Q: Introduce yourself a little bit. Where are you from/where do you live? How old are you? Do you introduce yourself as an illustrator, an artist, none of those?
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Xiao! I grew up in North Carolina and for now I’m based in Jersey City. I’m currently 22 years old. I usually think of myself as an illustrator.
Q: How did you get into art?
Jennifer: I always really loved drawing and grew up watching a lot of cartoon shows and staring at picture books. I spent a lot of my free time making things, but it was really after I taught myself Photoshop in middle school when I realized I could do art as a career. I just graduated from RISD this year where I majored in illustration!
Q: Are you pursuing art full-time? If so, did you ever consider pursuing something else?
Jennifer: Yeah I am! I pretty much always wanted to do something visual arts related full time, but for a brief period in high school I really wanted to be a TV writer. I can draw better than I can write, so it’s for the best I didn’t try doing that.
Q: What are your main mediums? Is your work done all digitally?
Jennifer: My work is basically all digital. I do most things just using the default hard round brush in Photoshop, but I also draw a lot in my sketchbooks with markers. I used to screen print a lot in school which I would love to do more of if I had the space for it.
Q: I find your work to have a very playful tone, often with bits of humor. Would you define it in the same way? Or, how would you describe it?
Jennifer: That’s a good way to sum it up! My friends know that I’m always trying to be the funniest person in the room which is very annoying for them, but I definitely try to put my sense of humor into my work. I like to think of it as thoughtful playtime.
Q: Have your illustrations always had this playful, almost child-like (in a positive way) style, or when did it develop into this?
Jennifer: I think when I was younger (and by younger, I mean like 3 years ago), I had an idea of what my work needed to look like and tried harder to draw a certain way. I eventually realized I can draw literally however I want and stopped trying as hard. My work hasn’t changed an enormous amount, but I used to draw more interior spaces with actual perspective.
Q: Your illustrations are very color forward. What draws you to this?
Jennifer: Color makes everything more fun!
Q: You did some comics for It’s Nice That. How did that come about? Do you think about illustrations differently when the story can span across multiple panels rather than being a stand-alone image?
Jennifer: They sent me an email asking if I’d want to be their comic artist for that month and I said yes! This is how I get most of my work. Someone sees my work, likes it, and then sends me an email. Yeah, I definitely think of my comic work in a different way than other illustration work. For me, it’s a lot less about the drawing and more about the writing and timing. Reading a comic is different from reading a single image, so I’ll think about the experience of reading text and image together. I also got total creative control with that series which is different than other illustration work I’ve done where I’ll have some sort of a theme or brief to go off of.
Q: A lot of your illustrations personify objects—such as a car or a fruit or a rain drop. How come?
Jennifer: I could lie and come up with an academic sounding reason, but at the end of the day I just think it’s cute. Also, humans love seeing themselves in everything, so I think we have a natural desire to personify objects which is why people like to name their cars and stuff like that.
Q: Do you work for a studio or is all your work freelance? Do you have an opinion or preference in terms of working for a studio or freelance? I went to a panel recently about artists who have chosen the “non-studio route”, so it’s something I’ve been curious about lately when talking to artists.
Jennifer: I’m all freelance right now. I do regular freelance crafting work for a studio that makes kids craft toys, so in a way I do work for a studio but I’m not there full-time. I think the type of work I want to do lends itself towards freelance because it’s hard to find any full-time illustration position in a studio that is open to you working in any style. I can be stubborn, so I like being hired by art directors who won’t tell me to make my work look a certain way. Location also matters to me, so I like that with freelance you can work from anywhere. Freelancing is hard though and very unstable, so some days I definitely get the appeal of working at a studio. I think it just depends on your personality too. To be a freelancer you kind of have to be a workaholic.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from? This can be in terms of the style of your work as well as the subject matter/stories.
Jennifer: I’m never quite sure how to answer this question. I’ve just been influenced by every piece of content I’ve consumed growing up. A lot of my comics come from whatever happy, sad, weird, funny feelings I have that I wanna share with the world.
Q: You’ve made illustrations that find themselves as stickers, on socks, etc. Do you create certain illustrations with the intention of them being these physical items, or does the decision come after the fact?
Jennifer: It’s a mix of both! Sometimes I’ll draw something and then later someone will ask me to put it on a shirt or a sticker and I’ll do it. Other times I know I want to make a specific product and will design around that.
Q: What do you hope people take away from your work?
Jennifer: Sometimes people send me nice messages saying my work makes them happy, and I like hearing that.