New York-based illustrator Cleo Peng focuses on tender moments of human interaction in her illustrations of people on the street and in surreal dreamscapes.
Who hasn't indulged in a bit of innocent people-watching? But while observing the actions of people around us is an idle time killer for most of us, illustrator Cleo Peng concentrates on these fleeting moments and crystallises them into beautiful artworks.
Cleo, originally from Chongqing, China, moved to New York to study design at Parsons School of Design, and it's clear to see this influence in her work. Her illustrations are balanced with a suitable amount of space to let the lightest of touches breathe or be composed in such a way that powerful feelings are heightened even more.
What draws Cleo to depict human interactions and emotions is their scope. They are something that can be expressed in diverse ways. "It is more than just touching," she tells Creative Boom. "It can be eye contact, a similar movement, or simply being in the same space. And being in the journey of capturing those moments as an artist has brought me so much joy and new perspectives."
Cleo moved to New York in 2019 to pursue her studies, but she does not think that the city changed her way of seeing those interactions and emotions. "It does have an impact, though. I think the interactions and emotions between people are something I can sense deeper as I grow older.
"Over the years, I have experienced a lot of ways of how people can feel towards one another, whether it is from mine or my friends' experiences or from a song or a movie. I think it is something that grows on you as time goes by."
Black expanses and bursts of lurid, almost neon colour define Cleo's work, and it's a powerful contrast that brings out the emotional impact of her illustrations. Sitting somewhere between pop art and graphic novel, her style's greatest strength is being able to hone on the details she has seen of people walking by on the street or riding the train. She also pays close attention to characters from movies and photos. "I like reading their body language and emotions."
Moving to New York in 2019 might not have necessarily changed her work, but the events that happened soon after opened up new angles and possibilities. "The pandemic obviously has a huge impact on everybody," she says. "It has allowed or even forced me to bring my observation and sensibility to life in my works since I spend so much time by myself.
"And the new ways of human interactions forming during and after the pandemic has just been a mind opener, it has transcended from something physical to distanced and virtual, but the emotions and connections there is nothing less. It is somehow even stronger in a way that I can't explain."
Beyond people, though, the other characters in Cleo's illustrations are the scenery, a branch stretching over a pond or the window on a subway train. Speaking of the appeal of nature and urban landscapes, she says: "Nature and city are both our habitat. I want to find a balance between them in my work. I see it almost as an exploration of a new lifestyle, a new way of building relationships with our surroundings."
Just as glimpses into the passing lives of strangers are something we are left to interpret by ourselves, Cleo is equally elusive about the meanings of her illustrations. Instead, she wants people to come to their own conclusions about how to feel or what's going on in them.
As for broad feelings, though, she says: "I hope when people look at my works, it takes them away from reality just for a moment and forms some new perspectives in life."