Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 30, 2022

Illustrator Saturday – Phuong Thai

Phuong Thai is a Vietnamese illustrator who graduated with a BFA in Interior Design. She worked with publishers as part-time jobs, Slowly she she realized she loved Illustration and Storytelling careers more. Because of this, she made a big decision to attend  Brighton, UK to study for MA Sequential Design/Illustration with a partial scholarship. Since then, she has worked with a deep passion for visual storytelling and teaching for international publishers, magazines, brands, and universities.  

Currently, she is working and living and  in the USA. I would love to collaborate with you to do books, children’s books, illustrations, films, and creative projects! She loves phở, boba milk tea, and homemade coffee from my husband : D

For projects of Children Illustration and Cover Art, I’m honored to be represented by my amazing agent:​​​​​​​ Christy Ewers from The CAT Agency.

HERE IS PHUONG DISCUSSING HER PROCESS OF DESIGN/ILLUSTRATING A BOOK COVERS:

I sketch ideas and compositions with Procreate or Photoshop

After choosing a final option, I start to use big and low opacity brushes to sketch choice of colors.

Then, I paint color bases and clean up the big shapes.

After that, I add shading, light, some major details.

To do the typography, I add grids to organize the hand-drawing characters.

Finally, I adjust color tones, add delicate details, and double-check on lighting and shading. Then the artwork is ready!

Front and Back Cover Final

PHOUNG’S INTERVIEW:

How long have you been illustrating?

I started illustrating in 2007 when I was studying Interior Design at the University of Architecture HCMC. My roommate asked me if I may be interested in doing the small task of illustration, I said Yes, and then that moment led me to a new journey in the publishing field.

What and when was the first piece of art you created for money?

When I was 17 years old, my friend noticed that I’m good at making pop-up cards. She ordered me a special pop-up card as a Valentine gift for her crush. That was my first time earning a bit of money from my ‘artwork’.

I normally made cards for teachers and random occasions during high school time, I never thought it would make money.

What made you choose HCMC University of Architecture, Viet Nam to get your BFA in Interior Design?

I was born in Da Nang City in the center of Viet Nam which also has a university of architecture. But I love adventure and love learning from bigger places, so I chose to be on the train for a day to move my life to Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in the south of Viet Nam.

Why did you choose to study Interior Design?

The Industrial Art Department has approximately 5 years to finish the BFA. I have a few years to freely discover 4 majors: Interior, Fashion, Graphics, and Industrial. I love imagining spaces and combining multiple skills, so I chose Interior. Plus, the class of Interior Design is crowder, I want to learn from many more friends, to hang out with them often, that was why I finally chose Interior Design.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

As a 2nd year student, I worked part-time jobs with publishers. I wonder if telling a story and drawing a story is the right path for me.

Luckily, right away after I graduated in Interior Design, a publisher invited me to join their team! I thought I would try this career for 2 years, then that decision led me to work professionally until now – more than a decade, and I have contributed a lot of covers, children’s books, and teaching illustration as well.

Five years later you attend the University of Brighton in the UK to get your MA in Sequential Design/Illustration. How did you make that decision?

Since I have a degree in Interior Design and switched to the Publishing field as my new career, I didn’t feel that I’m good enough. I love storytelling, love sharing my imagination in the form that every child could be happy to enjoy: books, with the scope of the world!

So, I believe that I still need to learn deeper about the new career I chose. I also couldn’t find any professional school to teach illustration in Viet Nam around 2014, that field was very new for us.

Because of that, I applied to study abroad, at the University of Brighton (UOB) in the UK which is trustworthy for sequential art. They also trusted my ability after an interview and granted me a partial scholarship, then I came to the UK!

Did you speak English when you moved to the UK?

Yes, the UOB required an academic English test. I wasn’t good at studying new languages so I failed the test at least 4 times within 4 months. I finally got the standard scores that were good enough to study MA. I sent all the failed test results to the UOB to prove that I’m serious about studying abroad and making efforts.

