By just glazing at Evelyn Tan’s artworks, you can deduce that she has a big inner world. When I first saw her illustrations, I found myself hooked looking at them as if there were some hidden secrets within I couldn’t understand. With her well established style, it is hard to believe that she is only 21 and has freshly graduated from college.
Mainly drawing about childhood, nostalgia and omniscience, she has some interesting projects such as the Ink Dream Diary series, where she draws her vivid dreams creating intriguing atmospheres. In this interview, she shares with us about her influences, spirituality, goals, and willingness to evolve, ending with some pretty good bits of advice for people struggling in the sector.
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Your art being so related to childhood and nostalgia, what is the first memory you can recall?
I remember staring at my kitchen light and seeing coloured blobs appear, then I would wonder if I was a witch or something. But later I learned that this was a fairly universal experience.
You began to take illustration seriously in your mid-teenage years, and now you are 21 years old. How would you say that your work has evolved during these last five years? Was it a rough start?
In the beginning, I had the most difficulty deciding between an art track or medical school. Many of my Asian family friends were going down the med school route at the time, so I felt pressured despite having very little passion or a particular talent for mathematics and science. After some persuasion and a lot of hesitancy, I ended up choosing the art path.
Besides that, I wouldn’t say it was a rough start. I was fortunate to receive a lot of support from my mentors and peers, and my work evolved fairly quickly throughout high school and college. It was exciting trying to pinpoint a style and emulating some of the artists I admired at the time, for instance, Simon Stalenhag, Happy D or Tran Nguyen. In the beginning, I thought I would want to be a mangaka or a visual development artist, but that later transitioned into a more personal fine arts practice after committing to an AP portfolio surrounding the theme of Time. I now have experience working in editorial illustration, publishing, game design, and the fine arts, and I hope to continue working [in an] interdisciplinary [way].
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Being so young, how can you already have so much nostalgia for your childhood? Does being an adult scare you or are you excited about it?
I think in general, I'm a very sentimental and sensitive person. I also consider myself as someone who, in some ways, has matured rather quickly and, in others, slowly. So, I often find myself recounting memories or searching for moments of pure joy and fascination from earlier childhood. Being an adult is both exciting and very scary for me. Independence and the ability to pursue things more freely as an adult is something that I had yearned for, but the transition from student life to post-student life is quite stark. I'm currently most concerned with finding community after graduation, there’s an abyss of uncertainty about my future but I’m excited for what’s to come.
From just looking at your work, I can see a strong influence from Surrealism. The dreamlike scenes and themes, like your Ink Dreams Diary series, as well as the sense of something other than us and our consciousness. What inspires you to create these surreal atmospheres?
Actually, the Dream Diary series was encouraged to me by my previous professor who is also an incredible and meticulous artist, Kyung-Me Chun. Dreams have always been of interest to me since I had very vivid recurring ones when I was younger. This practice has allowed me to focus on atmosphere, and intuitive mark-making as opposed to a more calculated conceptual approach. As for the works outside of this diary series, I take inspiration from mundane life as well as characterisations of people dear to me. Then, I weave narratives through symbolisms derived from memory, current surroundings, recurring dreams, and folklore. By folklore, I mean internet mythologies, stories passed down to me, creation stories, and children’s literature.
Do you prefer fantasy over reality?
In my artwork, I would say the things I create are an augmented or morphed reality of sorts. It's hard to say if I prefer fantasy or reality, I like to view things conceptually in fantasy but in most of my life, I find myself most comfortable being grounded in realism.
Apart from this surrealist influence, you also mentioned that you are inspired by anime and Ukiyo-e paintings, as well as real-life elements such as, for example, how glass-like materials interact with light. In the same way, I can see the influence of some post-Impressionist artists such as Van Gogh or Gustav Klimt in some of your work. I believe that having such a wide imagery is helpful when developing your own style. What inspires you the most these days? Are you willing to experiment with some other techniques, colour palettes, subjects of matter, etc.?
I definitely agree on style development. Klimt’s Kiss painting has hung in my living room as a print, so I think it has always remained in my subconscious. These days, I am most driven by mundane life and the idea of a wiser being, my parents also often serve as pillars for my work. I’m definitely open to experimenting and am actually looking to experiment more with different mediums and palettes. I also hope to work with different mediums, I’ve tried some 3D modelling, physical sculpting, and sewing methods. I would be interested in integrating them with my current body of work, kind of like how it was somewhat realised in my Ibis animation. Currently, I’m exploring higher contrasts, more intense facial expressions, and non-human or humanoid beings. While I've really been enjoying my current style, I hope to find expansions to it and new styles altogether.
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You also frequently mention the importance of fluidity in your work; what do you actually mean by saying that? Do you want your art to feel like an instant picture from an oneiric world?
