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Grace Lee

Studio Visit

16th May, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 16th May 2014

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Australian illustrator Grace Lee, in her Tokyo studio. Photography - Ben Clement.

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Illustrations inspired by Tokyo, by Grace Lee. Photography - Ben Clement.

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Cover illustration by Grace Lee for 25ansウェディング 

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Campaign imagery using illustrations by Grace Lee for Witchery Kids, Summer 2013.

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Grace's illustration for Japanese publication Saeko Snap! Photography - Ben Clement.

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Grace Lee in a 100 yen store!  Photography - Ben Clement.

I've decided I'm going to make a concerted effort to find and feature more talented Australian expats living abroad.  Of course you all know our passion for uncovering local creative talent, but so many talented Australians seem to have a habit of disappearing on us!  I know, I know... it can be hard to resist the lure of amazing cities like London, New York, and, as we're seeing today, TOKYO!  But I must ensure they don't drop of the TDF radar...! Luckily for us, Melbourne photographer Ben Clement happened to be on holiday in Tokyo recently, so we were able to commission a shoot with amazing Australian illustrator Grace Lee, who has been living in Tokyo for the past five years. Perfect!

Grace Lee grew up in Sydney, where she originally studied Visual Communications at UTS. Following a stint designing t-shirt prints for a teen fashion company, and an unlikely diversion temping at a bus depot (!), Grace ended up working at News Magazines, where she landed her first design role as junior designer in the Creative Services department, later moving on to Inside Out magazine.  Here, Grace she worked as an editorial designer for almost two years before moving to Japan in 2009 (all on her own!).  She didn't initially expect Tokyo would become her home for over five years, but Grace is still very content in her adoptive city, which she says is a constant inspiration for her work.

Grace is incredibly modest about her talent and her career achievements.  In fact, her drive and determination have been paramount to her success since making the big move to Japan.  It can be notoriously difficult for foreigners to build a career in Japan, especially in a competitive creative field such as design and illustration, but Grace has slowly and surely built an impressive portfolio of clients and editorial commissions both within Japan and internationally.  These have included ISETAN, BEAMS, ELLE JAPON, FIGARO Japon, Donna Hay (Aus), Witchery (Aus), 3petitspoints (France), Lost in London (UK), Virgin Inflight magazine (AUS), Anthology Magazine (US) and many more. In her wildest dreams, her favourite imaginary client would be Kate Spade! (Only a matter of time, Grace!).

One of the most memorable projects for Grace in recent times was working with Australian writer Eliza Sarlos on a brilliant illustrated book for children and adults called 'Amazing Babes' about legendary women in history and culture.  The book introduces inspiring women such as Gloria Steinem, pioneer of the American women’s movement; Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader; Malala Yousafzai, advocate of worldwide access to education, and Tavi Gevinson, US based wunderkind writer / blogger / editor of Rookie Mag, amongst many others!  Though originally conceived by Eliza as a personal project, Amazing Babes gathered momentum when Eliza started a Pozible campaign to self publish a short run... and inevitably it was then scooped up by a publisher, and published in Australia in November last year, followed by a UK release earlier this year! AMAZING work, and a brilliant example of what can happen when two clever ladies just get together and make creative magic happen!

Grace's blog is just BEAUTIFUL and documents many of her amazing illustrations and personal work, do check it out.  Grace is represented in Australia by The Jacky Winter Group and in Japan by BUILDING agency.

Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a an illustrator, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?

I graduated from UTS in Sydney with a degree in Visual Communications in 2004. I studied illustration for one semester under the guidance of a very encouraging tutor, but never considered illustration as a career. I knew I wanted to work in design, but wasn't exactly sure which area.

I got my first design job designing t-shirt prints for a teen fashion company in 2005. The highlight of that job was seeing one of my t-shirt designs being worn by a contestant on Australian Idol! A bit cringe-y to admit now, yes, but that show was huge at the time so I naively thought, I'd 'made it'. The lowlight was being made redundant the year after. I got through several months of unemployment by teaching myself InDesign. I then regained some job confidence by temping at a bus depot. My supervisor at the time used to call me a little 'bottler' (apparently that means my blood's worth bottling?) because I was very good at filing and didn't stop for tea and biscuit breaks every hour – unlike now...!

Later that year, I got my first job in the finance department of News Magazines (then known as The Federal Publishing Company) and a year later, I landed my first design role as junior designer in the Creative Services department. In early 2008, I moved to Inside Out magazine where I worked as an editorial designer for almost two years before moving to Japan. I consider myself lucky that at both Creative Services and Inside Out, my art directors all encouraged me to use my handwritten type and line drawings in the magazine and for client pitches.

