Daring to Daydream - Illustrator Mimi Chao
Peruse Mimi Chao's illustrations and you will be struck with a longing for youth. The freelance illustrator's work invokes memories of childhood adventures, playful curiosity, and pure marvel. Whether it's wanderlust or wonderment, Mimi's illustrations pull at your heart strings. She's working hard on individual commissions, personal projects, storybook illustrations, and more. Although not formally trained in art, Mimi pursued her talents and encourages others to follow their dreams.
By George Ko and Natalie Mark
Photos by George Ko
GR: When did you start making art?
Mimi Chao: Growing up, I really liked drawing but I never took it seriously. I’m a typical child of Asian immigrants. They said, "Oh that's nice that you like drawing, but don't take it too seriously." I went to UCSD for college and I wanted to do art but I kind of bought into the whole, “I don't want to be a starving artist.” I didn't know anybody who was in the creative field. I thought I should do something more practical. I also saw all the amazing artists out there and I thought, “I'm not at that level so why should I try going for it?” I took a course in law and liked it, so I went straight from college to law school to working at a big law firm. In a sense, it was a success story: the American Dream. I grew up in a single parent household and we were relatively poor. When I got a job I thought, “You’ve made it.” I felt conflicted because on the outside I made it but on the inside I was miserable. I started to draw again. I hadn't drawn in college or law school. It was more of an outlet to get back in touch with the creative side. At the same time, I met friends in college who were pursuing their own creative pursuits in L.A. Just seeing an example of a peer or someone who looks like you makes such a huge difference. I thought, “Oh maybe it is possible.” I definitely didn't think of drawing right away. But within law, I started to think of ways to get closer to what really excites me and what I want to do realistically. I have two sides. I'm super risk averse and yet I can't stand feeling unfulfilled and not feeling driven by what I’m doing. Those two things are always at odds. I would say I’m a person who takes a leap but with a lot of calculated risk.
GR: How did you start illustrating professionally?
MC: I actually found digital design first. I went into the world of graphic design on the strategy and business side because I saw my corporate law experience as business strategy and project management. I did that for a year and I thought I was going to be happy because I was straddling the two sides. But I wanted to be so much closer to what designers were doing rather than the trajectory I was heading down, which was “How can we maximize numbers and maximize viewers?” and things like that. Throughout that time people unexpectedly asked me to draw things for them. I'm sure people who haven't gone through art school and who have a more untraditional path like me will experience the same thing. It surprises you. I was working at a graphic design agency, which is long hours, then going home and drawing at night. I was just kind of burning the candle from both ends. Finally I felt I needed to really focus on one thing. There was no way I was going to get really good at either one if I did both at the same time. I freelanced full-time, but it was that half risk again where I only gave myself six months.
I had savings from when I was working at the firm. I distinctly remember always thinking, “Oh this is my rainy day savings.” I was talking to a friend of mine who's a singer. She's super sweet and I've always really admired her. She said, “Well, maybe this is your rainy day.” I never thought of it that way. I took that chance and six months went by and I thought I could do this for a year. That was how I was able to digest the process. Now it's been two years. I was never really ready to say, “This is it. I'm done, I've made it.” But now this is possible and I've somehow found my way. I’m back to my childhood dream without intentionally doing it. Eventually it came together. I'm doing what I've always wanted to do and now I illustrate full-time. When I started, it was a lot more client work. But right now, I'm trying to focus more on personal projects. It's a good mix of things I want to do and individual commissions. I've been very grateful that has happened. But it's also been a very long and twisting road.
GR: What inspired you to start drawing as a kid?
MC: When you're a kid you just do what comes naturally to you, what feels right. I was really into anime and my brother played a lot of video games. He played Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, and Mario. I watched a lot of Miyazaki and Disney movies. I think those are the main things that drive you to draw as a child. In retrospect, as a kid, I was good at drawing expressions. My parents are divorced so I would see my dad on the weekends. We’d get lunch and he’d say, “Draw this expression,” or “Draw that expression.” I don't really like to do decorative drawing. I just like to draw something that expresses a story or an emotion I'm feeling or what someone else is feeling. When I read Pixar's storytelling ideas and see Miyazaki's documentary on why he does what he does, those resonate with me the most. I recently had to go back home because my mom was cleaning out the house, and she wanted me to throw stuff away. Looking through my old stuff, I saw that my drawings were trying to express something. It's interesting that you can look back on what you were doing as a kid and see how it ties into what you're doing now.
GR: What's one of the coolest things you've seen a fan say about you on social media?
