my castles in the air. Considering the stifling nature of Singapore island living, this became my escape. If my parents had any concerns about their daughter becoming an artist, it was probably the large amounts of daydreaming I would do. It also worried them a little when their teenage daughter didn’t move on from picture books to more mature literature. Eventually, they understood that I was studying the books more than reading them for plain leisure and they left me to my business.
Take us through your creative process.
I spend a lot of time letting my mind wander and every time an interesting thought, phrase, premise or image enters my mind, I write it down in a small notebook, sketchbook or in my phone. I visit these ideas later and either turn them into short stories or one-off illustrations. Sometimes when I have a problem to solve, visiting these lists can trigger a solution or image too.
When I am creating a fictional space for a story, I try grounding the world in a controlling idea that would make sense to its inhabitants (e.g. gothic-revival as interpreted by someone living in the bauhaus era is something I’m working on now). This sets limitations, challenging me to create new visual solutions. Doodling a lot and using different mediums usually helps me see these ideas from different voices and perspectives. Currently, I’m playing around with a lot of gouache and watercolor on top of oil pastels that resist it, creating fun textures and edges.
For my digital work, I typically start with a very rough pencil sketch and then move on to a rough color sketch. Then I take a break from computer and paint various textures, patterns and shapes using watercolor or gouache. I scan those into the computer and start playing around with their transparencies on top of my rough color sketch. I calibrate a few brushes to match the feel of the illustration and begin working on top of the digital collage.
In illustrating, what are the tools you can’t live without?
Recently, my scanner and Waccom tablet are probably the tools that I’ve been relying on the most. I love working between digital and traditional mediums, so these tools definitely help to facilitate that. They also keep me from being too precious with my traditional work because I can always scan them as I go.
Coffee is also my constant companion.
What is one of the most exciting projects or a favorite one you’ve worked on or are working on?
Last year I wrote and illustrated a picture book dummy called “In-Between Things”. This wasn’t my first picture book dummy (I made my first dummy when I was 16), but it was the one project with which I could see how much I’ve grown as an artist in the past few years. I think that made it really exciting for me. On top of that, it would be my first project to actually hit the shelves.
On a smaller but no less significant scale, is a tiny sliding door I made out of cardboard when I was 6. My mom had us build dollhouses out of shoeboxes and I remember insisting on making a sliding door out of leftover cardboard and clear tape. I did it and that feeling of achievement is what I try to recreate everyday with all my projects.
How do you describe your aesthetic?
I think my work is mostly whimsical and quiet, with a pinch of darkness. They’re usually grounded in some reality despite being other worldly.
What is the biggest challenge about being an illustrator?
There are so many new platforms and means of communication surfacing today, birthing new forms of illustration. Sometimes it gets hard figuring out where you fit in. For me, picking a type of illustration or a facet of illustration to focus on is really challenging. I love making picture books but I also love animation and editorial works. If I spread myself too thin, my work starts to get diluted and it really becomes a balancing act. Oddly enough though, it is this very challenge that makes illustration so exciting and thrilling to me.
What do you love most about it?
Illustration for me is about offering perspective and receiving it. That dialogue is probably what I love most about the craft.
Any dream collaborations or brands you’d like to work with?
I’ve always enjoyed Mac Barnett’s stories. He’s one of those writers that seem to really understand children and appreciate the way they think, without ever talking down to them. Teaming up with him would be a dream. Lemony Snicket too. His stories have a darkness to them that would be so fun to illustrate.
I also grew up watching the behind the scenes of the Lord of the Rings religiously, so it would definitely be a fantasy of mine to ever have something I drew be made into a real object by WETA workshops. Like a strange tentacle or something.
Where is your favorite place to go or thing to do to get inspired?
Usually when I’m at a mind block, I like going out for walks. I find any form of public transportation to also be packed with material to excavate ideas from. It’s also this feeling of being physically in transition that helps move my thoughts along.
Any contemporary artists on your radar? (illustrators or other)
Lizbeth Zwerger is always on my radar. Her work is so iconically hers and I always admire her use of space and sensitivity to composition and pattern. Ever since I saw her interpretation of the Wizard of Oz, I was a fan. More recently, I’ve taken a fancy to William Grill’s drawings and Keith Negley’s work. They’re just so cool.
For anyone considering illustration as a career or just something to try for curiosities sake, do you have any advice?
Go for it! This is the day and age of the internet so anything is possible. The key is to keep working hard at it and keep evolving. You don’t want to stay stagnant for a long time. Keep an open mind and be open to trying new things. You won’t know what your limits are until you’ve crossed them so you have to make things that you wouldn’t think you would. Even if you throw them aside later, at least you’ve tried. More importantly, make art that you love and keep it sincere.
Lastly, you don’t always have to go at it alone. As much as art-making may feel like an isolated affair sometimes, there are communities of people out there who have so much to share. Be a part of that. Be kind and generous. It’ll be worthwhile.