“The brushstrokes contain all my emotions”: Illustrator Fan Pu on why she is drawn to the water

From nursery teacher to illustrator, the Houhai-based artist discusses her road to painting and how memories inform her works.

14 December 2021

Before Fan Pu became an illustrator, she was a nursery school teacher. She became a teacher as a way to “skip high school and spend more time figuring things out,” she tells us. It wasn’t until a friend told her she could make money out of a career in the arts that she started to consider an alternative path. “I always knew I was interested in art,” she says looking back on her childhood in Suzhou, a city near Shanghai known as the “Venice of the East” for its many water canals and bridges.

As a child of the working class, she didn’t think art was a viable career option. But when introduced to the term “illustrator” by that friend, she realised there was an opportunity to do what she always loved. At the age of 20, she ventured overseas to study the medium at New York’s School of Visual Arts, honing her distinct painterly style which transports the viewer to beautiful interiors with repeat wallpapers or environments with decadent green foliage spilling from all corners of the canvas.

In 2012, the illustration industry blew up in China. Many successful illustrators who’d studied abroad came back to their birth country to establish the industry in all its wonders. Since then, the country has possessed a huge hunger for talents such as Fan Pu and other illustrators making their mark through figurative storytelling. Currently residing on the tropical island of Houhai Bay – a place she describes as similar to Hawaii in its landscape, evident in the exotic landscapes of her illustrations – Fan works as an illustrator, depicting intimate moments with such nature and using painting as a means of understanding the world.

“The beauty of watercolour is that it brings out so many possibilities that come from uncertainty,” she says on her chosen medium. Drawn to the fluid textures of the watercolours, she uses brush strokes to investigate themes of water, innocence and the female gaze. Water is also pertinent to her practice because she trained as a competitive swimmer for eight years during childhood. This developed into a passion for surfing, an exercise that’s also seen dotted around her illustrations. “It just keeps coming back to me, I am drawn to the water and can’t escape it.”


Fan Pu: I Think I Like Her And She Loves Me (Copyright © Fan Pu, 2021)

Recently, Fan took part in a one-month residency where she created a number of works to go on show at Fan’s first solo show in China. The show marks a crucial change in Fan’s practice, namely, the switch from watercolour painting to oils. “If watercolours are like a breeze on the lake, then oil painting is the tropical wave before a hurricane. The brushstrokes contain all my emotions.”

She tells us about two paintings from the residency. The first, Seaweed, features a girl Fan met when she first moved to Houhai. “She was 18 and had a childlike innocence I’d been looking for. She was unaware of her power which I found a very previous state in girlhood.” Fan remembers taking a long walk on the beach with her during sunset and asked her to model for the painting. She recalls the way the sunset looked on her, and how she was both clueless and hopeful at the same time. “She went away the next day for law school,” Fan continues. “I knew she was ready to take on the world.”

The Girl In Red, on the other hand, is based on the memory of a girl the painter saw in Miami South beach. She did this painting around the same time she had to say goodbye to a lover, when he moved back to Russia. For some reason, she thought about that girl during that time. She remembered the way she was all curled up on the beach by herself, looking at the ocean. “I imagined myself in her position,” says Fan, “listening to the waves and waiting for the storm to return.”

GalleryFan Pu (Copyright © Fan Pu, 2021)


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Fan Pu: Fluffer's Place (Copyright © Fan Pu, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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