Based in Brooklyn, Grace Kao is a Chinese-American illustrator and designer working primarily in digital and pen/ink media. One of our 2022 Artists to Watch, Grace’s tees – Tiger Style, Melt, Swans and Cloud Tree – were some of our most popular designs. Drawing inspiration from a blend of Asian brush painting, ‘90s cartoon television, and Surrealism, Grace’s visual style is evocative, escapist, and most importantly, very much her own. We asked her for her tips on finding your own style and how making tees helped her get there.
THINK OF DESIGN IN 3D
“I’ve learned a lot about adapting artwork for apparel. When working on a garment, it’s a different substrate from what I’m used to – it lives on a body and has movement. You’re not staring at artwork as pixels on a screen; it doesn’t have to be a rectangle. In this regard, I think it’s made my style more spontaneous and allowed me to be more flexible.”
MAKE CONFIDENT CHOICES
“Style and visual aesthetics are all about choices. I try to make confident choices based on my instincts and put my trust in the working process. There are color, line, and blocking/framing choices I go back to simply because I like them and I’m trying to evoke a certain mood. For instance, I gravitate towards swirly movements and intense colours mixed with black to give off a dreamy, mysterious vibe. I sketch many thumbnails so I don’t get too attached to an idea. Then, I pick the strongest ones to develop further and assess as I go. If something isn’t working, even if I can’t articulate why, I’ll scrap it and start again. Trust your instincts!
AVOID IMAGE FATIGUE
“Be true to yourself, as cliché as it sounds. Everyone has something to say. Be succinct, be sincere, and be passionate. Don’t try to be trendy. You’re trying to speak to the right people, not the most people.”
IT’S OKAY TO COPY (AT FIRST)
“First, copy as practice. I think it’s okay to be inspired and emulate a work as practice. I like this quote from Yohji Yamamoto: ‘Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself.’ To add to this, not knowing how the thing that inspired you is made, plus all the things you can’t do suddenly becomes your secret weapon. What you set out to emulate probably won’t look quite the same because you haven’t got the same tools or know-how. What happens is that you end up using your ingenuity to recreate that thing. You start to develop your way of doing things, and because it ultimately comes from your hand, that thing starts to take on different qualities unique to you.
Second, be a mad scientist. Gather inspiration from many sources and combine them, make hybrids, ‘Frankenstein’ it, iterate, and variate. Use your ingenuity and newfound process, and keep testing, experimenting, and building a body of research. Take note of what works, what doesn’t, what you like, etc., and keep going.”
GET A HOBBY
“Inspiration is everywhere and usually comes when I’m not actively seeking it. Being curious and having hobbies help. I love going to art exhibits, watching music videos, flipping through books, and taking classes. I like to think that I’m making my mental library/diary of things I find cool, which I can draw on later when working on a particular project.
[To] overcome creative block, it’s important to put the work in and keep showing up. I’ve also learned not to have set expectations because productivity looks different every day. If I’m mentally spent, I shift my energy towards something that requires fewer brain cells and is more fun.”