Grace J. Kim is adding sigh-inducing ambience to editorial illustration

Always a keen illustrator from a young age, Grace tells us about her reading-led approach to illustration to inform her detail-heavy works.

8 February 2021

Mainly working in editorial, it’s no surprise that New York-based illustrator Grace J. Kim’s day always starts with reading. Whether it’s an article or a brief she’s been sent, Grace approaches reading with her own outcome continually in mind, taking note of her “first reactions as a reader” she describes. Holding onto this feeling over the next few days while trying to “sensitively capture the nuance and ambience of writing”, across a period of “endless analysis of images and rethinking concepts”, the final result is a portfolio of work that lifts viscerally off the page, no matter the subject Grace is communicating.

Developing such a distinctive illustration style is the result of Grace spending most of her life sketching. Born in Japan, but spending time in Seoul before moving to Vancouver for the rest of her adolescence, Grace found that “being multicultural has its advantages but as a shy kid, I felt that I never had chances to fully master each language,” she explains. Developing into a super quiet teen who “always sat in the corner to draw to get lost in my own thoughts”, art soon became the only subject Grace “felt that I was good at”, choosing to study illustration and communication design at Pratt. While illustration always provided Grace with a sense of creative enjoyment, after graduating she first took a graphic design-focused job where “stability had gotten me too comfortable that I somehow ended up staying in the job for over seven years.”

At the back of her mind however was always this dream to only illustrate from 9-5, deciding to leap back into the medium and study an MFA in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. Meeting a bunch of talented illustrators from around the world in the process, Grace now notes last year as the starting point of her career, kicking off with a commission from The New Yorker, “and I’ve been fortunate to continue getting work since then,” she says. “Being able to work as an illustrator has been the most rewarding experience for me.”


Grace J. Kim: The New York Times, Losing My Mom to Alzheimer’s, Then Finding Her Again (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, The New York Times, 2021)

Since that first commission, Grace’s work has continued to pop up in a range of magazines, always conjuring up an image that not only relates to the piece at hand but instantly draws a viewer in with no context. When discussing this quality, Grace notes how she approaches creating an image “as if I am capturing a scene from a memory, whether it’s my own or other people’s,” she tells us. This frame of mind allows the illustrator to mix in conceptual ideas when delivering a message, leading her to pay close attention to “the textures of objects, temperatures of the place, winds, lights, and glimpses of emotions to make each illustration a vivid experience to the viewers.”

In turn a noticeable quality across Grace’s work is an amazing ability to showcase light. For instance in one spot for The New York Times in support of an article Losing My Mom to Alzheimer’s, Then Finding Her Again, Grace use of light illustrates the shadow of a mother and daughter, sitting atop a marshmallow-like bed evoking sigh-inducing relief. Another, again for the Times titled How to Manage the Emotional Impact of Getting Laid Off, sees the illustrator create an expansive scene of endless or daunting (depending on your frame of mind) opportunity. It’s Grace’s decision to sketch in a beaming sun that first makes her central character feel less alone, but also offers visual hope. “Most of my works are made in hope of bringing some moments of peace to whoever comes across them,” she adds.

Approaching illustration in this way has also provided Grace with more opportunities to learn within the medium, even after her longterm relationship with drawing. “During editorial jobs, I get to learn deeply about the issues that I wasn’t fully aware of before,” she reflects on her work to date. “It is an intense learning process that is not just reading about those articles but letting myself get emotionally attached in order to put myself into other people’s shoes.” By continuously placing herself in the viewpoint of the reader has also led Grace to realise the responsibility an illustrator has in the editorial world, “to make images that are there to support the writings and setting the ambience accurately.” One of the most rewarding parts, she adds, is when this sentiment is shared, receiving emails from readers or authors “who said they really felt related to the image,” she says, “hearing that they were comforted by my work really makes me happy”.


Grace J. Kim: Hands First (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, 2021)


Grace J. Kim: The New Yorker, Living With a Visionary (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, The New Yorker 2021)


Grace J. Kim: Summertime in Bushwick (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, 2021)


Grace J. Kim: The New York Times, How to Manage the Emotional Impact of Getting Laid Off (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, The New York Times, 2021)


Grace J. Kim: The New Yorker, How God Becomes Real (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, The New Yorker 2021)


Grace J. Kim: The New Yorker, Covid and College (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, The New Yorker 2021)


Grace J. Kim: The New Yorker, Swarm Intelligence (Copyright © Grace J. Kim, The New Yorker 2021)

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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