Jiayue Li’s surreal illustrations ignite sparkles of thought and excitement

Originally from Chengdu in China, Jiayue is a graduate of the College of Design and Innovation at Tongji University in Shanghai. Her passion for creating narrative solutions using graphic design and illustration were further sharpened with an MFA Design qualification from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

With a self-professed knack for “transforming complex information into effective and impactful visual communication”, Jiayue has worked on the brand identity for Pfizer, a concept rebrand for Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and poster designs for short films including Vultur, as well as projects for many other clients. Thanks to her keen eye for composition and a virtuoso grasp of colour and shape, it’s no wonder Jiayue has won the Graphis Design Annual Gold Award and been shortlisted for the ADC 100th Annual Awards for her illustration work.

“I started to learn how to draw and practice realistic drawing at a very young age, but I found my real passion in drawing conceptual and surrealistic illustrations during my MFA design program at School of Visual Arts in New York,” Jiayue tells Creative Boom. “I enjoy creating surreal or abstract compositions with female characters, nature, and mysterious objects.”

Choosing to work predominantly with colour pencils on textured paper, Jiayue’s illustrations inhabit a mysterious world all of their own. In them, we see women emerge from hazy pools of water, camouflage themselves against a clouded sky, even catch a glimpse of their faces stored in a slice of cake. It’s a strange, beguiling portfolio that’s knitted together by Jiayue’s distinctive, softly drawn style.

“I would describe my illustration style as surrealistic, elusive, and insightful,” Jiayue adds. “I always try to create compositions that can ignite the sparkles of thought and excitement, instead of simply capturing the appearance of the subject.”

Besides taking her inspiration from photography and nature, Jiayue’s biggest influence in fashion design. “One of my favourite fashion designers is Windowsen, who has such a unique style and crazy ideas of using colours and forms on the human body,” she reveals. Fashion photographers such as Zhong Lin, Leslie Zhang, and Cho Gi-Seok have also informed her aesthetic thanks to their portraits that have “simple but compelling compositions” and “‘odd’ but harmonious colours.”

“Also, I love the work of Slovakian illustrator Dušan Kállay who has created ‘eccentrically’ beautiful images and compositions with animals, human characters, and imaginative colour palettes.”

As a multi-disciplinary creative, Jiayue agrees that her work as a designer feeds back and enhances her work as an illustrator. “Learning graphic design certainly gave me a better sense of composition and a broader way of thinking. For me, the practice of graphic design trained me to focus on the combination of function and aesthetics.”

When creating an illustration, Jiayue reveals that she spends a lot of time planning the idea and sketching the composition before honing in on details and laying down the final colouring. This helps her to create an image that communicates with her audience as powerfully as possible.

“Also, as a graphic designer, being able to illustrate helps a lot when clients want to use illustrations in their projects,” she adds. “I got to practice how to convey an idea through a small illustration a lot in these projects.”

What these ideas ultimately mean is thankfully left up to the viewer. Thanks to their deliberate ambiguity, Jiayue’s illustrations pull you in and invite you to collaborate with the themes they suggest. Far from being confusing, they help put you in the same dream-like, meditative state Jiayue created them in.