At the last minute, I got a letter from the UOB that my portfolio is exceptional so they accepted my English scores, and suggested that I can learn extra language classes later when coming to the UK.

I felt very grateful! However, I believe learning a new language requires a very long time to be better. So, even now, I’m still learning and improving each day.

Did the University of Brighton help you find illustration work before you graduated?

No, but I believe they have good support for students’ career growth.

Since I had clients before studying abroad, I still worked remotely while studying in the UK at the same time, to grow experience and ‘survive’ living costs in the UK. The UK and VietNam is very different in terms of living cost, I think.

Did you do any freelance artwork while going to school?

Yes, I was doing a picture book ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ for a publisher in Australia, and some advertising illustrations for brands in Viet Nam.

I made a few stories for school projects, both of them were luckily be published later in Viet Nam and Europe

Did you stay in the UK after you graduated or did you return to Viet Nam?

I had a lot of plans to eagerly share illustration knowledge with the Vietnamese community of young artists, so I went back to Viet Nam to teach Illustration at HCMC University of Architecture while still collaborating with publishers in China and Europe.

What made you move to the US?

From 2019, I had a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, who was my friend. He is from the USA. After a couple of years of dating with trips to Vietnam, Singapore, USA, we got married and I started a new journey in the US.

How long have you lived here? Were you here when Covid-19 hit the world? 

In 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021, I visited the USA several times for traveling. I was visiting there during Covid years as well, I luckily had road trips across the USA twice with my boyfriend.

In 2021, we got married, I moved to the USA and am currently learning a lot of new wonderful experiences.

Your website says you have illustrated 25 picture books and have illustrated over 100 book covers. What did you do to accomplish that level of success right out of school?

I worked hard, with passion, curiosity, and tried to keep good quality for both academic projects and client projects. I also shared my learning journey with the community. Slowly, people share my work, and I gain more opportunities to draw books locally and internationally.

Was Di But Cua Mot Nguoi Con Gai that was published on Feb 10, 2017 your first book?

No, I think the author has a similar family name to me, but our full names are different. Her full name is Thai Thi Yen Phuong while my full name is Thai My Phuong.

Did you write and illustrate that book? 

My first illustration book wasn’t beautiful since I lacked experience, but I still loved it a lot. It was the black-white illustration for a Vietnamese version of the story: The Midwife’s Apprentice written by Karen Cushman.

Since it was published in VietNam more than a decade ago, it didn’t exist in the Vietnamese market anymore.

A few months later your illustrated Ada et le fruit magique by Marc Alan Shultz came out in French. How did you get that contract?

My friend Mark Alan Shultz, loved writing a lot and wished to publish his 1st book one day. I didn’t know how to write in English but have experience in the publishing field and children’s books. We team up and co-author that story. And I sent a proposal to my clients. They loved it, and we had a real book on hand a year later, with three more languages versions!!

You show artwork on your website for KONG listed as 2018. Did you write and illustrate the book?

Kong was written by a writer. I do illustration only.

Was Kong ever published?

As the editor mentioned, they will publish but then didn’t tell me the correct time. I couldn’t search well since I don’t know the Chinese language, so I shared the portfolio following the time they promised.

I see all your gorgeous illustrations for Oliver and the book in your hands. When did Beijing United Publishing publish the book?

Thank you so much!! I’m glad that you see that Oliver book is beautiful! I drew that book at the same time as Kong, in 2017-2018. They both were ordered from RZbooks-Beijing United Publishing, but by different editors. The book Oliver was published in 2019 and I got a few samples and an editor’s thanks note from China. It was a happy collaboration, I felt very lucky!

All the illustrations are so detailed. How long did it take you to do?

From 2016 to 2019, my main medium is to mix pencil drawings with digital coloring. That style is very detailed but needs a lot of time to finish. For example:

  • Pencil drawing for A3 size: 3 days
  • Coloring: 3 days

(Not including time of research and sketching)

From 2020 until now, I’m more familiar with the digital tool since it is effective in both time and quality. I sometimes do pencil drawing mixes with digital when I have special requirements from clients.

