If you spy Mandy Lau creating a portrait, you might be struck by the time she dedicates to getting the details right – pencil in hand, studying the face, capturing the angles.
If you spy Mandy Lau at a live fashion illustration event, you will definitely be struck by how quickly she can create on-the-spot drawings of models and attendees in their finery. She has her pencils, art markers and ink pens lined up and, within minutes, she is conjuring up another fully realized outfit and the essence of the person underneath.
“With fashion illustrations,” Lau explains, “I can work much more loosely. I generally appreciate fifteen minutes per figure for fashion illustrations, but if you’re working an event of 30, 50, 75, people, you need to work much quicker. Even if the numbers are small, no one really wants to be standing for too long. Generally, I have to try to keep fashion sketches to under ten minutes. So, constant practice is very important.”
Lau has enjoyed artistic activities since she was a child. “I drew mostly. My parents enrolled me in piano lessons, and I have no idea how I got through ten levels – passing all the exams – of the Royal Conservatory of Music program, because I was terrible.” She got into fashion illustration after earning her Bachelor of Technology at Ryerson University and a Certificate in Fashion Arts from Vancouver Community College.
Lau quickly earned interest and has been captivating clients since. “I illustrated for St. John Knits last month at their boutique inside the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver for their Shine Bright Event. It was a lovely setup and I was hired to illustrate their Resort collection and also their clients in various chosen outfits.”
“I have also worked on editorial illustrations for Real Weddings magazine. Editorial illustration is always a healthy challenge since you have to convey the message or story in the article through illustration.”
“Another project that was really neat was for a real estate agency in Toronto, years back. They hired me to do fashion illustrations for the interior nine-foot walls of a condo presentation centre. The presentation centre was fashion-themed, so it was a good fit.”
Lately, Lau has also been illustrating more personal work. “I’m sort of forcing myself to stick to a routine to work on one portrait a week. I think the most interesting thing is that getting into a regular routine of doing personal work has helped me do other work better. Or, more so that I became more motivated with other work and just started feeling better in general.”
Lau starts her portraits with pencil. She then scans them into Photoshop and colours them digitally with a Wacom pen. “The two latest sets were done in sets of five illustrations. The latest one featured portraits where the subjects’ faces were mostly covered by their hair.”
Hair IV. Pencil with digital colouring
“The set before was a series called Here. I always draw from reference photographs. I don’t have resources – time, money, network – to stage photoshoots or hire models with the look I’m after, so for the Here series, I compiled faces using different facial features from different people on the computer to use as reference photos.”
And Here. Pencil with digital colouring.
“My portrait illustrations are very different for me – the process, that is. I love it. It can be challenging and also maddening, though. Then, sometimes I get to this point where I learn how to deal with the challenging/maddening stage, to just trust the process, and then it’s just me, undistracted, and the unwanted voices and noise go away. At that point, I can be calm and I can try to listen to what it is I want to say through the illustration in front of me. That’s where the fun begins.”
Lau is also brought on as a commercial and editorial retoucher, working with photographers and art/creative directors. “As a retoucher, I do photo illustration work. I composite photos and make creative concepts look as real as possible. I want to get into more complex retouching, and eventually CGI/3D modeling.”
What does Lau like most about earning her living as an artist?
“I love the challenge and I love the creative teams and individuals I have been given the opportunity to work with. I have the flexibility as a freelancer to take on different retouching and illustration projects, which is great and I hope to keep expanding my skills and keep connecting with other creative people. I like managing my own time, setting my own goals, and making time to fit in personal work.”
Here Again. Pencil with digital colouring.
What is most challenging in Lau’s working life?
“The most challenging thing is also managing my own time, setting my own goals and making time to fit in personal work. It’s most challenging to feel confident that you’re making the right decision with every decision.”
Lau cautions artists not to rely on career advice from other people. As she says: “Be receptive to what others are doing and what you think you can learn from them, but definitely be selective with the information you take in, and be curious and brave enough to figure out things on your own. What works for other people may not work for you in your specific position at your specific time.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
Header Image: Hair III. Pencil and Digital Colouring