Catapult Artist “How am I telling the story, and how am I representing the people in that story?”: Sara Wong, Catapult Artist for December 2019
“It’s not enough to consider the content—how am I presenting the content?”
Nicole Caputo, Catapult’s creative director, sits with December’s #CatapultArtist for a conversation on art, creativity, and the artist’s life.
The gorgeous work of Sara Wong, our Catapult Artist for December, sent ripples of excitement through our inboxes this month. I especially enjoyed the texture that Sara created in each piece, her rich palette choices, and the multiple layers of transparency all grounded with brilliant conceptual heft. The beautiful and ominous art for Noah Cho’s piece practically sings, filled with incredible details for the eye and mind to explore.
Nicole Caputo: When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator and what did that early journey look like?
Sara Wong: I knew I wanted to be creative from an early age. I’m sure this story echoes that of many illustrators, but my first exposure to illustration was through learning to read and realizing that somebody made the pictures for each book. My parents were (and still are) very supportive and noticed my interest quickly, so I grew up with a lot of art classes and eventually went to an after-school conservatory program in high school.
Despite all this, I didn’t learn that illustration was a field until I was on my way to college, which is funny looking back now. I think I was at a portfolio review day, and one of the reviewers corrected me when I told them I intended on studying painting or graphic design. I went home and emailed my college asking if I could transfer to the illustration program and just got back, “Okay, you’re in!” So in a way, I sort of stumbled into it and haven’t looked back since.
Photograph courtesy of Sara Wong
Do you have any advice for those interested in becoming illustrators and how they should go about sharing their work and receiving commissions?
What helped me most in navigating the illustration industry was building relationships with the people in it. As a student, I met up with alumni to ask them about their career stories, which helped provide insight into the variety of illustration careers out there, as well as establish friendly connections.
As far as sharing work goes, definitely have a website that is easy to navigate and showcases the intersection of your best work and the work you want to be hired to do. I would also advise having a social media presence; each platform will have its advantages and disadvantages, but at the very least, I think they are worthwhile environments in which to connect with other illustrators (and art directors), gain visibility into the larger illustrator community, and give others visibility into your work. For receiving commissions, I was taught the old fashioned way: tracking down art director work addresses and sending out regular postcards featuring your best work. Above all, continue to push your work and discover what kinds of stories you are most drawn to visualizing, and be kind to everyone. The illustration world is at once both big and small, and the community will be what you make of it.
Illustration by Sara Wong for Catapult; as featured in Noah Cho’s “My Father Lives in Me: On the Lion King, Grief, and Resemblance”
I’d love to hear you take us through your artistic process — from sketch to final draft!
When I first start a piece, I like to review the text a few times (whether it’s brief summary from the art director, or an entire draft, or a book or movie for a personal project), note any important details and themes, and write a prompt that the concepts should respond to, such as, “a son is haunted by his late father in his own visual likeness.” From there, I do loose word-mapping along two main categories: abstract emotional concepts, and concrete objects and metaphors.
For example, writing down “similar but different” might then inspire me to also note “water reflection.” I’ll continue building these lists until I feel like I can start pulling pieces of ideas together into complete concepts. Once I can identify the strongest three to flesh out into full pencil sketch form, I’ll send them over to the art director, along with brief descriptions that help sell the idea of each and highlight the conceptual differences between them.
If everything goes smoothly, I’ll hear back with a selected direction and any notes, and can dive into Photoshop to build the grayscale version of the final work. I like to have my value scheme and hierarchy planned before I begin experimenting with color, for which I’ll create quite a few quick iterations as I try to find the right combination for the content and tone of the piece.
The color stage is probably my most experimental. I view it as the time to break any rules and potentially create more interest by turning any earlier assumptions I may have made on their head.
Illustration by Sara Wong for Catapult; as featured in Lorraine Avila’s “Si Dios Quiere”
How do words and literature influence your work? Are there books or authors who have helped you navigate your life as an artist?
I love the written story, and grew up loving to read so to me it was always the truest form of story, so I suppose it makes sense that writing and word-mapping are such important parts of the process for me. I have had projects where I am only able to get a brief summary while the text is still being written, and I’ve had projects where I am able to read the text in its entirety, and I do feel that reading the full text, especially an emotionally written one, provides a deeper layer of resonance that I can carry into the illustration.
When I was out of school and trying to understand what I wanted to do and how I wanted to draw, I re-read works by my favorite author, Cormac McCarthy, and created a few book covers as personal projects. Up until this point I was not making emotional work—my thesis project in school had been a humorous book of cryptid hoaxes—but the media I consumed and was passionate about, including these McCarthy books, was very emotional. I look back at these personal projects fondly now, because I do think they were the point at which I challenged myself to merge my illustration work with my interests, and which became that emotional genre that I work very frequently within.
Photograph courtesy of Sara Wong
We love the pieces you created for the magazine. What did you enjoy about the process? Was there a particular piece you felt a real connection to that you’d like to speak about?
Thank you! My process feels so tied to the emotional narrative of the text that getting to work with such poignant stories as these were a joy. I can’t say I have personally experienced the events described in any of the stories—I haven’t lost a close family member, nor watched the world go by as I reached the end of my life, nor was I in Paris for the fire of Notre Dame. But all three were written with the kind of care that I could intimately feel these stories from the perspective of the authors and protagonists, which was very exciting to experience as that is exactly what I hope to give to the viewer with my illustrations.
Illustration by Sara Wong for Catapult; as featured in Mishka Hoosen’s “The Smell of Notre Dame Burning”
What do you think is the role or responsibility of an artist in today’s culturally and politically turbulent era?
This is a great question, and I’d be really interested to know how other artists are thinking about this. To me, the responsibility of any visual creator is huge, and probably much greater than we give them credit for on a day-to-day basis. I believe there is a constant loop between ourselves as individuals, our culture, and our visual media that endlessly echoes one and then shapes the other, so the way we tell our stories is just as important as the content of the stories themselves.
In light of this, I think it’s absolutely the responsibility of the artist to be abreast both of culture at large as well as the power structures that hold it up, which is where considerations of representation, diversity, and inclusion come into play. I remember there was quite a big online discussion around an illustration for the murder of a black child, which has stuck with me since because it surfaced questions about the visual narratives we create in our work. It’s not enough to consider the content—how am I presenting the content? How am I telling the story, and how am I representing the people in that story?
While I’ve never encountered a project that I felt morally opposed to, I have illustrated for extremely sensitive subjects, like abortion, and often for different perspectives. What has served me best in the creation of the work and in upholding my responsibility as an artist is to approach every story empathetically, and with the goal of putting the viewer in the shoes of the subject. My job very rarely is to state right from wrong; it’s to provide a visual entry point into an emotional narrative.