Born in Changsha, China, and now residing in the United States, Hannah Li is a freelance illustrator.
She has a background in Oil Painting and Printmaking that subtly influences her illustrations and give her digital artwork a fine art feel.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
China-Underground: Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Who influenced you as a person and as an illustrator?
My parents are both artists.
They have been showing their endless encouragement for me to create things growing up.
I spend lots of my childhood with my nana too; she is such a fantastic role model, and I admire her open-minded and wise heart.
She taught me to be kind, be real, and be brave.
My childhood is complete because I grow up in such a healthy atmosphere with my loving family members; it helps me become the person with a positive mind today.
Lots of my work especially these children’s book orientated projects I create reserved somehow my memories and feelings of my childhood.
What illustration impressed you the most in your childhood? What are your best childhood memories?
Like lots of children born in the late ’80s, I grew up reading a bunch of comics and graphic novels, cartoons, etc.
Also since my dad is a painter and printmaker, I get to see lots of his working processes as posters, sequential books, and paintings in my growth.
All that impresses and stimulates my creative mind.
I had lots of warm and sweet memories of my childhood, but the first thing pop into my head is the time when Nana and I raise pets together, we had a white and a grey bunny, two ducks, and two hamsters.
Do you remember your earliest drawing? What was about?
Most of my vivid childhood memories were sitting in front of my desk and doodling as well. I probably have a dozen sketchbooks done before elementary school.
I like to draw human beings uniquely female characters- girl astronaut warrior, ancient princess, female creatures…etc.
The very early drawing I do recall is that me drawing myself as a feline girl with a tank or some sort of armaments aside.
It is interesting to see my feminine traits through my sketchbook when I was a kid.
“The fourteen page Illustrations The Walk builds a story of a little girl, and her guardian who went on a walk into the wilderness, to the grasslands, to the forest, to the imaginary world.”
Have you always had clear your career as an illustrator since your childhood?
When I was a kid, all I know is I love drawing.
I keep my sketchbook up and never feel tired about it. When I am getting older and start to get questioned about what I want to do in my life, I couldn’t think of anything else rather than art. I guess I am destined for a career in this field.
I mainly focused on fine arts form and went back and forth trying out different media in the four years of academic training in college.
Stepping into communication arts like illustration now, at this stage of my life, fits the way I want to talk to this world. I consistently feel lucky to get to do what I am passionate about for my job.
What are some of your favorite subjects to draw? What keep you inspired?
I love to draw humans, creatures, and all different kinds of existence.
Movies, Music, Books, Arts, surroundings, or any little things in life act like a trigger to stimulate my inspiration.
Moreover, of course, I have such a long list of favorites artists, such as Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Rothko, and so many others.
They kept me inspired by the ways they build narratives.
Do you have a sketchbook? How many times do you tend to draw a character until you are happy with it?
Sketchbook is acting as a very personal channel of my thoughts. I draw whatever I see or imagine at the moment.
I feel like it is hard to put on the calculation, sometimes I spend a few minutes on a character and feel pretty happy about it, sometimes I keep going back and forth can’t stop from refining, and I found it comfortable too.
I wish I could have more time spend on my sketchbook like when I was a kid.
What do you love most about your work? What are your sources of inspiration and what is the creative process behind your illustration?
I would feel narcissistic and questioning at the same time when I see my work. I guess lots of artist does feel this way too, and it is also driving us to keep thinking and getting advance to the higher level of satisfaction of our work.
My illustration process often depends on the topic I got from my clients, and I would pick what technique works best with the concept.
Many of my recent projects are done by digital with various textures I made by hand.
I love to explore ways between digital and traditional tools to bring unique touches to my image.
Are there any of your work-related to a moment that marked a significant moment in your life?
My recent personal project, The Walk, about a little girl with her guardian’s adventure, is due to my strong family bond with my nana.
I’m trying to describe the relationship between her and me.
My happy childhood times with my granny are the one most significant time in my life, and I cherish that part of my memories, so now we have this fourteen pages story.
“Hannah Li bringing her stories to life, with original and dreamy illustrations.”
How the USA appeared to you when you moved from China? What cultural differences did you find more particular? What did it mean for your artistic path?
Personally, seeing this world by moving from China to the States and standing from a distance geographically, I developed a different view to learn the world.
By the time I was born, our generation is the very first group that witnessed China produces as an international country.
The advantage of this era indeed offered our generation better chances to embrace the world, getting a better education, and living in wealthier conditions.
However, I did become aware that there are always arguments between elders and youth regarding learning Chinese traditions.
I never had consciousness growing up about finding self-identity and protecting my heritage.
After I moved to the US, I was amazed by how much in common my classmates and me share in our growth even though we live on different continental plates, and when they ask about the story of history and culture I grew up in, I frequently feel that I do not have a precise answer.
I do feel the culture deficiency, but I do not see this phenomenon as a negative now.
Widely acknowledged in international studies doesn’t mean a replacement of local traditions by foreign influences.
The reason for the cultural deficiency may urge me to go overseas and study, but it further helped me in my achievements in art and fulfilled my art.
“Her children’s book illustrations HAVE a vivid active imagination.”
Does living outside Asia have influenced your way to illustrate and life?
I found it fascinating that moving to a different country, by standing from a distance geographically, I learn more about Asia with a comprehensive view.
Like the culture deficiency I had when I was a kid, now acts like an encouragement that urges me to explore more about my roots, and then combine it to the international experience I have, the thoughts, the feels, and the ideas would just naturally flow and effects into my work, especially in editorial illustration.
You also work as children’s book illustrations. How can we encourage children to understand that it is important to keep connected to books in the digital era?
I see the digital era has become and seems like this is a new trend for the future.
However, I wouldn’t think that paper book would die cause paper book is innovating fast too; I have confidence it will keep going in the long run.
The value of picture books nowadays is beyond the limitation of their topics and forms compared to the earlier time, and it has evolved into a more precious interactive art form within its structure.
We should keep supporting paper books, and it would keep surprising us on developing with its diversity that continually challenges and invites various experiments to the kids.
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Ciao! My name is Dominique. I’m Italian and I’m proud to be a mix. My father was an Italian chemical engineer and high school teacher, with Greek and Polish heritage. My mother is Haitian, she was high school language teacher, with Dominican, Spanish, French, Portuguese, African and Native American heritage. Being a mix makes me appreciate to want to understand different cultures and lifestyles. I grew up in Italy, lived few years in Haiti, travel around main European capitals, lived seven years in China, six in Spain and UK. Traveling makes me feel that we can learn something from every situation in every part of the world.