Do you think it will be published in English?

I’m not sure, but I hope it will be! :’D

Have you illustrated other books with Beijing United Publishing? 

Yes, Kong was the second book I collaborated with them.

I see the illustrated cover for Secret incubators, what type of book is Secret incubators? Did you do any interior art or did you just do the cover? Has it been published, yet?

Secret Incubators was written by a Vietnamese doctor. It is a book inspired by real stories of babies who were born with difficulty and need a long time support from hospital and incubators.

As a first plan, we wish to do both cover and interior illustration. Then my schedule changed, I also had a health issue during that time, so I did Book Cover only.

Was Leonardo Da Vinci published in 2021? 

Yes, It was published in 2021 by Nui Nui.

How long did it take you to create all that wonderful artwork for Leonardo Da Vinci?

It was a challenging project for me in terms of content and technique. I also was under pressure to tell Leonardo’s life and his amazing artwork with my art style. There needs to be a lot of detailed research about his invention, historical events, wars, countries, costumes, human anatomy, weapons, physics, machines, and remarkable characters as well. The projects took close to a year, from 2019 to 2020, to finish 72 pages. And I’m very happy with the result!

Why did you choose to illustrate SENNAHOI in B&W? 

The book was booked in the year 2018 when I was using the pencil drawings style mostly. I wouldn’t be realistic for the timeline if I do both pencil drawing and coloring. So I did only black and white with high details, lines movements, and world-building. Then another artist did coloring.

How did Starry Forest Books find you to illustrate Anne of Green Gables?

I got an invitation to work on this project in 2017. And I also do black-white pencil drawing only for the character’s setting, world-building, sequences, compositions, and high details. Then another artist did coloring.

This was a lovely version of Anne, I think. I felt grateful to have a chance working on this sweet story.

Was this the first US publisher you worked with?

I’m not sure. In 2010, Room to Read started some projects in Vietnam. They have a team in Vietnam to support the local authors/illustrators composed stories published for some children in difficult areas only. I composed and drew a story about ‘The Missing Rices’, and Room to Read published it. Since the publisher is originally from the USA, I’m not sure if that was the 1st time I collaborated with a USA publisher or not.

Mario and the Aliens by Carolina Zanotti came out in March this year. When did you get that contract?

I got that contract a long time ago, around 2016-2017. The story was published mostly in the EU and China, in French, Italian, and Chinese languages. Recently, NuiNui collaborated with new partners and re-published the book in the US market with the English version.

I just noticed that Amazon says Mario and the Aliens was published this year, but in your CV, you say it was published in 2018. Was it published twice?

I’m not sure if it was published twice or more than that. From what I know, Mario is published with different versions of languages for the following years from the time I finished all the artworks.

Mario also has two parts, originally published with a following timelines:

– Mario 1, in 2019: Mario e gli alieni

(https://nuinui.it/products/mario-e-gli-alieni?_pos=10&_sid=164a876c6&_ss=r)

– Mario 1, in 2019: English version

(https://www.amazon.com/Charmingly-Illustrated-Childrens-Computers-Electronics/dp/164124027X)

– Mario 2, in 2020: Amici extraterrestri… giochiamo?

(https://www.amazon.fr/Amici-extraterrestri-giochiamo-colori-gadget/dp/2889354083)

* I double checked my CV, for some reason, I remembered that Mario 1 was published in 2018. That was the time the publisher came to Viet Nam and shared the copies with me. But on Amazon, the book was officially published in early 2019. I will adjust my CV following that. Thank you for the question!

Did you have an artist rep when you first started your career as an illustrator?

No, I didn’t. In Viet Nam, I don’t see any illustration agencies. So mostly I got my previous work contracts from Behance, Social media, and online reputation. When moving to the USA and starting a new life here, I noticed most illustration works have collaborated with agencies. So I tried to apply and luckily I found The CAT Agency!

