The forbidden lovers intertwine. Creamy white skin brushes against a pastel green complexion that is not of this earth. Silky garments drape across nude skin framing the delicate crevices of their bodies. Long, sleek black and white hair twists and tangles together creating a beautiful contrast between light and darkness. As the lovers delicately embrace, they know that they can’t take even a second of their time together for granted. They hold each other’s gaze with a mixture of pain and pleasure, lust and longing, happiness and heartbreak as they know that while their love is true, it is also tragically taboo. Art of Yayu, or simply Yayu, is a Chinese American self-taught illustrator who works in both digital and traditional mediums. Yayu prides herself on being an illustrator and storyteller who emphasizes figurative narratives using themes such as dark fantasy, surrealism and Chinese mythology.
Yayu’s signature style of storytelling can be found throughout many of her illustrations as well as the short comics featured on her website. She takes inspiration from a range of art genres including 18th-20th century European paintings, traditional Chinese landscape paintings and vintage Japanese graphics. Alongside working on her illustrations, Art of Yayu is also exploring the idea of becoming a graphic novelist.
My mind has grown into a creative abyss, manifesting endless creative possibilities to harbour and nurture ideas in which reality cannot. The pleasure of escaping the tangible life is my definition of art.
Interview with Art of Yayu
I’d love to hear about how you have developed into the artist you are today, what has your artistic journey been like so far?
My artistic journey has been very humbling. I didn’t have the privilege of attending an art school; the college I graduated from offered art classes that were impossible to get into — I had zero knowledge on even the most basic art fundamentals. My friends and family never truly believed in me (for good reasons, of course. They didn’t want me to starve). Despite all, I still wanted to be an artist, because I simply love to draw. I was on my own to figure things out. And that’s exactly what I did — I left my day job in December 2017, compromised my social life, buckled down and studied anatomy books, YouTubed colour theory, and even took a class on basic perspective. During this studious phase, I also experimented with different styles and techniques while regularly posting on social media. Fast forward to today, I am a full-time freelance artist. (Though, I must credit my family and partner for a great deal of financial support during the first couple of years). Hard work, self-discipline, and an unbreakable spirit can make dreams come true!
What is your earliest memory of making art?
Probably kindergarten. It’s so funny, because the earliest drawing I remember was one of a woman, wearing a long boxy skirt. And blatantly topless — I drew breasts like a sideways “8” and coloured two “o” for the nipples. As a kid, I knew nudity was frowned upon, so I censored it with a giant bowtie. Though, it didn’t cover much of anything, because the teacher never hung my piece up with the rest of the class. From childhood to today, some things never change (at the time, I watched a lot of vintage Japanese animation, and female breasts were not censored).
What are your main sources of artistic inspiration?
Inspiration is everywhere! But if I must pinpoint the main sources, one would simply have to be pieces of writing — anything from books to poems to even words. I have an incredibly weak spot for writing with strong imagery, romantic allusions, and beautiful proses. I feel words very deeply, on an emotional level. And reading materials, of all sorts, have a way with my heart and the spectral way it fuels my subconscious with unraveling narratives. Secondly, I obsess over nude figures, especially sculptures from the Hellenistic and Roman Era, as well as paintings from the Enlightenment and Romantic Era. Nothing is more visually stunning than the human anatomy captured in art— absolutely breathtaking to gaze upon. Lastly, ink paintings from The Great Age of Chinese Landscapes. With its magical and otherworldly aesthetics, I can easily transport my presence into a world of mystery and grace. These are my prioritized inspirations, and often witnessed throughout many of my pieces.
The pleasure of escaping the tangible life is my definition of art.
What does art mean to you?
A means of escape. I find it paramount that I create a space for my thoughts to wander. A quiet place without limitations and rules, completely overriding the “technicalities” of reality. Building an imaginative world allows my mind to journey through its own pilgrimage of lingering secrets, distant memories, inexpressible emotions, and a yearning for the impossible. And most imperatively, allowing my instinctual feelings as a human being to commit “sins” without suffering any consequences. My mind has grown into a creative abyss, manifesting endless creative possibilities to harbour and nurture ideas in which reality cannot. The pleasure of escaping the tangible life is my definition of art.
What are your staple art materials that you couldn’t live without?
Importantly, paper, pencil, and pen. There’s something tranquil and blissful when sketching on paper, from the many textures under my hand to the sound of scratchy granite slicing through the silence. It’s a very therapeutic moment for me. When my mind is calm and undistracted, my subconscious takes over, allowing me to create freely without limitation. Sketching is the most pivotal part of my process — putting me in a peaceful trance while my hands flush out ideas instinctively.
Secondly, my computer and Wacom Cintiq tablet. Ideas come to me faster than completing a piece. And working digitally allows me to bring forth as many ideas as possible, completing them on large canvases without compromising time and space. Of course, nothing beats the physical feeling of pushing paint with a brush and watching its organic properties take form. Every summer, I take some time off from working digitally so I don’t forget the feeling of working with ink and water — it truly does feel much more surreal!
Hard work, self-discipline, and an unbreakable spirit can make dreams come true!
Many of your paintings feature elongated layouts similar to traditional silk paintings. Is this traditional style something you like to emulate within your illustrations?
The elongated style is an emulation of traditional Chinese paintings, a homage to my roots. I greatly respect my family’s culture and ancestors and take humble pride in being Chinese American. China, with thousands of years of documented literature, philosophy, and art, I find it important to include that part of my heritage into my work, prolonging it’s traditional aesthetic into modern times. Over the course of experimenting, I realized that the elongated layout has a subtle aesthetic that, not only allows me to showcase my identity, but also a style that many westerns can find familiar. Which has worked wonderfully in my favor, as it frames my figurative narratives quite effectively.
