One look at New York-based Wenwen Zhu’s gentle illustrations and you’re transported into a state of meditative contemplation, no matter the subject her drawings may brace. Part illustrator, part poet, Wenwen has always been an observational artist. “I started drawing as a curious infant observing my mother’s passion for visual arts,” she says of her childhood in Chongqing. “Now, as I grow into my role as a maturing artist, I seek to constantly challenge newfound whims redefining the realm of illustration.” Wenwen’s penchant for the undiscovered beauties and chaos of life has led her down a path of emotive and expressive drawing, not shying away from unravelling disparate parts of her internal life to display as beautiful serene moments in her illustrations. It’s an elegy of “absurdity and tenderness,” as she describes. “Nowadays, most commercial illustrations seem overly-saturated, in an intentional manner such that heavy mark-making and arbitrary pigmentation is abused, but I personally prefer to create work with a naturally unfinished feeling.”
Throughout Wenwen’s illustrative world, we see her draw on the traditional aesthetics of Japanese wabi-sabi, “to create work that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in nature,” the artist tells us. There is a sense of rationality that permeates these imperfect and incomplete drawings, however, and it’s something Wenwen deploys to deliberately create a profound quietness. “My mark-making is light and gentle, and my colour palette features a warm and elegant green and blue,” she says. Such gentle approaches to the form have led to plenty of commissions, both editorially and commercially.
Wenwen’s interpretation of the wabi-sabi aesthetics proves to be particularly alluring for illustrative commissions that blend the lines between fine art and editorial. “My drawing principle is ‘showing but not telling,’” Wenwen explains. “Rather than drawing specific physical objects, I am more drawn to a tuft of grass and a gust of wind, and the characters in my drawings are not featured in exaggerated expressions and body movements.” In doing so, Wenwen allows her audience to harbour their own interpretations of the many parts of her illustration, drawing out the metaphors and “reaping peace from them.”
“If my audience can empathise with the grief and subtle traumas in my characters, they can realise the sweet serenity in their environments and hope permeates like a ray of light,” Wenwen tells us. Such a poetic way of speaking comes naturally to Wenwen, who is a huge fan of poetry. She cites Charles Baudelaire among the many poets that inspire her visual world. “Symbolic language in poems is to the lines and streaks in a painting, the only difference is that drawing is visual,” she says. In her recent commission for work-based app Fiverr, for example, we see a woman in a traditional Chinese qipao dress applying her make-up and earrings, with a man approaching from behind a curtain. “Ultimately, this piece was an expression of my perception of beauty,” Wenwen explains. Serving as both a beautiful moment of expression and as part of Fiverr’s initiative to support nonprofit organisations and the AAPI community, the piece demonstrates the versatility of Wenwen’s hand.
Now, Wenwen continues working forward in her poetic and meditative state of mind. “In my upcoming projects, I wish to channel first principles thinking, to disassemble and reconstruct elements of life,” she tells us. “I seek to degenerate order into an undignified disorder, remake fragments of that disorder, and unify those fragments.” It’s yet another way Wenwen’s unique point of view can deconstruct the most complex of feelings and moments, and reinterpret them into gentle illustration. “Every fragment of the image can be visually reconstructed by the viewer, such that each fragment can be applied to different individual lives because when parts merge as a whole, that whole becomes an intricate entanglement of organised chaos.”
Wenwen Zhu: Drag Queen (Copyright © Wenwen Zhu 2021)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.