Yes, I think so in most cases. I think of fluidity as the quality of line and shape which lends itself to an ephemeral feeling. Rather than an instant picture, perhaps something more like a vague and slow search within dreamworld(s). My art isn’t decisive at all I would say, oftentimes the narrative develops with the artwork.
Continuing with your style, you have a really distinctive one with distorted perspectives, colours and shapes that evoke a lot of emotion in the paintings. What kind of emotions do you like to represent in your drawings? When others look at them, what do you want them to feel?
My work is primarily created with the intention of exuding a peaceful melancholy, or a bittersweetness. If anything, I'd hope for my work to take the viewer back to a sense of fresh nostalgia, if possible. However, there is this idea by Barthes about the (non-literally) death of an author when imposing a concrete meaning on a creation, which brings limitations. I would like it if the viewer is able to pick apart my pieces to resonate with them and form their own narratives. Even as the creator of my works, my own perceptions keep changing over time.
It does look like nothing is arbitrary in your work, do you spend a lot of time planning your paintings and sketching before reaching the final idea? Or do you prefer to draw without much thinking and see what comes out of it?
For my more detailed renderings, I will try to pick apart a memory or narrative in my work to elaborate upon and develop symbolisms, metaphors, and photos in my camera roll to work off it. Oftentimes, the emotion comes first and then the narrative. In the case of my dream drawings, while they are not arbitrary, they are done very quickly (in about 10 minutes or less). The main objective is set to reproduce the dream to the best of my ability.
The colouring is what I consider to be the most intuitive if anything, as I never really know what a drawing will look like as I am colouring it. I may know that I want a certain object to be a certain colour, and I would build the atmosphere in relation to that object.
Mermaids are recurrent figures in your art, what is your relationship with these mythological characters? What do they represent to you?
To me, they represent an idea of seductive miscommunication and pseudo-subject matter, kind of like an antithesis to this notion of a wiser older sister. I consider mermaids almost as antagonists, yet beings that are primordial in nature. However, I also contend with the idea that they perhaps are this very wiser being that I have sought after.
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Also, some of your characters have a black hole in their chests that (in my opinion) connotes them with a sense of emptiness. Am I right? Is it significant to you to also represent sad children?
Yes, that was essentially what I was going for. I think my work is most closely related to memories or how I’m feeling at the time of creation. Art has always been a cathartic practice for me, so I often find that when I draw something coming out of a place of sadness or anger, it reflects on my work. When reflecting upon memories of childhood, I find that recollecting and drawing sad memories allows me to sort of unravel tensions with myself. Having now grown a bit older, I have a better understanding of previous events (or so I think).
You are currently working on a children’s book called A Space for Rain, and you seem interested in writing too. Would you like to direct your future towards that? Would you like to tell your own stories, especially targeted at children?
I am interested in writing, though I do not think I have been persistent enough to consider myself a good writer yet. I do enjoy writing poetry as starting points for some of my pieces, and I’ve started some manuscripts for children’s books, though I currently have higher inclinations for short-format narratives rather than novels. For now, the children’s book is largely more of a passion project, but I would be interested in writing and illustrating children’s books in the future as well as further developing A Space for Rain.
Your Instagram community is quite large too, did you ever expect that your work would resonate with so many people? What would you say is the key element for it?
I’ve given a lot of thought and hope to resonate with a larger audience. A critique I have frequently received in school is that my work is too encoded to appreciate fully, and this has been a problem that I’ve been contending with. I never expected my Instagram to gain traction so quickly, but I'm really grateful for that. I’ve even received messages from people saying that they resonate deeply with my work, which is honestly baffling to me but very exciting to hear. That being said, I’m still trying to find more ways of opening up my work.
It’s hard to say there’s a key element to reaching people algorithmically, but in an attempt to share all that I know, I improved quickly while trying to create something to post about once a week in high school when I had about a hundred followers. This may not be a sustainable approach for everyone, but I would suggest giving it a try if you have the means (or adjusting this timeframe as your fit). I think it’s also always good to find artists that you like and comment on their work, just don’t be that person that advertises themselves on another artist’s post. Finally, start building a community both online and in person!
Finally, could you give some piece of advice to people that are struggling to find their own style?
When starting your style, I recommend you to choose some artists (around three is good) that you look up to and investigate what draws you to their work. It could be anything like palette, line, or subject matter. Keep these things in mind while drawing, and eventually a style will start to emerge with continuous practice. I also highly recommend considering a concept as a starting point, choose a theme of your interest and see how many non-cliches you can extract. Then see how this theme relates to you and your life, pay attention to recurring motifs you use and see how you can expand upon them to create a visual vocabulary. I often do this in my sketchbook via word webs, notes, and thumbnailing. Finally, while you should continue to push forward if this is something you want to pursue seriously, make sure to go out and live. Life is an unlimited vat of inspiration!
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