Kwennie Cheng talks editorial illustration, motorbikes and journalism
Amsterdam based Kwennie Cheng is an illustrator with big ambitions; to carve out a career as an illustrating journalist. Her subtle palette and line, somewhat subversive for the subjects she tackles.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve not always wanted to become an illustrator. Though I did enjoy drawing when I was little. In high school I loved maths, and was pretty good at it. It was clear I was heading to a technical university. However, this was when my premature quarter life crisis started. I saw no adventure in doing something I was already capable of doing, and could see nothing but a pretty predictable career. So instead I looked for the opposite of maths, and in my mind that was art.
At first I wanted to study fashion design. Then interior design. Then product design. Eventually I ended up in the illustration department, because I figured I’d be too impatient to study animation. I soon discovered that I really loved editorial illustration. I found I could approach briefs the same way as a math puzzle. Ask myself, ‘What’s the story about and how do the key factors relate to each other?’ After graduation I pursued editorial illustration further, and have been working as a freelancer ever since.
I currently live and work in Amsterdam. It’s a city I love and somewhere I feel like I can always discover new places and new sources of inspiration. At the same time it feels like I live in a big village. There’s always the chance of bumping into an acquaintance or friend.
It’s important for me to not feel anonymous, because as an illustrator I’m working alone 98% of the time.
When I’m not in the studio working I love cooking, usually as a way to end the working day. I also love riding my Honda CB250 motorbike. I’ve read there are more and more female riders (in the Netherlands), even though the world of motorcycling remains very masculine. I get extremely annoyed when I see photographs of half naked women (backwards!) on top of a motorbike. It can seem like women are not taken – and can’t be taken – seriously. That’s how my Instagram project @dasfrisierteMoped began. (Check it out!) The feed’s made up of small comics about my life as a newbie motorcyclist. It focuses on exploring the motorcycling world, but feminist topics do surface from time to time. I always tend to adopt an optimistic and light perspective, but when possible I try to touch on underlying social topics.
When I started out, stock images and objects were my main point of reference. Over the last few years I’ve started to draw people and use more and more symbols and metaphors as a sort of setting around them. I love drawing tiny people to emphasise the bigger (political/ social/ historical) context we live in. I think my visual style has mainly evolved around the way my work has evolved conceptually.
Due to the short deadlines in editorial work I have however swapped my lead pencil for a digital one.
I used to draw with a technical pencil on Römerturm matt yellow white paper. While I was travelling and working in Asia for a spell, I carried around an Epson DS-30 portable scanner too. Sometimes I still draw on paper, for example when I draw motorcycles. Due to the short deadlines in editorial work I have however swapped my lead pencil for a digital one. It’s massively improved my workflow. My set-up now tends to be a Wacom Companion 2, with an external keyboard and mouse.
As an editorial illustrator my dream would (obviously) be working for The New York Times and The Guardian. A cover would be amazing! Another dream project would be doing a large narrative journalism piece. A true story put in it’s historical and/or social context. I imagine the end product being a graphic novel, perhaps combined with an interactive app. Maybe even incorporating audio and video to give the reader an in-depth, immersive view of a journalistic journey. Though I realize more and more journalism surfaces digitally only, I’m still a sucker for paper. I’d want to combine the strengths of an offline medium with that of online media. It would be amazing to collaborate with a newsroom for such a project.
I really enjoy reading narrative journalism pieces and true stories in my spare time. ‘Selma’ by Carolijn Visser is currently my favourite one. It’s about a Dutch Jewish woman who escaped the nazis but ended up stuck in Mao Zedong’s China. It’s amazing how the author combines the narrative with the background information of two Chinese revolutions. ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan, and ‘Heratics!’ by Steven and Ben Nadler are also favourites.
Last year my first illustrated story got published at De Correspondent. It focused on my western view of my grandma’s eviction and relocation in China. I want to continue to develop work down this path, and position myself as an illustrating journalist. Focus on adding content and research to a story; letting my illustration directly inform the final result of an article. I hope to interest newsrooms, and encourage some future collaborations; working together and publishing an illustrated story, perhaps centred upon the topics of populism and totalitarian states. At the moment I’m basically developing my work further with the aim of realising this dream.
Aside from das frisierte Moped – where I add new comics every Monday and Friday – I recently started working on my first graphic novel. It’s a dystopian story about populism leading to a totalitarian state. That’s all I can say for now as I’m in the research phase. It’s planned to be published in 2020. I intend to share my research on my blog. But at the moment it will all be written in Dutch.