How do you get from a commission to illustrate a piece about investment advisors to drawing a boy riding a fiery swan guiding you through the night? Victo Ngai did just that for PLANSPONSOR magazine. What’s more, the Hong Kong born, Los Angeles based image-maker does this all the time. Although she creates work for many of the biggest publications (The New York Times, The New Yorker) and brands (Apple and Johnnie Walker and American Express) in the world, her work often moves away from the literal and towards the fantastical.
Victo’s dynamic illustrations are rich with details and full of exuberant energy. Magical animals and bizarre creatures are the rule rather than the exception; the works are never an actual representation of an article’s topic.
Her approach is conceptual, so in the case of the boy and the swan, the artist started with the way advisors pass on knowledge; they’re lighting the way for you, so you know where to go. This led her to the idea a lighthouse,” and after that I think my mind just went too far,” Victo laughs.
“I thought it would be more whimsical to illuminate the lighthouse like a candle, and from fire I went to the aesthetic of flames. I wondered what kind of animal would look really cool being made out of flames, and I decided on a swan.”
It’s not a very tight logic, but that’s not the point. The artist likes to create something that can stand alone; it should work well outside of the context of the original assignment, yet in some way illustrate the idea at hand.
Victo prefers to draft with pencil, and color the figures digitally afterwards, because working analogue doesn’t allow for the endless touch-ups and changes clients often require. But she would never give up the initial human starting point. “If you work with a digital tool, it sometimes makes you feel composed to make everything perfect. In the end the product can look a little dead,” she explains.
Victo enjoys the problem-solving side of commissioned work. A lot of the subjects she draws, couldn’t be further from her fantastical sensibilities. Making a visual metaphor for those topics can be incredibly rewarding. “I think I don’t have to be very truthful to the world we are living in to make a comment on it. If that’s the case, then why not take a photo?” she says.
Still, one of the biggest challenges marrying serious topics with imaginative drawings, is to make clear what you’re saying with them. “An idea can sound smart, like it solves the problem, but then it turns out that it’s visually not engaging, or it could be confusing to a reader.”
Yet, every time, Victo manages to take our hand and gently guide us, like a lighthouse, or a candle-wielding boy, through her magical worlds.