Zhang Liang on developing his gross-out style, working with John M. Blundall, and why you should do your own thing

The work of illustrator Zhang Liang is instantly recognisable thanks to his vibrant use of colour and gross-out drawing style. We caught up with him to learn more about his career so far and what it was like to be the last disciple of renowned puppeteer John M. Blundall.

If there's one thing that runs through all of Zhang Liang's artwork, it's his enthusiasm. The passionate freelance illustrator from China has been working across editorials, ad campaigns, fashion and printed editions for the last ten years, and in every piece, his excitement appears to overflow from the page.

One of the biggest fuels in Zhang's creative furnace is gross-out toys. These will be all too familiar to anyone born in the late Eighties. But for the uninitiated, think of the artwork found on Garbage Pail Kids and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All ooze and gunge and sewers.

This style of artwork was one of the many cultural ideas from the United States to make it over to China towards the turn of the decade, just as the country was beginning to open up to the West. And the impact they made on an unwary Zhang is undeniable. "When I was a kid, I was the best at drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and characters from Water Margin – one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature," he tells Creative Boom.

This Western influence was so strong that when Zhang got the chance, he moved to study at the Glasgow School of Art when he turned 18. "I worked in many different disciplines when I first started the course, but I gravitated toward illustration pretty quickly and haven't thought about doing anything else ever since," he adds.

And just as Zhang stayed true to illustration, he also clung to his artistic inspirations. As an adult, his enthusiasm for all things gross-out sees him collect toys of his childhood passions, a trait he says is common among artistic people.

"I collect a lot of stuff – mostly Garbage Pail Kids, The Simpsons, over 300 Ninja Turtles and over 200 Super7 reaction figures – which I have all around me at my home studio, and that definitely influences my creative consciousness," he reveals.

"I find myself constantly referring to them when working on something, both for clients and my personal work. Character design is very important in my work, so it's a great resource. Whether it's the cute expression on GPK's face, the fast and furious Mad Rollercycle in Madballs, or the typical neon fluorescent colours of 80's toys, they play a big part in my artwork.

"When I watch these cartoons and read these comics, I like to collect related toys. Doing so is probably the happiest thing in my life."

It's not just his collection of curiosities that inspires Zhang, though. He's also influenced by his other loves, such as hip-hop, classic horror movies, and old television commercials. While this might sound like an odd yet eclectic list to draw from, he adds: "It's really important to follow your own interests and passions. As you might be able to tell from my work, most of my illustrations are about the things that interest me the most and have been a part of my life."

But one influence on Zhang's art definitely stands apart from the rest, as the illustrator was the last disciple of artistic director, designer and puppeteer John M. Blundall. Often referred to as the walking encyclopedia of the puppet theatre, Blundall was the most prolific producer of multimedia puppet theatre productions in the UK, with his enduring work still appealing to millions. If you've ever been entertained by the likes of Parker from Thunderbirds, you've been enthralled by Blundall's work.

The word 'disciple', however, is well chosen when it comes to Zhang's connection with Blundall. "John preferred not to use the word 'teach' as it felt passive and mechanical," he reveals. "We had a close relationship that was almost like family. John was born in the 1930s, without any pretence, candidly sincere and straightforward. He possessed a wealth of knowledge in areas that were unfamiliar to me, yet our friendship was firmly based on our shared love of art and the pure joy that it brings."

In 2004, Blundall established The World Through Wooden Eyes collection in Glasgow. Housed in the Mitchell Library, it contained the John M. Blundall Collection of puppets, masks, prints, engravings, original designs, and other works on paper and related material, making it one of the finest collections in the world. It intended to broaden access to and understanding of puppet theatre in all its forms.

Sadly, after Blundall died in 2014, the collection was sold. Images can still be seen online, but the dismantling of the display hit Zhang especially hard.

"Although I have been in and out of the TWTWE studio since 2009, I am still ashamed that I didn't learn many of the specialised technical and craft skills related to traditional puppetry during my time there," he explains. "Nonetheless, John's puppetry art and the stories behind them continue to inspire me, and I find that puppets of all forms, much like toys, are a never-ending source of inspiration for me."

Unsurprisingly, the words of his mentor have stuck with Zhang. "John once said to me: 'If you have good drawing ability, you can do anything,'" he reveals. "Although it's always difficult to define my style exactly. Co-founder of TWTWE, Stephen Foster, once described it as: 'rooted firmly in American pop culture. Behind this vibrant style, however, is also a firm grasp of 'traditional draftsmanship'. Although not necessarily in obvious use in his current style, that grounding allows him to adapt and grow continuously.' I think that's a pretty accurate assessment."

Out of all his many projects so far, Zhang particularly enjoyed his recent fan art series, Brew Ha Ha!, which was inspired by a little show called The Simpsons. "This project was inspired by Simpsons Comics #239 – Brew Ha Ha!," he explains. "I have combined various Simpsons characters with coffee elements in this series." If you're interested, here are some examples of his work so far.

But if Zhang could work on any project in the upcoming years, what would his dream commission be? "As a toy collector, I'd love to do some work for Super7 Toys; imagine how cool it would be to redesign some action figure card art and bring back the glory days of 1980's classic cartoon?

"Either that or I'd like to do something crazy like working for a hip hop artist like Lil Wayne, Young Thug or Chris Brown, or collaborating with Bape or Billionaire Boys Club. Other than that, I've never done a children's book or a mural, so I would love to do one of those."

With so much under his belt during his first ten years as a creative freelancer and with so much in store, what does Zhang feel is the biggest lesson he's learnt during his career so far? He concludes: "If you're doing your own thing, It's going to be more difficult, but it will be rewarding at the end."


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