Qianhui Yu's surreal and inspirational illustrations shine a spotlight on social problems

Stoke-on-Trent-based illustrator and animator Qianhui Yu is on a mission to highlight social problems and tell stories from new perspectives. She's doing this by creating imaginative illustrations imbued with a healthy dose of feminism.

Originally from Guilin, China, Qianhui Yu has travelled around the world and settled in the UK to pursue her career as an animation director and illustrator. A graduate of the China Academy of Art and the Royal College of Art, Qianhui's career has already got off to an impressive start, as she is currently working on her BFI Network-supported animation Statue in the Garden.

Outside of her animation work, Qianhui is also making waves as an illustrator. WIRED, Hyundai, Faber and the New York Times are among her long list of illustrious clients. And it's easy to see why Qianhui is taking off. Her colourful, surreal style is impossible to resist, not least because it leads with a sense of hope and inspiration.

It's somewhat surprising then to learn that Qianhui never intended to major in illustration at university. "I studied multimedia art for my bachelor's degree while I was studying at the China Academy of Art, then continued to study experimental animation at the Royal College of Art in London," she tells Creative Boom.

"I have always wanted to be an artist and have been drawing since I was a child, but I also know how difficult it can be, so I am very grateful that I can make a living by drawing."

Regarding influences, Qianhui cites a host of dazzling illustrators and animators, including Karlotta Freier, Marie Larrivé, Zhong Xian, Thibaud Herem, Lisk Feng, and GUINEA MATE. Together, they have combined to help define her style, which she describes as surreal, imaginative, feminist, peaceful and hopeful.

As for why she decided to move to Stoke-on-Trent, Qianhui revealed that her partner wanted to learn ceramics at the local Clay College. "We were living in London before Autumn 2022, but the cost of living there is now so high that we decided to move to Stoke together," she says.

"Since then, I have spent much more time in the house and my Garden, mainly focusing on my own art practice. I have been experimenting more and exploring different mediums, such as ceramics, brush painting, watercolour, linocut, and zine making.

"I also found that I have a huge interest in nature. I love plant drawings and trying out different handcrafts; they bring me joy and excitement."

Speaking of joy and excitement, Qianhui has many projects she's proud of so far in her career, with different ones capturing unique periods of her life and representing her varied aesthetics. Top of her list is the book cover she made for Ghost Drum last year, a new classic surrealist fantasy fiction edition.

"I spent a lot of time researching the Shaman culture while making this commission, and I feel really proud to see the outcome being sold in the local bookshops and owned by different people!"

Elsewhere, her portraits for International Women's Day, commissioned by Hyundai, saw her up against the clock. "The drawings are shown on their socials and Spotify playlist cover," she says. This was a challenging project for me. I only had two weeks to complete it from the day I was contacted by the client to the final delivery date, and I am glad I eventually achieved it."

Then there's this short animation, which she made for GIPHY, her most experimental project to date. "The story is based on the happenings in my own garden after I moved to Stoke-onTrent," she says. "All backgrounds are hand drawn in watercolour, which took longer than I expected."

It may be time-consuming, but Qianhui loves her vocation nonetheless. "As a freelance artist, I enjoy managing and running my own business; I have the freedom to arrange my own time and reach out to different clients or artists I've always wanted to collaborate with," she concludes.


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