【Intimate Portrait】Before words/ Carmen Ng

(2016 October) "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak." Ways of Seeing by John Berger


There are two implications:
1/ before the enlightenment of word and language, we interact with and understand one another merely through images. Hieroglyphs, which play an important part in the development of civilisation, originated from images.

2/ the invention of language armed us with the literal medium to learn about, interpret and build a shared view of the world. But the world represented in words, however, can never reconstitute or define reality.


If everything could be expressed in a few words, then fictions, poems, colours, forms, temperature and dreams would have all been found in vain. Emerging young illustrator Carmen Ng, founder of “Carmen Ng Illustration” with studio at JCCAC Unit L2-15, believes in the power of images and has adopted illustration as her practice. By applying non-verbal means - lines and forms, she tells visual stories of imagination beyond imagination.

C: Carmen Ng


J: For the toiling blue or white collar, the occupation of an “Illustrator” has such a romantic aura about it, conjuring visions of someone whose business is lounging in cafés, socialising for inspiration, doing the odd sketch when in the mood, and occasionally showing up at exhibitions and book launches. Does this match the lifestyle you actually lead as a freelance illustrator?


C: Quite the contrary! Being a self-employed freelancer, to me, means that there is no segregation between working and non-working hours in my self-imposed full-time job. It takes a lot of self-discipline and hard work to make a living out of it. A friend of mine once asked me what leisure activities I like to do in my spare time. I only realised then that I do not actually have leisure time like people who work in normal jobs.


Demand for illustration does fall into peak and low seasons. The peak season is usually in summer, when I may need to simultaneously juggle 5 or 6 projects. As I specialise in freehand illustrations, all my drawings come from my own hand and I cannot delegate my work to someone else. When working in full throttle during the peak season, sleep and meal times become low priority necessities. But then when low season comes, I may find myself just sitting around twiddling my thumbs for a whole month without any new projects coming through my door. So you see, I am on a repetitive roller coaster ride of either having too much to do and not enough time, or nothing to do and worried sick about it.


In a nutshell, being a freelance illustrator means I neither have stable working hours nor stable income. But as I have only graduated for 4 years, I am pretty satisfied with the steady progress of my artistic career. The life I am experiencing now is indeed what I longed for and dreamt about!


J: After graduating from the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2011, you have already won the “Best Illustration (Published) Awards, Second Greater China Illustration Awards” and Spring Workshop Map Drawing Competition 2013, as well as participated in “Affordable Art Fair”. These all happened at quite an early stage in your career. How did you actually get started as an illustrator?


C: I was just an ordinary child who loved doodling. When I was in primary two or three, I remembered that during an art class sketching oranges, when the teacher was walking around the classroom and reached my desk, she suddenly grabbed my work and praised it in front of the whole class. It was the first time I received any recognition and became aware of any artistic ability that I might have. Frankly speaking, I did not excel academically so being good in art was my saving grace, to my parents’ relief and my great delight.


J: How did you embark on your professional journey?


C: Illustration was the medium I chose for developing my graduation project. I was very lucky that I found full-time employment as an illustrator for a magazine right after graduation. At that time, I worked closely with and learnt a lot about the business from my supervisor/mentor. Together we contributed illustrations for all features and columns - from travel, entertainment to politics (e.g. satirical portraits and commentry). It was a valuable experience for me, enabling me to acquire new skills like digital illustration and opening my eyes to new perspectives in the business. 


With more and more freelance projects landing on my lap, I realised that I could not do all that just in my spare time. So when my supervisor/mentor quit the magazine after 2 years, I took it as a cue that my apprenticeship is completed and I should try “flying solo” myself. My first major assignment as a full-time freelance illustrator was for a new publication Your First Job-tionary by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. It was wonderful that they specifically asked me to illustrate it in my own artistic style, in stark contrast with most illustration jobs on the market which usually specify either generic or brand styles rather than the artist’s own. To my great delight I found that people actually liked my own iconic style. It gave me the confidence to continue on my chosen path.


