Artist Interviews 2021

Michael Hsiung  
By Laura Siebold

Michael C. Hsiung is an artist, drawer, and illustrator, mostly known for his sketches of wizards, crystals, unicorns, and underwater creatures. As a Society 6 artist, he creates spontaneous doodles, blending his own ideas and subjects with those of visitors at events like The Other Art Fair in Los Angeles, thereby showing off his instantaneous creativity. In his interview, the artist tells us about his drawing process, early encounters with the art of drawing, his love for skateboards and skateboard art, and reveals insights into working with brands. Read on to discover the many stories behind Michael’s drawings.

Michael, we met when you gifted me a doodle at The Other Art Fair in Los Angeles. How was the experience of doing spontaneous sketches and illustrations for visitors of the art fair like? Have you done something like this before?

The experience of spontaneously sketching and creating illustrations for visitors at The Other Art Fair was super fun, kind of crazy, a little stressful, and creatively satisfying. I think I enjoyed chatting with folks the most while trying something to draw on the spot that they would hopefully be stoked on! Honestly, I haven’t really done much live drawing or spontaneous sketching events like the one at The Other Art Fair. I only had recently done an in person draw event for the city of El Segundo weeks before. It’s kind of a weird thing to do because I guess I think of myself as a different type of illustrator / drawer and sometimes at live events people just expect you to robotically draw anything and everything. My drawings tend to be focused on certain subject matters and characters, and my drawing process takes a bit longer than what one would expect in a live draw event. I have to say though that everyone was really cool at The Other Art Fair, and I felt extremely comfortable once I got going.

Many of your drawings feature wizards, elements of the sea and underwater creatures, as well as crystals. What (else) have been your favorite subjects and things to draw so far? What inspires these drawings?

It’s true, at the moment I’m really on this wizard and crystal tangent, but I love drawing a blend of characters, people and creatures. In a lot of my early work, I drew anything from unicorns to centaurs to mermen. I had sort of an ongoing series on mermen which became a string of narrative drawings, creating my own stories and mythology of mermen and their drinking habits. I love drawing skateboarders, partygoers and just anything that really catches my fancy. I’d say most of these drawings are inspired by my personal interests in mythology, fantasy, cryptozoology mixed in with having grown up skateboarding, listening to heavy metal and hanging out with party folks. But I get a lot of inspiration from books, myths, fantasy, and just strange bit of facts or tidbits that I may come across – which ends up sparking up my imagination to go kind of wild.

We are curious about your background. When did you first encounter the art of drawing?

I think I first encountered the art of drawing in the form of cartoons, animations, comic books and coloring books. My sister and I were always doodling, making things, and working in our coloring books. We pretty much used our imagination and her natural ability to draw to play – from drawing our own fake food to cook to making zines of what all our imaginary friends would look like. Drawing and coloring were a normal activity for us growing up, and everything I was drawn to was drawn or created through drawing.

How would you characterize your style? Do you mostly do manual or also digital drawings?

Honestly, this question always stumps me, but I’ve learned over the years that my style might be considered narrative, comic, illustrative and done in a line-drawn style. Since I’m self-taught, I just learned to draw and stylize my work in my own way – piecing techniques together, which gave me an overall language to speak in art wise. I’ve actually always been a pen or pencil on paper kind of person: drawing with my elbows on the paper is my most natural drawing position. I’ve always drawn in sketchbooks or on school papers or in my textbooks, and it wasn’t till I was gifted an iPad that I started to move more towards digital methods, mostly out of convenience. It was similar to drawing on paper, but a little more streamlined in terms of erasing, re-tracing, and re-drawing ideas. I go back and forth depending on how I feel or if I happen to get some new pens.

You are an artist for Society 6, an online shop concept showcasing many different artists and making prints and accessories of their work accessible to the public at reasonable prices. How did this collaboration come to life and what have you gained from it (besides income)?

My history with Society6 goes back quite a way actually. I was in Portland for a Vans art show event that I was covering, when I happened to meet a fellow named Justin who had seen my art online. We chatted briefly, but he had created this site called Society6 and basically asked me if I would try it out when I got back to LA. At the time, I was putting my art on every social platform, trying stuff out because I really had nothing to lose at that moment. I signed up and was putting my art on his site, as well as letting fellow artists know how it all worked! Eventually he sold it, but I’ve managed to keep collaborating with them somehow! It’s been really cool to have them ask me to participate in various collaborations over the years. I was a guest artist in 2016 for the Agenda Trade Show in Long Beach where I painted a small mural and of course more recently for The Other Art Fair. Some folks at Society6 once told me that I was one of the longest running members on the site, hah!

