Chrissy Lau is an award-winning, British-born Chinese designer/illustrator based in Sydney, Australia. Her designs are inspired by her Chinese heritage and are instantly recognizable by her signature delicate lines and intricate patterns.
Chrissy took the time to answer Clarisse (aka CStar9)'s questions via email last summer, including sharing her unexpected journey from law school to full-time illustration, the many ways her family and culture influence her work, and why she always begins her drawings on A4 paper. Lunar New Year is just around the corner, so this seems like a nice time to publish her interview here on the blog!
- Your recognizable style carries across many different media (stamps, Royal Mint coins, sculpture, labels, murals, books). I learned from another fantastic interview that you’re a self-taught artist. Wow! What was your journey to professional art?
Ever since I can remember, I loved drawing. It had never dawned on me to pursue a creative career, it was just something I did to express myself. I was also very academic. I went to a private high school where they focus on careers such as medicine or law… which is why I graduated with a law degree.
I never became a working barrister; I knew after two weeks of law at uni that I didn’t like it. I carried it on anyway, as I thought it would be a good degree to have! A bit silly, but you feel responsible when you grow up with two parents who left school very young and worked very hard at their Chinese takeaway. They were always very supportive of any decisions I made, but I put that pressure on myself to finish my degree.
Growing up, everyone was so encouraging about my drawings and always told me how creative I was but I never considered it as a career. There was an insane amount of reading to do at uni, so I drew more and more to keep myself sane. After uni I decided to see if I could sell my drawings. I still didn’t have the courage to pursue illustration full-time, so I continued with commissions at night whilst juggling various day jobs.
- You took the plunge in 2013 to work as an illustrator full-time. What was your first postal commission?
My first postal commission was Year of the Horse 2014 for Guernsey Post (read more about that philatelic series here).
Since then, I have illustrated each animal zodiac. 2024 will be the Year of the Dragon. The final animal of the series will be the Snake, in 2025—that will be a full zodiac collection of stamps.
In 2021, Australia Post commissioned the Year of the Ox, and I’ve continued with them on an annual Zodiac series.
- In general, do you approach stamps differently than other work?
Stamps are really small, so the designs need to be eye-catching and not too detailed for technical/manufacturing reasons. The stamps I create for Guernsey Post and Australia Post are gold embossed (or foiled), so there needs to be enough breathing space between the lines as well as a minimum line weight so that they can be printed correctly.
- What’s your personal relationship to paper in general, and to postal mail specifically?
I always sketch on paper. I need something physical to hold and see in order to get started. I like plain A4 printer paper. If the paper is too nice, or if it’s in a nice notebook or sketchbook, I always fear ruining it!
I like sending cards but I’m not fussed about receiving them. My family lives in England (where I’m originally from; I now live in Sydney) so I always like to send letters, photographs, and drawings to them.
- Can you give us an example of how your East-meets-West identity manifests in your work?
I take my experience of growing up in England (1984–2007) and Australia (2007+) and mix it with my experience of being British-born Chinese. I have only lived in the Western world, so the inspiration/imagery of Chinese culture is what I’ve seen in England and Australia.
My late father was my biggest inspiration and a fountain of knowledge when it came to learning the deeper meanings and symbolisms of Chinese culture. My dad had an incredible journey climbing over the border from China to Hong Kong when he was 10, to escape poverty. He was a big believer in feng shui and also very superstitious, so we always had long chats about my designs as well as Chinese history and Chinese art. When I create Asian-influenced art, it runs quite deep with meaning and symbolism as I pay homage to my heritage and my dad’s influence, whilst also creating something mesmerising to draw in anyone of any heritage. I grew up in Northern England and pretty much experienced racism on a daily basis, so to create Asian-inspired art means I am sharing my culture/heritage to create more familiarity and less hostility.
The stamps I create are launched from the West, but they are also sold in China and other Asian countries, so before they’re approved, we seek feedback from Chinese stamp experts.
I spend lots of time researching to ensure each object in the illustration represents something meaningful in Chinese/Asian culture. It’s important for me to create beautiful art that is intriguing and enticing and can be enjoyed by the viewer in a way that invites them to find out the deeper meanings behind the art.
- The foundation of your artwork seems to be fountain pen and ink. How does that manifest in the digital age?
Before 2018, my art was very detailed and hand drawn: lots of black ink and splashes of red. I really enjoyed the style of block printing, so I liked to emulate that. I also drew a lot of hair with fine lines and lots of patterns. In order to become more commercial, I have had to evolve and inject more colour into the art whilst retaining my signature patterns.
In late 2018, I started to use an iPad to create art. I was very skeptical, but it was recommended to me by Luke Shadbolt who is a very talented photographer and husband to fashion influencer Nicole Warne. I was commissioned by them to do some illustrations for their wedding invitations, and they both said the iPad was a game changer for them. I haven’t looked back since – a small investment but one that has paid dividends.
My old process was hand-drawing sketches, scanning and emailing to the client, and once they were approved, I would outline in fountain pen and rub out the pencil marks. If I didn’t have a firm hold of the paper it would scrunch along with the eraser! I would then scan the outline and email to the client. Once it was approved, I would colour digitally in Photoshop on my laptop (I taught myself how to use Photoshop when I was 12, so years later it came in handy!).
My new digital process cuts out scanning/erasing, which speeds things up a lot. The iPad also allows me to create artwork in vectors (vectors don’t diminish in quality no matter how much you zoom in, as opposed to raster – when you zoom in it gets blurry) on the Adobe Illustrator app. It’s like drawing with a pen and paper, and it cuts out the need to learn Adobe Illustrator’s desktop version with a mouse, which is much trickier.
- What element of your job as an artist do you like the most, and why?
I enjoy the challenge of turning a brief of words into visuals. I really enjoy creating art that’s inspired by my Chinese heritage because I can share the art with my children and teach them about their culture.
- What do you like least about your work as an artist?
I’m not keen when clients change the brief halfway through as I’ve already completed a lot of research and brainstorming, or they tell you it’s a rush job and then take ages to give their feedback. It’s not that bad really, though as it doesn’t happen that often.
- What is something are you proud of, outside of your artwork?
I’m proud that I am a good problem solver. I’m good at teaching myself how to do anything I put my mind to.
In 2010, I was asked by a recruiter if I knew what search engine marketing was and if I’d be interested in a job. I didn’t know what it was, but I learned to analyse data with various formulas and turn it into a report presentation… so I got the job! I did it for three years and I didn’t actually enjoy it, but I’m quite proud that I figured it out.
I am proud of my two sons – and of the fact they can grow up worry-free. I grew up as a translator for my parents (English was their second language), so a lot of responsibility fell on me. I also worked in their Chinese takeaway from a young age; it was just what had to be done. But I am grateful that I learnt lots of skills (using a wok, counting money, preparing food).
To learn more about her Chrissy, check out her website and portfolio. Over the years, she has given several interviews — for instance, about her work for the Sydney Lunar Festival, Guernsey Post, IllustrationX or Collective magazine.
Good news, everyone! Clarisse has a few sets of postmarked FDCs featuring Chrissy’s Lunar New Year stamps to send out to some randomly picked postcrossers! 🎉 To participate, leave a comment below sharing your Chinese zodiac sign or what your plans are for Lunar New Year celebrations (if any)! Come back this time next week to check out the winners, which will be selected randomly.