Jeremy Leung is an illustrator and art director living in New York. He talks to us about his process drawing for publications like The New York Times, the future of illustration, his career leap from consulting at IBM, and his favorite spots in Brooklyn.
I think it starts with an understanding of how journalism and articles really work. Over the years, I’ve learned about the amount of rigorous work that goes into a news piece and how illustration stands apart from photography. I love photography, but you’re still restricted by what’s captured within the lens. Illustration offers a different type of fantasy and world-building. You can manipulate physics and rules that are different from real life, creating something out of nothing.
In terms of process, I usually get a brief in my email from clients along with a budget, which I sometimes can negotiate on. Then I start my sketching process, which is where I really cut my teeth thinking about something that is metaphorically clever and not cliché. After reviewing with the client, one of the sketches gets approved and I take it to final, which involves a lot of tweaking and color correction. Editorial processes can be rather unpredictable and the final image sometimes gets published a few days to a few weeks after I send it to the client.
I’ve gone completely digital these days, using Procreate on the iPad and Photoshop and sprinkling in some hand-drawn textures when necessary.
It’s a good question. Art is escapism and we need it more than ever right now. We are so oversaturated with photography that it’s almost taken for granted. But good illustrators can deliver something clever and make you really pause to imagine a concept before reading an article. I work as an editorial art director as well, so I see how these articles are made and how the pairing between headline and art can make-or-break the piece.
It’s interesting to think about the future because 10-15 years ago there was a lot of fear that illustration would not survive the digital era. The rise of digital tools and stock illustration made a lot of people afraid for the future but things have not panned out negatively among this new generation of illustrators. I think this craft is still very highly regarded and I’m hopeful for the future of this industry.
I studied illustration in college but I got really burnt out by it. A lot of professors had a rather narrow definition of success and I found it to be rather restrictive. So I decided to step away and landed a job as a design consultant for IBM. This started as slide decks for huge enterprise clients like airlines and banks. Soon after, I moved into designing apps for those same clients and got really into the UX design bubble during that time when everyone was using Sketch and hyped over iOS 10/flat design. In hindsight, this time period was fun; sitting next to developers and seeing your work come to life was a good experience for me.
Eventually, I grew a bit disillusioned because many of the designs I made never saw the light of day. They ended up as proof-of-concepts because of the bureaucracy of a large legacy company like IBM and its clients. I didn’t want to be a cog in the machine and craved more autonomy and control. During this time, I went back to drawing to ease my frustrations which was a revelation because being away from it for such a long time helped me shed the baggage I had from school and see it in a new light. After much deliberation, I quit my job and moved to New York. I took a life-drawing class for six weeks which provided a regimented schedule and an opportunity to start job-hunting. Eventually, I landed a gig as an art director at Institutional Investor and continued growing my freelance roster from there.
Brooklyn to me feels so alive. There is this humble hustle that makes it distinct from Manhattan and the cultural vibrancy is amazing. So many people from different backgrounds and a lot of creatives, all trying to find their way. I’ve become a more evolved version of myself seeing how so many diverse people love each other here.
Some favorite places to frequent for shopping: Lichen, (shoutout to these guys for real), Front General Store and 10ft by Stella Dallas. For coffee and drinks, it’d be Mixtape Shop and Mood Ring (come back!) And lastly, for film and books: Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Center for Fiction.
I’d categorize my style as a mix of New York vintage and high-fashion. I think style is a product of who and what I surround myself with. Those influences naturally find their way into my wardrobe. I came from a background of geeking out on Japanese fashion and streetwear aesthetics but as an artist I didn’t want to limit myself to just one category. Some people really enjoy sticking to the things they like but I’ve begun to take bigger risks and experiment more. For instance, lately, I’ve started wearing a lot more color which I think reflects my extroverted persona.
To put it simply, the way I dress reflects my personality and mood. With my art style, I want to get across a mixture of vibrancy and melancholia; whether that connects with my wardrobe is still up for debate.
It was a big learning experience and it was cool to see my own style evolve with the project. I think it’s by virtue of the fact that we worked on this for almost a year. I realized that telling a sequential story is really difficult to be consistent across different frames and story beats or drawing a figure in different poses that flow together. In my world of editorial illustration, I’m usually composing a single image, which is totally different. I’ve done some past projects like comics but nothing as large scale as this. Also, really limiting the color palette to black and white made me a lot more confident in textures and shades of gray. I would ask myself constantly: how can I show emotion through those limitations? Anyway, I’m excited to finally release the full story to people soon.
I definitely don’t want to rest on my laurels and continue only producing artwork that is viewed on screens. I have a big campaign launching very soon with a major department store chain that I’m really excited for. The art will be printed on posters, store fixtures, stuff like that. The occupation of physical space is really cool to me and I want to move into more large-scale work to have a bigger impact. Building a PC this year is also a tangible goal of mine which will allow me to move into more animation and 3D work.
I think one of my biggest skills is self-awareness and knowing when things need to change. I’ve seen a few people occupy the same field for too long and their work stagnates. Though I admire the “sushi chef mentality” of someone perfecting a craft for 60 years, when it comes to art right now, I find it so much more exciting to keep evolving and learning new things.
You can follow Jeremy on Instagram at @jeremyaleung.