Can you walk us through a typical process from doing a sketch to a black-and-white drawing, ending in a full illustration?

My typical process starts with a lot of sketching and erasing if I’m making it with pen and paper –working out ideas. Once I get something I like drawn or something I think I like, I’ll start to go in slow with deeper lines and more definition. If the sketch looks okay as is, or if I feel like I need to re-center it or anything, then I might pull out some tracing paper or a lightboard to re-draw the sketch onto a clean sheet of paper. Sometimes the process stops here. If I don’t think there’s a story or a real interesting drawing to be told from my sketch, I might just put it away. The way my drawings come together are kind of accidental, spontaneous, and thought out if that makes any sense. I’m always working out a problem in my head . . . like what is this picture telling story wise or why am I drawing this wizard . . or what can I do to add to the storytelling or visual nature of it? Once I’ve decided that I want to keep going, I’ll bring out the pens. Then it’s drawing over the pencil with lots of lines till I finish all the detail. And weirdly I don’t consider it complete until I’ve figured out a title for it. . . but yeah that’s generally how it goes.

Many of your drawings are black and white, yet others are colorful. Which role does color play for you? How do you utilize the power of color in your drawings?

I started out drawing with very minimal colors. I think originally it was black and red because those were the only two Micron pen colors I owed at the time. I ended up using the red to emphasize small bits and would use it minimally. Eventually I tried adding color here and there, but really was never happy with the result. Over time I’d get more comfortable adding color to my works, and I found that color did allow me to add a bit more depth and feeling to my drawings. Not sure why or how it happened, but I probably just ran out of color pens and found myself drawing again with a limited color range for a bit, using only blue and pink for highlights on crystals in my drawings. I sort of reverted back to black and white, finding satisfaction in those contrasts, but I did recently buy TONS of color markers, so I predict you’ll see more colorful works again.

Have you ever worked for specific brands or clients on a specific topic throughout your career? If yes, how is this experience different from spontaneous drawings and illustrations? Who would you like to collaborate with as an artist and why?

I have been lucky enough to work for specific brands and clients, mostly who were involved with action sports – i.e Vans, FUSE, Hurley, so a lot of my work centering around skateboarding and skateboarders were something that were thematic in my work. The experience is a lot different in some ways than live drawing events; mainly because you’re dealing with brands that have identities that you want to make sure you’re in line with, as you create whatever it is you are creating. I think creating for specific brands, as well you have to work with art directors, as well as understand the entire process from start to finish. There’s gonna be a lot of changes and approval processes, which are totally okay, as long as you understand that what you may have envisioned from the start might evolve into something you may not have envisioned in the end. That’s not to say it’s better or worse: it is just part of the process of working with brands. I’ve always had a great experience working with brands and clients, and overall, I want them to be happy with the end art product, too. Overall, the experience is very different from spontaneous drawing. In live drawing, the artist can draw and make pretty much whatever they want, but also it is serving an entirely different purpose. Different pressures in live drawing, different timeframe, and different audience/client in a way.

These days, I’d love to collaborate with any kind of role-playing game company – from Wizards of the West Coast to small Indie gaming companies. The main reason is because I’ve been obsessed with them since I was a kid. I’d spend hours flipping through the artwork, and it’s just something I’d love to do. Participating in that community would be super rad! I’d also love to collaborate with more skate companies again on stuff like board graphics, mainly because there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your art on a deck! These are probably two of my earliest loves as a kid and now as an adult, so naturally I just want to make art for them!

Where do you mostly exhibit your art and how do you stay inspired?

Nowadays like most artists, I exhibit my art on social platforms like Instagram. It’s just the easiest method to get your work out there these days until something else comes along. I’ve been a working artist since maybe 2009, and I found myself feeling kind of burned out, as time went on. I really stay inspired these days by giving myself time away from art. This really involves anything from reading to watching movies to gardening to playing Dungeons & Dragons with some friends. That way, when I do come to a project or sit down at the drawing table, I can approach it with a fresh mind.

We are curious about your future ambitions as an artist. Can you give us an insight into anticipated goals and projects?

That’s a tough question. Mainly because I’ve really let go of having any set goals or ambitions in terms of my art career. I just really try to stay focused in the present and enjoy the projects at hand. I’m not too concerned any more with getting to a certain milestone or recognition. Every art career and artist is different. We all find ourselves on different paths, different highs, and lows, and so forth. For me personally, I’m just happy to be drawing what I want to draw and find projects that are interesting, engaging and satisfying for me as an artist. It could be some weird role-playing zine or another project with the city. I’m just going keep drawing and see where it takes me.

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