“Don’t be too hard on yourself”: Ping Zhu shares valuable advice and discusses her first illustrated children’s book

The New York-based illustrator’s first children’s book has been four years in the making. Here, she discusses the creative process and shares some wise words for any budding illustrators.

28 May 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

Much has changed since we last wrote about the wonderful illustrator Ping Zhu. Over the past couple of years, her work has gone from strength to strength, aided by multiple factors – one of them being the move to a larger studio with Hannah Bigeleisen. In turn, she’s had the space to paint on a larger scale and experiment further with her dynamic compositions. Her routine and environment have been shaken up and with it and she’s been able to take on new challenges in her illustration practice. Elsewhere, she also learnt a lot from teaching on an illustration course at Pratt. It was unusual being on the other side of the educational structure, but importantly, it taught her to “listen to what others are trying to say” and have meaningful discussions around effective visual communication.

She tells It’s Nice That: “Interacting with students helped me in my work because I had forgotten to ask myself a lot of the questions I was asking them. It doesn’t matter what stage of your career you’re in, you still have to hold your work up to the light and evaluate it as objectively as possible.” With this in mind, Ping approached a recent project – her first illustrated children’s book – with careful attention to detail, illustrating the life of southern writer Flannery O’Connor. A writer from Georgia who specialised in the southern gothic genre, who died at the age of 39 in the 60s, O’Connor is best known for her short stories.

The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor written by Amy Alznauer and published by Enchanted Lion features evocative yet wholly accessible illustrations by Ping. “It was challenging to decide how to approach the story visually and tonally,” she says on the project as she’s “used to very fast turnarounds for editorial work” and is “much less familiar with planning an entire sequence of images.” Ultimately, Ping’s illustrations emphasise the subtle realities of Flannery’s day-to-day experiences during the first half of the 20th Century. Highlighting her accomplishments despite her illness of Lupus which caused her untimely death, Ping absorbed Amy’s words to illustrate the vividness of the writer’s imagination.


Ping Zhu: The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor, photography by Daniel Cochran

Painted in gouache on paper, the colour palette evolves alongside the story. Ping made something called a “colour worm” – a sequence of colours representing the whole book so the illustrator can see how the palette sits together when used across several spreads. Working closely with Claudia Zoe Bedrick who runs Enchanted Lion, Ping and Claudia communicated frequently to perfect the tone, atmosphere and style of the book. And provided with extensive visual references of Flannery’s life from Amy, the book was finally completed after four years of work. Due to be published on 16 June 2020, for Ping, “it was surreal to finally hold the actual book in my hands,” but judging by the beauty of each page, it was worth it.

In other work, prior to lockdown, Ping was already working on her second children’s book which offered a chance to exercise what she had previously learnt from working on Strange Birds. Having learnt a lot from such recent endeavours, on a side note, Ping’s also realised “that editing isn’t just a matter of showing work that might attract the most likes, but also about showcasing things that you can have a discussion about.” Keeping some drawings just for herself, she values a kind of self-preservation; a way to balance the outward and inward faces of creativity too.


Ping Zhu

All in all, Ping’s wonderful work seen here in this article marks years of both creative and personal development. She recalls how her instructors told Ping and her peers that it wasn’t uncommon for an illustrator’s career to feel more stable around the five-year mark. “That sounded like forever,” says Ping, “especially after spending four years in school.” Though it’s different for each individual, it has in fact taken around this amount of time for Ping to “feel like [she] has her feet on the ground.” She finally ends on some wise words of advice: “Now I’m at year ten and I’m still learning about the changing landscape.

“Don’t be afraid if your trajectory isn’t the same as your peers. Some folks have parental and monetary support, some are in the right place at the right time, some are suave networkers. Hang on to old work so you know how far you’ve come. It’s tempting to destroy the evidence of work you think is bad, but keeping a thread in your own history is important for growth. Sometimes it reminds you of previous interests and approaches, or what to avoid. Think more about the story, not just the medium. Ask a lot of questions, in general. If a brief is confusing, ask to clarify. If you need more time to work on a project, see if there is wiggle room before it’s too late. Talk to each other about money so you can ask for more from clients. This extends to talking about contracts as well. I’m really thankful for social media as a platform for connecting our industry and having discussions about this. Litebox.info is a great resource I wish I had when I started. It’s a compilation of pricing from editorial spots to graphic novel advances that is based on actual and to date jobs. Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself and make sure you eat well and sleep enough! You can’t do anything if you’re dead.”

GalleryPing Zhu


The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor, photography by Daniel Cochran


The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor, photography by Daniel Cochran

Share Article

About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.


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.