Manshen Lo Perfectly still, atmospheric illustrations, alive with tension

Cover Image - Manshen Lo
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

When Manshen Lo illustrates, she sits at a large desk with big windows on her left-hand side. Her view is of a London council estate. Whoever lives on the 17th floor of the tallest building has a mirror hanging on their balcony, which every now and then reflects a bright light into Manshen’s eyes, momentarily blinding her...

Manshen works as an art director of animated short films and commercials. Her illustrations though are considerably still. A vase of roses hovers suspended in the air waiting to drop and smash on the floor; people sit tensely in a waiting room; others sit or stand alone in blank color planes waiting for something to happen.

“I came from a background of fine art and animation,” Manshen says. “These two mediums require different ways of thinking. I try to avoid illustrating events and stories in a metaphorical or narrative way when I'm making personal artworks that are only one frame.”

It’s difficult though not to project story onto the characters in her motionless scenes. Perhaps it’s because the people in the artworks are real people in Manshen’s life – observations of her friends or people she runs into every day.

“I have a memory of them from every angle,” she says. “Even if I don't have time to do a live drawing session with them, the fact I know them allows me to draw honestly, rather than making up fake, dramatised figures.”

Manshen’s works aren’t only investigations of others, she also draws herself. But she doesn’t treat herself differently. “ Me is also a character,” she says, who interacts with her created environment in the same way as her other characters do, following the same stylistic rules.

Manshen’s style is influenced by her childhood growing up in a small, humid, densely-populated town in southern China. “I’m from the single-child policy generation who had busy-at-work parents,” she says. “As a result, I spent a significant part of my childhood roaming freely in my block trying to entertain myself.”

Reading manga and graphic novels would keep her young mind occupied and she’d sneakily “borrow” old Chinese comics from her dad’s bookshelf. Manshen remembers them as small in format, badly printed but masterfully illustrated by Chinese artists of the 1960s and 70s. Later, these became her study material when she learnt to master the sophisticated Chinese inkbrush lines.

Manshen starts with pencil and then goes over the lines in ink; she then adds color digitally to complete a piece. The rich pastels, combined with her consistent use of grainy textures and the quality of her lines set a mood that’s at once nostalgic and new. “I intentionally try to achieve a mood that's muted, and neutral,” Manshen says. To this end, the interiors in her illustrations are timeless, so as not to root them too firmly in a particular time or place.

Another recurring, and meaningful element in her work is nature. “My hometown is famous for its Karst landscapes – pointy rocky mountains, caves and winding rivers,” Manshen says. “I love plants and trees and flowers. I love long forest walks. I appreciate every single leaf and petal and I have some green pot plants surrounding me at home and at work.”

The plants in her artworks aren’t the plants in her house though. They are trees or plants that she says she’s met, which she goes back to visit frequently. “I portray them just like humans.”

Words by Alix-Rose Cowie