Curiosity, Creativity and Kimchi

From my family I inherited a great sense of curiosity about all aspects of life. I started reading a great deal in my childhood so that I could satisfy this curiosity, deciding that I wanted to create.

At school I was definitely better at art than any other subject. I went to the best art school in Korea, where I was born, which allowed me to research and explore varied artistic media and themes.

When I moved to Britain, I studied Illustration at Kingston University, in Surrey, and this gave me a more solid and focused starting point to becoming a professional illustrator. I am grateful for my initial foundation course in the field of Fine Art, as this enabled me to narrow down my discipline as an illustrator.

I received my very first commission even before I did my degree course in Britain. Asenior animator asked me to make some characters for a national science museum’s games room. It was a huge sum of money for me and it was also a great deal of fun. I was amazed at seeing children playing with my animal characters on screen at the museum. At that time I thought I was going to be a “fine artist” but that moment probably led me to where I am now.

I was fortunate enough to be picked by the Art Director of a cookery book which needed drawings and illustrations, Cooking Drawing Book, by the independent book publisher, Your Mind. He found me on Twitter and clicked from there into my website.

All my self-initiated illustrations are the result of asking the serious, fundamental questions about life, love, work, exercise, food and so on. I try to choose the most beautifully silly answers and visualize them in my head.

For example, in Baking at Midnight I share my “life recipe”, which is all about the calming influence of baking and cooking when you are stressed or tired. In the epilogue I wrote: “Baking at this hour is quieter than cooking might be normally: the best bit is when you are sitting in front of the oven, absorbing the rich, sweet, aromatic scent.”

Technically I prefer the methodology of collage for my work. I almost feel that I am visually cooking while I am working on my collage of ingredients.  After my first cooking book, I loved the idea of food related work so much that I decided to carry on building a body of work in that genre.

Last year I went back home to South Korea for holiday. I emailed my portfolio to a gourmet magazine and they replied immediately to say they were launching a beautiful, new food market run by a big Seoul department store. It was great commission for me, and it included illustrations for the shop signs and the launch magazines. I had to pitch competitively for the job, compromising my style in the process, but I learned a great deal. I now produce work for the monthly grocery magazine which I am delighted with.

When I meet with a client for the first time ideas are always exchanged, and my objective is always to ensure that the customer is happy with the outcome. I try to show them different approaches.

Because I was born in a very close, Korean family with an excellent cook for a mother, I am very passionate about good food. Food is all about your roots and culture. When I first came to live in Britain I had to adjust my diet and I very much missed home-cooking.

For me Kimchi, the pickled vegetable dish, is the best! Korean food may looks less visually interesting than other Asian cuisines, but it is slowly cooked and healthy food with a huge range of different side dishes. Once you try well prepared Korean food then you will discover immediately what a delicious and healthy cuisine it is.

I get inspiration for my work mainly from the world outside of illustration, really. A sense of curiosity in life has led me to study culture on a mythological and psychological level. I have been interested in comic bookssince childhood and later I drew from narratives from novels, films, science fiction, fantasy series,essays, memoirsand musicals.

I am fascinated with non-mainstream, alternative, folk and fringe art. Many other unconnected artists have had an influence on my work, such as David Hockney, Matisse and the Korean contemporary artist Yeondoo Jung.

In the future I would like to create visual narratives, collecting stories and visualizing them in illustrations that grab the viewer’s attention and bring them into the story or subject. I hope that whatever the theme of my work, its messages will make people more fulfilled and happy. I would like to do more than just create pretty imagery: I would like to suggest new ways of looking at life.

In Seoul I used to have a big, quiet studio which I shared with creative friends but I sadly cannot afford that in London. I am currently living in Hackney, next to London Fields. Fortunately my room is a good size, which enables me to separate the workspace and the sleeping area. As soon as I wake up I check all my e-mails while drinking a cup of strong black coffee. That is my simple work-mode ritual: working from home is challenging and ideal at the same time. The work of the artist is solitary, but because of my location I am able to walk alongside the canal or cycle around Victoria Park, where lots of people take exercise. If you see an odd Asian girl who is pretending to be working-out but is actually observing and doodling characters at a bench, that is me.

My work process is not always the same, since I use diverse materials and have to juggle personal and commissioned work all the time. However, for commercial work which has pending deadlines, I follow a set way of working, which I have found to be effective. Firstly, I try to write and sketch on the underground, in cafes or parks, anywhere which is not deskbound. Then, I come back to the desk to get some reference material, to do research and do a rough draft to see whether it will work or not. I tend to make the main image intuitively until it looks good enough, and this is the most sensitive process for me. After I get the main image right, then the rest of the composition and colour schemes flow quite smoothly. All the images are hand drawn and all the colours are hand printed or made with acrylic texture, which takes a great deal of time and dedication. I use the digital resources of Photoshop which give the end-result a more polished and graphic resolution while still retaining the hand-made quality of the finished work.

For the future, I would very much like to illustrate one of the Phaidon cookery books. I would also like to design the Marks and Spencer Christmas season packaging and send it to my family back at home. The books of Alain de Boton and Paul Auster have been very helpful to me, so I would like to illustrate their future book covers.

If I had to give career advice to anyone interested in pursuing a career in freelance illustration, I would say that it is very important to have a clear idea what is important and meaningful to you in life from the outset. Getting the first well-paid job is not necessarily the right thing to do: think carefully about what sort of work you would like to do that is right for you and your creative sensibility. Then go for it!

Further Information

Soo Choi’s website:

Follow Soo on Twitter: @thisissoochoi

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