Off the Page: Irene Koh

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Ever wondered about the artist drawing those fantastic pieces of fanart you reblog on Tumblr or favorite on deviantArt? Here’s your chance to get behind the scenes with artists who bring the characters from your favorite young adult books to life.

Irene Koh is an illustrator, designer, world wanderer and red meat enthusiast. Seoul born, Tokyo bred, and Connecticut vintage’d, she is a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her pet violin and too many books. In addition to illustrating, Irene makes comics, does visual development for video games, sings, and is a judo practitioner. Her art includes Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, in which the next book Clariel will be out in October 2014. Koh is also known for her work with Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone series, the last book Ruin and Rising comes out on June 17th, 2014. Right now pre-orders of the book at select stores will include a poster Koh designed.

  • Sabriel and Touchstone from Garth Nix's Abhorsen series

What is it about Leigh Bardugo’s and Garth Nix’s writing that inspired your fanart?
My love and inspiration stems from the fact that both authors have a very clear vision of the world their characters live in, but not necessarily the faces of their characters, which then becomes the space my art inhabits. Because both Leigh and Garth invest a lot of time in getting the feel of their respective universes right, and the rules that govern the magic and materials. This makes me feel completely immersed, and the physicality and mannerisms of the characters become more apparent after that. Both the Grisha world and the Old Kingdom world also have particular (and very tactile) details about fabrics and costuming. These are things I’m quite passionate about concepting and visualizing.

Are there any other influences you used (besides the books) that you included in your art?
Definitely. For technology and clothing, I draw on real world references based on the things that inspired the original works (for Grisha, Tsarist Russia; for the Old Kingdom, a mix of turn of the 20th century UK and Australia, and medieval Europe). For art direction, my aesthetics are inherently informed by my favorite artists — Klimt and the Viennese Secessionists, Kay Nielsen, Yoshitaka Amano, Akihiko Yoshida, Nemiri, Jillian Tamaki — and artists I discover along the way who’ve created pieces with relevant context to the piece I’m working on.

What is the best reaction to your art you have received?
Every positive reaction, all the thoughtful feedback, the solidarity within a fandom — it’s all been incredibly uplifting. I’m quite shy about engaging with the people who support my art, but every kind comment is wholly appreciated. Every artist feels crippling doubt at any given moment, so it’s nice to have the affirmation that I’m doing okay, that I’m getting better, that the hard work is paying off. (As for specific moments, I may have squealed when Leigh approached me to do the promotional poster. How often does fanart get a chance to be canon, even if just for a hot second?)

Tell us about your process.
I work almost entirely in Photoshop, though I sketch and thumbnail things daily in a sketchbook. I sometimes have a very, very loose drawing underneath to plan where shapes are going to go, but for the most part, I go straight to drawing the image (I would call it “inking,” but my lines are something closer to mostly clean pencils). I color in Photoshop, hand letter when I can, and that’s about it! I think I honestly know about 2% of Photoshop, but it serves my needs just fine.

Tools you prefer to work with?
I’m not too picky. If I’m doing a finished piece, I’ll just start and finish it in Photoshop, as mentioned above. But on the go, a medium-sized sketchbook (preferably with heavy paper) and a fine line pen or pencil is all I need.

What is your proudest piece of work?
I’m still quite inexperienced, so I’ve only just recently figured out a style that I feel comfortable working in and that I think complements my strengths. Consequently, I don’t have a large body of work in this style yet, so there isn’t a single piece I’m particularly proud of. I do like the direction of this piece, though; and the 6 pitch pages of a romance comic I worked on with Paul Allor (which, unfortunately, I can’t show yet).

Are there any themes or surprises you’ve noticed in your art?
I know what I love to draw: women, and kids on adventures. I tend to explore themes regarding sexuality, and adolescence into adulthood. Regarding sex, it’s something I’m quite open and vocal about in my work and in public discussion. I think it’s something that needs more addressing in popular media, and not in the way it’s been handled so far, largely at the hands of a singular, degrading perspective. As for surprises… I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I’m finding that now I’m far more interested in exploring the idea of adopting or shedding identities. It’s something that stems from growing up in an immigrant family and feeling disconnected with my heritage, but also rejected by my new home; an experience that still affects me now.

Do you have anything fun that you’re working on or would like to do someday?
I’m working on so many things right now that I can barely keep my head screwed on straight. I’m working with Josh Tierney (creator of Eisner-nominated Spera) for his next comic anthology; volunteer design work for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center; my own Twine game dealing with themes of guilt and forgiveness; illustrations for game editorial magazine Unwinnable Weekly; and a few other things I can’t reveal quite yet. After all this quiets down, I would really like to move towards more game development, teach myself C# programming, and make a game in the Unity engine.

What kind of advice or insight would you give to other artists?
I still have so much to learn myself, but when I feel the most doubtful, I remember a piece of advice a college professor gave me — don’t stop making art, even the bad stuff. In fact, embrace the bad art, because there’s a finite amount of bad art I can make, but an infinite amount of good art waiting to be unleashed. I just gotta get past the crap to get to the good stuff. It’s the fuel I need in bad times to push past something I’m not so proud of, since I know it means I’m one step closer to making something great.

What encouraged you to share your fanart?
From a professional standpoint, marketability. From the other side, because I crave community. As someone who’s paid to illustrate things, a website and blog are outlets for me to market my skills, to meet potential clients, to showcase my capabilities and archive them. At the same time, I’ve spent the last five years of my life surrounded by artists, and there’s nothing I appreciate more than constructive criticism or any amount of commentary. I love what I do and I love to share it, and I’ve been sharing my work online since 2003. I’ve been drawing Old Kingdom fanart since I first read the books as a teenager. As for Grisha fanart, I sent it Leigh’s way because she had made herself so available to contact through social media. I figured, why not? A creator usually enjoys fan support, and I wanted to show her my appreciation for her beautifully imagined world and the characters that populated it.

Want to learn more about Irene Koh or see more of her art? Be sure to stop by her website, Tumblr, and Twitter.

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About Author

Natasha M. Heck

Natasha believes cats and words are the shiniest things in the ‘verse. She has touched Stonehenge, climbed the Glastonbury Tor, walked the Philosopher’s Path, and kissed her true love on the Eiffel Tower. She’s a fangirl, Jedi Knight, and Gryffindor whose love of unicorns led her to live in the land of geekdom and sunshine. She has an English degree emphasis in Creative Writing, and is using it to follow her dreams.

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