Interview: Stanley Chow

Manchester-based illustrator Stanley Chow has become well known for his illustrative portraits and inimitable style.

His work oozes a kind of effortless simplicity, and his ability to create incredible likenesses has deservedly won him fans the world over, not least The White Stripes, The New Yorker and Lego. Capturing a multitude of characters from Manchester icons to Hollywood stars, and all those in between, it’s hard not to be bowled over by his beautifully stylised imagery.


With 20 years experience under his belt, Stanley Chow is someone who knows exactly where to put his mark. We caught up with the Grammy-nominated illustrator back in his hometown to find out more about his journey so far..

Stanley Chow_The Grand_budapest_hotel

Hi Stanley, thanks for chatting with us today! Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your work and how you wound up making a living doing something you love?

It all started when I left Art School 20 years ago. I guess I specialise in portraiture and caricatures, but ultimately I will lend my hand to most subject matter when called upon. I’ve worked in music, fashion, children’s’ books, for magazines, computer games and advertising… pretty much all manner of media where illustration is required. Being a freelance illustrator for me was an easy option. I was already getting work whilst I was at Art School and it continued when I left. It wasn’t long before an illustration agency signed me up, so I had my career kind of mapped out for me really early on.


What were you like as kid? Were you the family portrait artist, or were monsters and aliens more your thing? Did you always know you’d end up being an illustrator?

I’ve known since I was the age of about 4 or 5. Drawing is something I have always just done, and as I was growing up I felt no need to have to do anything else (other than maybe become a DJ, which I spent 15 or so years doing part-time anyway). At school I was mainly doing caricatures of pop stars and film stars, and then selling them to fellow schoolmates. So I was making money back then from my illustrations!

Stanley Chow_Nina Simone

You have a very definitive and instantly recognisable style, how did you hone that down? Do you have a strict process or method when creating new pieces, or has your style evolved over time?

I don’t really have a strict method or process as such. I just do what I do quite instinctively now, but the style has been developed over the last decade. I was primarily a painter when I left school, and I was Luddite for the first 5 or 6 years of my career. I had no intention of working digitally like I do now. Painting was a slow process, but nonetheless I enjoyed the patience required when having to paint. Anyway, when I was in mid-20’s my Dad told me that I needed to ‘get with the times’ so he bought me an orange iMac. I hardly used it initially for illustrating (I used it mainly to play games and watch DVDs!). My painting and drawing style was admittedly quite sloppy, it was something about my work that I always hated, but couldn’t do much about until after 2000.


A graphic designer friend lent me a copy of Adobe Illustrator and I basically discovered that I could illustrate by making clean, bold shapes… A whole new world had literally opened in front of me.

Stanley Chow_David Bowie

I guess in my late ‘20s I reached a point in my career that this illustration lark was beginning to get quite serious. I had a theory that the quicker you get one illustration done, the sooner you can work on the next; thus the more illustrations you do, the more money you can make. Knowing this definitely had an effect on my style. I had to work on a style that was simple, something less detailed, but without losing content, but primarily fast. It started with stripping down the process. I would initially draw a rough first, then scan in the rough, then work on the rough again in Illustrator. This process would probably take half a day at best… so I Iearnt how to illustrate directly in Illustrator, removing the first two parts of the process (the rough drawing and the scanning in).

Over time you start to work out all manner of shortcuts and, in a nutshell, searching for the ‘shortcuts’ has given me the distinct style that I have now.

Stanley Chow_monkey

You’re very well known for your illustrated portraits of famous faces. Do you have any favourite faces that you’ve captured time and again?

Don Draper / Jon Hamm. I’ve been commissioned to illustrate him a number of times, but more recently I’ve done one for GQ magazine, which I am particularly fond of. There are loads of people who I haven’t had chance to capture yet, but if I get the time I’d love to illustrate more historical figures; Shakespeare, Einstein, Emmeline Pankhurst, etc…

Staley Chow_superhamm

How do you find the time to work on the things you want to work on, outside of client commissions?

At the moment I spend about 90% of my time working on commissions. It’s usually in-between commissions, if I have an hour or two, I’ll work on something for myself. I treat my job as a 9 to 5 (well 10 to 6 to be more accurate) and I rarely do any work outside these hours so I can have a decent work life balance. Before marriage and children I would do 17/18-hour days!

Stanley Chow_maleficent

Where is Stanley Chow HQ, and what is it like? Is there anything in your workspace that makes it distinctly yours?

I have a reasonably sized studio space in the centre of Manchester that is crammed with prints and toys that my wife won’t allow in the house. I specifically asked the landlord to paint the walls orange before I moved into the studio, because I like orange. But I also have one blank white wall where now and again I’ll project a film onto if there is any down time (which is very rare to be honest!).

Stanley Chow_Monalisa

What does Manchester mean to you?

First and foremost Manchester is my home. Though if anything, I probably take the place too much for granted to fully appreciate it. I met my wife and also most of my friends in Manchester, so in those terms it means a great deal. I hang out in a few bars after work every now and again. I try to watch Manchester United play football as often as I can… simple pleasures really. But given a choice, nowadays, I think I prefer just chillin’ at home with the kids.

Stanley Chow_Alan_turing

How did your ongoing collaboration with The New Yorker come about? And does it mean you get to jet off to the ‘big apple’ a lot?

About three years ago The New Yorker hired a new creative director, Wyatt Mitchell… I can only assume he was a big fan of my work as ever since then I’ve been a regular in the magazine. I try to go to New York every year, as my agent is also in New York. Recently I suppose I’ve done quite a bit of travelling, and was in San Francisco earlier this year because of the work I did for Wired Magazine.

Stanley Chow_Going to California

We noticed that you’ve recently been up to something over at Lego towers… are we allowed to be nosey and ask what you were doing?

The Graphic Design Team at Lego invited me to do some lectures and workshops at the headquarters in Billund, Denmark. I spent a week there explaining my process of simplifying things. They then applied those principles to designing their own Lego Mini Figure, which will be produced for an exhibition next year. The best part for me was I also got to design my own Lego figure of myself.


What have been your highlights of 2014?

2014 started off with meeting and having a drink with Sir Alex Ferguson! I produced an illustration for a poem written by Tony Walsh about Sir Alex, and a print was presented to him on a night out with his mates… He then invited us stay on his table and share a few drinks with him after the presentation. I also designed the Chinese New Year posters in Manchester and it was amazing seeing them plastered around the city. Being Chinese and from Manchester, it was a very proud moment. I can definitely also say being at Lego HQ was a highlight too. I was totally flattered to have been asked to help the designers at Lego; one doesn’t even begin to envisage that a prospect like that is even a possibility.


Posted on Nov 30th, 14 by

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