Feature Friday

Interview With Illustrator Ileana Soon

Photo © Andrea Goh

Ileana Soon is a Malaysian-born illustrator and entertainment designer currently residing in Los Angeles, California. Her colourful, bold and vibrant illustrations revolve around emotional resonance through the mediums of design and film. With several awards already to her name, I think it’s safe to say that we can expect really great things from her in the future.


How long have you been living in LA and what is it like?

I have been living in LA for about 4 years now. I initially arrived here to study at the Art Center College of Design, and have come to love LA. It’s a great place to live in and the weather is quite pleasant!

You studied finance in Australia before switching to illustration. What made you want to become an illustrator?

Growing up, I developed a great love for hand-drawn animation, and always had a dream of pursuing a career as a designer within the field. To do this, the pursuit of being a good illustrator has always been a prerequisite since one has to have a solid foundation of drawing and painting to be a good visual development artist/background painter/designer. It was only at Art Center did I discover the world of editorial illustration, which was very exciting! I could not pursue this route straight after high school as it was not seen as a favourable choice from my parents’ perspective hence, the finance degree. I do not regret it though, having a background in another field has helped immensely in shaping me to be a better designer and problem solver.

How were you like growing up as a child, and how did your experiences shape you to become who you are today?

I think I had a great childhood. I certainly grew up in an environment most people would envy (Kota Kinabalu, North Borneo is such a lovely town), and growing up so close to the sea, its islands, and the jungle has made me develop a great love for adventure. I do think that the bulk of my work is fueled by my memories and experiences of growing up in KK, and this has made me so grateful for my childhood.

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Woody Guthrie. An exploration of type and image, through Woody Guthrie’s “I ain’t got no home”

What are your biggest influences?

I love painting, and like most other painters love to look at the old masters that came before us. I spend a great deal of time looking at the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Some of my favourites include, but are definitely not limited to: Degas, Monet, Caillebotte, Mary Cassatt, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the list goes on and on. I also love John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and more modern masters like Richard Schmid and Joseph Zbukvic. As I grew up watching animation, it would be fair to say that a lot of the cartoons I watched have influenced the way I would design my work today, especially since the UPA and Looney Tunes cartoons (particularly Maurice Noble’s work) made such lasting impressions on me as a child. I do feel I could go on and on, the list is endless sometimes!

Other than painting/painters, I find myself mostly drawn to photography. As a kid, I would spend hours and hours looking at the gorgeous pictures in magazines like National Geographic and the various Lonely Planet photography book releases. Within these pages I would discover photographers I still love and look at today, photographers like Annie Griffiths, Joel Sartore and Steve McCurry. Later whilst at university I discovered the work of Annie Leibovitz and Peter Lindbergh, and the gorgeous stories they would be able to tell only in 5/6 successive pictures in the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue. More research led me to photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Irving Penn and Saul Leiter.

Now that I am much older and spend a great deal of time watching movies and TV, I would have to say I get a huge jolt of inspiration every time I watch a movie/TV show that emotionally resonates with me. In particular I find myself mostly drawn to the works of Jane Campion, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Joe Wright, Nancy Meyers, Ron Howard, Aaron Sorkin and too many other names I wish I could list but would not have the space to write.

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NYC. A piece from my graduation project, based on the musical Annie, set in 1994. In the midst of this story, Oliver Warbucks takes Annie out at night around New York City. I wanted to capture how wonderful it was from their point of view, as well as how crazy and chaotic it can be sometimes (as sung by Warbucks in the song NYC)

Are the illustrations on your website for commission or personal projects?

I would say they are a mixture of both.

Can you describe your creative process?

It depends on a lot on the purpose of what I’m creating. Do I have to solve a visual problem? Tell a story? Provide entertainment? Create a feeling? Does the client have something in mind or is it a personal project with my own agenda? Depending on the context of what it is I am trying to create:

I start with a problem > try to solve problem visually > create an intention of a feeling I would like to evoke > plan compositions to best capture the feeling > do a colour/value pass > Finish/Refine the painting

You have several awards to your name, including one from the Society of Illustrators! Can you tell us a little bit about the work that got you the award?

Sure! It’s actually the Society of Illustrators West, and it was for their student scholarship competition. Peek-a-boo! was created from my experience as a young kid traveling with my family up and down the river to visit my grandmother. Over some research, I discovered a lot of images from when Borneo was under British rule, where the bulk of transport within North Borneo was conducted via its rivers. I have always wondered how British officers stationed in Borneo must have thought of it back then, and wonder if they were ever aware of what lies before them when they first venture into the jungles of North Borneo.

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Peek-a-boo!

There are so many talented people who are struggling to get ‘noticed’ all the time. What would you say to anyone who wants to become a successful illustrator?

To be honest, I am still really early in my career as an illustrator and thus feel like I lack the authority to give any advice! I can however, pass on the advice of one of my mentors (an incredibly successful illustrator) Paul Rogers. I remember him saying to me one time that it will always be hard, but you just have to keep going.

Finally, tell us what your dream job looks like.

I imagine a situation where I would come into work everyday excited about the project I am working on, helping to tell a story and bring it to life for other people to enjoy. Collaborating with other artists and designers to help create a piece of work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Pushing boundaries together, changing the industry in terms of what is to what it can be.


Be inspired and visit Ileana’s website to see the rest of her amazing work!

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