MC: There are a lot of touching stories. I would say the biggest stories come with the commission work. For example: “I was going through a really tough period in my life and this helped me feel better, or gave me hope, or made me think that what I'm going through is not that bad, or someone else has gone through it too.” That has always made me feel like, “Wow this is what I really care about and want to do.” I think all creators go through periods of, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?” Not “Why am I doing this?” But, “Am I good enough? Am I getting to where I want to be fast enough?” It's a good reminder that there are people who aren't looking at your detailing to be as good as it could be. They're just like, “Your drawing makes me feel better and there's so much going on in my life that it's helping me.” That's ultimately what I focus on and what drives me.
There are times when my art is given as a gift and people cry because it means so much to them, more than any material thing. I think a lot about materialism and consumerism and what exactly it does for us versus celebrating relationships, which I feel are getting devalued because people don't want to be too emotional and they don't want to get in touch with that side. I think that's actually the most important part of our lives. It’s kind of like Miyazaki’s work. It talks about something important and makes people think a second time about something they've taken for granted or brushed off.
I'm also driven by messages from people who feel more emboldened to make a change in their own life in part because they see a representation of themselves in me. When it comes to sharing my story, sometimes I wonder, “Is it premature? Is it really worth talking about right now?” But receiving these messages reminds me it is important. Being able to share my experience through the perspectives of being Asian-American, female, and non-traditional is important right now. I do think representation in any community makes such a big difference. I know what it feels like to grow up not seeing that.
GR: Is there a specific event in your life that has inspired you?
MC: I wouldn't say there was one thing that directly led to a piece. Everything I do is drawn from something I've experienced in my life. You could look at a lot of what I've done and piece together what I was going through at that moment. I'm very transparently opaque or opaquely transparent in that way. The last year I was in law and transitioning my career, there were little things that happened to make me realize this isn't the right fit for me. At the same time, I went through my first sad experience in a relationship. I've always been a very optimistic or positive person, and drawing was a therapeutic exercise for me. Some people turn to music, or food, maybe drugs and alcohol. Art saved me. When I put my feelings on paper, it feels like a release, like it’s transferred out onto the piece of paper. Then, there’s the added benefit of sharing it and having people connect with it.
GR: How do you define your style? Especially since you are not formally trained.
MC: For a long time I felt like I didn't have a style. In art and my personal life, I was always very self-reflective and honest about who I was. I never wanted to copy someone else because it was cool or it was what everyone else wanted me to do. Even changing from law was reflective of that because everyone else thinks that's success. But if I don't feel it in me, then I can't keep doing it. In terms of art, finding a style is a combination of who you are and what you like. I like Miyazaki but I also like these children's book illustrators that have a modern style. I like woodblock printing and old Chinese and Japanese calligraphy art. Somehow, when you absorb the things you like and focus on fine tuning your skills, it really comes out. I can't explain it any other way. There's nothing intentional about what I draw. But all I want to do is get better at the craft. The style is just a reflection of who I am and what I'm interested in.
I will never know for sure because I didn't go to a formal art school. I actually think it’s beneficial in terms of style because you aren't surrounded by your all-star classmates or your teachers who have their style. I imagine there's a sense of competition or identity that is hard line to walk when you're surrounded by people who are pursuing something similar. Because all my friends are mostly lawyers and professionals, I didn't have any sort of expectations for my style. Of course, I could see people like James Jean love what they do, but it was always a matter of taking things at my own pace and reminding myself, “You can't compare your chapter one with someone else's chapter 25.” If you look at even my stuff from a year ago, it's changed a lot but I think the essence is still the same. That's because at the core of my personality is the same person.
GR: What medium and methods do you use?
MC: I think in pencil and paper, so it's easiest for me to sketch in a notebook. But almost everything I do now is digital. One it's way easier to undo, two it's environmentally friendly because you're not wasting a lot of paper and materials, and three it’s in line with everything that's evolving digitally. You need the analog side to feel like it's tangible, but there are so many benefits of working digitally especially with clients. For example, if they said, “I wanted that hat to be red,” that's a lot of work to redo if it's a painting. But when it's digital it's so much easier, and I think clients know that so there's an expectation that illustrators can make small changes fairly quickly. I made a conscious decision when I started taking illustration more seriously. I took a class on digital painting with an ArtCenter professor and that helped me transition from working with colored pencils, markers, and watercolor to a digital medium. I've never looked back. It just makes so much more sense for me.
GR: What device do you use?
MC: I do really like the iPad Pro and Pencil. It's really amazing. If you are just getting started but taking it seriously, it's an amazing tool. It's still not as powerful as Photoshop and Wacom. I'm still fine tuning the process. I’ll do some sort of sketch work and my weekly illustrations on the iPad. But when it's a full color painting, then I'll do it on Photoshop because there are so many more useful controls.
