Victo Ngai mentions “luck” and “destiny” more than a few times while discussing the remarkable trajectory of her still-nascent career. The 26-year-old illustrator from Hong Kong, who in 2012 won two Gold Medals from the Society of Illustrators and whose work appears regularly in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, cites how fortunate it was that she got into the Rhode Island School of Design—the only school she applied to—and studied editorial illustration with Chris Buzelli, who would challenge her and become her mentor. The added serendipity of this connection is that his wife is art director SooJin Buzelli, through whom Ngai earned enough assignments to build a portfolio of a dozen published pieces by the time she graduated in 2010, which helped her move to New York City and hit the ground running. “The New York Times was my second client,” Ngai says, more in appreciation than boast.
As she describes her tremendous luck, it also becomes apparent just how hard she’s worked at every stage, and how her unwavering determination has done more to fuel this “series of fortunate accidents” than has fate. One only has to look at the quality of her work to see proof of her strong point of view, exquisite hand and ability to convey emotion in compositions that are highly detailed yet direct in their communication. In person, Ngai comes across as self-assured and confident, but also genuinely curious about the world and other people, asking many thoughtful questions as I interview her in her Murray Hill apartment. Even though her syntax betrays the fact that English is not her first language (it’s Cantonese), she has a ready wit and playful sense of humor. Considering all she’s accomplished in such a short time, a little swagger would be justified. But that wouldn’t be Ngai’s style.
A GREAT FORTUNE DEPENDS ON LUCK, A SMALL ONE ON DILIGENCE
What is her style is to make the familiar seem magical and the otherworldly less strange. Absorbing influences that stretch from the ancient Buddhist cave paintings of Dunhuang on the Silk Road to the retro-futurism of sci-fi artist Moebius to the fantastically epic Lord of the Rings film trilogy, she conjures imaginative places and creatures from an inner realm that was cultivated early on. Growing up in the former British colony as the only child of middle-class parents who worked long hours—her dad in finance, her mom in a variety of posts, from professor of Chinese literature and newspaper editor to manager of an investment company—she spent a lot of time alone. Victo (shortened from her English name, Victoria) Ngai (pronounced nye) took to drawing as a way to keep herself entertained. “I started creating my own stories, drawing out characters and scenes. That was the earliest form of illustration and storytelling I was doing. I guess you could call them my imaginary friends,” she says.
Until the age of six she would get high fevers that sometimes led to near-fatal seizures, further isolating her from other kids. Her clinical doctors couldn’t diagnose what was wrong, but gave her pills that mostly just doped her. Desperate for a non-pharmaceutical cure, Ngai’s mother sought out traditional herbal treatments, which not only stopped the fevers but also inspired her mother’s next career (she’s now a doctor of Chinese medicine). Her mother is also the one who first noticed Ngai’s talent and how the rigidly technical Chinese art taught in school was stifling it. So, every week-end she would take her daughter to a looser private art teacher in Shenzhen, on the mainland, which, although geographically close, was “like visiting another country, we need to go through customs every time,” Ngai says. It was there that Ngai’s creative confidence began to flourish.
When it came time for college, Ngai set her sights on the United States. “I was always top of my art class, but I felt like I wasn’t a big fish, just in a small pond. I knew the only way to know how good I really was, and to grow better, was to study in one of the top art schools in the world,” she says. She chose RISD because a friend of hers said it was the very best. Ngai knew nothing about where she was headed. “I thought Rhode Island was an actual island,” she says. She chose illustration because she wanted a stable career, and found it the perfect conduit for her love of storytelling and problem solving. She says, “I have always liked all types of puzzle games and detective mystery stories.”
UNLESS THERE IS OPPOSING WIND, A KITE CANNOT RISE
Not that illustration came easily to her. The masters she admired, Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth, were painters, so she thought she should be, too, in order to be taken seriously. In Chris Buzelli’s editorial illustration class, she floundered and endured many tough critiques. “I was his worst student,” she says. “I just didn’t get it. [My ideas] were very cliché, or my metaphors didn’t work, like Chinese fables that I think of as universal, but are not. Also my composition was bad, my color was bad.” The once-top student learned what it was like to be a small fish in a big pond, which only pushed her to work harder.
Ngai’s breakthrough moment came when Buzelli noticed her sketchbooks. In contrast to what she brought to class, “her sketchbooks were full of the beautiful line work and the unique voice that you see in her illustration today,” he says. “That’s when I realized I was always interested in lines,” Ngai says. “I’m not a painter, I’m a drawer. And I’ve been pretty much working the same way since then, just evolving.”
