When Yukai Du emigrated from China to London, little did she know a city teeming with inspiration would lead her into a whole new signature creative style.
Originally from China, Yukai went to college in Guang Zhou before heading to England to earn her Master’s Degree in animation. She had never been to Europe before, and London provided the perfect backdrop for Yukai’s abundant imagination to flourish.
She started experimenting with color in her work, bouncing around from bookshops to exhibitions to historic houses in between spurts of work and school. Referring to it as “the honeymoon period” of when you first move to a place, that era launched Yukai into a successful career as a freelance animator and designer.
We sat down with Yukai to discuss her approach, where she goes to find inspiration, and the story behind her utopic Moleskine Studio Notebook.
When was the first time you remember feeling inspired by art?
It was the first month I was in London. I hadn’t been to Europe before, and it was really the whole city, not even the school, that was inspiring to me. When I was in China, my illustrations were mostly black and white, but since moving to London, I really started to play with color.
A lot of my work actually is after trips to other cities, to have a fresh-eyed look at something. I created a set of illustrations in 2018 after a trip I took to Iceland, that were a combination of blue and red with some surreal elements, which was because of the environment that was there.
Imagine you could time travel and give yourself one piece of advice when you were just starting out. What would you say?
When I was younger, just after graduation, I took a full time job for the visa. If I could go back to my younger self, I would let them know that what I was doing then was very useful for my future self. Working full time at a job pushed me in different directions; it made me realize how much I wanted to do my own work, and also made me think about my own potential. There were things I never thought I could do, but I did it, like all kinds of animation skills I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. I look back and think of that time as being so useful.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I have this mentor and best friend, and we’re very similar; we’re both from China and she used to work in London. When I got really stuck in my full-time job, she said to me, “the one thing to keep you going is your work.” At that time, I didn’t see any potential in getting commercial work, so she pushed me to do personal projects. She told me that your personal thoughts and your personal work is what is going to be most attractive to other people. It’s what represents you, and that really encouraged me. So I did my personal work, and then a lot of my commercial work eventually came from that personal work.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Exhibitions, mostly. I like to go to the Tate Modern here, contemporary art museums like MoMA in New York, and all kinds of galleries. Bookshops. I love reading different kinds of illustration books, even normal books with illustrative colors. Gift shops, I love cards and fun stuff. And events, like animation events or talks, or just hanging out with people from the industry and talking about work. Before the lockdown, I was sharing a studio space with some friends. None of them are animators or illustrators; they are graphic designers, paper artists, fashion designers. But we get each others’ opinions. It’s nice to talk to someone not from your field, so you can get some fresh opinions on your work, and also what we’re up to for personal projects.
How did you develop your signature style?
When I was a student in China, I learned how to animate, and I always thought I wanted to work for Dreamworks or Disney, one of those big animation companies. At some point I realized that technically I was kind of weak, so I started to find my own way of doing things.
When I got to university, I realized I didn’t need to be a mainstream animator, that I could do something that I enjoyed more. I started to use Photoshop and play with different colors. I spent a long time figuring out how to develop my skills on the same brush, using the same technique. And then I started to change it up: what I was drawing, the colors I used, the colors in patterns, using more lines, less lines, vibrant colors, or not.
Color is such a huge part of your illustrations. I’m curious to know how you consider colors as you’re mapping out what you want to illustrate?
Normally I start with four or five colors. I have a color swatch library, and I work from that to see what fits with the work. Sometimes in my own personal work, like with the Iceland project I mentioned, I intentionally reduce the colors, and start with 2 and develop from there, adjusting brightness or replacing colors. Then once I have my palette, I can apply it on the image.
What do you do to work through a creative block?
I try to talk it out. Before lockdown, I would talk to my studio mates for different opinions or a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes I would change up my scenery, going to a cafe or somewhere different, to see if that helps me rethink it.
Often I realize a block is just me overthinking things, and I end up stressing myself out. The more I work, the more I let perfection go.
What are your favorite tools?
For sketching my ideas, I still like to use paper. Sometimes I even write to render some fresh ideas. Then I use an iPad to perfect it. My final work is always in photoshop. For animation, I use a combination of Photoshop and After Effects.
Walk us through the process of creating your notebook.
I’ve been using Moleskine for years. I buy a new one every year. When I was presented the opportunity to create my own Moleskine Studio Notebook, I was super excited.
I had this idea of a city that was inspired by a Walt Whitman poem called “I Dreamed in a Dream.” The poem is about love, how love is a city to keep people warm and sheltered, like a utopia. It’s such a nice, romantic idea, and I wanted the notebook to create its own utopian city, like what would be a utopia for an artist. That this could be your dream in a notebook, because my notebook is a little world for myself, where I can explore freely and create ideal work for me.
What are you using your Moleskine for today?
I’m the only one who can understand my sketches, whether it’s rough ideas for a job or for meetings, or before meetings. Sometimes I write in it, which is often a mixture of Chinese and English, and usually very messy. Sometimes I do my accounting somewhere in there, too.
What’s one thing you’d like to see people use their notebooks for?
Since the theme of my notebook is a utopia, draw your vision of an ideal world or place.