With a hint of surrealism, Jiayue Li talks us through her dreamlike and thoughtful compositions

We chat to the Chinese illustrator, currently based in New York, about her illusory and detailed practice.

2 July 2020

At the age of six, Jiayue Li learned how to draw. Born and raised in Chengdu, China, the now New York-based illustrator recalls an art teacher who was a “passionate woman” that loved interacting with the kids, “telling us how drawing can turn into something enjoyable and fun,” Jiayue tells It’s Nice That. This teacher would take them out on trips to fields, villages and parks to do live drawings, which in turn formed a childhood that was filled with an abundance of joyful memories.

It was during her studies in art, however, that Jiayue’s practice really started to take off. Here she picked up skills in watercolour, oil painting and pencil sketching, before realising her passion for becoming an artist just like her teacher “who is a strong an independent woman operating drawing classes for kids, and passing on her beliefs in art practice,” says Jiayue. Time went on and Jiayue became more interested in how art can be integrated into daily life. As such, she moved to Shangai to pursue her undergraduate studies in graphic design, before jetting off to New York for graduate school in 2017 for an MFA Design Program at School of Visual Arts.

After travelling to the city, Jiayue was instantly surrounded by new influences – particularly that of illustration and art that can be seen in publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times. “I found the idea of using illustration to convey and simplify a strong idea fascinating,” she adds of her reasons for first getting into the medium. “So I decided to work towards being an illustrator.” Then, while studying she found herself regularly sketching and formulating her own compositions and colour palettes, all the while “trying to figure out [her] own style”. Ever since graduating, she’s been working full-time as a graphic designer and illustrator, based in Brooklyn at a design studio called Team. Although spending much of her day in the studio, her independent illustration practice is flourishing on the side.


Jiayue Li

So much so that we were instantly gripped by the artist’s use of colour and thoughtful compositions. Working with texture and paper, Jiayue’s ideas are intricately traced onto the page with coloured pencils – creating this roughly sketched and dreamlike illustration aesthetic. On the topic of how she came to land on this particularly style, she cites Slovakian illustrator Dušan Kállay as her main influence for his “eccentric” images and compositions. Elsewhere, there’s Florentine painter and mathematician Paolo Uccello, “whose work consists of a lot of plot and rhythm”. Jiayue can spend a hefty amount of time looking at just one painting, and finds plenty of depth within Paolo’s work. Small moments of the everyday, plus animals, nature, music, films, books and themes of “women empowerment and mysticism” also play a huge part in her process, which are then transformed into scale with symmetry and “allegorical references” used to present the artist’s narrative.

Although working predominantly with analogue techniques, Jiayue will also use digital tools such as a tablet, Photoshop, Illustrator and Adobe Fresco to refine her aesthetic. Layer upon layer, her pencil marks are formed with ease and care as she places her female protagonists in the centre. A recent piece of hers depicts three birds with human faces in the middle of the animal’s body. A strange concept at first, she explains how while creating this piece there was a Nordic folk song stuck in her head, “distant and hollow”. She adds: “It symbolises our endless desire to transform into something we are not.” Hidden among the realistic portraits, you’ll stumble across more earthy florals, and faces that have been sliced and morphed into something that’s ever so slightly unrealistic. A head opened up and exposing a sky of clouds is just one example, or a trio of faces that appear to have left their bodies behind.

As a whole, Jiayue’s works almost certainly give off a hint of surrealism. “But,” she adds, “it’s just some eccentric combination of daily sparkles.” Within her most recent illustrations, she hopes that her audience can find some unexpected moments of joy, but most importantly, it’s up to the viewer to interpret her hidden stories.

GalleryJiayue Li

Share Article

About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.