Artist spotlight: Jesse Zhang

Abstract illustration by Jesse Zhang

Illustration by Jesse Zhang

by Adobe Drawing and Painting Team

posted on 08-05-2020

Jesse Zhang is a Brooklyn-based illustrator whose work often features surreal figures and landscapes with touches of mystery and whimsy. She creates in a tiny studio with her cat, Margot, and works in watercolor and inks, both traditionally and digitally.

How did you get to where you are now?

I majored in Fine Arts with a focus in painting when I attended art school. During the studio critiques, professors always advised me that my paintings were “too much like illustration!” Apparently, this was the biggest insult you could get because “it’s not art!” I found it very discouraging.

After graduation, I couldn’t paint from a place of joy anymore. I felt so blocked and creatively drained. I picked up some graphic design and retail work. Around this time, Instagram was popping off, and I discovered many artists creating work and just doing their thing! There was no “fine art” label or “illustration” label, in fact, the two seemed to meld together. This inspired me to work on my paintings again!

I had a part-time graphic design job as a production artist and was still living at home, which allowed me time to work on my artwork and portfolio. Very slowly, I created work just for myself and timidly shared them only. As I grew a bit more confident, I started posting more of my work. When I felt my style/voice became stronger, I reached out to some art directors via email. I received my first “big” assignment this way and did a spread and three spots in a health & wellness magazine!

I’ve had a very loopy journey as an artist, from fine arts to graphic design, and working in retail. Looking back, I think these different experiences have helped me grow as an artist. I use the skills I’ve learned from each one in my illustration career.

There’s an obvious style to your work. How did you develop that?

I’ve worked various mediums from high school throughout college. I was really into oil painting, then acrylics, after that, sculpture and welding of all things. Throughout this, I always dabbled in watercolors and inks. This felt the most natural, I enjoyed how you could only control to a point and it flowed and dried whichever way it wanted to.

My watercolor painting technique is that I create a shape out of clean water first, then I go in with my inks and let it flow how it wants within the water shape. I enjoyed working with this painting technique, and it felt natural to me.

When I started digital work on my iPad, I used this painting technique as a guide in how I wanted to paint digital. I start with shapes first as my “water” and then I color them in!

I try to remain intuitive and find how I enjoy creating is how I should be working! I use to obsess a lot over “style.” When I started thinking of “style” more as “my voice,” it was when I felt my artwork developed the most honestly and organically.

Where do you draw your inspiration? How do you decide what to create?

I draw inspiration from being unafraid of bored and leaning into the instead. I find most of my ideas come when I allow myself to sit, be bored out of my mind, and let my thoughts wander freely. I’m also inspired by causes that are important to me. A passion of mine is raising mental health awareness. It’s a recurring theme in my personal work, creating visual imagery that reminds people to take care of themselves.

I like to create reminders that are seemingly apparent. Yet, we always forget them and need a little nudge in remembering them. I created this Adobe Fresco illustration as a reminder to take care of my mind and my space. The small house represents the tiny studio I live in and my mind space. I wanted to remind myself that my mind space is its own ecosystem that needs tending to like plants do!

How are you staying inspired and creative during the current situation?

Honestly, I was creatively blocked for a few months and very unproductive. In the first few weeks, I felt in creative energy shock like I was thrown in a frozen lake! If I didn’t have a deadline, absolutely nothing was getting done. I was very focused on what was happening and also a bit shocked by it all. The first step in regaining my inspiration and creativity was accepting this fact.

I find that taking a break from social media helps a lot. I literally unplug my internet router and put my phone in a locked box. Then I read some books and allow myself to create. The way to remain creative and inspired is by allowing myself to produce “bad” drawings without getting frustrated at them. I think, “let’s just get them out of the way so the good stuff can come!”

I remind myself that I am still creative, even if it’s not meeting my expectations. This may be a very Capricorn thing to say; I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s something that comes to me when I create, and I see the act of creating as opening the door and saying its welcome to enter! So to put it more simply, “JUST DO IT!”.

What is one tip of piece of advice you wish you could have known when you were first starting your career?

I wish I had known not to attach my artwork to my self worth as a human being. This would have saved me years of mental anguish! It’s essential not to over-identify with being an artist. I think that muddles your artistic growth because it focuses too much on what you produce instead of your process. Focus on finding your voice instead. This is so cliche, but it’s about the journey and not the destination!

Jesse’s process in Adobe Fresco

We asked Jesse to share a few of her top tips and favorite features for creating illustrations in Adobe Fresco.

Jesse Zhang is a recipient of the Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund. To see more of Jesse’s work you can visit her website or find her on Instagram.

At Adobe, we believe that everyone deserves respect and equal treatment, and we also stand with the Black community against hate, intolerance and racism. We will continue to support, elevate, and amplify diverse voices through our community of employees, creatives, customers and partners. We believe Adobe has a responsibility to drive change and ensure that every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. We must stand up and speak out against racial inequality and injustice. Read more about the actions we’re taking to make lasting change inside and outside of our company.

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Topics: Illustration, Creativity

Products: Creative Cloud