Kefan Shi's metaphor-packed illustrations tackle themes of self identity and mental health

Visual designer and illustrator Kefan Shi creates imagery positively brimming with symbolism and metaphors. We talked to him about where this approach came from and how it helped him to process his identity.

Kefan Shi's artistic ambitions can be traced right back to his childhood spent reading comics. Having since sharpened his illustration and visual design skills at art school, he now juggles freelance work with client projects covering everything from packaging design to motion design and illustration.

A recent career highlight for Kefan is the pre-visualisation work he created for the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum Children's Playground. "In this project, I was responsible for the interior design of the ground map, and it was my first time designing a large-scale space," he tells Creative Boom. "Thanks to the trust and mutual communication with the team, I soon found my way.

"The children's playground consists of different areas with different themes, such as the jungle and the ocean. Understanding colours in illustration helped me a lot in this project, helping me to match the colours to the different themes and make connections between them. The outcome surprised me, from the graphic to the final rendering."

When it comes to his biggest artistic inspiration, Kefan has a clear answer: Hieronymus Bosch. Part of the appeal of his legendary work is the rich symbolism and storytelling, which Kefan enjoys processing.

"Bosh's paintings are not described in a single sentence or a few words," he explains. "Each element plays a different role, such as the owl. The owl is an animal in Bosch's paintings, yet at the same time, it can be interpreted in different ways. It can represent Death; it can be a symbol of the night. It can symbolise an observer who watches the merriment of human beings. All these different interpretations can lead to different stories.

"In my artwork Embrace Yourself, I have also applied the same method. In my story, owls — predators that fly and observe at night — symbolise an unknown danger and uncertainty. Combining these ideas and elements allows the images to be readable somehow.

"I like that the audience reads my pictures with a viewpoint of their own. Of course, these metaphors are the story clues that make the paintings enjoyable, which are still organised around the idea of the story itself."

Besides the work of Bosch, Shanghai, the city Kefan grew up in, remains an enduring creative influence. "The city has cultural diversity, with traditional Chinese culture and Western influences," he reveals. "That's why Shanghai is also called HAIPAI culture.

"Shanghai has a lot of galleries, art fairs, art museums and Art Exhibition Week. I like to visit these places to collect inspiration for my creations. The city cultivated my interest in art, my love for culture, and my appreciation for diversity."

Uniting all of Kefan's work are the themes of mental well-being and identity. The latter topic is especially important to Kefan as creating art has helped him to accept his own identity. "This is still a delicate subject for me," he explains. "I've felt the negative effects of the anxiety it creates on me, the feelings of insecurity and disorientation.

"Accepting who I am has been a long healing process for me. Drawing is a medium to incorporate my courage and hopes, as seen in my work like Embrace Yourself. I would say self-identity and mental wellness are a long journey I need to explore."

When he's not processing these subjects, though, Kefan is also experimenting with AR technology and its artistic possibilities. In particular, he is interested in how his images can interact with realism. "Instead of 2D images, the work can interact with real life and surroundings in real-life scenarios," he explains.

"The advent of AR technology brings me new insight into my industry. Currently, I am using Spark AR and Adobe Aero to show my AR work. My first project to connect my art with an actual location is Vase and Birds.

"In this piece, I am thinking about Chinatown and New York City: it asks whether a culture is trapped in a fast-paced 'melting pot' or is free to grow through its environment in another cultural setting. This kind of AR and location work is a direction I am planning to produce more of."


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