I originally started off with line illustrations, but after moving to Japan I started incorporating colour and experimenting with Copic markers and Posca pens. I had previously always shied away from colour because my style is quite flat and simplistic. But I kept at it, and now the bulk of my work is Copic marker based. Most of my commercial work is of inanimate objects, but more recently I've started to draw people for my personal work. This is something I enjoy doing, as it's mainly people I observe in everyday life.

In 2009 you relocated from Sydney to Tokyo where you have been working as a freelance illustrator since 2012. What prompted you to make this move and what’s life like in Tokyo?

The truth is, my age prompted the move. I was 29, and thought (at the time) that I needed to be under 30 in order to get a Japanese working holiday visa. Clearly, my lack of attention to detail led to me being here now! Japan has always been a place I wanted to go to. When I was younger, my older sister hosted a Japanese exchange student who was about the same age as me. We became sort of pen pals and kept in touch over the years. I visited Japan for two weeks in 2007 and it was after that trip that I decided that I'd aim to make the move before I was thirty.

Life in Tokyo as a foreigner is a blessing, that sounds corny, but it really is. Sometimes I feel like I'm still on holidays – as in, not in the 'real world' because my home is in Australia. Even though I pay taxes and insurance here, I still have the sense that it's temporary.

What influences your work at the moment?

Everything about Japan.  Its people, culture and way of life has had an immense impact on how my work has developed over the years, through the way in which I use colour and the types of things I draw.

This December, I'll have been in Tokyo for five years, something I never intended to do. I really love living in this country. Everyday I see something that I want to draw – people, signage, packaging. It's inspiring. Perhaps that wonder also comes from not being able to read labels very well! Words still look like pictures sometimes.

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Illustration by Grace Lee. Photography - Ben Clement.
Last year you illustrated Eliza Sarlos’ book for children and adults 'Amazing Babes', an inspiring project about legendary women in history and culture! Can you tell us how this collaboration came about?

Eliza and I are long time friends from university. We have a mutual friend who was my flatmate at the time. I can't say enough about how inspiring and awesome Eliza is. She really is!

Eliza came to visit a few years ago, she's lots of fun to be around. Early last year, Eliza approached me to do the illustrations for a book she wanted to write for her son, Arthur. This book was the start of Amazing Babes, but neither of us planned to actually publish it. It took a tonne of effort on her part to get me to do the book. Not because of the idea – that was brilliant – it was mainly because I hadn't drawn people before. I was also apprehensive because I didn't know of a lot of the women in the book. She convinced me to try because she believed I could do it but also because it was an opportunity for us to work together.

We started off with a blurb book, but then decided to try to get the book crowd-funded through Pozible. This was all the work of Eliza, she was amazing with the campaign and basically worked out all the reward packages, the printing of postcards, website and campaign set up.

Miriam Rosenbloom from Scribe found the campaign through a Facebook post and that was the start of Amazing Babes being published.

I'm incredibly grateful that we did the book together. It was challenging but fun and a real learning experience for me. Not only for my work, but in giving something a shot for the first time and also discovering women who have had such a huge impact on the world. I sometimes forget how privileged I am to be living in this time and to have been born in Australia.

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'Amazing Babes' illustrated by Grace Lee. Photography - Ben Clement.

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Some of Grace's illustrations for 'Amazing Babes'. Photography - Ben Clement.
Can you give us a little insight into your process? What materials do you use? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively? Do you work on multiple illustrations / projects at one time?

I use Copic markers (not watercolour as people often think, but the effect looks similar) and felt tip pens. I draw by hand, then scan the work and play around with the colours and contrast in Photoshop. I usually start with a super light pencil outline and then go in with colour. I have to lighten tones in Photoshop because the lighter markers are hard to pick up in the scans and really difficult to change.

If you see my original Amazing Babes work, a lot of the skin tones especially, are quite dark. As I've gotten better with drawing, I'm learning how to do drawings in one go. I used to draw things in layers, for example a shop front would be drawn in parts – the walls, the signage, the plants, the windows...then I'd cut them all out in Photoshop and layer them up. I still use this process for commercial work when a lot of detail is needed, but for my own personal work, I've started to really enjoy doing the drawings with as few touch-ups as possible.

If there are several deadlines on at the same time, I do work on multiple jobs simultaneously. I'm trying these days to be more organised and have gone back to organising jobs into job bags/folders, just like back in my publishing days.