Her images are often fantastical, filled with animals and nature, and drawn from perspectives that place the viewer in unrealistic positions, as is traditional in Chinese landscape art. “It’s very interesting because the Western perspective is one point, so you station yourself and you draw things from this angle,” she says. “But in ancient China, poets and painters would draw as they traveled, so they would start and keep walking and then add to it. In one painting you’re able to see things you’re not really supposed to be able to see from that one point. In Korean painting, too, sometimes they obscure the perspective for composition reasons, so they take it more liberally, which I like. And I do that a lot with my work. I create a reality. I like to twist the rules of the reality we are in. To make [an image] believable, you don’t actually have to apply the physics of this world. You can make up your own physics, if they’re consistent. But if you break the [rules] of your own language, the picture falls apart.”
ONE STEP AT A TIME IS GOOD WALKING
Ngai begins by making small pencil sketches on copier paper while sitting on her sofa, which, at the moment, is partially occupied by some of her favorite art books, including a massive tome of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, a collection of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira comics and the exhibition catalog for Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty. She likes to start on the couch before moving to her drafting table “because it feels less like work. I think when I’m more relaxed I have more interesting ideas,” she says. Once she knows the direction she’ll take, she’ll draw it larger in pencil and finalize it in ink with a calligraphy pen tipped with antique nibs. She then adds color on the computer (no more painting). And somewhere, perhaps hidden in patterned wallpaper or another subtle place, she always signs her name in characters of her native Chinese.
She says she works slowly, and that this is in part because of her English comprehension. Yet her grasp of a story’s essence is one of the reasons clients praise her. New Yorker art director Jordan Awan, who has hired her for fiction assignments as well as portraits—including a spectacular one of blues musician Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, in groovy shades and feathered headdress—recalls how he saw that right away in her post-RISD portfolio. “What impressed me most about Victo was not just her technical proficiency and imaginative imagery, but her ability to really tell a story, to pull a narrative out of something that didn’t have much of one,” he says. “Her line quality and palette build an energy and atmosphere on the page, while her attention to detail and high standards make her an absolute pleasure to work with. She goes above and beyond what is expected, from sketches to finish, with great enthusiasm each and every step of the way.”
BE NOT AFRAID OF GROWING SLOWLY, BE AFRAID ONLY OF STANDING STILL
Like an athlete who needs increasingly better opponents in order to excel, Ngai yearns for new challenges. Her clients seem happy to oblige. New York Times art director Alexandra Zsigmond commissioned her for a comic-book-style illustration for a personal essay about Alzheimer’s disease, a reach for Ngai, who had never done a job with so many panels. With comics, “you have to think of the rhythm,” Ngai says. Composing the eleven panels of varying sizes “was very out of my comfort zone, but I enjoyed it. Sometimes you get something that’s even more interesting if you’re being stretched, because you have to try harder.”
Another fun challenge has been working with darker subject matter for fantasy publishing house Tor. For art director Irene Gallo, Ngai created an abstract rendering of zombies for the short story “Foundation.” It is noticeably less precise than her usual style, but this makes it all the more haunting. “I think sometimes seeing less is scarier,” she says. “When I do a monster or zombie, I like more of a silhouette approach. Because if you see everything, you already know what’s up for you, there’s no more unknown to fear.” Gallo concurs. “Victo is really good at reading between the lines,” she says. “While a lot of contemporary fantasy deals with things that can’t be seen or are not easily depicted, her design and narrative convey that otherworldliness.”
The Chinese fables of her childhood still influence her work, even if their meanings aren’t as universal as she once thought. In a promotion for the 500th episode of This American Life, Ngai interpreted a parable about the harm of being too sheltered, in which frogs in a well are ignorant of every-thing but the sky above them. In her picture, the frogs have a radio to listen to, an antenna that provides a way out. “I thought it’s a perfect metaphor to depict how, with NPR, no one would be a ‘frog under the well,’” she says.
Ngai sees her own work with a peripheral view, claiming, “I don’t want to be categorized as one type of artist, that I only do Asian art or I only do fantasy art or only do children’s books. What ultimately keeps me going is the challenge.” When asked if there’s anything she’d like to work with, she mentions wanting to do more with fashion. “I get inspired by fashion photo shoots because they always have an eerie, surreal quality and cool composition,” she says. “And I would love to work with Vogue, if they decided to do a retro illustrated cover.”
An illustration by Victo Ngai on the cover of Vogue? We should be so lucky. ca