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Brooklyn Illustrator Jing Wei Is Drawing Her Future | The_ONES

Squad Goals:
The Brooklyn Illustrator Who’s Drawing Her Future

Chinese by birth, Californian by upbringing, New Yorker by choice, Brooklyn illustrator Jing Wei draws surrealist pictures that use dissonant imagery and saturated color to reveal moments of real life (often, our collective anxieties). “I tend to compose fairly quiet scenes with a bit of lurking strangeness,” she says. “I’m not sure if I have any motifs or imagery that I keep coming back to—maybe kinda sad people with their backs turned?” It’s an offbeat aesthetic that has landed her on the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as clients like Google, Pinterest, and Etsy, but her path toward full-time illustration was an unlikely one from the start. “To be honest, I didn’t know what illustration even was until I went to college for it,” she admits.

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We joined up with photographer Julia Parris to shoot Wei, who just won a spot on the prestigious Young Gun’s list, in her factory-like work loft in Greenpoint. Then we sat down to learn about her challenges and inspirations on paper and off, plus her go-to work shoes, and the fried-chicken sandwich she fiends for nightly.



What do you most love about illustrating?

Jing Wei: “I love the problem-solving aspect of an assignment; figuring out how to create a compelling image from an unexpected place.”

What tools do you use?

JW: “Right now I’m using a mix of Photoshop, Illustrator, and scanned-in textures and lines. I gravitate toward a cleaner look, but I also want to balance that with a hand-drawn quality. As much as I like working digitally, you can’t replicate the unpredictable nature of working with traditional media, so these days I’m trying to make more things on paper.”



How did you get into illustration? Was it something you grew up around?

JW: “To be honest, I didn’t know what illustration was until I went to college for it! I was born in China, and no one in my family had a creative profession because it wasn’t an option available to anyone prior to my generation. Since I wasn’t deliberately exposed to the art world, my early influences came from books and TV. I was obsessed with Doraemon comics, and I also remember liking this very violent, propaganda-heavy cartoon called Black Cat Detective.

In middle and high school, I approached art-making solely as an exercise in skill-building with very little creativity or exploration. I spent most weekends in my Chinese art teacher’s living room drawing a pile of apples; I drew so many apples between 1998 and 2004. At the time, it was easier for me to think of art as something that was measurable, like how precisely you can render a piece of fruit. Since I was the first person in my family to even think about applying to art school, it made everyone more at ease to see proof that I was technically skilled in this area. It gave validity to the decision but, ironically, I later had to unlearn a lot of that in order to become a better illustrator.”


“I hope that by pushing myself as an Asian female illustrator, I can at least be an example for younger girls who might not think this path is feasible.”

  • illustrator Jing Wei



Who have been your biggest influences along the way?

JW: “When I was in college, I started to discover people like Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, David B., and Marjane Satrapi. I’m in awe of people who can visualize a complex story. Within my own body of work, I’ve been inspired to think more deeply about the characters that I’m creating, how they interact with one another across projects, and when to draw from my personal life and surroundings to make a scene more convincing. I think that if you can bring even an extra drop of mood or backstory to a piece, it will be better for it.”

What are some of your overall inspirations?

JW: “It’s always changing. When I was at RISD, I didn’t really look to editorial or commercial illustration as sources of inspiration. Instead, I absorbed a lot of movies and literature. It sounds kind of pretentious, but I think I was just trying to discover my own taste and preferences. And if I can be affected by something—a paragraph, a piece of artwork, a line of music, then that will link to a feeling of inspiration. My hope is that these moments contribute bits and pieces to my aesthetic, without directly shaping it.”



What is your biggest challenge as an illustrator?

JW: “Since I’m a freelancer, I’d say it’s self-care during busy periods. Taking time to exercise (or just leave the house), sleeping, eating well—all of that gets deprioritized when I’m trying to meet a deadline. I think this probably feeds into a bigger issue of time management, and getting into the habit of blocking off time for myself. If I’m overloaded, everything suffers as a result. I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

Has it been hard being a female artist in the industry?

JW: “When you go to art school, you’re surrounded by mostly female peers but when you graduate, every experienced professional seems to be a dude. So our industry definitely has a long way to go, but I’m glad that the conversation around diversity and gender equality is changing. I hope that by pushing myself as an Asian female illustrator, I can at least be an example for younger girls who might not think this path is feasible. And for myself, I think it’s always great to seek out like-minded women, compare notes, and support each other. Thankfully, I have a very tight-knit community that includes plenty of badass female artists.”



Can you call out some interesting recent projects?

JW: “I just finished up some packaging work for a fast-food company, and now I’m working on illustrating printed matter for a hotel and wrapping paper for a local store. I really enjoy making things that people can interact with and use. It makes the pieces less precious, and takes my work off the screen and gives it a new context.”

Tell us about your studio.

JW: “I have a shared space in the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint. A lot of people think it’s this exclusive creatives club, but it’s really just individual rented rooms filled with quiet, nerdy people with questionable diets! I love my studiomates, and they keep me sane. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie, and it never feels competitive. I also like that our space can be a lot of different things. I’ll go in if I’m under the gun and need to focus, but I’ll also go in to eat pizza and watch movies after work. I think this situation is rare, so I definitely don’t take it for granted.”



“I love a shoe that looks better with some wear.”

  • illustrator Jing Wei


What’s your go-to comfort food while working?

JW: “There’s a fried chicken sandwich that I think about pretty much every night. It’s in the back of a hipster bodega called Mekelburg’s, and it’s only available after 11 pm. And down the street from that, at my normal bodega, there’s an even dirtier sandwich that should never be eaten sober. It’s a New York classic called a ‘chopped cheese,’ and it’s basically a Philly cheesesteak but with chopped-up hamburger meat. I love late-night food because it’s when I can ugly eat and not be judged. But for a more respectable recommendation, my favorite spot near the studio is Achilles Heel. The food and drinks are always solid, and in the winter they have a log fire going, which makes the room twice as cozy.”



We take it you don’t have a strict work uniform. What’s one thing you can’t work without?

JW: “Vans Old Skools are great because they’re super versatile and go with everything (like pink socks). I can’t wear shoes I’m not comfortable in, I just don’t have the stamina. So it’s nice to have something I can walk long distances in that also stands up to a bit of rain and weather. Also, I love a shoe that looks better with some wear. I grew up wearing Converse low tops and always wore them down until the rubber soles became flaps.”

Written by Jennifer Fernandez. Photos by Julia Parris.



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