An Interview With Illustrator Darel Seow
Tell us about your daily routine.
I’d love to keep a more fixed and balanced routine, but it basically involves me spending most of my waking hours at work! I’m trying to begin with some personal time to think, draw and just explore ideas before the work day officially begins.
I share a studio with fellow illustrator Lee Xin Li and architect Syafiq Jubri, and we enjoy the randomness of each day. Sometimes it’s creative talk, meeting each others’ friends over tea or crafting weird soundscapes together while calling each others’ phones to create feedback. I then freak out and rush to complete the rest of my work, leaving at the stroke of midnight to catch my MRT carriage home.
How did your journey of becoming an illustrator begin?
It probably started shortly after I popped out of my mother’s belly, with some of my earliest memories including flipping through stacks of dinosaur books and drawing endlessly. I drew on old printer paper that just went on and on and on, and that was quite perfect indeed. I was glued to books and documentaries, which I used as using as reference and inspiration. Illustration was a way of taking ownership of what I had seen and making the story my own. This remains a process I still adopt in my work — I particularly enjoy looking at what’s real, framing it from my perspective then creating a narrative based on that.
What inspires you?
Nature, more than anything else, whether it’s being out in the wild, through wildlife books or documentaries and it’s always been my fascination since young. I am just amazed by the vastness of the wild, the bizarre forms of life that occupy them and the quirky behaviours that they exhibit. As a creator, it’s an odd feeling to conjure up a character or story you think is quite strange, only to find out it exists somewhere in the world!
In terms of humans, it’d have to be universal treasure David Attenborough. He continues to show me what can be achieved when you keep working at something you believe in.
(I got to meet him at a talk and gave a t-shirt I designed to him, an encounter I will never forget!)
What are your current obsessions?
I think I like too many things, and at the risk of sounding boring it’d be nature in various forms once again. Growing up, I’ve shared a home with a chinchilla, budgies, hamsters, terrapins, lobsters and countless fish. I don’t quite have the space for pets now so I’ve filled the (shared) studio with too many plants and I can only hope that everyone breathes better because of this. Surrounding myself with nature brings calmness and a sense of connection the world.
Though your illustrations reach out to a diverse public, a majority of them are dedicated towards the younger audience. Does the age of your audience influence your drawing style? If so, in what way?
It started the other way actually, working in various styles and then realising that I enjoyed working out the simplest style of communication through images. Kids are a tough crowd, they’re insanely discerning, you need to be able to catch and hold their attention. I’d like to think I design in a way that kids can understand, but it’s ultimately appreciated by people of all ages and it’ll connect with different people in varying ways. I’m working towards producing illustrations that are more inclusive, being more conscious of how images are viewed by more diverse audiences. Stories should be able to be enjoyed by all!
Help, you’re mobbed in a foreign land and left with one drawing medium at hand. What will be your preferred choice?
I love the Pilot G-Tec-C4, a metal-nibbed pen that allows for considered and delicate marks and writes fantastically. I am perhaps a little too embarrassed to have given this thought even before being asked. At the same time, it would double up as a handy tool to defend against whatever forces of darkness I might encounter. We’ll see just how mighty it is when the time comes.
For the most of your illustrations, animals seem to be the main subject matter. Could you share your reasons behind this? (On a side note, do you see yourself being a zookeeper / naturalist in an alternative universe?)
I’ve always enjoyed observing animals. Their weird forms and strange often remind me how they are quite possibly just like us, and from another point of view, entirely different. I love how we project ourselves, our thinking and our beliefs upon these beings and have certain expectations of them like a sly fox or clever raven, which is great to play around with.
Rather than creating work that’s just about animals themselves, I like to think of them as actors which I cast - in the same way you might have a rough sense of roles an actor might play based on your impression of him, he could still surprise you with something totally different.
One of the proudest days of my childhood was playing this zookeeping game when I had proven myself worthy and earned the title of Pooper Scooper. Naturally, I had to print it out and stick it on my wall. If I didn’t go down this path I’d have loved to be a wildlife biologist!
You’ve published three children’s picture books, how has the experience been to you?
It’s been downright incredible, and has taken my practice in many unexpected directions! I was drawn to the rich characters, environments and words. Most of all, I was drawn to the magical way in which word and image blends to tell stories filled with ideas and concepts far beyond what we think of as just for kids. I was highly fortunate for the first project after graduation to be a picture book with the Asian Civilisations Museum, where you journey through the museum meeting artifacts, something we hoped readers would replicate.
I did a short storytelling and drawing session in conjunction with its launch and since then I’ve been conduction lots of picture book workshops for students of all ages. It’s crucial that children create and tell stories themselves, stories that feature people that look like us and spaces we’re familiar with and I’m glad that I get to help guide them along. The books they come up with are lovely, I’d say they’re far more creative and funny that what I’ve done myself!
Lastly, what are you secretly working on at the moment?
How can you ask me to reveal something so top secret! I’ve got a few projects in the works, the common thread would be that of my love of the natural world. There’s something about dinosaurs, local wildlife and my succulent collection. Since it’s out now, please hold me accountable if you catch me around!