The work of illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon leaves an impression on your mind. It’s striking, vibrant, and playful. Maybe even a little psychedelic. Her creations speak multitudes and stick with you long after viewing.
Well, that’s my experience, at least. With work like that, I had some curiosities about JooHee. So, I asked.
To start, JooHee is busy. She regularly contributes to The New York Times and The New Yorker, works on books and advertisements, teaches at RISD, and focuses on her own personal projects (including running her own online shop). Thankfully, we caught her during the summer, when she had a bit of free time to share her story.
Did you discover art and your own creativity early in life or were you more of a late-bloomer?
I was always making and drawing things. I think all kids do this naturally, but for some reason a lot of them stop. I just continued to do it.
Did you have encouragement to keep going from adults in your life, or was it something you just had to do no matter what?
I did have a lot of support from family and friends, and teachers, which I think was very important. The drive to draw and make things was strong and I was quite self motivated, but I don’t think I would be where I am without their encouragement. Perhaps I would have become a marine biologist, or a pastry chef instead.
You’re both an illustrator and printmaker. Which one came first? What prompted you to pursue both fields?
I would say in my work the two are interconnected and each informs the other. The way I create my illustrations has a strong basis in traditional printmaking. I like that printmaking is very process-oriented and there are many steps involved to make a finished image. Not only do you have to come up with a design and plan out the composition, you have to break down the image into layers. I find thinking about colors interacting in layers, overlapping to create secondary colors, comes more naturally to me than mixing paint on a palette. So I adopted this process for my illustration work as well. The main difference is that I now work on the computer more for my commercial projects.
Working both traditionally and on the computer is a nice balance for me, since what is lacking in one can be found in the other. I find sitting still in front of a computer for long periods can be an exhausting ordeal. Printmaking is a much more physical activity, pulling a screen or cranking a press, moving around the printshop. I also like the unexpected mistakes that can happen in printmaking. This is almost impossible to avoid when you are trying to make an edition and for professional printers they are fighting against this in order to create a perfect set of identical prints. But I love the slight discrepancies and the individuality of each print. On the computer it’s so easy to fix everything.
Is it difficult to split your time between your studio and teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design?
I really enjoy teaching. But it can be challenging to balance the two, especially now that I live in New York City where there is the added time of the commute. In many ways I think you have to be some what selfless to be a great teacher since you have to be willing to give your time to others. But this can be difficult when you have projects of your own that need time and attention.
What’s your favorite aspect of teaching? What’s the one major thing you try to instill in all of your students before they leave your classes?
My favorite aspect of teaching is seeing what my students come up with, working with the tools I give them in ways I never expected. I find this exciting and also inspiring, making me want to try something new as well. I love the dialogue that happens through teaching. Sharing my own experiences with students, imparting my knowledge to them, and in return seeing the world through there eyes is an amazing experience.
One thing I try to instill in my students is to find ways to make art that they are enthusiastic and passionate about. It’s always apparent to the viewer when an artist is not enjoying the work they are making.
Would you say there’s been a lesson your students have taught you? If so, what is it?
I think my students make me more aware of how technology plays a role in art making. I am not the most tech savvy person, and my students always seem light years ahead of me when they talk about how they use Photoshop or the latest tablet or app. It’s great that there are so many digital tools available now, but I find students can sometimes lose sight of what they can do with just their hands, a piece of paper and a pencil.
It’s hard to describe your work without mentioning your vibrant use of color. Have you always worked with a lot of color? What inspires and informs your work?
I do enjoy using vibrant colors in my work. A lot of it is informed by printmaking since the way I work in layers you have to think about how colors interact when they are overlapped. Even though my work is very vibrant and colorful, there are a lot of limitations and parameters that I have to think about when figuring out what colors to use. In terms of inspiration, I am inspired by so many things. Everything from nature to people on the streets, old textiles, contemporary art and dance, traveling in foreign places. Anything I see can be a form of inspiration.
What’s your creative process like? Does it vary from project to project, day to day?
It is hard to say specifically since my process does vary quite a lot and it changes to fit the needs of a given project. Also it changed depending on what I am interested in exploring at the moment. But all my work usually stems from a conceptual basis, with an idea that I want to further explore. I think good ideas are key to making a successful image.
When do you know you’ve found a good idea?
I think first, you as the artist have to believe in the idea and recognize its potential for becoming something bigger. I would say it’s more of a process of elimination, where I come up with a lot of different ideas and then see which one I gravitate towards the most. Sometimes I also find ideas get better with time and revisiting a project that wasn’t working for whatever reason, can take on new aspect when I come back to it later on.
What’s your process when it comes to projects like illustrating for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and books?
I am always curious to try new things and working on a variety of projects allows for more room to experiment.
With editorial work, since the deadlines are short I end up working with a lot of different art directors and can try different approaches depending on the deadline and the publication. I also try and fit in a few personal projects where I can do something completely new.
One example is my reptile scarf. I’ve always wanted to adapt my work for textiles and to try make something that is both beautiful and functional. But no one was asking me to do a project like this. So I decided to try it on my own. I felt like I was the art director, artist and producer all rolled into one. And it was great to have complete freedom to do what I wanted. Researching and finding the right printer was also an interesting experience, as I wanted the scarves to be hand printed. I ended up finding a small family run printer in Japan who has been printing on fabric for multiple generations and they did a wonderful job.
Is there another dream project you have in mind?
I’d love to do something large scale and interactive. Designing sets for a theater production would be exciting! A project where I have to figure out a way to transform a flat image into a 3D experience would be an interesting challenge.