GR: What are your top five art apps?
MC: I recommend trying to keep things as minimal or streamlined as possible. Sometimes I think there are so many things you can do these days. There is such a wealth of options these days that it's best to just tailor your apps. One, obviously, is Photoshop. I use Photoshop most of the time. On the iPad, I think ProCreate is the best in terms of digital painting. Then there is this app called Concepts. It's geared a little more towards architectural or industrial design drawing, but when I'm storyboarding and moving things around I find it very convenient. Those are the three main drawing apps I use other than a pencil and paper. But a huge part of being a freelancer and being self-managed is organization. I think a lot of artists don't realize that. They think, “I can just draw all day and that's it.” But actually half of my time is coordinating with clients or managing my projects or just doing admin type work. I really like Evernote for keeping track of both my daily to-dos and ideas. Especially in anything creative, you need to write down your ideas right away or else you'll forget. I just have a long list of things, almost like a stream of consciousness I'll later go back to if I'm ever trying to think of something. Different people have different opinions about Trello, but I really like it for managing my custom work and my personal projects. Finding the one thing you really enjoy drawing with and figuring out a good organizational system will make you so much more valuable to clients.
GR: What would be your advice to somebody who is afraid to defy their parents’ expectations?
MC: I hope my example shows that it is possible. I don't think I'm an especially lucky or brave person. I say this every time someone asks me. A lot of it is fear. There seemed like such a huge wall. But once you take the step to say you’re going to do it, the fear is behind you. Then you think, “Oh that wasn't so bad.” The caveat is you should plan. I am definitely a big planner so I thought a lot. It doesn't always work out but it's good to think through your process, like “How can I support myself? Because my family isn't supporting me.” I'm on my own but they are very supportive emotionally. I keep saying this in work and personal life: you have to know yourself in order to find the right fit for you. Why do you want to do art? Is it because you think it's easy or cool or is it because you really have a passion for it? If you have a passion for it, I really think you should do it. I could go on with this, but whatever someone is passionate about, whether it's art or law or medicine, then they should do it. A lot of times, Asian Americans especially feel a selfishness in terms of pursuing what they really want to do versus doing the responsible thing that will make their family proud. But at the end of the day, you can’t get exceptionally good at whatever it is you do unless you really care about it and are willing to put in those extra hours. I've never been able to work really hard at something I didn't care about. Maybe that's a character flaw that turned out to be a guiding strength. Once you figure out what you're truly driven by, and it comes from inside and not outside perception, then that's all you really need to get started.
In terms of parents, I completely understand. My dad, a typical Asian parent, literally said, “I think you're lowering your value,” and “Why can't you just do this at night?” It sounds so hurtful and it is on an individual level. But so many Asian parents have said this to so many Asian kids. They come from a place of love and they mean well. It's from their childhood experience of struggle. But they also need to see that it's our fortune as their children to have the opportunity to chase something we really want to do in America. A lot of people don’t have the choice because they’re running away from their government or they're refugees. When here, our fear is usually in ourselves because we're scared of what our family and friends might think. In the end, I felt the things that were pushing me were truer values and truer sense of self. The things that were preventing me were, “I'm scared of what my dad will say,” or “I'm scared of what people might think if this doesn't work out.” When you go for it and you work hard, things just happen. Things follow with you. Even though you might not be able to see how your destination ends, your path is literally building under you as you're walking. I don't think the fear should prevent you from doing anything.
What's really cool is that you can see it isn't just an art. I really love Chef's Table and many of those stories are very similar. I have friends who pursue more professional careers and they have a similar path too. Do you really care about this? Are you willing to put in the work to become good at it? In this day and age with social media and the Internet, as long as you're really good at what you do, you'll find a way forward. You can go to art school if you can, but it's expensive. From what I can tell, there's a potential for burnout. But at the same time, you're guided by incredible professionals and that's a huge bonus. If you can't afford to go to art school, don't feel discouraged. There are so many ways to learn on your own now within illustration, design, photography, and even coding. There are so many ways to teach yourself. You just need to have self-motivation and the drive to do it.
GR: What’s next for you and your company Mimochai?
MC: In the past few months I've been moving towards a more even balance between my freelance practice and building Mimochai. It's a challenge but it's also interesting to see them synergize; my most interesting freelance work now goes beyond illustration to also include creative direction with story development and character concepts. I really enjoy working at this bigger picture level. Similar with illustration, it happened organically where people saw that I was building story concepts for my personal projects and asked if I could help them do the same. It reaffirms my belief in doing your best work in what you love and putting it out there.
Watch her Skillshare videos here