I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Singaporean illustrator, sculptor and creator David Liew recently. David’s work is seriously amazing. We’re both members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and I was lucky enough to meet up with him during his recent trip to Perth. David’s answers to my questions are illuminating, inspiring and funny. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed interviewing David. Drumroll, please……
NLK: David, how do you juggle your many roles of history and art educator, illustrator, model-maker, sculptor, and cake decorator? Which of these roles came first?
DL: This one is easy… I rigged up a doohickey which is the lovechild of the Tardis and that replicator spell from Harry Potter.
Which came first? I guess the artist has been there from the very beginning.
Actually the list above includes many of my “past lives” that are still part of my current existence. I haven’t formally taught history for almost 15 years, but it’s still very part of what I do in the way that it often shapes my art work. And even though I’m not teaching it anymore doesn’t make me any less a history nerd. Catch me with a spare moment and I’ll discuss with you at length 16th century French court history with with all the gory trivia or how royal absolutism can allow a king to make his favourite cow his consort but yet not appoint her Archbishop.
So when I meet friends who I haven’t seen in a while and the usual “So what are you doing now?” question pops up, my answer is an almost flippant (it isn’t, honest) “It depends on what day of the week it is”.
The cake decorator phase was an extension of my sculpture work (and the influence of one too many episodes of “Ace of Cakes’ and “Cake Boss”). I didn’t expand my work in that field too much because the returns didn’t match up with the time and effort put in. Moreover Singapore’s weather makes it tricky to keep the sugarpaste from sweating at the highest point of humidity… and it’s really a bit weird to keep a partially sugarpaste decorated cake in the only air conditioned room in the house – which happens to be my bedroom.
NLK: Can you please tell us about your creative journey?
DL: My journey with art started as a toddler. After I was born, my mum wanted to go back to work so she hired a nanny to keep an eye on my brother and me. In current terms, she’d more likely to be called an au pair because she was basically a teenager when she came to live with us. It worked out well as she became the daughter my parents never had and a big sister to me.
The art part comes as she got older and started taking on more household chores. Apparently I was a floor-crawling domestic accident waiting to happen. So to keep me occupied my nanny would teach me to draw and left me to doodle on my own while she tended to other chores Looking back, I realise my current work in small sculptures was influenced by her too as she was pretty deft with crafting.
I have no formal training in art, but was left to explore it with a free rein. Like the weird nerdy guy in a criminal gang (he’s the one who can do the accounts of the ill-gotten gains) I survived school by being the nerd who drew funny pictures. No dramatic childhood stories about how it kept the bullies off me because I made them laugh with my cartoons – I was so pathetic that even the playground bullies couldn’t be bothered to pick on me.
Anyway all through school and university I doodled, cartooned, sketched and got into all manner of nefarious artistic pursuits while reading history and English literature to become a teacher. I actually taught art at 6th form college for eight years, which was part of my own learning journey because I took on as many external art courses I could – thus picking up silversmithing, sculpture and pen and ink illustration.
Along the way I started to do freelance artwork for learning aids (somehow the educational aspect of my work has always been there), and somewhere down the line it expanded to graphic recording, advertisement art, team building and of course children’s book illustration.
NLK: What is your favourite medium to work with?
DL: It’s a bit like the question about what I’m currently doing… It depends on what day of the week / month it is or whatever happens to be on hand when the inspiration strikes.
If I was forced to choose a medium, I’d say pen and ink. The irony is that much of my work over the past few years has been digital – particularly on the iPad. One of my artist heroes is Chris Riddell, with strong influences from fantasy artists from the 80s such as Rick Priestley, Ian Miller and John Blanche (who are Games Workshop’s pioneering artists). In another nod to my age, the latter two artists also illustrated some of the original Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.
NLK: Can you please tell us about your favourite project to date?
DL: That’s like asking me to choose which of my children is my favourite…which is both easy and hard because I don’t have any kids (I could offer a small miniature schnauzer as a compromise but I think that sort of makes it even more irrelevant).
I love all my projects equally if they have a meaning to me personally. When I think of the projects that I’m proud to put in my portfolio, the ones I love most are those with a real cause. The first series I illustrated, Eliza Teoh’s Ellie Belly has animal welfare at its core. The second, Melanie Lee’s The Adventures of Squirky the Alien, has the underlying theme of helping adopted kids make sense of their realities. The third series (you may notice another pattern emerging here), The Plano Adventures by Hwee Goh and Mo Dirani has a cause that’s a bit more personal for me – the issue of childhood myopia and unfettered digital influence on kids’ lives. I’ve had bad eyesight since childhood and it frightens me greatly (even more than my own horrifying attempt to write kid lit) to see pre-schoolers wearing bottle-bottom spectacles and are almost addicted to digital devices (there’s a link).
NLK: Can you please share any current projects?
