Through otherworldly and surreal illustrations Jee-ook Choi strives for “unrealistic beauty”
Regular It’s Nice That readers will be no stranger to Jee-ook Choi’s enigmatic illustrations. We have written about her so many times, it’s hard to know what else to say about the Seoul-based creative. But with the help of a rather poetic Korean translator, we discussed the ins and outs of the artist’s creative process. From a young girl in the countryside whose imagination grew out of sprawling nature to a successful illustrator in Seoul striving for personal growth, Jee-ook tells us about her life and an artistic practice that constantly strives towards an “unrealistic beauty”.
“I spent my childhood in a rural landscape where a small stream flowed through our backyard and fireflies could be seen at night on lucky days”Jee Ook Choi
Jee-ook is one of those illustrators whose personal projects and commissioned work don’t stray far from one another. Whether she’s doing a magazine, book cover, poster or simply a sketch for her own enjoyment, Jee-ook’s work always possesses an element of sublime intrigue that makes us do a double take. Otherworldly and surreal, her illustrations often flit between stark realism and vivid imagination. Small idiosyncrasies reveal glimmers of personality, showcasing the artist’s process and causing us to look again and make sure we haven’t missed anything within the dense layers of composition.
The illustrator’s visual inventiveness has been brewing since she was a young girl. “I spent my childhood in a rural landscape where a small stream flowed through our backyard and fireflies could be seen at night on lucky days,” she recalls. “I was able to catch and eat frogs and grasshoppers, and sometimes I even came across snakes while picking wild berries in the forest.” In one noteworthy memory, Jee-ook remembers a normal summer’s day, when suddenly “fat caterpillars fell out of the trees onto me in their hundreds like heavy rain”. Even after all these years, this memory – and many others – still springs to mind as she remembers “that bizarre sight and feeling”.
Although her childhood in the country was “not always beautiful”, she says it was filled with “mysteries and refreshing jolts”. To this day, Jee-ook attributes her “continued search for unrealistic beauty” to her childhood in such an idyllic rural landscape. Upon moving to the city when she was seven years old, over time Jee-ook inevitably lost the sense of innocence that pervades all childhoods. But through illustration, she continuously tries to recreate this unattainable feeling of youthful delight that seems perfect when seen with adult hindsight. With this in mind, Jee-ook’s works possesses flawless perspectives and clean colour palettes that enhance the beauty of the image; encapsulating this idea of “unrealistic beauty”.
When asked about the meaning of her surreal drawings, Jee-ook comments on how they reflect her frequent feelings of “walking in the air without my feet touching the floor”. In turn, her work is light and airy in its lines and textures, which reflect her imagined world where time and space “are outside the laws of physics”. For Jee-ook, her tendency to depict celestial objects and bouncing beams of light is her way of elevating our daily lives , giving her illustrations what she calls “their own dimension completely independent from the external world.”
Though it seems as if Jee-ook can effortlessly pop out these arresting illustrations in no time, she actually explored many different art forms before deciding on her chosen medium. While studying fine art in Seoul, Jee-ook presented her stories in myriad forms including performance, installations and drawing. “During my studies,” she explains, “I was able to express myself with different materials and methods for each project… keeping myself open to all possibilities.” But once it came to kickstarting her career, Jee-ook chose to embrace the print-based limitations that come with being an illustrator. She has since found that her “continued search to be creatively challenged has, in fact, become deeper and more all-encompassing”, focusing on the restraints of working within one discipline alone.
“Taking notes is an old habit of mine. Just like collecting a stone that you notice while out on a walk”Jee Ook Choi
Having now perfected her drawing style while simultaneously garnering masses of commissions for the likes of Anxy magazine, NBC News and Apple, the illustrator has also fine-tuned a much-envied balance of personal and commercial work. On this matter, she says, “I have a habit of working on an editorial illustration like it is my own personal work, and vice versa. In turn, the editorial illustration becomes more unique, whereas my personal work becomes well organised and coherent.”
Perhaps this healthy balance is actually a consequence of the “process of discovery” that Jee-ook adopts when developing her stories. While working on projects, she constantly takes detailed notes of words that pop into her head at any given time. “Taking notes is an old habit of mine,” she tells us. “Just like collecting a stone that you notice while out on a walk, I also collect sentences or combinations of words that pop into my head.” It is from this bank of terms that Jee-ook then crafts illustrations. From “unorganised mumblings”, she devises a narrative-based image. And whether that image captures a moment from an editorial piece, or summates a personal question she’s been asking herself, this method allows Jee-ook to approach every project in a manner that leads to consistently unique outcomes.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.