I came from Beijing and moved to Zimbabwe during high school. Later on I went to Texas for a year, then Rhode Island for four years during college, and now New York for work. It was definitely a lot of moving and traveling, but a very fun and unique experience. My mom has been working in Zimbabwe since I was five. She thought it would be nice for me to adapt to the English language because I was planning on coming to the US for college. The transition was really challenging as I had to learn everything in a completely different language. At the same time, I was opened up to new possibilities in art. Getting out of the Chinese National Higher Education Entrance Examination meant that I didn’t have to keep drawing precise objects or paint in certain favourable ways. There was less instruction but much more room for personal growth.
I only got serious about art briefly before I left China and got to attend a few drawing classes. As a beginner, I made graphite drawings of plaster cubs and cones. Before I could master the secrets of shading, I left for Zimbabwe, where the teacher didn’t teach much and I had three years to explore freely. Looking back at it, both were necessary for my growth as an artist. The technical skills worked as foundation and exploration grew from that. My grandfather was an artist and made movie posters back in the day. He lived in another faraway province in China and I didn’t get to meet him much at all. My dad was talented in art but he never pursued it because my grandfather literally forbid him from that. So I knew vaguely that there’s a bit of artistic side of my family but we never talked about it. I don’t know if it was ever something my dad wanted to do, but the idea that his daughter picked up art out of all the options is very fascinating to me. I’ve always enjoyed art and the idea of actually studying it came about when I was 16. After learning about all the different majors in art, I decided that illustration was the most suitable choice.
Zheng is now based in New York where she works as a freelance illustrator. “I really love living in New York as an illustrator. Although I might be biased since I grew up in a similar megacity, the liveliness here drives me and inspires me. As an illustrator aspiring to work in publishing, I think New York is just amazing because a big portion of the industry is based here and I get to meet lots of art directors and illustrators all the time. It makes me want to improve when I see other people’s works so it’s very healthy competition. More importantly our illustration circles are very supportive of each other and we try to be there for each other when someone needs help.”
Looking at Zheng’s body of work, we were immediately attracted to her intricate sketches and the attention to detail. We talked about how she developed her skills from pen and paper. “During my third year of college I took a semester to study abroad in Italy. Based on the nature of the program, I made lots of work in my sketchbook. The easiest way was to simply use a pen and make line drawings. That was how I started making those black and white line works. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I tend to overwork so that probably explains my attention to detail. Now I’m working kind of backwards and learning to make simpler but more powerful illustrations.”
"I would absorb bits and pieces everywhere I go and that expands my visual vocabulary. And once I get the urge to translate any experience through my own artist language, I put that on paper and see where it takes me."
We delved a bit more into Zheng’s influences, where she seeks inspiration and how she overcomes creative blocks. “There are so many things that inspire me such as textiles, modern design, nature, and so many more. My biggest source is still traveling and experiencing different cultures. Learning all sorts of traditions and reassessing things I knew. I would absorb bits and pieces everywhere I go and that expands my visual vocabulary. And once I get the urge to translate any experience through my own artist language, I put that on paper and see where it takes me.” (Creative blocks) actually happens quite a lot. Since I freelance and have my studio space in my living room, I don’t get to leave the house often once I get busy. So every once in a while, I force myself to leave the apartment. I would take a walk, talk to friends, have some fun and just relax. I think the key is to look around for inspirations in everyday life.”
“I have lots of illustrators I look up to such as Dadu Shin, Lisk Feng, Jun Cen, Josh Cochran and so many more. Besides illustrators, I also love lots of artists and designers such as Euan Uglow, Käthe Kollwitz and Egon Schiele. I think art is connected across all disciplines because we are all trying to communicate one way or another. I can always learn something from other people’s work regardless of style, medium or content. I wish I could collaborate with all of them!”
“Working as a freelance illustrator has always been what I wanted to do. So I just want to keep doing this and get better and better at it. Last month my first illustrated children’s book The Trumpeter of Krakow just got published by a Chinese publishing house. Recently another editor from the same company got in touch to discuss the possibility of another collaboration. Exciting in both the sense that my work was recognised and that another fun project might be on its way!”