The Gallery Grace Chen
by Evan Miller, Oct 25th 2008
I, like many other guys my age, seem to lack any kind of fashion sense whatsoever. Sure, I was voted "Best Dressed" in eighth grade, but the award was one of those "all the kids get something so no one feels bad!" things, and it's clear that I'm clueless when it comes to knowing what looks good. Fortunately, I have friends who are kind enough to make wardrobe suggestions so that I look presentable and not like someone who played russian roulette with their bedroom closet.
This week's artist has been part of a small trend in the fashion world: the popularity of "cute" character goods from Asia.
Over the past twenty years or so, a strange thing begin happening in malls all over North America. Among the box stores and fashion boutiques, stores like Sanrio began exposing a western audience to the cute - and occasionally strange - images of Japanese "character goods" - products, accesories and clothing with the image of a cartoon character and characters like Hello Kitty and Keroppi. Other Asian characters, such as Mashi Maro, quickly found a North American audience as well.
Grace Chen grew up in Taiwan, where cute character goods were not only popular, but the standard for fashion for young girls. "It wasn't just a fad; it's something that everyone was interested in," says Chen, who was also drawn to the world of shōjō manga at an early age. As a young girl, she grew up watching the Candy Candy anime and, despite never seeing herself as a "girly girl" per se, she found herself drawn in by the dramatic storylines and bright colors used in countless shōjō titles.
Although Chen was intrigued by the cute, bright images propagated in anime and manga, she never seriously considered art as a potential profession even though she spent time doing her own drawings and doodles. When she was in junior high school, she relocated to the United States with her family and was soon drawn into a completely new lifestyle. After finishing high school, she enrolled at UCLA with a declared major in economics, supposedly on a completely new career path.
Fate brought Chen back to art when her interest in economics began to wane and she started attending local gallery openings for area artists. Although the gallery openings were also a welcome source of free food for Chen and her friends, she was inspired by the efforts of other artists. That was enough to convince her to change her major to graphic design and pursue art professionally.
While changes in one's major are certainly not a rarity, the next transition in Chen's career was a bit more unusual. After graduation, she began hunting for work as a graphic designer. However, she began to notice a pattern in the kind of work she was doing. "The more I worked, the more I realized that people were hiring me for my character design skills," says Chen, who found herself with a portfolio that resembled the work history of an illustrator that likes manga instead of a portfolio befitting a graphic designer. As she gained more experience, she continued to focus her attention on finding work for comic and game-related companies that would offer her more chances to dabble in character design. In the end, Chen decided to take a much larger step: to begin offering her talents as a freelance artist.
At first, when she was hired to do character design work, companies would often request that she draw masculine things - motorcycles for example - because they wanted a manga-style image with mass appeal; in other words, something that boys would also find interesting. Fortunately for Chen, the popularity of manga continued to grow and, much like the growth in the popularity of character goods, she soon had the chance to work on projects that spoke to her love for the kind of "girly" characters and the art styles that she grew up with.
These days, Chen continues to freelance as an artist, but has far more opportunity to pick and choose where she applies her talents. Her work has earned her numerous big name companies, including toy manufacturers and - fittingly - textile makers who want to use her characters on their products. Although Chen isn't sure whether or not the popularity of the "cute" look will hang around in North America, she is continuing to press on with her own interpretation of it with her first original comic, due out in the future. In the end, Chen hopes that the availability of comics and shōjō in North America will continue to improve and provide young girls an alternative to typical "girls" toys and comics. "I feel sometimes like the whole 'Asian pop culture cute' thing is just a fad for people," says Chen. Perhaps her own stylistic art work will be one of the things that keeps the style from becoming the fad that naysayers are expecting it to be.
Manga Sticker Book
ANN: Tell us how the Manga Sticker Book project came about. What kind of elements did you decide to incorporate into the project and why?
Grace Chen: The manga sticker project was commissioned by Paper Magic. They had the idea of doing a manga sticker pack. The contacted me because I've worked on a few projects for them before; I did a few valentine cards and sticker sheets for them previously. This is kind of a dream project for me. It features everything I love about manga, shojo, and girl culture. Since I'm more familiar with shojo and stickers are generally more popular with girls, this project is being done more as a shojo sticker pack. The book will feature 4-6 different typical stock manga girl characters, such as a school girl (or typical heroine girl), tokyo-fashion girl, loli-girl, punk girl, and even a kimono girl, and a boy character (just one because we didn't have much time..I would love to include more though).
