10 emerging Vietnamese artists & their work about Vietnam
Vietnam may not be a big name in the world map of illustration, but there are some serious talents who deserve wider recognition. They’re not only wildly gifted, but also working hard to open Vietnamese culture’s door to the world. Some of them I personally know from art school, some from freelance collaborations. Just a few friends, and friends of friends, who keep amazing me with their inspiring illustrations.
I know Phan Thanh Dat from our “Moon Pie” picture book made for Room to Read Vietnam. This crazily talented guy is best known for his expert control of tones and shades in watercolours. His artwork is mesmerizing, poetic, and full of charm.
He often draws his characters wearing traditional Vietnamese clothing. Here you can see how he lavished gorgeous apparels on the characters. One girl wears typical Northern garments: áo tứ thân and nón quai thao. The rest has the classic áo dài and mấn. The luxurious embellishments of the fabric look all splendid thanks to a wide range of subtle shades. It’s such a delight to see how skillfully Phan Thanh Dat integrates traditional features and values into contemporary tales and fascinations. I’m a fan for life!
Having known Shishi Nguyen from art school, I feel lucky to see her style developing throughout the years. She has got this wonderful combination of soft lines and gentle watercolour/Photoshop that produces warm and endearing illustrations.
Lunar New Year (or “Tết” in Vietnamese) is the most important time of the year for Vietnamese. It’s all about happiness, coziness, and copiousness. Anything red is considered to bring luck and wealth. Watermelon, naturally, becomes the king of fruit those days. Shishi channeled the plentiful vibe perfectly with a warm colour scheme. The subtle texture of the wind and the watermelon’s skin gives depth to the composition and enhances the cozy mood. It’s always soothing and pleasant to look at her work.
Simple, clear, and feminine. Nguyen Xuan Loc‘s illustrations always have a strong endearing mood. Her drawings stand out with naturalistic characters and fine details.
Lunar calendar is essential in Vietnam. It’s believed that there is an animal protecting each year from all thing evil. Nguyen Xuan Loc used her fine skill to personify one of the twelve lunar zodiac animals – the snake. The shapes are soft with an organic tactile quality. The watercolours’ shades are simply gorgeous. This rustic yet alluring atmosphere in her illustrations is something you can’t ever get enough!
Le Thu‘s strong passion for cuteness shines through her work. Her control of shapes and shades has been outstanding since the day we met at art school. You can never mistake her work for others. There is a strong honesty and delight in each and every stroke of her brush.
One of Le Thu’s most lovely artwork is this drawing about the wonderful relationship of mother and child. Most Vietnamese women get huge pressure from the society to be super wives, perfect moms, and excellent employees (if they choose to be employed at all). Even then, most women manage to do all three. Le Thu carefully illustrated a mother’s care in every bits and pieces in this stunning artwork. The subdued yet rich colours bloom beautifully. The warmth, love, and charm in her art are so rich that they melt me in a blink.
Killien Huynh and Quang Phung have worked together since the day I met them. Quang does most of the line work and Killien colours them to the point of perfection. The combo of well-defined, strong lines and zestful colour schemes makes almost everything they illustrate drop-dead gorgeous.
The above artwork is a double page in their latest story, “The First Journey”, which won The Scholastic Picture Book Award 2015. The captivating tale is about a boy rowing amid a heavy flood in the Mekong Delta in order to go to school. The beauty of the delta unfolds with the stunningly intertwined layers of blue and green. The danger is great. The boy is small. His courage and aspiration for knowledge is profound. Killien and Quang’s illustrations of his journey make it, and everything else, come to life vigorously.
Having her heart in the picture book world, Thuy Com channels the whimsical and quirky spirit in her artwork. Her characters seem to have fun all the time in their playful postures and lovely bright colours. Her enthusiasm runs through everything she gets her hands on.
I feel lucky to have 2 picture books, “The Square Bear” & “Get me the bucket!”, illustrated by Thuy Com for Room to Read Vietnam. The above artwork belongs to the later book, in which many types of traditional containers in Southern Vietnam appeared along the fishing trip of the two brothers. Many of these bamboo woven holders don’t exist in big cities anymore. They’re even on their way to extinction. So it’s just great to have Thuy Com illustrating them in an enchanting tale for safekeeping. Her lively brushstrokes and narrative-rich characters will surely keep the artefacts alive for many years to come.
I’ve admired Khoa Le‘s work for a long time. She always manages to express a heartfelt beauty and a dulcifying atmosphere in her art. The richness in texture, the subtlety of details, the lavishness in shades – all adds up to gorgeous artwork you can’t forget once you lay your eyes on it.
Khoa Le did the above illustration for a Vietnamese folklore about a princess falling in love with a poor fisherman’s voice, but later she changed her mind once she saw him. Accompanied by Khoa Le’s ethereal illustrations, the story becomes subliminal. It lifts up your imagination. The feeling of the princess about the silhouette of the fisherman is blooming, yet fragile and about to shrivel. The finesse in the art is simply impressive.
Lá Studio is run by Pham Hoang Giang and Nguyen Thanh Vu. They are quite flexible in their illustrating styles. What you can always recognise is the decisive forms and expressive shapes. Together they tell as much about the story they illustrate as the text does.
What Lá Studio expresses in the artwork above is Vietnamese children born in the 90s making a kite. They assembled old newspapers and bamboo or wooden sticks from old brooms, then glued everything together with rice (so that they could eat while making the kites). Their resourcefulness, creativity, and dedication to their playing is strikingly sweet and warm. Each splash of colours elucidates the characters to their cores. Those kids live in the country side, have tanned skin while running under the tropical sun, and try to make the most out of their surroundings. The magic Lá Studio has made is restoring that spirit faithfully.
Tamypu is one of the most well-known illustrators in Vietnam right now. Her meticulous line work and delicate colouring resonate with the hearts of many. That level of dedication is not only hard to reproduce, but also one-of-a-kind.
There is always a dreamy and sincere attribute in Tamypu’s artwork. Even the smallest thing becomes significant. Even a small grain of green rice. Just as Westerners can do all things with wheat, Asians in general and Vietnamese particularly can make all things with rice, from the simplest snack to a whole meal. Street vendors with those tasty treats walking around small alleys is a daily thing in the old days. Yet it transforms into a beautifully poetic scene under the hand of Tamypu. In a compelling composition, her expert shading gives the piece so much depth and space that I can almost smell the green rice and feel the breeze rustling. The exquisite quality in her artwork always keeps me longing for more.
Last but not least, Trong Lee is one of those talents who can revive history with its full glory. Trained as an architect, Trong Lee has the ability to precisely render any structures. At the same time, his appreciation for art retains a soft touch and creative spontaneity in his illustrations.
Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) is changing so fast that people who grew up on the brink of change feel the need to be nostalgic. Trong Lee did it on his own way by creating a whole series honouring the Saigon that was once called the “Pearl of the Far East”. His adept watercolour renderings bring back the metropolis in its golden days, together with the love everyone has for it. The hand-drawn typography signages, the auto rickshaws, the bamboo window blinds, everything is there. Just there, as if they’ve never been away. Incredible details, impeccable colours, immaculate mood. It’s a treat to view Trong Lee’s artwork.
Of course these are not all the talents in the illustration world in Vietnam. I’m already thinking about more names now, and the post may become super long (if it’s not already very long). Another post another time!