Justin Wahkwai Wong is an illustrator situated in San Francisco, California. Like most kids, he grew up watching cartoons, playing video games, and drawing for fun. In his adult life, he still watches cartoons, plays video games, and draws for work. Justin still has alot of growing up to do.
He graduated from the Academy of Art University with a BFA in Traditional Illustration. He enjoys working on illustrations for children’s books and anything else where fun and humor exist. He is most comfortable working with watercolors and digital painting and is always looking to expand his repertoire.
Justin is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and is currently represented by Wendy Lynn & Co.
Here is Justin explaining his process:
I was asked to create an iconic scene of San Francisco to be animated for the film.
Clients always ask for thumbs first so I explore different views and compositions in my sketchbook.
I’m asked to do a composite of some of the thumbs so I rework the sketch again. This time slightly larger.
I get the ‘ok’ and move onto the larger drawing below…except I need to scrap this and start over as I find errors in the drawing and scale. I shed a tear ;(
I find a larger pad (18×24″) and start over. I rework the perspective and think of interesting characters to fit into the scene.
I take a photo. Run it through Photoshop. Set the drawing to a multiply layer and start blocking in rough colors.
I continue to paint over the drawing blocking in forms with color. I render some parts more than others to help me visualize the direction of the piece. I start thinking about the direction the light source is coming from.
I will often flip the canvas horizontally to get a fresh perspective on my piece and to help spot any errors. Since it will be animated, I have to make sure every part of the background behind the characters is painted as well. I find an error with the scale of the foreground character and enlarge him.
Somehow I’m still bothered by him. I try setting the foreground in shadow for clearer visual separation from the middle ground.
I run out of time and hope the piece works out for the client.
How long have you been illustrating?
It has been about two years now since I graduated. I have been freelancing ever since.
What was the first thing you created where someone paid you for your work?
I was given my first commission while I was still a student at AAU. I created the story and illustrations for a children’s book for a small startup company.
Have you always lived in CA?
Yes. I was born in Orange and call Stockton my hometown. I currently reside in San Francisco.
What made you choose Academy of Art University to get your BFA in Traditional Illustration?
It was a serendipitous event. At that time, I had dropped out of a Pre-med program in Napa as I was unhappy with how my life was going. It was a rough time. I had no direction. I had no drive to do anything. I was lost. I was attending a local community college in my hometown when an old high school buddy invited me to see some kind of student art show at some art school in San Francisco. He was thinking about joining for the architecture program.
It was the Academy of Art University Spring Show. That event really sparked something in me. Growing up with an education focused around math and science made the notion of art as a career seem like such a far-fetched idea. I mean, I wasn’t naturally gifted or anything. I was just some dude that liked to draw sometimes. There’s been so few things that I ever truly wanted in my life. This was one of them. I’m grateful to have such awesome and supportive parents for letting me pursue such a dream.
What classes helped you the most to develop as an illustrator?
Even though I hated it and did awful work in the class, Advanced Perspective set in motion alot of questions I had to ask myself. Up until that point, I only knew watercolor. In the beginning, I was hand drawing and inking all the assignments, but the pacing and workload made it impossible for me to keep up. Everyone else was doing digital. This forced me to learn Corel Painter and then eventually Photoshop. Being a watercolorist was fine…but I felt in order to survive later on in my career I needed to adapt and branch out. It was rough as I was confronted with alot weaknesses I needed to address.
Did you develop a portfolio of your illustrations while in college?
Yes. A good portion of my current portfolio is student work. Half is watercolor, half is digital.
What job did you do after you graduated?
Since graduation, I have worked on commissions sent to me by Wendy Lynn & Co. I’ve done a few other art projects as well that are not related to the children’s book market. I have also tried my hand at a few restaurant jobs (not art related)…but they didn’t work out (haha…*sighs*). I’m still figuring things out to say the least.
Did the Academy help you find illustration work ?
Chuck Pyle, who heads the undergraduate Illustration department and was a former teacher of mine, helped me get my first commission and artist rep. Chuck is awesome as a teacher and human being. Other than that, I have received work either by someone taking notice of my work in the AAU Illustration building or AAU Spring Show.
When did you decide that you wanted to illustrate for children?
My buddy Alfredo Christiansen (alfredochristiansen.com) got me to sign up for Children’s Book 1. That was the first class where I started to feel more comfortable with my art. I felt that the way I drew was akin to the children’s book market. It was also a place where my watercolor fit in. It gave me a great excuse to still watch cartoons and animated films and still call it research without getting weird looks from my peers.
How did you and Wendy Lynn connect?
I was introduced to Wendy Lynn through Chuck Pyle. I needed help getting my foot in the door, and Chuck offered to refer me. Shortly after, Wendy Lynn emailed me.
Have you tried your hand in licensing art?
No. Someday maybe. I have no business tact.
