[Grad Spotlight] Editorial illustrator Nicole Xu shares her portfolio
Nicole Xu is a freelance illustrator who specializes in editorial and book illustration. She was born in Shanghai, grew up in Vancouver, BC, and recently graduated from Rhode Island School of Design.
Nicole Xu‘s clients include The New York Times, Narratively, and YES! Magazine, and her work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators and 3×3 mag. We caught up with her for our latest grad spotlight feature to find out more.
Tell us a little bit about your career so far – what is your background and where did you study?
I’ve always liked doodling in notebook margins as a kid, so my mom bought me a small Wacom tablet for my 13th birthday, which prompted me to draw on a regular basis. When I was 16, I decided that I wanted to make art for a living, since I couldn’t see myself in any other career path, so I applied and got into the Rhode Island School of Design. I just graduated, so my career has barely begun, but I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few freelance editorial assignments, including one from the New York Times!
What aspect of your design course have you most enjoyed?
I loved being around all the incredibly talented, hardworking students at RISD. It was really motivating seeing everyone’s work week by week, getting their feedback on my own work, and drawing from their creative energy. I don’t know where I would be without them! I also appreciate having the opportunity to take classes outside of illustration, such as printmaking or sculpting.
Your work features a lot of colour and faces – where do you get your ideas from?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where I get my ideas from, but I’m fascinated with psychology, or anything to do with memories, emotions, the inner workings of the mind, etc. I suppose that’s why faces show up frequently – I’ve never really thought about it before, ha! I also read a lot of books, watch a lot of films and listen to a lot of music, which I’ve accumulated a lot of ideas from. In particular, the movie Paprika has had a profound influence on me.
How would you describe your working process? What materials do you most enjoy working with?
With the exception of brainstorming and drawing little thumbnails in my sketchbook, I create all my work on Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. I love the flexibility and range that the digital medium brings, and it allows me to be experimental without the fear of making a wrong mark. I think that the way I work digitally stems from my interest in watercolors and printmaking, which I worked with in art school.
Who are your creative heroes?
Santtu Mustonen, Jillian Tamaki, and Micah Lidberg are a few names that immediately come to mind. Their works are all very distinctive while retaining versatility, which is a quality that I admire.
Do you like to travel or visit new cities for inspiration?
Definitely! I’ve been to China, a handful of countries in Europe, and a bunch of cities in Canada and US. It’s amazing to experience different cultures and to step back and realize how vast and complex the world is, even if it sounds really cliché.
Are you excited about graduating? What are you going to be working on over the summer?
I’m very excited! But also terrified. It’s intimidating to have to come out from the safety net of school, but then I realize that I can create anything I want now. I’m home in Vancouver for two months where I’m focusing on refining my portfolio and finishing up a children’s book project. Then in August, I’ll be moving to Brooklyn and delving into the freelance illustration world. (Wish me luck!)
Where do you see your work taking you in the next decade? What kind of projects, collaborations, experiences do you hope to cultivate for yourself?
In addition to editorial work, I would love to work on book projects, collaborate with animators, fashion designers, and musicians, or maybe create work for galleries. There are so many creative fields that I want to work in, I’m excited to see where I’ll end up!