Each character has 2-3 stock poses and 10 or so chibi/or SD [super-deformed] character expressions. Since manga is about different characters and characters emoting, the SD characters have many exaggerated expressions that would be fun to use as stickers. I'm hoping there will be kids using these stickers on notes they pass around in class! (laugh) Also another big element in manga is the story. Since this is just a sticker pack and has no story, I try to include enough stock characters that people can easily recognize, so maybe they can create little manga scenes of their own. There are also "word expression" stickers with expressions that are popular in fan culture, like "ROFL", "glomp" and a giant sweatdrop. A few sheets of chibi animals and cute everyday items with expressive faces are also included.
I didn't have much time to do this project, so I was allowed to pull some art from my existing archive. Because of that, there's a "goth" sheet with a whole sheet of cute little weird goth characters. The entire sticker pack has hundreds of images, and it will be available at retail after January 2009. I hope kids will like it.
ANN: You mentioned previously your love for bright color palettes and hues. Is there a particular color you prefer, and what dictates your starting point when choosing colors for a piece?
GC: This is a good question, because I'm often accused of using pink too much. I have to careful not to do that too subconsciously. More often the palette is dictated by clients or the project. Sometimes I try to find sources of inspiration and model my palette after that.
ANN: What aspects of your graphic design background do you think carry over to your current work the most?
GC: I think probably stylized drawings - stylizing the art and using palette in such a way so they "pop." Graphic design is mostly about layout, composition and making things pop. So I'm influenced by that a bit.
ANN: You're working on a comic book at the moment. What kind of story line are you picturing for the piece?
GC: I'm working on a kids comic book. The story is inspired by the magic-girl manga genre, but the look of it is nothing like it. It's more similar to the look of the comic strip featured here. I personally like that style alot and have always wanted to do something with it... maybe because it makes me laugh looking at it. I thought it would be alot of fun to draw a comic with that look. I catch myself laughing out loud alot while working on this - it makes me happy.
ANN: There are lots of interesting "small" elements in the background of your work - flying skulls, sheet music, color-filled bubbles, and so on. Could you tell us about how you pick the elements you include?
GC: They're kinds of mood elements to enhance the character, so either they're thematically related (as in the punk girl) or abstract decorative elements that frame the character and also heighten the mood. I don't actually think about this consciously most of the time... usually something just pops into my head and I think, "umm, that might feel right if I add this here..."
Sometimes clients will ask me to put something in the bacground. They might say put some happy faces in the background, or a skull. However, because the character is a goth girl but she's also into cute things. she might want to decorate her skull with a bow or give her skull big pointy eye lashes.. something like that.
ANN: What do you think have been the most positive and negative aspects in the boom of "cute" products in North America? Where do you see the Asian Pop Culture/"cute" products boom going in the future?
GC: The positive: I think it fills a void in girl culture where there may have been a lack of choices before. It's a very democratic style, because it's easy to draw. More people can participate in it, even little kids. It also reflects daily life (a smiling toaster, etc.). Things that people don't normally pay attention to can become interesting or cute. It stylizes realism, so when it's done by an imaginative artist, it's fun, whimsical and provides a new perspective.
The negative: It's easy to draw, so you start to see a glut of it (and I too have a hand in that). It is also perceived as more "girly" than any other art style, which can be good or bad.
However, I think like any art style, it's a trend. Trends come and go, but some of it stays if it has staying power. All in all it's good, because before the arrival of the jpop-cute girl culture, we mostly saw the Disney Princesses and Barbie, or more sexy images like bratz and britney spears, etc. Now there's a another choice. In the "jpop world," you can have a sweet cute girl character as well as a slightly angry goth girl. The latter would not exist in the traditional Disney or Barbie universe (although I'm sure there's an angry goth Barbie being customized somewhere) . All in all, the spectrum of expression is expanding, and that's always a good thing.
Are you an aspiring manga artist looking for some extra page views? Do you have a friend or loved one who draws extremely good original manga but needs a boost? Don't just sit there! Submit two links to your work, including one original piece (no file attachments please! File attachments will become cute cuddly creatures that like the taste of human flesh), to evan [at] animenewsnetwork dot com, and you could be featured in a future Gallery column!
All works © Grace Chen.
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