Jon Lau graduated from Art Center College of Design in 2011. Through his intricate paintings, he tells whimsical stories that are inspired by nature, animals, and our interactions with them. He is based in Los Angeles. We spoke with Jon about his inspiration, process and how his personal experiences inform the subject matter of his work. Read on for a glimpse into the creative process of a new Bright artist:
In your Bright bio, you mention that the theme of human interaction with animals and nature has informed your creative journey. How did this perspective help you develop your voice as an artist?
I always found myself more comfortable around animals as a child. My first book was an encyclopedia of animals, for example. Everything I wanted was always about animals, and there was always this kind of ease I felt with animals. There’s no pretense. Animals are pretty clear about whether they like you or not.
With regards to art, it’s definitely about drawing what you love. Animals take me to a happy place. It’s one of those instant mood boosters, and I’m in a good zone. If I want my work to be anything like me, it’s to recall the really good feelings I have about animals through my art. And because there are so many people who love animals, I hope there’s a sense of familiarity that people feel when they see my work. There’s also a wistful quality about my work, so it’s not just about drawing an animal but also a human character engaging with animals. I want to see myself in that position. It really taps into instinct, this primal place.
How do your personal experiences and personality inform the subject matter of your work?
I think at the core of it was that it was hard growing up. After graduating from art school, I still struggled with depression and severe anxiety. You start stressing about these problems that are very new, like about your relevance, your job security, and your legitimacy as an artist. I think my work is answering the same question over and over again—what do I want? Oftentimes, I feel powerless. Limited. So my art is this one thing I have control over. I get to decide what I want to make, and I want to make my work happy…
They offer a glimpse of a world that I’m building, and all of the things I think about show up in the art even if it’s not obvious. My art is a bit like my diary. I don’t always know what I want to say, but I know what I want to talk about. Art has helped me speak.
There’s also a significant escapist quality in my work. One of them is that I like to make my characters unambiguously people of color. These are my stories and my world, so I can make a world that’s more diverse—a world that celebrates nuance and many different kinds of stories. But also important, I think, is that they’re just part of the story in my art. Their being POC isn’t the defining feature. And maybe that’s the escapist quality for me in my art, trying to come to terms with the fact that we still don’t live in a world today where POC are just simply people, and race isn’t their defining feature.
I’ve also been told that my art is very feminine. The internet sometimes even thinks I’m a girl. I really value that delicate aspect in my art. That’s very deliberate on my end, and also just comes from a really honest place. Growing up gay, my art allowed me to navigate the dissonance between trying to conform to heteronormative standards while coming to terms with my sexuality. So I hope my art shows a voice that’s more at peace with itself, that allows itself to be fluid. I take it as a huge compliment when people say my work is delicate.
Are there any particular artists that influenced you? How did your influences shape your point of view as an artist and illustrator?
One of my major influences is Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in general. One of the things I love about Studio Ghibli’s work, and hopefully is also in my own work, is that it tries to express a sense of wonder in a world that has a very detectable logic. It’s a world that’s very believable, even though it expresses infinite possibilities. I just want to tap into that every time I make work—something that’s awe-inspiring but has nostalgic believability.
What does your creative process look like? What are your favorite mediums to work with? Where is your favorite space to work?
My creative process starts with a lot of reference collecting. It’s anything that has interesting textures, color palettes, shapes, etc. That step is a huge part of my art. I have thousands of pictures of bunnies and foxes. I’m always on the lookout for something interesting, whether it’s through taking photos, going through Tumblr, etc. Half the battle of making good art is having a good reference. The next step is deciding what I want to draw, and that’s completely influenced by my references. For that, I do rough sketches, figurative studies, etc. Then I pencil it out on paper.
I like to use gouache and poster color because they give clean, flat shapes and matte colors. My favorite space to work is at cafes. I’m really restless, so it’s hard to work at home. I like working in cafes with friends because I rely on that noise and energy.
Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators in terms of unlocking creativity and finding a distinct voice as an artist?
Everyone’s worried about finding their style, and about locking down that style that gets you jobs while also being authentic. But I don’t think you have to think about that too much. I think it’s more important to trust yourself, and trust your own handwriting. Having great people around you champion and advocate for you is also important, and joining Bright earlier this year has been a huge step in building that support network.
It’s also really important to keep a sketchbook just for yourself. No audience, no client in mind. Just one that you can doodle in. It’s a really effective way of making yourself aware of the possibilities so that you don’t feel caged in by specific styles.
Lastly, I always like to ask myself specific questions to focus. My favorite question to ask is, “what if?” or, “what would happen if I _____?” In the process of answering that question, it makes you ask more questions of your art, and it keeps your art fresh for you. When you constantly ask yourself questions that move you out of your comfort zone, you can grow as an artist.