Jo Zixuan Zhou, the editorial illustrator combining atmosphere, narrative symbols and technique
The Shanghai-based illustrator works with editorial giants such as The New Yorker and The New York Times. Here, she tells us more about her process and how she tackles a brief.
- Jyni Ong
- 10 March 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
For the illustrator Zixuan Zhou, otherwise known as Jo, working digitally is not only an aesthetic choice but also a convenience. Growing up in the south of China, when she first came across digital illustration it struck her as a “beginner-friendly” medium, as opposed to the more traditional processes which require copious amounts of hand rendered refinement. “There is a sense of relief that comes with working digitally,” where Jo can experiment with different styles, make mistakes and easily correct them, and worry less about spending money on supplies – or a lack of space.
Working digitally is as much a business choice as it is reliable for the now Shanghai-based freelancer, who is also a part time teacher when not working on commissions. Her beautifully textured works, rich in the depth of colour and characterisation, have been featured in all the editorial greats including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and NPR; to name just a few. But contrary to Jo’s work now, illustration wasn’t always going to be her end goal. Her first degree was in business, “it was like living in an alternative universe,” she recalls. Eventually, “the sense of alienation grew so increasingly unbearable that I dropped out of it and applied to art schools in the US.” And in 2019, she graduated with a degree in illustration from New York’s School of Visual Arts.
While living in New York, she gathered an array of clients like the aforementioned bigwigs and worked part time in print shops. In these years, she developed her signature style, a style which is both contemporary but with the nostalgic charm of children’s book illustration, making it ideal for editorial. She also damaged her hand while print making, so she had to find a way to realise the vision for her artworks while adapting method to suit her. With this in mind, when it comes to illustrating, Jo’s ultimate intent is to create an atmospheric scene, an image which tells a story through the articulation of symbols while eliminating unnecessary components.
Influenced by Ukiyo-e masters such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kiyonaga and more recently, Goyo Hashiguchi and Ito Shinsui, Jo creates a similar sense of depth in her works but by using largely flat and two-dimensional elements to construct the scene. Her illustrations are characteristically block-coloured, choosing muted tones with a grainy coating to enhance the hazy atmosphere. And whenever she receives a brief, says Jo, “texture and brevity have always been my go-to for visual problem solving.” Though she tackles the majority of her briefs using a digital tablet, every now and again, she likes to take pencil to paper as, like many artists will agree, “nothing quite beats the feeling”.
During lockdown, she’s exercised this method further working on a series titled Quarantine Pencil Drawing. “A very personal project that still feels fresh to me,” says the illustrator, the series consists of minimal compositions, delicately illustrated with Jo’s fine tuned pencil skills. Each drawing is peaceful yet with a haunting ambience. She records everyday passing moments, the shower, going to sleep, looking out the window, sitting in a chair; expressing the quiet solitude that’s come with quarantine. “It felt genuine,” adds Jo, “because they’re made only to dispel my depressive feelings during quarantine.”
Having traveled back to China for a festive visit when Covid first hit, “it was scary to say the least,” watching the situation get worse day by day. During this time, these images started resurfacing in her mind’s eye, but it wasn’t until later, when she was going through lockdown in New York, that she finalised them. She also wrote her first children’s book in the last year, though it’s still a little rough round the edges. Describing it as “a good first attempt”, Jo hopes to flesh out the narrative and images before going further with it. This, combined with more editorial work and her part time teaching, is sure to keep Jo busy going forwards. Digital or analog, stay tuned with Jo’s wonderful works to follow her latest creative ventures.
GalleryJo Zixuan Zhou (Copyright © Jo Zixuan Zhou, 2021)
Jo Zixuan Zhou (Copyright © Jo Zixuan Zhou, 2021)
About the Author
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. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.