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Interview with illustrator Nancy Liang

Wednesday 23 November 2016
Words Spindle

Sydney based artist Nancy Liang creates stunning illustrated GIFs and animations from her illustrations. She uses traditional techniques to draw beautiful scenes of urban landscapes, suburbia, and city streets, creating kraft paper cutouts of herself and arranging these as dioramas. She transforms many of her illustrations into looping GIFs and short animated sequences, bringing them to life. This combination of traditional artistic techniques with modern technology has a beautiful effect and means her work is even more special to behold online. She is interested in how illustration can cross with programming to create new experiences and has been experimenting with platforms such as Processing and Arduino to create interactive media. Fascinated by Nancy’s blending of styles and techniques, we asked her to tell us more about her unique approach.

Who or what inspires you and what makes you want to create?

So many things! My inspiration often comes from everyday routines of people, buildings, and transport around me. There is something very special in the things we consider mundane, which inspires me to take a second look. In particular, (forgotten) urban spaces have so many layers of history and interesting stories. They are shaped by culture, beliefs and practices brought to life by the people who interact with them. It inspires me to tell these stories and how they may have created a sense of belonging for someone or something.

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Your artistic style of turning your illustrations into animations and GIFs really brings your work into the digital age – how did you start creating these pieces?

I’ve always been interested in animation; it has the ability to bring stories to life through movement. So it was only a matter of time I began to explore it. I figured to make an animation will take time, and a proper feature will take too long. I wanted my work to have a sense of time, but also get an idea or story across quickly. The GIF does both, which makes it such a great medium to work with! At that point, I had no idea how to start. But a quick search online gave me a few leads to start making GIFs with the programs I have – so my journey with Photoshop began. It took a lot of trial and error to get to where I am. The process was long, but incredibly rewarding.

It first involved making the illustration, which required a lot of scanning, cutting, drawing and separating the moving elements. I would then animate frame by frame, which meant the process is very tedious and a single frame adjusted wrongly could restart the whole process. But over the years of practice, I learnt a lot of technical skills and shortcuts to make my process more efficient. I’ve even adopted new programs such as After Effects into my practice, which allows me to make longer animated features with my creative partner!

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What came first – the interest in illustration or in digital techniques?

My interest in illustration came first! I have an ongoing foundation in drawing and painting at a local art centre. I’ve been attending classes since I was nine, so it was only natural for me to move into illustration and start applying the skills I have learnt. At first, my work was predominately confined to the page, and I occasionally used Photoshop to clean and level out colours. As I progressed I became more familiar with my practice and I started to wonder how my work can be experienced off the page. This led me to explore my work in digital realms such as animation and creative coding. While my work is experienced digitally, it is made traditionally (drawing and hand cutting). The final piece is a mix of illustration and digital techniques.

What do you think the potential and impact of new digital advances is for art and how we experience it? 

Great question! While I’m unsure of how digital advances may play out further into the future, many emergent digital technologies today such as AR, VR and other real-time feedback systems are already augmenting (with intent or by accident) bits and pieces of our economic and social lives. For art, it means new ways audiences engage with our work, which I’m quite excited about! One of the reasons why I’m trying to move my illustrations into a digital, interactive environment is so I could mediate new aesthetic experiences of my work. I’m interested in exploring digital art that goes beyond the simple ‘point and click’ response, but instead making the audience perform their own actions out of desire, creating their own unique aesthetic experience/story. I feel like this kind of ‘disruptive’ activity could expand the real social world beyond the interactive artwork environment and blur the boundaries of what is real and what is digital.

Tell us about your experiments with programming in your work?

My experiments are part of a new and ongoing project called #overthemoonforcode. It combines my illustrations with creative coding and explores how programming can create new ways of story telling. They are interactive illustrations that allow viewers to engage and play with them (at this point Processing is working to make the files compatible online, so they will be available for play soon!). My piece ‘Galaxy House’ explores interactivity through the concept of ‘surprise’, by allowing the viewer to pull back the roof of the house to reveal a galaxy hidden inside.

To make them, I use Processing, a wonderful platform that uses code in a visual context. I studied it during university, but didn’t pick it up until recently. So it did take a month or two to relearn it before I can start applying it on my own. Processing code can also be used for Arduino, a platform that allows you to create interactive objects. This is something that I will be weaving into my work later. Next year I plan to create large scale (possibly interactive) installations with my creative partner Baron Chau and exhibit them in Sydney.

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What attracts you to the urban landscapes and nighttime scenes that you often portray?

I’ve always been drawn to the night. The night is atmospheric, still and quiet. Urban landscapes become beautiful and uncluttered. The darkness hides many things you see during the day, showing limited colour, such as only yellows and whites from streetlights and houses. For me, the simplicity of the nightscape inspires urban stories that are surreal, fantastical, and romantic. It allows you to search for what is there, build upon it, and even perhaps question what isn’t there. Imagine each lit house window to be a screen you can watch from afar – subjects become centralised in their own window and the stories told from these scenes are more intimate. It is almost like you’re watching a play!

Do you have a favourite project or piece of your own work?

#overthemoonforcode is definitely one of my favourite projects at this point. Unlike my other projects, where the content is more predictable, #overthemoonforcode is open-ended. Programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator have tools that are set, however in Processing you make your own tools to create work with. This means that the possibilities are endless and you are constantly in a state of exploring. There is so much you can do: imagine if your illustration can react to the weather or you are able to draw on a canvas that happens to be part of the image. Processing can do that, and every time I start coding work I am excited about what it can bring me!

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Which commissions have you most enjoyed responding to?

My favourite commission has to be ‘Junko’s Story: Surviving Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb.’ It was made for Hiroshima’s 70th anniversary last year, and spearheaded by producer Kylie Botlin and art director and designer Matt Smith (whom I’m still good friends with now). ‘Junko’s Story’ is a personal testimonial of 83 year-old Hiroshima survivor, Junko Morimoto, and her story is featured through a responsive website. My role was to create a series of four illustrations inspired by her story. It was my first freelance job and with the big Australian broadcaster SBS. At that point in time I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed but also very thankful as the project has brought me so many opportunities. It led me to be scouted by The Jacky Winter Group, one of the top illustration agencies in Australia, and I went on to win the New Talent Editorial award at the World Illustration awards!

What are you currently working on?

I am in the middle of working on three projects, two involving longer animated features that will be released next year, and the third a book jacket for a global publisher in New York. The first feature is a very large cultural installation for the public in Sydney and the latter a music video for an incredibly talented Sydney-based musician Plini. Unfortunately, I am unable to reveal too much detail at this point; you’ll just have to wait a little bit!

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What’s your dream brief or project?

There’s way too many! But I would love to be able integrate my work into Virual Reality so people could explore my worlds more intimately, which was suggested by a good friend of mine who was testing the Oculus.

View more of Nancy Liang’s work at cargocollective.com/nliang.