A balance of male weakness and female strength: Saitemiss captures fleeting moments in her anime-infused illustrations
Gender fluid characterisation, desaturated colour and the enormity of a millisecond squeezed into one image: meet the Taipei-based illustrator and her visually arresting artworks.
If you look at Saitemiss’ work, the first thing you’ll notice is the gleaming protagonist. The character usually has tousled white hair, flowing in an imaginary breeze that feels full of movement despite the fact the image is a still. But what’s most intriguing about this character is their ambiguity. Look closer and you’ll be hard-pressed to land on a decisive gender, ethnicity or personality trait. What we can surmise, however, is that the character is full of intensity, with a gaze that follows you around the room like the Mona Lisa, but a digital, ACG-inspired version. ACG being the subculture dedicated to Japanese anime, comics and games.
The thinking behind these characters is wrapped up in an amalgamation of references pulled together by the artist 鍾逸婷 or Jhong Yi Ting, who goes by the creative moniker, Saitemiss. Having grown up in rural Taiwan, in a town called Kaoshiung, south of the capital, she had little access to popular culture until the age of six or seven, when her family got a new channel showing cartoons.
It was a turning point for Saitemiss, who spent many a day poring over the cartoons on screen. But in spite of her evident obsession with the art form, she felt no specific creative calling until much later. “The only thing I really cared about was how to be happy,” she tells me poignantly. Revolutionary Girl Utena and Ghost in the Shell were her particular favourites, the former providing a basis for what her work would become. Contrary to the Disney-fied Hollywood narrative, this anime asks the question “Why does the world need a prince or a king to go and save a female?” And the show made her realise that strong male figures need to be saved just as much as females, and there was no shame in this.
“I enjoyed seeing the balance of male weakness and female strength,” she says of the show, and ever since, Saitemiss has expressed this dichotomy in her work, exploring the nuance of gendered characterisation. She admits it’s “just one perspective of looking at gender issues,” but she feels it’s a balanced one, one that underlines the equality of the sexes. “When I draw male figures,” she says, “they look feminine or when I draw female characters, they look masculine. But not in the way that it’s strength versus no strength.” Saitemiss’ characters are gender fluid, “a more realistic version of what we usually see.”
Saitemiss: 女孩, 2019 (Copyright © Saitemiss, 2019)
Saitemiss: home 2, 2020 (Copyright © Saitemiss, 2020)
She rarely draws the same character twice but there is a resemblance that unites them all. “It’s usually to do with my emotions,” she says of the link. The illustrator sees all her characters existing in the same universe and pictures each one in her mind’s eye before putting pen to paper. “When I’m illustrating,” she adds on her process which goes through several iterations, “I’ll imagine all the different angles this person might have. In my mind, they all seem very different from one another.” There are also magical hints cutting through the composition of Saitemiss’ work. Her illustrations are punctuated with graphic motifs, often cordoned off in small, colourful boxes which offset the layout with an abstract offhandedness.
Each illustration brims with a wealth of imagery, and as the viewer looks closer, a story can be carefully unpacked by dissecting the symbols and how they relate to one another. When asked about this level of complexity and how she goes about creating it, Saitemiss explains: “I like the idea of capturing a single moment in an entire frame.” At university – where she studied graphic design – Saitemiss also took a film class where she was introduced to Soviet montage theory. Emerging in the 1920s, the movement saw Soviet filmmakers rely heavily on editing or the assembling of multiple images to create a cinematic effect. Similar to a comic book spread, panels are used to denote narrative progression, and Saitemiss liked this idea of capturing “a lot of different moments in one frame.”
This is what she loosely thinks about when illustrating, adding “It’s all about that moment.” She imagines a scene, for instance, a gust of wind blowing through a figure’s hair and asks herself, what else is happening at the same time? The various panels are a signal to this and provide clues as to what the character is feeling or what the wider world is experiencing. These clues tend to be isolated graphic illustrations set against a coloured backdrop: a dangling heart pendant, for example, could be seen as a reminder of past friendship, whereas in other works, Saitemiss depicts birds, jewels, a pill and musical instruments.
It can take a while to compose these delicately constructed images. She might physically collage elements together to experiment with layout, which she’ll then bring into Photoshop and start to colour. Often, Saitemiss begins an artwork with a rudimental sketch, so simple you wouldn’t be able to recognise the finished product. Photoshop, however, is her primary tool in creating the work and Saitemiss is an expert in the factory brushes which she commands with lyrical ease.
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Saitemiss: 可用, 2020 (Copyright © Saitemiss, 2020)
As is the case with all illustrators, her colour palette is essential. For Saitemiss, finding the right colour is a subtle art. Drawn to pastels, metallic chromes and bold swathes of black, the illustrator’s use of colour elevates her work from its childlike anime origins, giving it an unmistakable edge that feels more attune with fine art or high fashion. By altering colours by one or two shades, Saitemiss feels “a totally different piece of art” is born. So though it may seem as if her work is similar colour-wise, if you look closer, there are countless variations that only add to the overall nuance of the work.
Experimentation through iteration also plays a key part in Saitemiss’ process. It’s a method that takes us back to the illustrator’s early days when she worked as a graphic designer. After graduating from university, she worked at a large design company, remembering, “I wasn’t having that much fun doing graphic design, so sometimes I’d finish work early and start drawing.” Drawing offered a rest bite from the layouts and grids and she recalls drawing late into the evening, expanding her practice until gradually graphic design became less stimulating.
At her day job, she’d sneak her own works into the industrial-sized print queue and played with the plentiful roll of colours on offer. There was also a laser cutter so all in all, despite the dreariness of the everyday tasks, Saitemiss had “a lot of fun playing and controlling these large machines.” Soon she realised the versatility of her work and how it could be applied to acrylic or wood or plastic, each output complimenting the image with an equally interesting gloss or matte touch. It’s something we can see trickled down into Saitemiss’ current work, observed on the cover of shiny magazines, on window displays, or silver chrome album artworks.
When it comes to the application of her work, Saitemiss likes to pair desaturated colours to emulate a certain emotion, desaturated colours possessing a vintage tone in her eyes. “Everything I imagine in the past is desaturated whereas everything I imagine in the future is highly saturated,” she explains. As her work is all about a fleeting moment framed in the past tense, she uses unexposed and desaturated colours to express such. But if one day, she wants to express something in the future, she knows she will do the opposite, and utilise blown out saturated colours. But for now, Saitemiss hasn’t fully exhausted the wonder that comes with this muted sense of nostalgia. This choice is not only a technical one but an emotional one too. She wants her work to stir something within the viewer, to reach down within and speak to an inner, innocent child who’s just as excited about cartoons and anime as the young Saitemiss was.
Saitemiss: 作品1, 2017 (Copyright © Saitemiss, 2017)
Saitemiss: 可愛不可原諒可愛不可原諒, 2017 (Copyright © Saitemiss, 2017)
“We all have this little girl quality within,” she says of this intention. She wants the viewer to feel the endless joy she found in Shōjo manga (the comics aimed at young teenage girls, “shōjo” being the Japanese word for “girl”) which Saitemiss loved for so long, as a young girl in Kaoshiung. Through a single image, Saitemiss is able to encapsulate the complexity of deep thoughts that pinball around our head at any given moment. She draws this out for us, the viewer, for as long as our attention can last, like a filmic technique where a scene moves in slow motion to heighten a character’s frame of mind. It’s during these moments that Saitemiss is giving “everybody a chance to experience that young girl’s fleeting emotion.”