Your illustrations often feature couples embracing one another and enjoying each other’s sexual and sensual presence. They feel like paintings from long ago featuring ancient and forbidden lovers. I’d love to learn about more about these characters, if possible, do they have a story?
They have a very storybook romance, only embedded with darker elements. A narrative of star-crossed lovers that are forbidden to be together due to the nature of their existence — a being from the living world and a being from the underworld, a mortal and an immortal, a human and a demon. The desire of obtaining an eternal love with impossible feats often make the greatest tragedy. They are the epitome of a tragic romance — a folklore specifically created for the fictional characters in the world I’ve been building for my graphic novel. The couple’s undying love for one another serves as a cautionary tale, a reminder that even in a realm of make-believe, true love can be eternal, but so can heartache.
Several of your illustrations feature nude characters. However, I have noticed that elegant pieces of clothing are often included in your drawings and sketches, is fashion something that you enjoy playing with within your work?
Absolutely! I love clothes — am constantly dressing up in my studio and obsessed with collecting traditional textiles and oriental jewelleries from ancient civilizations. Particularly from the East and the Middle East. The clothes and jewellery they wore were more than something functional, but a piece of art rich with earth-tones and hand-painted patterns; designed with beauty and grace in mind. Timeless designs serve as one of the best sources of inspirations when I illustrate clothing. Taking elements from different cultures allow me to create seamless designs sprinkled with bits of history.
You have a whole section on your website dedicated to comics and state in your bio that you’re pursuing becoming a graphic novelist. What inspired you to pursue this avenue as an artist?
Storytelling is instinctual to me; something I’ve always loved doing. As a child, I used to draw stories and verbally narrate the voices of my fictional characters. In fact, trying to pursue becoming a graphic novelist was my initial career path when choosing to become an artist. But given the number of technicalities that I needed to learn on my own, I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight, or even in a couple of years. Throughout the years of self-studies and experiments, I somehow rabbit-holed myself into a becoming an illustrator instead (which I don’t regret!). Composing a single illustration seemed much easier than composing pages after pages of content, which requires an even greater knowledge of fundamentals that I still lack as an artist. As I continue to practice and flourish my technicalities on the side, creating every new comic begins to feel less and less overwhelming. Hopefully soon— very soon— I’ll be comfortable and ready to complete a full-length graphic novel.
I’ve read through the selection of comics you have created and they are breath-taking in terms of visuals and heart-warming it terms of story. Where do you find inspiration for creating these stories?
Many of the narratives in my comics are quite ordinary, consisting of simple moments in life that many can resonate with or have some familiar experience with. Story-wise, my inspiration primarily focuses on human nature and behavior — our needs and our wants, love and friendship, acceptance, hardship — deriving from personal experiences (sometimes, a lack of) to stories of my parents’ childhood. Since each story brings forth a different set of emotions, selected colour palettes play an important role in conveying these emotions. Colours, even outside the art world, is quite legendary with a history of its own — with existing symbolism to depicting social statuses to therapeutic properties. The use of colours can create moods and atmosphere much more effectively with or without the use of words. Hence, simply being human and playing with colours serve as great inspiration to my comic creations.
Storytelling is instinctual to me; something I’ve always loved doing.
Do you have plans on releasing physical copies of your work in the future such as an art book or anthology for your comics?
I have thought about it and would absolutely love to release an art book in the future! Although, I don’t think I’m quite ready yet. As an artist with such a young journey, I’d like to rack up more experiences — complete more illustrations and comic shorts, sketch more concepts, try more experiments, and further my technicalities — before I can tackle such a release. And being a first physical release, it’s something I’d like to be extremely proud of. It’s a project that may take some time longer — could happen in a year or in the next 5 years — but it’s definitely something I think about constantly.
Do you ever find yourself facing art block when working on a new illustration? If so, how do you overcome it?
Art block is inevitable and one of the toughest mental battles since pursing this career. As terrible as it sounds, when I’m surrounded by people, whether they’re friends or family, or even strangers sipping coffees in cafes — I immediately become distracted. I have a hypersensitive nervous system and can experience sensory overload instantly. The presence of bodies lingering in my peripheral to hearing unfamiliar noises in the background can interrupt my flow of work, trapping me in a state where all I could focus on are the distractions. Even sitting in certain parts of a public or private space can distraught my creativity. To overcome this sort of art block, I have to crawl back into the comfort of my studio. Where windows and doors are often sealed shut — I even filter out sunlight as best as I can. I then turn on my lamps and play a rain soundtrack to best imitate a quiet and rainy night. Quiet nights allow more room for thoughts, and the more thoughts I have, the more I have to narrate in an illustration. Isolation is how I overcome art block.
When you’re not working, what do you get up to in your free time?
I write a lot, mostly thoughts and ideas. On occasion, short stories with simple and predictable narratives, with very cliché characters. Reading is something I always try to prioritize, as many of my inspirations come from that. On lazier days, I can binge-watch horror movies till the next day. And when I need a long break from my daily routine, I plan international trips — which I love more than anything in the world.
Are there any exciting projects coming up that you can tell our readers a bit about?
Currently, I’m in the midst of wrapping up the story to my first graphic novel. One that’ll hopefully introduce some of the characters and the world I’ve been depicting throughout my work.