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I am not an illustrator

June 17th, 2010

Filed under: ART & DESIGN


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I did an exercise the other day, where I had to list my different identities and then go through a process of crossing them off one by one and seeing what or who was left after each role had been removed. (Eep, me, ‘not a writer’!) When I interviewed Patray Lui, this concept came to mind. A self professed ‘non-illustrator’, she creates whimsical moments, stories and narratives through images. But much, much more.

Originally from Hong Kong, once a student in Italy and then a former Eindhoven resident, Patray now lives in Amsterdam. Her work with Philips Design as an Interactive Design consultant required her in the capital. While she is content with her new digs, Eindhoven was the site of inspiration for her little illustrated friend, Cane Picio. “I had a lot of time to reflect on what I want to do. On what I like to do. I didn’t have an internet connection back at the start of 2007 and I don’t have a television. There are more things to do in Amsterdam. I miss that quiet time in Eindhoven.” Patray reckons she can’t draw at all, and never drew as a child. “It was a surprise for me to find out that I can draw and make these kinds of pictures … in Eindhoven.”

The impetus for Patray’s creative pouring into the adventures of a little Italian dog has gloomy origins. Not only had she moved from Italy to a somewhat isolated life in quiet Eindhoven, she had split up with her Italian boyfriend, and many young people in Patray’s life happened to pass away. She needed to give a place to these events. She condoled with the friends who had been affected by these losses and made cards that she thought would cheer them (and herself) up. She took the playful character, Cane Picio, who had been modeled on the pet dog she had with her ex-boyfriend back in Italy, and put him in scenes that had played out in her life. This dog – actually he was called Bill! – was very jolly and charming, he farted a lot and he never barked: he was a hunting dog that didn’t hunt. He was happy and didn’t worry about things. “People ask me what I mean when I show Cane Picio farting. To me it’s just a fun thing. Sometimes when you get angry, don’t bark. Just fart! Take it easy.”

An end. A start.

An end. A start.

After having enjoyed the process and seeing the positive response her friends made about her cards, she started a website to show a range of illustrations depicting her travel adventures through Italy and Spain, but the landscapes needed a character in it. The travel pics never came to light as she focused instead on the adventures of Cane Picio (Cane meaning dog, and Picio is Piemonte dialect for “stupido”, or silly). He is a mirror for her and her own adventures of travel and reflections on life.

Patray makes her drawings without using a pencil and paper. She feels her repertoire is limited, because she uses the same technique and medium. I think she’s a specialist. She never works with a mouse or mousepen because it’s inconvenient. She works on the sofa, and never at a table. I’ve seen her use a Macbook touchpad with such dexterity, it’s like watching a concert pianist in the middle of a great cadenza. She uses Illustrator, and somehow builds layers of lines to create these wonderful etching/print like black and white images. “If I look back, the drawings have become more detailed. Not focused on the dog anymore, but on his surroundings. The only things you can alter are if his eye is pointing up or down, or moving his tail. If you want to give a message about what you’re drawing, it comes from the environment. So he’s actually been getting smaller and smaller as I’ve gone on.” After she tells me that she reads National Geographic, it makes sense to see Cane Picio always depicted in natural surrounds, and never in a city. The variety of angles that she chooses suggests a photographic eye. When asked if she would go beyond monochrome, she says no, because her style is simple. She says she once had ideas about sharing her drawings online and asking friends to experiment with adding their own colours, patterns and dimensions, but hasn’t gone beyond its being an idea. Such openness and generosity is refreshing – Patray has a creative commons stamp on her website, so is obviously a promoter of open source collaboration, and comes from a company (Philips) that believes in innovation through co-creation.

Patray starts a Cane Picio scene by taking a vague idea, like“summer” for example, and then drills down to a more precise idea, like “diving into summer”, and then she has the dog jump into the water, bringing that idea to life. Autonomous drawing doesn’t work for Patray – she never just starts drawing hoping the message will come to her. Patray seems to uses the process of drawing as a way to order and channel her thoughts – thoughts which must be relevant to her. She is too self aware to use drawing as a way to reveal what is on her mind.

Aside from the personal enjoyment she takes from her drawing, the greatest thing that Patray’s playful illustrations have given her is entry into a network that would otherwise have been closed off to her. Not only has she met other illustrators and artists, but she has met journalists, gained commissions for making editorial illustrations, and Cane Picio was included in two books in 2009. She has made some small Cane Picio items that are for sale on her website, but she isn’t planning to expand this range. She’s got her eye on a something new. She is now the creative director of a more serious undertaking – Artessorio. This is a joint initiative, with Patray as the Creative Director and a friend in Hong Kong as the Head of Production. Together they design and make accessories and they showed their 2010 collection at Pure London, in London from 14 – 16 February this year.

What I find so inspirational about Patray is her accidental entrepreneurialism. But more than this, she is light in her manner but not superficial. “I like to imagine a lot. This dog has a very free spirit. He would escape and after a couple days he would come back, it was like he was on vacation. He used to eat my brioche when I went out!” Like Cane Picio, she takes things easy, she seems always to be smiling. She just tries things, through being authentic, and then they lead her to openings that she is brave enough to undertake. When I ask her who her creative role models are, she cites art works by Klimt and Mucha for example, not their biographies. Their artworks never bob up in her work, but are a source of contemplation. And that is right, I think. Patray puts her individual stamp on her way of living, so why would she model her life on someone else’s?

This is the girl from the other side of the world whose adventures continually take her all over the world and who has developed her artistic abilities from being comforter of dear friends, to (what I would call) becoming an illustrator, to being the creative force behind her own fashion label.

She says she cannot call herself an illustrator because she never trained formally. This modesty is charming, but I refuse to accept it. What or who is Patray if she’s not an illustrator? Business woman? Designer? Artist? Philosopher? Appreciator? What or whoever she is, she is a creative inspiration, quietly and gently going about her way in her unique fashion, making the world a more thoughtful and beautiful place, with her non-illustrations.

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