Joey Yu was clear about what her future would be since she was a child. “I said to my parents that I wanted to be an author and an illustrator”. Her optimistic and cheerful vision of life translates into a real passion to witness every moment and place and evidence them in her drawings. Here, everyday scenes coexist with nature in all its iterations. From London cityscapes to Roman architecture or drawing the sense of expansion she felt in LA, her work embraces mistakes and differences without fear. It's a philosophy captured on paper that has drawn the attention of Hermès and The New York Times, among many others.
Illustrator, animator, artist, curator; Joey, which of these terms do you feel most identified with?
Probably illustrator! It's the form that my work takes on most of the time.
Last time we spoke, you told us that you were most interested in other people’s stories. Specifically, in the background and energy that comes out of a scene. Have you always been a very observant person?
Always. I wish I had gigantic saucer eyes, or a head like an owl swiveling around, so I don't miss anything! When you look around, the stories seem to tell themselves.
You graduated from Kingston University in 2017, and you haven't stopped working since then. Exhibitions, collaborations with brands and awards recognize your promising talent. Have you been drawing since you were a child? At what point did you decide that you wanted to dedicate yourself to illustration professionally?
I drew lots and lots as a child. When I was little, I said to my parents that I wanted to be an author and an illustrator. I knew the job role straight away.
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Do you think that formal education is something essential for an artist? Is self-taught training enough?
Definitely not essential, some of the most exciting artists are self-taught. But what education gave me was time, facilities, brilliant peers, and a sense of where I could sit in the industry. It's not for everyone, but I'm glad that I spent three years at uni.
From a woman taking a shower to a relaxed conversation while having a coffee. Your drawings are characterized by everyday scenes, with which we can all feel identified. What attracts you to these type of scenarios?
Because living is so fun! I am honestly so grateful to be alive, I feel lucky and humbled all the time. Even the hard and monotonous bits, I feel overwhelmed by being able to exist. The everyday scenes are just my silly little love letters to it all.
Nature is also very present in your work. Zen gardens, huge plains or delicate plants often surround the protagonists of your illustrations. Do you prefer to draw scenes from the city or the countryside? Why?
Both are just as interesting. The organic shapes in nature and colours are so great to capture, but I also like the challenge of constant footfall and metallic buildings. At the moment, many of my drawings are lacking in either. As we're all inside, I'm capturing lots of interiors, which is much more personal perhaps.
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Your creations also reveal a great interest in capturing the essence of each place. The environments of each country, with their identity symbols, habits and customs. Which city or place has impressed you the most?
Each place has something special, I don't think there's one that sits above the rest. I love the old architecture in Paris or Rome, but then the buildings in Hong Kong or Seoul thrill me equally. The last place I managed to visit before the whole Covid situation was LA, and that was astonishing in it's vastness. I've never experienced such an expanse! It just went on and on and on...
You were born in Hong Kong and now you live in London. You have traveled a lot throughout your life, and I guess you have been inspired by different ways of living. What influence have your roots on your work?
I was actually born in London! I think an article wrongly quoted me once, and it's somehow spread to a couple sites! So here I am clearing that up haha. I'm a London girl born and bred.
We did go to Hong Kong and Malaysia for summers whilst growing up though, so the travelling part is true.
Movement is one of the main characteristics of your illustrations. Fast and agile strokes that do not seek perfection, but fluidity and feeling. How is your creative process? Do you think a lot before drawing, or do you get carried away by emotion?
Yes, I try to not overthink it and go straight into drawing most times. Of course, I'm always making minute decisions with the work as I go, but I like mistakes, redrawing and mapping out on the way.
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Some of the protagonists of your creations have their own names. Are they friends of yours? Are all the scenes you illustrate situations you have lived or seen in the first person?
If there are names, then they are friends and acquaintances! I love to draw my friends! It makes me so happy.
You have exhibited in Seoul and London, among other cities, in addition to having worked for clients such as The New York Times or Ermenegildo Zegna. What have these experiences taught you?
To be open to cultural and artistic differences, being open minded in general.
What are the main advantages and disadvantages when working for a brand?
Larger budget to realise your ideas, less room perhaps for experimentation. A brand will approach you on the knowledge that you can produce something of a similar nature that you've created before, so you'll oftentimes typically be creating something similar.
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You have confessed to feeling admiration for artists such as Frank Ocean or Rosalía. What other creators and creative disciplines inspire you?
Yes, I really admire their output. I think it's because their bodies of work do so much storytelling and they have such an experimental way of approaching sound yet are still super accessible to a mainstream audience. I think that is such a wonderful place to sit, artists who reside in pop culture yet who still push boundaries. Recently though, I've been reading lots of poetry. My favourite instagram account is @poetryisnotaluxury because they post exactly the kind of tender, delicate poems I like. Lots of Mary Oliver, Frank O’Hara, Wendy Cope, those are some of my favourites.
Is illustration a response to the proliferation of digital formats? Do you think this sector is in good health?
Oh, I'm sure. Digital formats mean an increase of demand in any subject, I think.
What can you tell us about your next projects?
I like to keep some things a secret... But hopefully more physical, more IRL.
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