DL: There are a few on the workbench at the moment. I just completed a comic for the Singapore Bicentennial. Although The Plano Adventures series (written by Hwee Goh and Mo Dirani) was completed almost a year ago, I still do a weekly digital doodle for their ongoing promotional work.
What is constantly on the workbench (literally) are my sculpted projects. In July this year, I signed up for something called the “Rogue Sculpts Craft-off Competition”. It’s a contest where each month I’ll be paired off with a random fellow competitor and given a theme from which to build or sculpt something. The winner of the pair goes on the next month’s challenge. Like most of the other crafters in this challenge, I build in a tabletop miniatures scale of about 28mm. It’s a pretty insane run, especially in the final days of the month as you rush to complete the work, photograph it and then upload for judging. It may not be related to kid lit as it stands, but each individual work is a visual story in itself – so watch this space.
I’m currently exploring a way to combine my drawing work with my sculptures, and maybe throw in a bit of storytelling too – so watch THIS space as well 🙂
NLK: What does a typical day look like for you?
DL: Complete and utter chaos. And that’s on a good day.
I can’t really describe my daily routine because there’s no actual routine other than getting up at around 6.30 to get walked by the dog (if she had opposable thumbs she’d actually unlock the door and go downstairs on her own). On some days, I head out in the mornings to the couple of classes I teach at a nearby polytechnic or an art college in town. Other days may see me at home working on illustration either for books or commercial publications. Otherwise I’d be finding out new ways to infuriate my long-suffering wife by starting another modelling project that turns our apartment into my studio.
I do try to draw (both digital and analog) a bit each day but oftentimes the projects that I do may see me up before the sun rises and plugging at it till it disappears again – leaving an unscratched itch.
NLK: How has your environment influenced your work?
DL: I see things. Not in the creepy “dead people everywhere” kind of way but more in an oddball perspective of things around me. I normally leave my imagination switch on which leads to kooky ideas of the things I see around me. These then get stored aware in some mental database of ideas, streams of consciousness and other weird bits of information – that often get incorporated into my art.
For example, I’d look at a drinks bottle and see spaceships, a large grumpy man with a scowling face sitting in a coffee shop becomes an old troll jealously guarding his tiny pot of magic elixir. All great fun but not so when your client wants you to draw them a car they’re selling and I turn it into a mechanical turtle.
NLK: Can you please tell us about the benefits of SCBWI membership for you?
DL: People. Like-minded people coming together to explore, discuss and (hopefully) create good children’s literature.
Since I joined in 2013, SCWBI Singapore has evolved a lot. It’s still largely an interest group focused on the creation of kid lit, but in the six years I’ve been in it, I’ve seen a considerable growth in the number of members who are getting published, many as a result of the sharing and support the Society members give one another.
In 2018, I was invited to be one of the judges for SCWBI’s Book Illustrator Gallery at its booth at the Bologna Children’s Fair. I attended the fair myself and a major takeaway for me in SCWBI terms was connections that were made with fellow SCWBI members from the world over. SCWBI isn’t as well-known here as it is in the US but nonetheless it’s slowly becoming more visible. The Asian Festival of Children’s Content organized by the Singapore Book Council had always had a relationship with SCWBI in terms of suggesting speakers and discounted rates for festival tickets. But over the past two years, there has been a more conscious and formal effort to get SCWBI involved, starting with the local chapter, in terms of engaging speakers, planning and moderating. I’m in my fifth year with its Programme Committee so it’s my continuing mission to keep building on that link.
NLK: Do you have any advice for newbie creators?
Other than the usual “don’t give up your day job”? I guess it would be the reminder that this path is a constant tightrope act balancing between creating the illustrated work that would your opus and ensuring that you don’t have to sell or hock kids in order to pay for kitty kibble.
There’s a lot of pertinent advice out there on this, and when you put them altogether you get a truckload of inspiring, infuriating and often-contradictory advice – but they’re all relevant.
I’d be a true charlatan if I convinced a new creator to keep plugging at it despite not getting any results, because “as they say, keep plugging at it and you’ll get there eventually”. Nice encouraging”feel good” statement indeed but I can’t in good faith say that with a straight face because for every case of that working out, there are lots more for whom it doesn’t. And it doesn’t mean that these others aren’t good enough, but “getting there” is not just a matter of skill. I’m a strong believer in the “man, moment, machine” concept – sometimes known as “being at the right place, at the right time” or “getting stuck in a broken-down elevator with a publisher who has nothing to do for the next half an hour while you pitch your ideas to him or her”. I would seriously suggest anyone interested in working in this field to go out and keep learning as much as possible, and when you’ve learnt it, keep on learning some more. Because when you gain the wisdom, you also gain the tools to make decisions. If after your 200th rejection you decide to stop working in kid lit, at least know why you’re doing it and understanding your decisions. It also goes for those who take the pitbull mentality and hang on tenaciously against all the odds, the wisdom from learning will give more control of your choices.
Connect with David Liew