For Zhigang Zhang, the best inspiration comes to him when he’s in a crowd. A silent observer of everyday life, he’ll happily wander supermarkets and sit in restaurants, snapping the odd photo on his iPhone and gathering snippets of conversations which all get filtered into his peaceful illustrations. “My eyes are my lens”, says Zhigang. When he witnesses a moment he wants to save, he preserves it in the form of an artwork. In this way, the illustrator sees each piece having a “storage function” – “like a snapshot in an album which is never lost”.
A few years ago, Zhigang gave up his studio in China and a stable income as an art teacher to move to the UK and study illustration. It was a “big decision” for Zhigang, he says, but one that he felt was necessary to open new doors for his creative practice. While his “ex-style” was heavily inspired by traditional Chinese painting, at university the illustrator began experimenting with a wide range of materials, his mastery of which distinguished his current style. Unafraid of including broad blank spaces in his artworks, he contrasts these with intense areas of vibrant ink and watercolour; sketches in pencil bring the stark juxtapositions together with delicate details and pattern work.
During his studies, Zhigang began to use colour to communicate mood and atmosphere. Rather than natural colours, the illustrator started to use red for the skin tone of his characters. “I think it is the most suitable colour for me to express the character’s emotions and feelings,” he explains. This is certainly the case in his Malatang series. In one particularly atmospheric piece, a woman raises a spoon to her mouth, and as the food enters her body, her enjoyment appears to radiate through her skin with a warm glow.
The Malatang series is close to Zhigang’s heart. For young people, “life is very hard in China”, says the illustrator. “They work so hard with long hours in order to make money for their families and pay for high mortgages.” But, says Zhigang, no matter whether you’re young or old, a moment of pure delight in the day comes from eating “malatang”, the “most popular food in China”. For his series, he wanted to capture the meditative moments of joy he’s witnessed when he goes to watch hungry people devour bowls of it every Sunday back in his hometown. Often enjoying a bowl himself on these excursions, Zhigang feels “at one” with the people he sketches.
While quotidian life is Zhigang’s main source of inspiration, he also likes to weave fragments of memory into his work, sometimes contemplating more “surreal” themes. A lovely example of this is his recent piece for Palermitaner Magazine, a zine based in the city of Palermo which was his first cover illustration commission. The magazine is devoted to collecting visual concepts based around the romantic seaside town of Palermo in Italy. In response to the whimsical brief, Zhigang delved into his memories of boyhood. The illustration depicts a little boy standing on a pier, using a magical telescope to look at sea life beneath the waves. With a swathe of bright yellow perfectly communicating the joy of the piece, Zhigang demonstrates his wonderful ability to transform an everyday moment into beautiful and contemplative artworks. For him, the piece is “a happy symbol of my childhood”.
Zhigang Zhang: Durian's Fans (Copyright © Zhigang Zhang, 2021)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.