J: Social network plays a crucial role in opening doors for freelance illustrators like you, doesn’t it?


C: Quite so. I started doing freelance graphic design jobs when I was still a student at the university. There was not a lot of money in it but it was an excellent opportunity to meet new collaborators and expand my network. I am very thankful for their support through all these years.


Through the projects I did, I got the chance to meet professionals from various fields. Some are veterans and peers from the art world, some work in publication and the media, and others are from seemingly unrelated fields such as real estate. The broad exposure to different people not normally in my circle rewarded me with many unique stories and inspiring perspectives.


J: Illustration is growing in importance in the creative industry. As a genre in applied visual arts, there is much demand for it from the commercial world for brand building or service/product promotion. You work both on commercial projects and as a creative artist. Do you find any contradictions? How do you position yourself?


C: Commercial activities and art-making are often perceived as two mutually exclusive notions and practices. But I view them more as two extremes on a spectrum. Nowadays, not only is there more overlapping between the roles of illustrator and designer, the line separating art and design is often challenged and blurred. I dabble in both and find that their convergence sparks new possibilities. Although they can be viewed as different disciplines, I do not believe that a binary approach of judging them as polar opposites of good or bad, high or low, is practical or fair.


Perhaps dual identity could best describe me. “Carmen Ng” the artist creates artworks for exhibitions, while I also work in graphic design and commercial illustration, often for children’s publications. It is intriguing that the two “me” interact with and influence each other. For instance, the application of bright colours to the former can be regarded as an extension from the latter. On the other hand, art works are also commercial commodities in the art market. The question “What is a work of art? And what is a commodity?” often comes to my head. 


J: What is “artistic illustration”?


C: Compare with commercial design, artistic illustration focuses more on the choice of subject matter and in conveying deeper concepts. In other words, functionality is of less concern. I love telling visual stories about often overlooked details in our lives and this city.


One of my works displayed in the recent exhibition “Wood Whispers”, called Growing By Any Means, depicts my unexpected discovery of plants thriving within sewer pipes running along the outer walls of a building. I was impressed and inspired by the exuberant vitality of these tiny pockets of life, flourishing right under our nose yet completely out of our sight. 


J: Your works, which are known for their refreshing style, sophisticated composition and delicate brushstrokes, create the illusion of an imaginery reality. They are almost like a contemporary take on the Chinese masterpiece Along the River During the Qingming Festival. We are curious about your creative process.


C: I am fond of lines and details, and Along the River During the Qingming Festival is definitely one of my favourite masterpieces. It is an ingeniously structured composition which absorbs you when viewed from a distance, then gradually unveils stories and messages as you study it up close. It is impossible to get tired of looking at it.


I prefer starting simple free sketching, which gives myself time to dwell on the subject and allow more profound thoughts and insights to surface, then develop and translate them into stories told through lines and colours. The final work may be quite different from what I originally envisage. My creative process can be really slow. Trace Of Time Passed, for example, which is of modest size at 38 x 38cm, took me a full month to complete.


J: It is surprising that such detailed illustrations have roots in spontaneity!


C: I believe in “simple is beautiful”, but am also quite obsessive and focused when working. I also believe in practice makes perfect, that only through investing time and hard work can one make a skill into an art.


Rather than technique polishing, I am more into story telling. What exactly I should and can do? Well, I think I cannot tell at this moment as I have only embarked on this amazing journey for a few years and am still in search of some practical methods. Generally speaking, I think I would strive to look for ways to effectively explore the subject matters through the expression of personal reflections and emotions. I have been following my heart and hope that my direction is on the right track.


Recommended activity
Wood Whispers – Carmen Ng & Andio Lai
Date︰till 8 / 10 / 2016

Mon - Sat > 11:00 - 19:00

Sun > 14:00 - 18:00
Venue︰Karin Weber Gallery (G/F, 20 Aberdeen Street, Central)


Please click here to download《JCCAC PROGRAMMES》(2016 Oct issue)


More【Intimate Portrait】articles,  click here