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Grace at work. Photography - Ben Clement.
What does a typical day at work involve for you in Tokyo?

This is the kind of question I dread because I have to admit that I haven't been the most disciplined person with getting up early.

Last year, the bulk of my work was from Japan or occasionally the UK, so I worked a lot of nights, which was perfect for the time zones, and also my inability to get up before 8am. As it's taken a couple of years for the work to build up, I base my schedule around my work load.If I have a lot on, I'm super good at getting a lot done, but if the work load is light, I mainly try to catch up on admin type work and my own drawings.

This year my schedule has had to change a little. I try to be up by 10 and earlier if I have a bigger work load. I go running either before I start work or sometimes at around 10pm during the summer months. Tokyo is super safe for being out at night (well, definitely in my area, I've seen people out running at midnight!).I always have coffee and multiple cups of jasmine tea during the day. I have at least two cups on the go at any one time and, as those who know me know, two tea bags in each mug!

I've started having Japanese radio on to help with the listening skills, but sometimes I also put TV shows on in the background just to hear voices. I'm onto Puberty Blues now. It's nice to hear Australian accents.

I work on the weekends at an English conversation school and freelance from home during the week, so I usually have my 'weekend' during the week. So I try to see Tokyo, try new places to eat or see exhibitions if something is on. Last week I went to see the Curtain Wall house (by Shigeru Ban). We found it, but unfortunately, the curtain was gone. Sometimes I'll meet up with my drawing group (when there's no deadlines), just hang out in Shimokitazawa or go cycling when the weather's good.

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Beautiful illustrations by Grace Lee. Photography - Ben Clement.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

In no particular order:

1. Cosmos. I haven't seen the original, but I've recently gotten into the remake. I love this show because I'm terrible with understanding science and large numbers. It's an excellent example of how to teach complex concepts visually and through story telling. Plus, I'm a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson because he's so funny and charismatic.

2. Instagram. I'm new to Instagram and now off Facebook, so it's been really fun finding work across the globe and all types of inspiration from the people I follow.

3. Radiolab. I've been on and off this podcast, but I still love it. It's just interesting to hear stories to help with the imagination.

4. Book By Its Cover. I love this site so much. So many books and magazines, plus sketchbooks.. a good way to find new work or books to buy for resources or presents.

5. Japanese magazines. My favourites are Popeye, Figaro and & premium – I can't read them, but I love these mags because they use a lot of illustration and I always feel inspired by that.

Which other Australian artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?

Allison Colpoys. I really like her book designs and illustrations, especially for the Australian Children's Classic series.

Adrian Hogan. A fellow Tokyo-based illustrator, originally from Melbourne. I'm always inspired by the way he incorporates drawing into every part of his life. He's never without a sketchbook, and even draws while walking.

Luci Everett. I love the energy and colour in her collage and illustration work. Really beautiful!

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

There have been lots along the way, working freelance, particularly in Japan has been huge, but also just having the persistence to keep trying, especially since it's taken such a long time to get to where I am.

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Amazingly decorated studio walls. Photography - Ben Clement.
What would be your dream project?

I've only recently started drawing people in Japan. I'd love to be paid to travel the world and draw people from different countries.

What are you looking forward to?

Getting to New York, one day. Having a studio with big windows and lots of light. Eating pavlova again!

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Grace's illustrations. Photography - Ben Clement.

TOKYO QUESTIONS

Your favourite Tokyo neighbourhood and why?

Shimokitazawa, just because. Nakameguro for the walks and greenery. I also love Koenji, lots of second-hand clothes shopping!

Where do you shop in Tokyo for the tools of your trade?

I'm a little lazy when it comes to making special trips to get Copic markers so I mainly shop at a local stationery store near my weekend job. It has a huge collection of markers and the paper I use for drawing.If I'm in Shibuya, places like Loft and Tokyu Hands stock them too, but there it's very easy to get distracted by all the other amazing pens and stationery, so I stick to my local. I also use the 100yen shops for basics like printing paper and coloured collage paper.

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Sydney expat Grace Lee, now based in Tokyo, in the 100 yen store. Photography - Ben Clement.
Where and what was the last great meal you ate in Tokyo?

Akomeya in Ginza. I actually found this place on Lee Tran Lam's website, The Unbearable Lightness of being Hungry. We had a great Japanese lunch set, delicious.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Running to the station to get to work. I'm usually cutting it fine with leaving on time! Not exciting, but true.

Tokyo’s best kept secret?

Kiriy's Fresh in Seijo. A bakery downstairs, but upstairs they serve the best burgers. Try the Gorgonzola one.

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