Melt into the light and airy illustrations of Liz Xiong
After recently leaving behind a career as a branding designer to pursue illustration full-time, the New York-based creative discusses her fears and doubts of making this drastic career change.
- Jyni Ong
- 4 February 2020
Shuhua Xiong, otherwise known as Liz, has recently made a huge leap of faith. As a branding designer at Google, you may think the New York-based designer had it all. But just a few weeks ago, she made the difficult decision to quit her job at the high-flying tech company and pursue her passion in full-time illustration. Gentle and elegant, Liz’s illustrations are soft like the fuzz of a fragrant, ripe peach. It’s hard to imagine how she coaxes such subtlety from a digital canvas, but somehow, she achieves it to masterful effect.
Though her passion now lies in illustration, back in Liz’s freshman year, it was photography that first piqued her interest. “I didn’t know what I wanted,” she recalls of her adolescence, “All my obsessions started with photography.” As a youngster in Shanghai, she remembers first learning the techniques of the dark room, using her dad’s old Minolta X-700. It was hard to find film developers in the Chinese city, but she managed to find a private dealer who she’d mail her negatives to, hoping and praying for successful outcomes when they were sent back.
So after a short stint studying psychology in the US, Liz transferred to New York’s School of Visual Arts, immersing herself in all that the sculpture, painting and ceramics departments had to offer. At this time, she still “had no idea what design really meant,” and it wasn’t until it came to delivering her master’s thesis that her illustration practice truly came to light. Liz tells us, “I wanted some colour-field backgrounds as a branding element for my thesis.” The text functioned as a time capsule for our digital presence, and in turn, she wanted to create something airy and ethereal to visually explore this concept.
Delving into the airbrush tool, she came upon the signature technique that would go on to soothe viewers with its breezy lightness. At the time, she was also very stressed, so during the sleepless nights of insomnia, Liz would stay up in bed, drawing with the airbrush tool on Procreate and developing her style. “I’d find my brain going into autopilot when I was having those nights,” she goes on to say. “I really fell in love with the airbrush tool. It’s forgiving if you are not confident with brushstrokes, and it’s feminine and powerful if you sharpen the edges.”
Now, having perfected the craft, the time has come for Liz to make illustration a full time occupation. Though “it was a hard decision at the time because of self doubt and fear of the unknown,” she says, “I feel at peace now knowing that everything is exactly where it’s meant to be. I’m just going with the flow.” While her design education was invaluable in its methodical way of thinking and working, for Liz, who craved more creative freedom and self-expression while working as a designer, the industry wasn’t fulfilling. “For the longest time,” she goes on, “I felt like I was struggling but I didn’t know what the antidote was.”
After years of trying to feel satisfied career-wise, it got to the point where Liz felt she was “lingering on the edge of a cliff,” until she finally got pushed off. Though she felt thankful for all the exciting opportunities that came to her after graduating, she was also faced with a mountain of self-critique, “beating myself up for not enjoying working at all these great places,” says Liz. “I felt like a tiny screw that fell off a giant steam machine.” But with the help of her friend Jaedoo Lee, eventually, Liz made the move to being a full time illustrator. And since then, she’s been commissioned by the likes of Medium for editorial jobs while further exploring other channels and forms. Looking to the future, she hopes to keep being “genuine and emotional”, drawing what she feels, rather than what she sees.