Have you attended any conferences to help you show off your work?
I have attended some SCBWI functions but have never shown my work. I guess it’s a confidence thing. I do plan on going to the big summer conference and showing my stuff there.
Do you use Photoshop in any of your work?
Most of my recent work is done in Photoshop. For watercolor illustrations, I use Photoshop for touchups and tweaks to color and contrast.
Would you like to write and illustrate your own book someday?
I’ve always looked up to artists like Jonny Duddle, Adam Rex, and Peter de Sève. I would love to be able to create children’s books like theirs. But that’s for the distant future. Right now, I still need to fine tune my painting and design skills. Art first. Storytelling for later. It seems like a huge undertaking, and I would like to have more experience under my belt before then.
Do you think your style has evolved since you attended college?
My style is always evolving. In school, the teachers always stressed how art isn’t created in a vacuum. You can’t help but be influenced by the trends and what others are creating. Earlier on, I was really aiming towards a more rendered look. Then I started taking interest in developing a more stylized, graphic look. I’m still finding my voice.
Would you consider working with an author who wants to self publish?
Of course! Work and getting paid is always welcome.
Have you done any artwork for magazines or educational publishers?
Do you do any types of promotion on your own to get your work seen by publishing professionals?
At the moment, I have portfolios posted on childrensillustrators.com, directoryofillustration.com, and of course the SCBWI website. I still have yet to send out my own postcards to children’s book publishers. I’m still learning the ropes. Oh and I have a blogspot and personal website as well (jwongart.com).
Have you gotten any work through networking or the Internet?
Unfortunately, not really. I did get some work with a local startup who saw my art on AAU’s Spring Show online gallery. I created icons for their mobile sports app.
Do you own a graphic tablet? If so, which one and how do you use it?
I have a 6×8″ Wacom Intuous 3. It has served me well, but I really should upgrade to a newer, larger model or a Cintiq. I currently draw on paper, scan it, and paint over digitally. The process would probably be expedited if I worked on a Cintiq. I just find it extremely difficult to be precise with my drawings while sketching on a Wacom. There’s a large disconnect with what you see up at the screen with what you’re sketching down on the pad. So for now, illustrations that require some line work are done on paper then painted digitally. More rendered pieces are roughly sketched digitally, given some gray-scale work, and then painted over digitally in color.
How much time do you spend illustrating?
Do you have a studio set up in your house?
No. Right now I live in a tiny room where I eat, sleep, play, and work. Luckily my housemates are quiet and respectful. I usually get a heavy dose of cabin fever though, so I usually work on preliminary drawings and study at my favorite coffee shop. Illustration is a solitary endeavor, so it definitely helps my sanity to physically be out in the real world.
Do you have a strong art community where you live?
Most of my friends in SF are fellow illustrators or fine artists. It’s not unlikely for us to walk to a local gallery showing downtown or to attend a friend’s painting exhibit. There have been occasions where I would still visit AAU to seek out advice from past teachers or other faculty. I also started doing monthly meetups with a small group of SCBWI Illustrators in the East Bay. We’re a small but dedicated group and are open to meeting other Illustrators. SCBWI illustrators, feel free to contact me if you are in my neck of the woods.
What are your career goals?
Children’s book Illustrator. Concept artist. And also at some point a teacher at AAU or some other art institution. I had alot of great teachers at the academy that taught me about art and life. It’d be nice if I could do the same some day.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to develop a portfolio for gaming companies. It’s all very new and intimidating to me, but I’d like to experience working with and learning from a team of other talented artists. It seems like challenging work, but I think alot of growth can be made working in that environment. I also don’t want to ever feel complacent with my art. I sort of need that push. It seems like demanding work, and I find that there’s alot I need to still learn to keep up with the industry. I’m trying to teach myself Zbrush right now.
Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?
I don’t have many tips, but I can share what materials I do use. For watercolor, I use Aquarelle Arches Cold Press blocks, Winsor & Newton paints, and a few darker Prismacolor colored pencils for line work. I create a line drawing and use transfer paper to transport the image to the watercolor block. Then I paint. As mentioned earlier, I work digitally with my Wacom Intuos 3 tablet and Photoshop CS6. For sketching, I’ve always used blue pencils, brush pens, and Prismacolor Cool Grey markers.
Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their art career?
Yikes. Hah, ask me this again in 7 years! Well, being an artist can be rough. I haven’t had much success in my career, and often times my confidence takes a beating from the rejections I get. I do think it helps to read interviews of other artists that you admire. It helps to know many of them weren’t “supermen” right off the bat. We often see their successes but have no idea of the obstacles they had to overcome. I also keep folders of images of artists I admire on my desktop to keep me inspired. I hope that helps.
Thank you Justin for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. Website: http://jwongart.com/
If you have a minute, please leave Justin a comment. I am sure he would love it and I enjoy reading them. Thanks!