Step into the vivid, glowing, intriguing world of illustrator Jiayi Li
The Paris-based illustrator is inspired by still life photography and airbrush paintings and aims to connect with viewers through compelling combinations of objects.
- Ruby Boddington
- 3 August 2021
Looking through the portfolio of Jiayi Li, you’d never guess that she only really started making work (publicly) around a year ago. Despite loving drawing since she was a child, she lacked the conviction to really go for it as a freelance illustrator and instead spent many years working in Paris as a graphic designer. “When the pandemic began, I got confined in the countryside with a very poor internet connection and very few distractions so I spent time drawing (and eating),” she recalls. “And while at it, I decided to post my illustrations online. I was happily surprised by the feedback I got and that really boosted my confidence.” A year on and her work bears the hallmarks of someone experienced in the field. A consistent visual language pervades all of Jiayi’s pieces where still lifes burst with luminescent colours and the detritus of everyday life. Not to mention a few cats.
Jiayi grew up in China and was a creative child, she recalls how drawing, in particular, has always been her passion and that she “was fortunate enough to have my mother support me.” She, therefore, went onto study fine art in China before pursuing further studies in graphic design in Paris. At the heart of everything she now creates as an illustrator is a love of connecting with others. It’s for this reason Jiayi often draws “culturally relevant elements” that stir up nostalgia for many. “These elements all come from my daily life, or from my childhood memories,” she adds and are often disparate objects brought together to suggest a story.
Aesthetically, she’s inspired by still life photographs and airbrush paintings, references that impact the composition, colour and tone of her work. Interestingly though, much of Jiayi’s aesthetic decisions stem from a Playboy magazine she found at a young age – rare contraband in mainland China. “I was totally captivated by the beautiful nude photos. At that time I didn’t really understand the sexual dimension, but the application of hazy and glowing lights in the photos left a deep impression in my memory,” she tells us of her “earliest aesthetic influence.” She employs a similar approach to lighting in her work today, elucidating why everything she depicts is bathed in vivid or nebulous light, a decision she explains “turns everything into something seductive,” with the added glare providing “a provocative twist.”
When making a piece of work, Jiayi will share written ideas with a few close friends to ascertain whether or not the concept is clear and relevant. She’ll then sketch. “[This] stage is the hardest for me and is when I give up on most of my ideas,” she says. Unsurprisingly, “once a sketch is fully completed I spend a lot of time editing the colours. Sometimes the result comes out completely different from what I anticipated but I like that. I try not being tied to a specific colour palette – it leaves room for something new.” That said, there’s definitely a reoccurring sensibility when it comes to colour in Jiayi’s work. She’s not afraid to go for bold, dark colours and it feels as if you’re viewing the world through lilac-tinted lenses under UV light when flicking through her portfolio. In turn, her work reveals an otherworldly universe where objects buzz and radiate with energy and intrigue.
Focussed on the composition and colour of her illustrations, Jiayi tells us there’s no deeper message to her drawings. “I only hope viewers will have freedom of interpretation when looking at [them],” she explains, adding that a major goal is to provide “people with content that can make their imagination wander.” Finally, she says, if her work can inspire others to pursue a creative hobby, then that would be the ultimate achievement. Having built up an impressive portfolio over the past year, Jiayi is looking to turn her hand to animation next. “Perhaps not some 30fps two-minute-long animations but maybe some loops to play a little with sound and movement,” she ponders. “It would be a nice opportunity for me to learn some new things and challenge my working process.”
Jiayi Li (Copyright © Jiayi Li, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.