IIlustrations That Amplify the Emotions of Stories Big and Small

Sara Wong is an illustrator based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has worked on a number of illustrations for magazines, articles, and book covers. In all of her work, you can see how skilled she is at amplifying the emotional undertones of stories big and small.

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I graduated from the Communication Design program at Washington University in St. Louis and am now an illustrator living in the bay area with my dog, Daisy.

How did you get started in illustration?

I studied Communication Design with a focus in Illustration, and joined a small studio once I graduated—always doing personal work in the background and sending out postcards to potential clients, until I started getting some freelance work.

How did you get to where you are now?

I think just a lot of drawing hours, some amazing mentors that believed in me and put my name out, and a little bit of sheer luck.

How would you describe your work?

I’d like to think it’s generally emotional, moody.

Who else’s work has influenced or inspired your work?

I love illustrators that aren’t afraid to shift their style from piece to piece (Keith Negley, Dadu Shin) as well as illustrators that seize upon small gestures to convey entire emotional moments (Eleanor Davis and her You & a Bike & a Road).

Can you tell us about your creative process?

I almost always start with word association/stream of consciousness lists in response to the text I’m working with. Once I get the more literal connections out of my head and onto paper, I have the room to think about things more creatively—I want to land on the image that will immediately convey the heart of the text. Sometimes it’s a more direct visual metaphor, but other times it’s about building up an emotional space that will transport the viewer into the text. I’ll use these lists to make rough pencil sketches, and once the final concept is selected, I’ll move to Photoshop for the final art.

What advice have you got for artists just starting out?

I would say keep an active website + social media presence, make the kind of art you want to be paid to make, and above all be friendly and thankful with anyone you meet along the way. Being easy to work with is worth a lot.

Your style is very original – how did it develop, and how do you tailor it for each client?

Thank you! I remember being very worried in school about how I would create a consistent style—it seemed very precise and scientific but it’s turned out to just be a natural reflection of what I am interested in when I draw, and the way I solve visual problems. When I first started out I quickly got work that was very dark—stories of abuse, abortion, etc. I had to figure out how to represent these concepts respectfully, so I never wanted to be literal; instead, I decided to amplify the emotions behind the stories. I think that approach fascinated me and has been at the core of what I’ve drawn ever since. Beyond that it has just formed over time as a result of a lot of drawing.

As for tailoring for clients, unless a client references a specific piece they like, I view it more as tailoring my work to the text. How can I best use my particular set of tools to answer this particular story? I find my work feels much more interesting if I approach each piece in this way as it gives me room to experiment, evolve, and improve upon previous methods.

Your use of light and shadow is quite interesting – is it hard to find the balance between the two?

Thanks so much! Yes, balancing light and shadow can be difficult, especially as it’s always my first instinct to push it as far as I can. My work often starts out extremely dark, and is gradually reined back in until it is dramatic while maintaining legibility.

What interesting projects have you worked on recently?

Most of my work is editorial, which I love because each assignment is such a unique problem to solve. Recently I did a piece for The Marshall Project about a prisoner who lost the ability to envision freedom even in his dreams. It was very poignant and I got to be more surreal about it which was both fun and challenging.

What areas of your work are you hoping to explore further?

I just want it to continue to adapt; I would hate to look back on work and see that I was stuck in the same place. More specifically I think I’d like to continue experimenting with illustration and type—book covers, movie posters. Those are my dream projects.

To see more of Sara’s work, visit her website: saraarielwong.com


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