Observing the clean linework and structured compositions evident in Wenkai Mao’s drawings, it is not surprising to learn that prior to moving to New York to pursue an illustration degree at the School of Visual Arts, he was studying industrial design in his home of China. These days, he says his background as a designer informs much of his practice and style.
“In general, my style is very precise, which definitely has to do with my roots in design. I prefer well-balanced, stable compositions and carefully chosen colour palettes,” he says. “I’m also quite obsessive about making sure every element in an image is in exactly the right spot, and is essential – if removing an element in the image makes no overall difference, then I would rather remove it.”
Wenkai’s formative experience in design also means that when drawing, one of his main concerns is spatial relationships, whether between objects or between figures. He says he finds his way of making images similar to the way in which “children play with a dollhouse or sandbox.” The illustrator is not just painting with lines and colours on a 2D surface, but instead building microcosms of parallel universes in which “the audience can reside and wander around with their eyes.”
In Wenkai’s most recent series, Earthly Recreation, he tries to capture recreational moments, with his subjects engaging in activities such as playing piano, drinking, buildings a house of cards, or simply taking a break on the grass. As always, his main interest here is the pictorial relationship between figures and their environment. “Exploring these situations is an effective way to connect people and the space that surrounds them,” he explains.
Aspects of this project also hark back to his interest in design, particularly his studies, where he would often “create interesting objects, such as the ones seen here like the loom-piano that weaves fabric with music, odd shaped chess pieces, surreal balloon animals, and a plethora of random, geometric crystal objects. “I had a lot of fun with this, but when it comes to industrial design in reality, there are so many limitations that make it dull and painstaking.”
Distinctive though his aesthetic may be, looking forward, Wenkai says he doesn’t know exactly where it’s going: “I spent a lot of time using paper and canvas at university, but now I work completely digitally. Having transitioned to digital illustration, I experimented with lots of different approaches before settling on my current style. But I think, like every artist, I will have to go through many stages before finding something I am totally satisfied with. I’ll continue to transform and evolve.”
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