The highs and lows of freelance illustration, with the illustrious Saiman Chow
Reflecting on his career thus far, the illustrator tells us why he has no interest in having a ‘style’ and how a change of location has offered a new perspective on both his life and practice.
While his consistent output and notable name within the illustration industry may suggest otherwise, Saiman Chow tells us here at It’s Nice That that his creative path has always been a bit all over the place. “Because of some off miswiring in my brain, I’m incapable of making plans or staying focussed for a long period of time, a condition we’re all familiar with, but shall remain nameless,” Saiman says. But, there has always been one thing that has been like “therapy” to Saiman – art. “It’s the only activity I can do to stay focussed and get in the flow state,” he explains. “When you are in flow state, you feel present and free. All the unpleasant thoughts such as guilt, fear and responsibility are swept to the corner of the room for a while.” These are feelings that are pretty rare to have about your chosen profession. “How many people can say that about their job?” he muses. “Let’s never take it for granted.”
Since we last caught up with Saiman, one way in which he has helped these feelings of fulfilment with creativity to be maintained is by taking time away from his computer as much as possible, and spending more time using his hands. “YouTube tutorials are the best thing about the internet,” he states. “I’ve been learning a ton about woodworking casting, tufting and paper making.”
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Saiman Chow: Strong (Copyright © Saiman Chow, 2021)
However, one less positive practice Saiman has been dwelling on recently is the industry's obsession with ‘style’. He details that, when he’s asked by clients to do his ‘style’, what they expect is “over blown eye-poking neon colours in every element”. He continues: “If I tried anything differently, they would start protesting “MORE NEON! MORE NEON” until they get what they want.” It’s a focal point that Saiman observes as lessening the role of the artist, instead turning them into a commodity to be reproduced. “I think by definition it limits our imaginations and expectations. For most clients, they only see you as a style generator rather than a creative collaborator,” he adds.
Since becoming more established, there's another feature of the job Saiman has had to learn to “compartmentalise” to keep himself sane. That is the countless questions he runs through when working with a large brand. “Why are we signing so many NDAs? Why are there so many uncomfortable silent Zoom calls? Is the company I work for bad?” to name a few. And, while learning how to focus on the “good”, Saiman tells us that there are a number of interesting projects he’s completed recently, that he simply can’t talk about.
One project he can talk about, however, is his mural design for one of the buildings at Nike HQ in Oregon. On the more abstract side of things, the mural is full of shapes – both free flowing and rigidly geometric – and a whole host of patterns, from checkered to repeated lines with the odd running figure nestled in parts. The mural shows the dedication Saiman has to creating a dynamic visual experience, and his ability to produce something incredibly engrossing and energetic. But, it was far from easy.
A momentous challenge, Saiman tells us that it was one of the “toughest” things he’s had to create in the past few years. Primarily because the design needed to be a massive 200+ft wide. "The format of the artwork has to be built in a vector for print, which is fine,” he expands, “but the multiple layers of masks and clippings is really hard to navigate in Illustrator. It was a program crashing nightmare.” Looking back over the project, in a touch of bitter fate, Saiman now says that his “favourite” – or perhaps more “ironic” – part of the whole project is the fact that the mural has rarely been viewed. “When the building was built, the pandemic hit and no one has occupied the building since.”
Perhaps the biggest change for Saiman, however, has been his relocation – a “life-changing” decision he and his partner made during the pandemic. While moving from New York after 15 years of living there may have been tough, it had become essential for Saiman. A larger living space is something he had always dreamt of and a bigger studio space has provided much needed “energy and motivation” for his practice. And, although his new home is only a river away in New Jersey, Saiman says that “it feels like an ocean apart when you stay at home as much as I do”.
Such a big change has also compelled Saiman to think about the concept of ‘home’ and its wider meaning. “As an immigrant, home is an elusive idea and unattainable. But because of how things have changed in the past couple of years, my relationship with home has evolved,” he details. “I'm older now, I’ve learned to be more mindful of the present and a stronger desire to connect with my surroundings.” With these feelings in mind – and using his recent love of engaging with more physical, tangible projects – Saiman has hopes to continue this period of “making” in the context of home. With plans to create human furniture, cat furniture, a human shrine, a cat shrine and pachinko machine, it looks like Saiman has a busy few months ahead. And we’re sure that the New Jersey residence will be feeling like home in no time.
Saiman Chow: Mural (Copyright © Saiman Chow, 2020)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.