Meet January's Featured Artist, Priscilla Yu!

Meet January's featured artist, Priscilla Yu! Priscilla's work is characterized by the artist's skilled conflation of figure and ground and the bright, vibrant colour which washes over the picture plane like waves over sand. Viewing her work is an excellent mid-day pick-me-up, which is exactly what we need this January! Enjoy learning more about Priscilla, her process, and the glorious works before you.

 Priscilla Yu, The Glass Castle and the Obelisk Storm, 2015, Gouache on watercolor paper

Priscilla Yu, The Glass Castle and the Obelisk Storm, 2015, Gouache on watercolor paper

SAD Mag: Please introduce yourself! Where did you study? Are you medium specific or media-agnostic? How did you get started?

Priscilla Yu: I’m an artist, illustrator, and muralist from Vancouver. I studied visual arts and illustration at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. My medium is mostly Acryla gouache on watercolour paper, but I wouldn’t call myself medium specific and I’m interested in seeing my artwork manifest into other mediums and forms.

After graduating with a BFA in 2013 and spending a few months travelling, I rented my first studio space in Chinatown and began a routine of creating new work and being involved with local group exhibitions. I also got some of my first illustration jobs around this time with OpenMedia.ca, and Discorder Magazine. Aside from always having had art as a big part of my life growing up, it was at this point that I would consider that I got my start as an aspiring professional artist. This year has also been a big start too, as I have had the opportunity to work on my practice full-time for the past four months. I also got to work on a few murals this year including my biggest one to date for Vancouver Mural Festivaland getting featured on Booooooom! and Uppercase Magazine have also been recent highlights. 

SM: How did you develop your unique sense of perspective? Your works are at once recessive and planar.

PY: I doodled a lot in high school with ballpoint pen, and in all sorts of styles and motifs. When I was learning trigonometry in grade 9 math class, I became interested in drawing the isometric polygons on the worksheets. The idea that I could represent 3D forms on a 2D surface really captivated me and I began extending lines off the shapes and polygons.

With my favourite ballpoint pen, I would begin with a single freehand straight line, and I would keep adding additional straight lines until I felt a sense of depth on the piece of paper. Each line that I placed had to feel “good” or perhaps just balanced. If a line didn’t feel right, I would put polygon shape on top of it and fill it in to cover it. Sometimes the results would be surprising as the abstract shapes and forms became more representative of real things in the world. After over a decade of this type of play and adaptive drawing, I developed a way of using recessive and planar elements to create somewhat deliberate compositions to represent specific forms, while still finding surprising parts in the process and composition.

 Priscilla Yu, Dance Party, 2017, Gouache on watercolor paper

Priscilla Yu, Dance Party, 2017, Gouache on watercolor paper

SM: What motivates your use of colour and pattern? Is it premeditated or organic?

PY: Balance and pleasure, and it’s a combination of premeditated and organic motivation. I think that first you have to understand how much I enjoy colour, pattern, and ornamentation. It’s a big passion for me, and a lot of the motivation for my colour and pattern use comes from my organic everyday observations. I take note of satisfying tensions of colour and texture in the natural world and also in the city’s window displays, graphic design, and fashion. Within nature, I’m really interested in the natural geometry and patterns.

For example, inspired by the beauty of water, I spent a large part of the summer of 2014 looking at the patterns on the surface of the ocean. I observed how four diamond-shaped ripples tiled together to form a larger diamond shape. These fractals made their way into my paintings and I also began experimenting with wavier lines. It’s not uncommon for me to stop and look at seafoam-coloured gum stuck on concrete and notice the subtle variety of greys and how they feel juxtaposed with this slightly saturated pastel colour. Sometimes window displays and clothing will jump out at me and I will be marvel at the colour combinations of the visual merchandiser and the textile designers.

When I’m laying down the colours and patterns on my pencilled composition, I’m making colour decisions almost one at a time, building off each colour, shifting dynamics and weights, imagining the next colour that I will use and how the temperature of the whole painting will evolve. It’s a balancing act and puzzle, because in my mind, there are logical answers to which colours I should use next, and the logic is based off of the “data” that I gather from everyday observation. I do a lot of squinting and tilting my head. Naturally, I do have some premeditated techniques and colour combinations that I repeat while I’m focusing my creative energy on composing an editorial illustration with a specific theme. With patterns, I also take inspiration from sixties and seventies era interior design and fashion.