When and how did you connect with Christy Ewers at The Cat Agency?

I first contacted The CAT Agency by email in winter 2021. In March 2022, Christy and I texted each other on Instagram. And in June, we finally ‘team up’ together. I’m so lucky to be represented by Christy Ewers. She has a very amazing energy which I feel connected right away for a first video call, and I believe that I want to grow more with the CAT team on storytelling career journeys!

I enjoyed your Illustrative Photography. Have you been able to sell any of them to magazines or newspapers for their articles?

Thank you so much!! I love Illustrative Photography. I can easily imagine stories and characters for some moments around my life and my traveling because I love recording photos. To keep those imaginary memories, I quickly drew characters over camera photos, and sometimes I shared those pieces on the internet.

In recent years, I felt grateful that the hobby helps me with some opportunities to collaborate with brands in industries like food, domestic, traveling, education, technology devices, and art tools. Last year, ELLE Magazine in Vietnam also invited me to create a few pages with Illustrative Photography style to encourage Sai Gon citizens during the Covid years challenge.

Are you open to working with a self-published author to illustrate their book?

Yes, I do. If I feel connected to the stories and if they have meaningful ideas, of course, I wish to be a part to contribute my imagination to those stories!

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

Yes, for the art style I feel familiar with, I can measure quite exactly how many hours I should finish. On average, I need 8 hours to craft a single coloring page with digital style.

Sometimes, it depends on the timeline requirement and content’s complicated levels. If I have more time, then I can craft more for lighting, details, movement, feelings, patterns, colors, and/or complex compositions. If I have less time, I can break the content into major parts: character, foreground, background, or major shapes to make sure the artwork is good at clarity and art – but still, be able to craft within a tight amount of time. My priority is the main characters and main subjects. So they should be done first.

As a mindset of a designer, I prefer working effectively with reasonable solutions under different types of pressures and requirements. And to me, flexibly choosing an art style/medium which matches a deadline is an important problem-solving skill.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Yes, absolutely!!

The right pictures sometimes inspire me for fiction topics. Some pictures also help me to have the correct reference for non-fiction topics. Searching is also the major step for growing ideas as multiple options, then reselecting for the best choice of idea, I believe so.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

Yes, most of my career dreams are for two purposes: telling better stories and sharing knowledge of creating stories.

So, I’m happy with careers related to books, and animated films. Plus, I also enjoy the career of education: teaching students or sharing knowledge on social media to young people who have the same passions as me.

What are you working on now?

Quite a lot! I’m brainstorming some story ideas for children’s books and studying composing graphic novels.

On the side projects, I’m studying visual development, trying to finish my second short animated film in August, and preparing some teaching videos.

Do you have any material-type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – How to tip, etc.

After sometimes losing final files or lack of familiar materials due to traveling or living in different countries, I tried to learn all skills for both traditional tools and digital tools.

To me, they both help transform ideas and imagination into something visible to audiences. I want to be able to select tools flexibly to finish my work in any circumstance without having to rely on one particular choice.

I don’t know if my experience may be helpful, but the ability to use diverse tools or materials has helped my career a lot, regarding productivity!

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’m wise enough to share any advice.

From my personal experiences and perspective, I believe being patient and humble are keys to growing and learning. Also, a good attitude is important for professional growth.

* Plus, reading and learning from different fields may be helpful, since I believe Illustrating not only needs craft skills, but also needs wider knowledge to create deeper thoughtful ideas.

Phuong, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and showing us your process. Please let me know about your future books and successes so I can share them with everyone.

You can visit Phuong using the following links:

WEBSITE: https://thaiphuong.net/

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/tamypu306

INSTAGRAM: https://www.instagram.com/thai.phuong.artwork/

AGENCY: https://catagencyinc.com/#/phuong/

TWITTER: https://twitter.com/phuong_tamypu

LINKEDIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamypu/

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. What lovely work

    Like

  2. Beauty-FULL ❤

    Like

  3. So beautiful! I love these illustrations!

    Like


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