When most households in South Korea are settling down for the night, illustrator Jiyeun Kang is busy at work, communicating with clients based halfway around the world, in the United States. In recent years, her work has graced the pages and platforms of publications like Allure, the Boston Globe and Politico Magazine—all within a mere ten years of her starting to draw again after a long hiatus.
Having only worked with Korean publishers prior, her journey into the international illustration scene began when she met Lou Bones, then a manager of the Association of Illustrators (AOI), at the Seoul Illustration Fair in 2017. “[Bones] suggested that I look into editorial illustration, and that perhaps I should consider working with clients outside of South Korea,” Kang says. Bones also recommended that she join AOI, which she did. Soon after, Kang created a website, and also started an Instagram account. It was through AOI that she was discovered by the Anna Goodson Illustration Agency, which began representing her a year later.
Kang is currently based in Yongin, just 25 miles outside of Seoul, but grew up in Daegu, a conservative city with strong Confucian beliefs and traditions. Her family lived together with her paternal grandmother, as is typical in the country, and her childhood was “like any other childhood in Korea,” she says. But growing up in a conservative household was difficult for Kang, especially being the eldest of three children. “Not only do Korean elders favor boys over girls, but they place a lot of pressure on the eldest sibling to be successful, holding on to deeply rooted beliefs that their success will cascade down onto their younger siblings as well,” she says. “It was a little suffocating, and I wanted to run away from it all, which was why I was happy to leave for Kookmin University in Seoul after high school.”
As a child, Kang had been interested in drawing, and decided to further her studies in art in her late teens. Not having studied at an art middle school or high school, and facing the difficult entrance exams to get into art colleges of universities, Kang enrolled in an after-school art course that specialized in preparing students for the exams. However, the rigorous demands of this training almost made her give up the idea altogether. “I was constantly told what to do and how to do things,” she says. “We were taught to draw like robots, and if we didn’t do it well enough, we had to redraw the same things over and over again.” She recalls having to draw one of ten statues in a realistic style within two to three hours as practice for passing the exams. “To this day, I still remember what those statues look like,” she says with a chuckle.
Having only experienced this way of studying art—and not liking it very much—she decided once she reached Kookmin University to take up graphic design instead. Still, her perception of art as a career took a turn for the better when she enrolled in a semester of illustration classes. Instead of the high-pressured, rote learning environment of the after-school art course, the lessons were more creative, and gave her lots of room to grow. “Through them, I realized how lines, shape and form could create beautiful imagery,” she says. “We were trained to think independently, and taught how to create new ideas.”
She acknowledges that the training she endured in the after-school art course made her keenly aware of details, while her time at university has helped her translate and communicate her ideas visually. “I use a lot of light and shadows in my work, and all of this knowledge came from that [course] experience of training my eye, difficult as it was at the time,” she says. “It became a habit, and a way of seeing.”
After graduating from Kookmin University in 2004, she worked as a freelance illustrator, and then as a designer at publishing company Woongjin ThinkBig. The expectations placed on her became heavier with the passing of her father in 2007 due to pancreatic cancer. After his diagnosis, her family had only three months left with him to make preparations for what was to come. For Kang, that time was too short, and hardly enough to say goodbye.
“I was very close to my father because our personalities were very similar. He was like a lighthouse in my life—I looked up to him, asked him for advice and consulted with him on many decisions. And when he was gone, I felt incredibly lost,” she says. Emotional numbness crept over her, and she stopped drawing. It was a difficult time for her family, as they were declared bankrupt soon after, and had to sell their house to pay off their debts, leaving only a small clothing shop that her mother managed as a means to sustain her brother’s university education. What kept her going was a sense of duty and responsibility. “The house was built by my father, and we’d lived in it for 20 years. It was difficult to let go,” she says, remembering how she had clung to the hope of trying to hold on to it. “I felt much better after I made peace with the decision.”
She started drawing again in earnest when she met her husband in 2011. During a blind date, they bonded over their mutual love of singer Seo Taiji’s work, and he even recounted a memorable music video for the song “0 (Zero)”—one that Kang had created for the singer in collaboration with five of her colleagues from university. “I had almost forgotten about it,” she says, laughing. “It was my first-ever project, and it was exhilarating to see the music video being shown on the stage of the Olympic Stadium. I even thought to myself, ‘I was born to do this.’” Spurred on by her husband’s support, she left publishing to focus on her illustration career.
She then took two years to prepare her portfolio, which at the time mostly consisted of pieces painted with oil and acrylic paint. In 2014, she sent her finished portfolio to publishers and participated in art contests sponsored by publication companies. Serendipitously, though her work was not selected, an editor suggested she illustrate a book titled Someday Angeline, which was subsequently published in 2015. “My daughter was born not long before I started working on the book. I wanted to work professionally, instead of merely drawing for pleasure. I had periods of intense guilt when I had to drop her off at the daycare center so that I could concentrate on my work. I wanted to be a mother, and I wanted to be an artist,” she says. “All I wanted was to be able to do it well.”
Kang’s work is full of energy, brimming with textures, details and characters, all brilliantly interspersed with careful consideration of light and shadow. The pieces that she’s created for clients in the West have a markedly different feel from the ones she’s created for publishers in Korea. Illustrations for the former are more experimental, with layouts and compositions that seek to unify various elements to communicate, while those for the latter are more formal and rigid. “The works that I create for Korean clients are based on classical and contemporary Korean literature, and most of them are used in workbooks and textbooks for teenagers, so they lean towards a certain style that the audience is already used to,” she explains.
It was only after her children were born that Kang made the transition to working digitally. “I wanted the flexibility to work anywhere, without worrying about the materials and the spillage and damage that might occur—especially when I was working around my children, who were very young at the time,” she says. And while local clients had been used to only accepting works created via traditional means, they have become enamored of her new way of working. “The fact that they’re open to using my digital illustrations, instead of traditional paintings, has been wonderful. I wanted to apply modern digital techniques while also experimenting with new ways of interpreting them, and I’m very excited that this has been so well-received,” she says. One of her favorite projects is the series of illustrations commissioned by Allure to accompany articles revolving around the K-pop phenomenon. “I had to do a lot of research on K-pop idols and culture for the assignment,” she says, laughing. “With the exception of BTS, they were all unfamiliar to me.” The resulting pieces show Kang’s boldness in pushing the envelope when it comes to using digital techniques, while adding her own flair to the subject matter at hand. “The combination of the theme of an assignment, the nature of the client as well as the encouragement of my agent have made me more confident in experimenting,” says Kang, who cites Victo Ngai, Malika Favre and Tamara de Lempicka as inspirations.
These days, Kang is looking at everything with fresh eyes. “When my father died, I didn’t want to dive into my emotions or talk about my personal life because it was a difficult subject. I didn’t want to be reminded of the difficult time that overshadowed my late 20s to my 30s,” she says. “It was also the same reason that I preferred to create commissioned work—I’d much rather work on someone else’s story instead of my own. It made me forget about my reality for a while.”
She now believes that happiness is something one can rediscover and experience again, even if it takes on a different form. Through drawing, she’s rediscovered a passion for life that she thought she had left behind in her 20s. As she immerses herself in the realm of K-pop culture, she’s reminded, too, of how it feels like to be young and energetic again. “My favorite bands right now are BTS and Blackpink,” she says, clapping her hands and giggling with delight. “And after the pandemic is over, my next goal is to learn how to dance K-pop!” ca