 Priscilla Yu, Cocktails, 2017, Gouache on watercolor paper

Priscilla Yu, Cocktails, 2017, Gouache on watercolor paper

SM: Do the parts of your works necessitate the whole, so to speak? Can you elucidate any internal logic to how your works unfold, or tell us what guides the development of a work or spatial arrangement?

PY: It depends! Sometimes I have a premeditated idea of what I’m trying to communicate and a composition will require certain visual cues that need to be evident. The parts in this type of work would necessitate the whole, but in other works the parts of my paintings don’t necessarily have to. A big part of my process is spontaneity and building upon each development in the painting. This spontaneity has allowed for the development of compositions that are surprising and unexpected.

In combination with the stylistic constraint of mostly using isometric, geometric, and angular forms has allowed me to catch imagery in my subconscious and also helped my work unfold in exciting ways. If I’m drawing a group of people, instead of thinking in a linear way of where a head or arm might be, I might begin by drawing a shape, and use my imagination to see if the shape might be someone’s torso or head. It’s this mix of loose pre-meditation, constraints, and hazy spontaneity that guides the works.

Take this with a grain of salt, but this how I would describe the mental set-up for creating at least some of my work:

Part of my brain’s task is to help guide me emotionally. It’s the part that calms my nerves at the beginning. For example, it reminds me that I can’t set out to intentionally create a masterpiece. I have to trust the process. It blurs the fear of a blank piece of paper and carries me past that point. It also reminds me to take breaks. Another part of my brain holds the geometric stylistic constraint in place, and another part keeps me on track if there’s a specific theme I’m trying to communicate. Finally, the rest of my brain is hazy, subconscious, and kind of psychedelic. There’s no discrimination with any of the content in that part. My hope is always to cultivate effective and unconventional ways of communicating, while being curiously surprised and expressing myself.

 Priscilla Yu, Hollywood Boulevard, 2015, Gouache on watercolor paper

Priscilla Yu, Hollywood Boulevard, 2015, Gouache on watercolor paper

SM: "Good feelings and gut feelings" are two things that make for an excellent art practice, clearly (and an excellent human, too!). Can you elaborate on how these two notions guide your practice?

PY: A recent and cemented discovery for me has been the value of having a positive outlook and following intuition with curiosity. These have proved to be practical values in general and also a great way to work with clients. In regards to my practice, I’m excited by the notion that there’s subconscious treasure to be found when you trust your curiosity and follow what gives you pleasure and feels right. It’s the way my best work have resulted.

SM: Can you tell us about your process? Do you use stencils, etc? How do you make your works?

PY: The order of my process varies because some of the work is more methodical and others are very abstract. Lately I have been working with a more methodical and illustrative process, but still leaving room for spontaneity. In these cases, I begin with a general idea of the type of scene I’m trying to articulate and start with a pencil drawing. I imagine the scene as it may exist in the real world and using the geometric stylistic constraint, I set out to draw.

I’m using rulers to get neat lines, and stencils to create some of the patterns, but I still let my tendency to create ornate patterns and organic shapes run wild. It’s a bit of zooming in and out of the painting, focusing on rendering objects, people, and spaces, and also getting into an ornate details trance. I often do most of the pencil drawing first, then begin painting, but then return to drawing again, and then finish with paint. I like to use blue erasable led for drawing best because it’s less jarring than dark grey led and easy to paint on top of. I also like tiny round brushes and some flat brushes for control and making more painterly patterns. Acryla gouache is my favourite because it’s easy to control, smooth, saturated, layerable, and both opaque and washy.

SM: How do you conquer creative blocks, if you ever come up against them?

PY: Anything to give me more visual stimuli or think in a different way helps. This could be a Netflix break, going for a walk, window shopping, or going out for a coffee. I also like to doodle, make word webs, and make thumbnails sometimes.

The most challenging part of conquering creative blocks for me is handling insecurity and the fear of there being a scarcity of ideas. If I don’t tackle that part right at the beginning, it’s a slippery slope of hell and I can’t generate ideas when my energy is being used to feel worried. I recently started taping up maxims that help me shift my perspective into remembering how I view the universe on a day when I am feeling creative and powerful. When I’m less frustrated and feeling good, I have more energy to focus on the issue I’m trying to iron out and ideas flow better.


Be sure to follow Priscilla's practice at @priscillayuart. Thanks Priscilla!