The Making of 'Longevity'

Mee sua is also known as longevity noodles, symbolising long life. While it's commonly eaten on birthdays and during celebrations, there's no rule against having it on regular days when you want a hearty bowl of comfort and love. My mother has been making Foochow red wine mee sua for me ever since I was in her womb - safe to say that this dish is one of my favourites, and that nobody cooks it better than her.

When Light Grey Art Lab put out a call for artists to make pieces about the dishes they love, for the FOODIES exhibition, I knew right away what I would draw.

I begin by sketching out thumbnails for different ideas. This part of the process involves a lot of "what if"s. What if I change the camera angle? What if I show a close up of the mee? What if I incorporate symbols into the illustration?

Circles have come to symbolise many things in various cultures: protection, heaven, eternity, balance. The yin and yang, two opposing forces in nature that stand for dark and light, negative and positive, feminine and masculine, are encompassed within a circle. There are circular versions of the Chinese symbols for longevity, 壽 or 'shòu', which I wanted to incorporate into the outer part of the illustration. I remember concentric circular patterns on 18th century bronze rain drums I saw in the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang, Laos, which inspire me to try a similar layout here. And the DNA strands are a reference to my background in science, as well as how deeply this dish has been ingrained in me since childhood.

This initial step of exploring, developing, and researching ideas is the most crucial part of the process. One of my teachers once said, "You can't polish a turd", which is true - the flashiest rendering and effects can't save a boring or shallow concept, or something with a fundamentally wonky drawing.

Next, I head to the computer and print off a simple template that's made up of a frame in the correct dimensions, plus outlines of circles - faster than drawing them by hand. I then sketch the placement of the noodles, chicken, and other ingredients on this template. Using a lightpad, I can ink on watercolour paper over the guide, removing the need to draw and then erase pencil lines on the thicker paper itself.

All of the above - thumbnails, research, rough drawing, inking - constitutes around five to six hours of work.

The ink lines are scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop. I throw in a texture before I begin colouring, just so I don't have to look at the harsh white of the screen while working.

The first tedious step involves using the Lasso tool to mark out flat areas of colour for different elements on separate layers. Having them on separate layers is key because I can easily change the colour of, say, the soup without affecting the ginger pieces or noodles - and I can also turn the layer contents into masks. This flexibility is why I prefer to work digitally when it comes to colouring.

I then go in with a brush to add lines, marks, and texture. In fact, for this piece, there are only three brushes I use - one from Kyle Webster's watercolour pack, another for the rough texture, and the basic round brush for blocking in colours. You don't need many fancy brushes once you find a core set that you're comfortable using. Plus, the gradient tool set to low opacity is a great way to add subtle changes in hue or value quickly.

After that, I make decisions as to what colours I want the lines to be, keeping in mind that the central circle is the focus of the piece and that the DNA strands or ingredients on the periphery shouldn't stand out too much at first. In this close-up you can see that the lines for the ingredients have been given a china blue overlay, while the ones on the noodles are a darker maroon.

A few more adjustments here and there with Levels layers, and we're done! Time to resize it for print and send the files off. The digital part of the process took around eight hours. All in all, that's about fourteen hours clocked on this piece, not including placing the order with the printing company, composing a blurb to go in the exhibition, exporting files for the web, and writing this post.

Have you ever eaten red wine mee sua? Is there a particular dish which holds meaning and memory for you? Leave a comment and let's celebrate the food in our lives!


Love this piece?

6x4" postcards (with recipe!) and 9x6" archival prints are available at the Light Grey Art Lab shop.

Finance & Illustration: My First Year of Freelancing

Finance & Illustration: My First Year of Freelancing

In this post: a summary of my finances as a first year full-time freelancer, sample expenses, resources, and thoughts on money.


My goals for freelancing as an artist are to support myself, invest in education, and support others working in important fields or causes. To get there, it's crucial that I have a good grasp of my finances. When I started illustrating full-time in the beginning of 2017, I promised myself that I would keep good records of my finances, so that I'd be able to look back at the year and assess how it went.

This post is a reflection on my experience, and I hope it will be insightful to anyone looking to understand the business side of freelancing as an illustrator and creative worker. I owe my thanks to all the illustrators who blogged or created resources on being a freelancer, and to those who gave feedback on this post (thanks Winnie and Allie!).

The content caters to both an international and a Malaysian audience. Prices are given in their original amounts, with accompanying conversions.

Context and caveats: I illustrated part-time for a few years while I held a full-time job, resulting in my being able to build up a decent buffer of savings. This allowed me to make certain purchases that I wouldn't consider were I fresh out of school or in dire financial need. It also bears mentioning that I do not have dependents to support, so I am in a very different situation compared to a parent or a caretaker. I live somewhere with a mid-range cost of living: not a big city, but not a rural town either.

Akan datang: rumusan dalam Bahasa Malaysia untuk setiap diagram dan bahagian.

FAQs on illustration / Soal jawab tentang ilustrasi

FAQs on illustration / Soal jawab tentang ilustrasi

I've answered the following questions in a general sense, but also tried to cater some of the responses specifically towards the Malaysian scene, since there are plenty of illustrator FAQs written from an American/UK perspective already.  Thanks to Mursyiddah Johari for sending me the questions, and helping to write the Malay translation!

Jawapan ringkas dalam Bahasa Malaysia dipaparkan dalam font italic di bawah. Saya telah cuba menjawab dari segi ilustrasi secara am, serta kondisi spesifik industri kreatif di Malaysia yang masih muda lagi. Terima kasih kepada Mursyiddah Johari kerana menghantar saya soalan-soalan berikut, dan membantu menterjemahkan teks ke dalam Bahasa Malaysia.


1. Any good advice for young illustrators? / Nasihat untuk ilustrator muda?