We had the good fortune of connecting with Yifan Luo and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Yifan, why did you pursue a creative career?

I have always gravitated towards creative roles, but I didn’t pursue illustration full time until just a few years ago. A lot of factors led me to that transition point. In short: It wasn’t so much that I didn’t enjoy the other jobs I had, but that I always felt most compelled by the “other thing,” and finally got to a point where I could no longer set it aside. For me this “other thing” has always been image making and storytelling. Both have been an integral part of my life since well before I knew what the term “illustration” even meant, and have always helped me feel more connected to others and to myself. Illustrations and illustrated narratives are also such powerful tools for empathy, communication, and making information more accessible.

In my early career, I pursued work that was tangential to illustration — like designing marketing materials for an art college and writing creative copy for an educational startup — but felt somewhat “safer.” I had time for occasional freelance gigs and commissions, but found it hard to dedicate the time and energy needed to grow my artistic practice. Ironically, several of these “safer” jobs became unstable, and helped me realize that nothing is guaranteed. I didn’t know exactly what a fulfilling full-time illustration career would look like, but I knew I would regret not trying to find out.

I was fortunate to have a strong support system and financial savings when I made my career shift, which included going back to school for an MFA at the Maryland Institute of Art. These days, my current practice involves a mix of personal and freelance illustration, overseeing creative assets for a local nonprofit, and teaching college courses. Like every creative career, mine is a constantly shifting and evolving process. It can also be a complicated one, with personal expression and professional work at times very closely intertwined. But it is very rewarding, and I feel very fortunate to be making art for a living. My younger self would be proud (and pumped!) of how far we’ve come!

Please tell us more about your art. What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way?

My work centers around observation and documentation. I love drawing people, food, and the things I encounter in the world, and I hope this comes across whether you are looking at one of my sketchbook spreads, painted vignettes, or carefully researched narratives. Much of my recent work could be categorized as visual or comics journalism, a term for nonfiction narrative work based on current issues (sometimes captured in real time). I am drawn to this approach because it feels like an act of preservation, of capturing a specific place and moment in time — and in doing so, hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of different viewpoints and circumstances. I also love connecting with and learning about other people, and visual journalism is conducive to doing that.

But I’m not just interested in nonfiction-based work. Cultural identity and humans’ impact on the planet are both meaningful topics of interest that I’ve been trying to explore using different methods and tools. I think it’s valuable to work on developing a strong, consistent voice as an illustrator; but exploration and play are equally (if not more) important.

One lesson I’ve learned, though it may sound cliché, is to let authenticity be your guide. Focus on the core of what you’re trying to communicate first, and try not to get caught up in what style, medium, trends, etc. you might use. In other words, the “how” will become more obvious if you know and mean what you are saying, and it will resonate with others. Also, there is rarely just one solution to any problem, so if you don’t end up liking what you make, use the experience as a data point and move forward. I think it can be really powerful to not only appreciate but embrace the so-called failures, detours, and experiences that have led you to the present moment, because they all matter. Be kind to yourself.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?

I am currently based in Baltimore, Maryland, colloquially known as “Charm City.” And despite the challenges the city faces, it really is a charming place. Here are some of the top things I’d want to share with a good friend visiting town:

  • The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). It’s an amazing hub for outsider art, automatons, kinetic sculptures, and more. In the spring, the AVAM holds the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which is a mindblowing blend of engineering, artistry, and athleticism. In the summer, the AVAM screens outdoor movies on nearby Federal Hill, which is also a great place to catch a sunset view of downtown and the Inner Harbor.

  • There are many lovely farmers markets and art markets to check out for fresh local produce and creative wares throughout the year, including the year-round Waverly Market.

  • In the summer and fall, I’d recommend catching an Orioles game at Camden Yards. It’s a beautiful park, almost never too crowded, and a great place to sketch, catch up, and people watch (if baseball isn’t your thing). Don’t miss the condiments race about midway through the game (go Relish!).

  • If it’s the last Friday of the month, I recommend grabbing some wheels and checking out the Baltimore Bike Party — an all-levels-friendly themed ride through the city with hundreds of fellow bikers and roller skaters, complete with a lively after party. It’s endorphins galore.

  • And last but not least, I have to give a shoutout to the city’s hardworking Trash Wheel family! Mr. Trash Wheel, Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, and Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West are four semi-autonomous trash interceptors that use solar and hydro power to pull hundreds of tons of trash out of Baltimore waters each year. They’re most impressive after a rainy day, and they “host” fun events throughout the year to promote sustainability.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are so many people I have to thank for where I am now and credit for influencing me. I owe a lot to Belgian comics artists and writers like Tome, Janry, René Goscinny, and Albert Uderzo for helping me fall in love with visual stories at a young age — and to my parents for encouraging my love of art and books, and being my biggest supporters from the start. My college painting professor, Wendy Edwards, was the first to suggest I should check out this thing called “illustration” and plant the seed of possibility in my brain. There are countless artists to whom I give thanks for inspiring me daily with their masterful storytelling and beautiful images, including (but definitely not limited to!) Eleanor Davis, Wendy MacNaughton, and Jillian Tamaki.

My peers and educators deserve a shout-out for their generous time, expertise, and inspiring creativity; as do my clients for believing in my work. And last but not least, a big warm thanks to my partner, for always cheering me on and being a level-headed, honest, and compassionate sounding board in matters big and small.

Website: www.yifanluo.com

Instagram: yifanluoart

Twitter: yifizzle

Image Credits
[first two images:] Comics snippets from stories commissioned by The Nib. [second to last image:] Editorial commission courtesy of the Baltimore Banner.

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutLA is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.