Valerie Chua: Painter & Illustrator
Valerie Chua's unique art pieces explore the female form and the beauty of nature. She has made illustrations for international brands such as Clinique, Christian Louboutin (Asia), Lenovo, and SK-II. Aside from the Philippines, she has also exhibited in the US, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Today, she works as a full-time painter and shares her talent and knowledge to her students through workshops and private classes.
In this installment of The Life Well-Crafted, Valerie talks to us candidly about the challenges in the beginning of her career and her transition from illustration to gallery work.
Photo by Tristan Tamayo for Purveyr Magazine
Tell us a bit about yourself. When and how did you get started with art?
In high school, I was already doing graphic design for extra income while studying, so I knew a bit about vectoring outlines and digital coloring. As this progressed, I wanted to do my coloring in school, so I brought paints and started coloring in the library.
I was into graphic novels at the time. My favorite covers were by David Mack, Bill Sienkiewicz, Rebecca Guay, Yoshitaka Amano, and Dave McKean, which were heavy on watercolor and mixed media. I've always admired visual storytellers and wanted to create graphic novel covers. This was my first motivation to create illustrations. More than watercolor, drawing was my first love. It was very difficult to find a teacher who taught anatomy and perspective then, so I had to study a lot of things on my own.
Are you a full-time artist? What made you take the leap to pursue art full-time?
I work alone full time, but I can't say I'm a full-time artist. On most days, I work on paintings and illustrations for clients or shows. I also help out my friends at Wildwood Store. During summer months and weekends, I teach watercolor and drawing.
I never intended to be an artist/illustrator. I've always wanted to teach art though, and applied for teaching positions after college, but was declined a couple of times since I don't have a BFA. A year into working different jobs, I got my first illustration gig when creative agency Vgrafiks saw my illustration and hired me to do illustrations for a mall campaign. I then gradually transitioned into freelance illustration.
Being a visual artist full-time was scary at the start. If you're from a Filipino-Chinese family, finance and success influence how you see people and yourself. When I started out, I always thought about money. If I don't have work or don't succeed, I am useless. My journey into the career was very negative. I liked what I was doing, but at the same time I felt ashamed that I was doing it. This went on for a few years, even while getting a steadier income and a fatter resume.
You just have to decide on something to set your foot in the door, and do all you can to make it work.
When I worked, I made sure I did really well, maybe to prove that hey, I work in visual arts and I am doing well. My transition into visual arts full-time was mainly a decision. It was a challenge for me to do it alone and a burden to prove that I was not doing something useless. I always tell people that everything is a decision. Sometimes if you don't know where your life is hinged on, you just have to decide on something to set your foot in the door, and do all you can to make it work.
Describe your typical day. Do you have a daily ritual to keep you productive and motivated?
I usually arrive at the studio around 9am. Sometimes I help ship out Wildwood orders first. I also clean up a bit before starting work around 10am and finish at 5:30pm. I work standing up and walk around a lot, so it gets pretty tiring for a half-day grind.
My notebook is my greatest reference material and life support whenever I get visually stuck.
At 6pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach private classes for all skill levels, so people from different work-scenarios come to me. Teaching keeps me motivated, because it makes me accountable for the progress of others. I always have to be a step ahead in practice and knowledge to execute my work better and relay abstract ideas concretely to others and myself. I also believe in levelling the playing ground; make everyone else better so you can be better.
I find it important to have a notebook around, to jot down ideas and things to do for the day so I won't get lost. My notebook is my greatest reference material and life support whenever I get visually stuck.
What does your workspace look like?
I have a deceptive photo on Instagram. It looks really clean but it’s never really like that. Recently, I've been working with different mediums so there's always paper towels, plywood, and canisters scattered around, but I clean up after the end of every project.
I have rolls of paper; I stretch my own canvases. I have two tables, one for standing and one for just putting stuff on. I also have a keyboard, a PC, and an easel.
Tell us about your art. Has your style evolved since you started making art?
My work has evolved a lot since I started. My first works were really dark. I liked Dave McKean a lot when I was in college, so my paintings used to be thicker and more morose. Then I dabbled with fashion illustration and explored watercolor; these were the female with animal head paintings.
A year later, I went to Japan and stayed there with my best friend for a while and my works became lighter and were more on the genre of children's illustration. During this time, I was into exploring the feeling of nostalgia and weightlessness through narrative work. In effect, my paintings looked soft and the subjects seem pensive. I was into intricacy and detail a lot.
Recently, I don't find intricacy and refinement as valuable as before in my work. Now I'm exploring loose strokes, less pencil work, and more arbitrary paint strokes.
Take us through your creative process. How do you go from a blank page to a finished piece?
First, I jot things down on a notebook for thumbnailing. When I decide to turn an image into a full scale painting, I adjust and resize the work and look for references that can support it. I work on possible color studies, outline the work on the final canvas, and start coloring.
I always start messy and never get attached to my work. If it doesn't look nice, even after 30 hours of work, I don’t mind scrapping it. Sometimes ideas come by fast; sometimes I have to refer to sketches from months or years ago. I like working on sketchbooks. Even after 10 or 20 years, there's always good material in there to look back to.
At DesignHatch, we believe in the life well-crafted—living intentionally to achieve an authentic life that’s entirely your own. Can you share your favorite milestone that led you closer to where you are now?
Getting invited to speak at Graphika Manila (GM) came as a surprise and honor for me. I was at a really bad place then; I was battling through a yearlong sickness and transitioning from illustration to gallery work, which was hard because they're so different.
People would tell me that my watercolor works were better, and asked why I had to switch. I started asking myself if this is what I really wanted. Since I'm in the gray area, I thought hard about the speaking gig and told myself, okay, this is the last illustration-related thing I'll be doing.
I personally felt that I didn't do well during GM. I didn't talk about things closest to my heart and just focused on the technical side. Right after GM, I typed an entire new speech and told myself, this is what I was supposed to talk about. It's ironic that this is my favorite milestone, but everything about the GM gig was very pivotal for me.
A lot of people say, "Winners don't quit," but I learned to say, "It’s okay to give up; it's okay to quit." Sometimes, you have to learn to step back and let go. There are things you'll never get to see if you never quit. In my life I've quit art maybe three times. I'd go six months with absolutely no art, and that's when I see what's wrong. What's important is to learn to pick yourself up and find the courage to start again.
As long as you're living to the best of your capacity, I believe that’s as raw and authentic as you can be.
The internet is a tricky place. People imagine that visibility and numbers equate to success, but success is misleading. Whether you actively enjoy your craft, or just want to have results; whether you don't know what you want at 25 or 50—don’t punish yourself for being that way. If you’re privileged, you don’t have to feel guilty either. After being sick for a year and having hardly any work accomplished, I’ve come to accept my own weaknesses and limits. People face their own troubles and pursue what they find valuable. As long as you're living to the best of your capacity, I believe that’s as raw and authentic as you can be.
What are you excited about today? Any upcoming projects/events you want to share?
Today I’m just excited to be alive. I'll be having a pocket workshop with Ayala Museum on Sept. 3, a solo show at Secret Fresh Gallery at the Ronac Art Center on Nov. 13., and I'll also be having works at Design Festa, Tokyo Big Sight, on Nov. 26. I'm part of a Filipino-Japanese artist booth and we'll be selling illustrations. That’s it for now!