The Joy of Making Things
Jenny Yu’s masterfully crafted illustrations feature solitary figures wrapped in blankets of light and color. In one scene, a figure lies alone in her room, unable to sleep as a thin band of amber light cuts across her face. In another, a woman with a lemon-yellow umbrella crosses a rain-soaked street, backlit by the pale glow of passing headlights and the blue and pink reflections of neon signs. Yu carves out each space carefully, framing her figures in soft focus and a shallow depth of field. I sat down with Yu to talk about her process for creating worlds that are equal parts reality and fantasy.
Yu gravitated toward art at a young age. She earned a BFA in Illustration at California State University, Long Beach and was initially focused on traditional materials. She only started using digital tools during her junior year. "My friend gave me her old Bamboo tablet for free," she says, "and that’s how it all started. I was really bad at it!”
References are important to Yu’s process. To imagine the essence of a scene, she must first understand its structure in the real world. She's inspired by the light and color she sees on walks around the city; her favorite photographers; and the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
She chooses her subject matter according to her mood, in “slice of life-y contexts.” She’s drawn to quiet contemplation: sitting and having coffee, walking alone down the street, looking out the window. Her work often captures moments when the subject is lost in thought, unaware that anyone is paying attention. Instead of populating these spaces with crowds of bystanders, she fills the page with architectural details, angled lines of falling rain, and layered shapes created by late afternoon or early morning light.
Her favorite parts of the illustration process are to lock down the basic composition and structure and then experiment with value and color. Once she blocks out an initial clean-lined sketch, she moves to Adobe Photoshop CC. Blocking in values and colors more organically than systematically, she plays as she goes, experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. Her least favorite part of the process is adjusting a piece's overall value and color system if she doesn’t get it right in the first pass. “I tend to tinker a lot in this part of the process and if I don’t nail on the first try, I have to regauge it, and I start overthinking things.”
Yu currently lives and works in Los Angeles, where she focuses on freelancing. As anyone can see on her Behance, Dribbble, and Instagram pages, she’s prolific, and her social media game is strong. She encourages artists to share the work they make, even the bad stuff, and feels that keeping active on social media has been important for her professional development. Her early work creating vector motion graphics came through her Dribbble account, and Mindshow, which develops a platform for sandbox VR storytelling, reached out and offered her a job as environmental concept artist in a similar fashion.
Yu is not one to box herself in. In the future, she might make a graphic novel or short film or explore different media to expand her toolset. She’s also considering taking a step out of the digital world and back into traditional painting materials, doing more photography, and possibly taking up another instrument. “I just want to keep making things, and not lose my joy in it,” she says. For now, she’s steeped in the present moment.