I was first drawn to Xuan Loc Xuan’s mesmerizing illustrations on the cover of a book of poetry, E.J. Koh’s A Lesser Love. On this cover, a girl in a green dress takes measured steps across what seems to be an endless sea of lily pads. Since then, I have come to learn that this kind of scene is very typical of her work: solitary women navigating a vast, lush landscape, the peacefulness of the idyllic setting tinged with a sense of loneliness, maybe yearning. The protagonist is always on a journey—be it across a field brimming with foliage or one of the inner mind.
Xuan Loc Xuan is an illustrator based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Her quiet yet striking illustrations have made her a popular freelance artist, whose impressive client list includes Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Laurence King UK. In this interview, she shares her path to becoming an artist, her influences, her life philosophy, and more.
Aya Kusch: How did you first become interested in making art? Did you grow up in a creative household, or was there something else that led you to art-making?
Xuan Loc Xuan: Since my childhood, drawing has always been a great passion of mine. So I decided to take design courses when I went to college to practice my art skills and improve my competence.
AK: How do you collect inspiration?
XLX: The familiar image as – vast green rice fields, immense blue sky with small white clouds, beautiful wild beaches, erratic weather in Saigon – inspired me and my work.
AK: Do you need to be in a certain mindset to create? What is your ideal environment for making art?
XLX: My life philosophy is: “Just freedom, everything will come naturally to you.” I have a dream to become an illustrator. I just had to draw, draw and draw. I have been trying every day. About my art style, one’s personal art style should come from deep within. To me, doing everything with passion and give it everything you have is the key to success.
AK: How would you describe your creative process, from the idea to the completed piece?
XLX: I tend to minimalist design. I use color as a main factor in my works. For me, colors determine the strength of a picture. About technical portraiture, I don’t draw surroundings or use background color, but I describe the main focus portrait. I carefully describe from the eyes, to the rosy cheeks, or corner of the mouth. Sometimes the smallest elements become the attractions of a portrait.
AK: How has your art evolved over time? What are some themes or images that you keep coming back to?
XLX: I will set up a specific plan, divide it into reasonable time frames. I will take personal works reasonably, so as to affect the commissioned work. Thus I will not create too much pressure for myself.
AK: The scenery in your illustrations is so rich and vivid. Are these inspired by actual places, or are they imagined?
XLX: Almost all the things in my work are from my imagination. It is hard to illustrate things that are familiar or accustomed to yourself. I am more interested in strangers and unfamiliar things.
AK: A lot of your work speaks to a feeling of solitude, as it often features a single person. Would you consider solitude a theme in your work?
XLX: I think the sadness of childhood is the most influential factor. I live pretty introverted and often feel sad. So my paintings also have that colors: cold, sad, and dark. Although my present life was happier before, but the sadness is always there. I think I’ve learned how to accompany it.
AK: Are there any particular challenges that you face when making art? If so, how do you overcome them?
XLX: I think people may not know that I am the type of person who easily loses interest in something and gives up. I am always in a state of fatigue, down in spirit. Sometimes I even consider drawing as a burden. But no matter what, I have to fight with myself, let my passion and love of art help me overcome difficulties.
AK: The first time I saw your art was on the cover of EJ Koh’s poetry collection A Lesser Love, and I see that you’ve done illustrations for other books as well. How do you approach creating these illustrations, as opposed to your own work? Do you have any favorite projects you’ve done?
XLX: For me start working with your passion. Everything will come naturally. My favorite projects are Flow magazine and doing illustrations for the Intermono speakers.
AK: You have quite an impressive social media following. What is your relationship with social media like?
XLX: I often post my artworks on social networking sites so that people can easily recognize me and my art style. Occasionally there are some commendations that make me feel very emotional. People loving my works have created a great motivation for me. It makes me constantly trying my best every day.
AK: What is the last artwork (or artist) you saw that moved you?
XLX: All works by artist Ryo Takemasa.
AK: What do you do when you’re not making art?
XLX: Everything in my life is very simple, even my personality, too. Besides drawing, I also like reading comics and novels, they help me relax a lot after I have been hard working.
AYA KUSCH is an editor, artist, and freelancer based in San Francisco. She grew up playing with mud, which eventually led to a love of clay and a subsequent BFA in sculpture. She is fourth-generation Japanese and a third-generation potter, a Bay Area native, and a former bookseller who still obsesses over the best way to organize a bookshelf. She loves good design, contemporary art that will worry your mom and confuse your dad, and sculptures that make you look up. She is currently working on a book about art from Edo, Japan.