Illustrator and animator Yukai Du on moving to London, and finding her style
When looking through Yukai Du’s portfolio, one thing is clear: her style is the first thing that shines through. And a glance at her client list tells you that the likes of Adobe, The Guardian and Facebook seem to agree. Dynamic, lightly flecked and full of colour, it’s an aesthetic the animator and illustrator attributes to her moving to London from China six years ago. “My mum sent me to learn drawing and Chinese painting when I was four years old, so I started really, really early” she tells us. While her early classes influenced her understanding of tone and composition, in China, Yukai opted to study animation in order to acquire a skillset she felt would make her more employable. But keen to discover new inspirations, she enrolled on an MA at Central Saint Martins shortly after graduating. She reflects on her path, the importance of self-promotion and her experience of living and working in London.
Illustrator and Animator
MA Animation, Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects (2012–2014)
BA Animation, Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (2008–2012)
How would you describe what you do?
I am an illustrator and animator as well. I often work with editorial illustration and video for clients like The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, brands like Facebook, Lush, Apple, Ted Talks.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I stick to quite regular hours, like 10 to 8. And I’ll start with a coffee in the morning in my studio in Dalston. I’ll turn on my computer, and my tablet and check my emails. Because I usually have more than one project, I do communicate with a few different contacts. I might send an email to my agent, or my client. And then I just start to work. I really like to start my day in the morning, and focus on one project, and then focus on something else in the afternoon. Sometimes I like to go to events, and get inspired.
How collaborative is your role?
It is quite collaborative. I’ll talk to clients and quite often work with larger companies, who will organise schedules, and sometimes I need help from others and we will work together.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable is the beginning of the project. I really like sketching out ideas, and getting excited about a new project. I start thinking about colours, timelines, the timing, frames, and the characters. My least enjoyable part is the middle of the project because it's easy to lose that excitement, and have to motivate yourself to get to the finish, even if you’re halfway through. That's the hard part, but if you can persist, it’ll be really satisfying.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The animation I did for MTV. They assigned different artists to animate emotions. They gave me ‘anxious’, which was quite interesting. So I had 15 seconds to visualise anxiousness, which I found quite challenging at the time, but it turned out to be something I'm really happy with it.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Drawing, animation and communication skills. Plus, a good sense of timing and use of colour.
What do you like about working in London?
There are so many different people. I’m actually sharing my studio with three other people and we are all doing different things, but we can still understand each other. One is a paper artist, another is a photographer, and another is a fashion designer, but we all share ideas. We all come from different cultural backgrounds which is what I really like about London – there’s so much to get from it.
“I appreciate what I learned in China but I wouldn’t have my style if I didn’t move to London.”
What tools do you use most for your work?
My main tool is a graphics tablet, and Photoshop to animate. I’m using a Wacom Cintiq. I just got it this year, and it's really been a life changer. I used to use another kind of tablet, that meant my hands were on my tablet, and my eyes had to focus on a separate screen. I had been using this kind of tablet for over ten years – since I was in high school.
Now, this gives me more freedom with my hands, and the the lines are more accurate when I draw straight onto the tablet. It feels just like when I was a kid, starting to learn how to draw on paper. It just feels so much easier. I also use sketchbooks, but mostly during the idea stages to create rough sketches, like if I’m on the bus and suddenly think of something.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up? Did you upbringing influence your choice of career?
A designer – since I was nine years old! My mum sent me to learn drawing and Chinese painting when I was four years old, so I started really, really early. I studied Chinese painting for six, seven years. I spent so much time just drawing, but even at that time, I realised I don't want to be a fine artist, because I didn't really enjoy Chinese painting, I found it really boring.
In Chinese painting, you use thin paper and ink, and you’re taught to use different tones of grey by mixing them with water. I’m trying to bring a sense of this back in my current personal project. There’s also a lot of landscape in Chinese painting, which I think changed my view in terms of the composition of my own work.
How useful have your studies been in your career?
When I decided to go to university, I wanted to learn more skills – I needed to know more before I could think about finding jobs. I earned my first animation degree in China. My high school was an art school, so I spent a lot of time learning the basics. Animation was quite a popular choice, but the style was very mainstream – we’re talking Pixar, or Dreamworks. And I was never good at that.
I tried 3D animation and designing some cartoon characters, but at some point I really didn't feel it. I started to struggle, compared to other classmates. So I started doing a secondary course in illustration and illustration books. I’ve been doing drawing most of my life, so that always feel more comfortable to me. After that, I started to bring my illustration style into my animation.
“I tried 3D animation and designing some cartoon characters, but at some point I really didn’t feel it.”
I appreciate what I learned in China, but I grew up there, and I wanted to go somewhere new and experience something different. I wouldn’t have my style if I didn’t move to London. At St. Martins, I learned to use colours and found the characters I liked. I learned how to animate different elements in my illustration style. For me, that was really the beginning of my career. Now I feel like I have all the skills that I need as an animator and illustrator, and I can see real improvement in how I’ve been able to bring them together.
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I started an internship in a motion graphics studio in Clerkenwell. I didn’t have any pressure to look for jobs, so I kind of just focused on my work. My first job was actually for Abode; I was kind of lucky, because I put most of my work on Behance, and they just saw me there. If your work is good and you put it out there, people will find you eventually, that's what I believe.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Being different, but also not straying too far from my style. Because of social media you see so many other styles and amazing illustrators out there. So I think it's actually easier to develop your style now, because when I think back 10 years ago when I was in high school, I didn’t know any of these things. I was just drawing by myself, I didn’t have the access to learn from other people. But you can’t just replicate which style is popular. There are of course competitions, and people who have similar styles. It’s good to observe others, but also still be yourself.
What would you like to do next?
My style has developed since uni, and I’m at a different stage in my life I think it's really a good time to make another short film. I just need time to do it.
Could you do this job forever?
I don't think so. When I think about whether I could do this when I am 40 years old, I'm not sure. But if you asked me what I would do instead, I don't know either. That's the only skill I have! Also, it's such a fast changing industry; every day you see new talent, new styles.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Do personal projects, they help get you noticed. Be confident and post your projects online, put yourself out there. I know that young students can feel shy doing that, or think that it’s not good enough or not complete. But it doesn't matter – what matters is that people see your growth.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Yukai Du