Find bold strokes and quiet landscapes in Sally Deng’s illustrations that look to create an emotional pull

Fascinated by people, individuals and communities, the LA-based artist spends a lot of time figuring out the story within the images she creates.

7 April 2021

The dynamism of a body is highly suggestive of the subject’s mood or personality. Outstretched arms and forward-facing heads suggest motion and eagerness, while a bent-over figure with his hands in his pockets might suggest a timid person in an unfamiliar environment. What’s interesting is when more than one of these figures feature in an illustration. When illustrated, these varying body languages don’t just suggest the identity of an individual, but also imply the relationship between the different subjects within the image. With this, you can tell a story with a static image. If portraiture uses the subtle expressions of a sitter’s face, then artist Sally Deng’s illustrations look to tell these stories through the posture of her subjects.

Born and based in Los Angeles, Sally spent portions of her childhood in China, though she now resides in her birth town. Her style came from trial and error, the result of experimentation during art school. “My influences ran the gamut but some pivotal moments for me was discovering the works of Ben Shanh, Jockum Nordstrum, and traditional Indian miniature paintings. These were not art pieces where one look would have sufficed — I found myself returning to the same paintings or drawings over and over again,” Sally tells It’s Nice That.

These initial influences allowed Sally to identify that her favourites were those “that were not only technically amazing but had an incredible emotional pull,” she adds. “And I think that’s what I’ve been trying to recreate in my own work. I want my art to be able to create some sort of visceral response or connection with the audience so that they’d want to stay with the piece longer.”


Sally Deng: Bittersweet 落叶归根 (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)

Discussing her work, there are two pieces Sally notes she is particularly fond of, and represent her heading in this aforementioned direction. For instance, in Surf Dreams, she illustrates surfers going up against a crashing wave. “I started learning how to surf after college and I naturally started creating artwork about the sport. The ocean is such an awesome and overwhelming force—it made me feel small and insignificant, which was very freeing. I wanted to try expressing those emotions rather than do a literal recreation of surfers in the sea,” she says. Another piece, Bittersweet , 落叶归根, is a more personal painting about nostalgia and an almost forgotten past. “There’s really no special techniques used, just a lot of adding and removing very thin layers of paint and then even more layers of paint after that. It was not a quick process as I had wanted to slowly build it up to create an ephemeral feeling, like a ghost of a memory,” she describes.

It’s evident from her work that Sally looks to explore the interactions between different people and their environment, a result of her fascination with individuals and communities. “Every illustration is a story and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the interaction of the people in them. How are two people going to react to each other? How are they going to respond to their environment? How do they exist in these spaces when alone? You can create an engaging picture with just contrasting body postures,” she says. She achieves her particular aesthetic through a mix of drawing and creating her own textures by applying multiple thin layers of paint. “Occasionally there will be collaging and taping involved. Sprinkle in an endless supply of frustration throughout the process.”

Through this process of illustrating people’s stories, Sally hopes to create memorable work that stays with the audience's mind. This comes, perhaps, from the lingering thoughts that you get after viewing her work as you try to figure out the story behind her quiet and profound images.


Sally Deng: Prenatal Depression for The New York Times (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Laos for The New York Times (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Calming Storm (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: An Education (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Young Woman (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Women Fifa (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Vietnam (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Stamford (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)


Sally Deng: Surf Dreams (Copyright © Sally Deng, 2021)

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About the Author

Alif Ibrahim

Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.

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