With her distinct and quirky illustration style, running the gamut from curvaceous vector pin-up girls to whimsical and painterly hand lettering, illustrator Ann Shen has the kind of skill many designers dream about. Born and raised in Orange County, California, Shen studied writing with a minor in photography at UCSD before moving to LA. Working at uninspiring office jobs post-graduation, Shen’s self-described “turning-point” for when she “realized that illustration and design could be a career” was when saw what her then-boyfriend (now husband) and his peers were doing for a living while earning his education in character animation. She realized, “I want to do that too!” and pursued a second college degree in illustration design.
From her first illustration job, “a cover for the Playboy Jazz Festival program that never ran,” Shen’s career has gone nowhere but up. She’s currently a packaging designer at Mattel Inc., working on the Monster High and Ever After High brands.
“It involves brainstorming inspiration to creating artwork for the packages, to art directing photo shoots to everything in between,” she says of her Mattel job. “It’s very collaborative!”
Shen has also worked with popular accessories company Ban.Do, the results of which can be found in Anthropologie and Nordstrom stores across North America— and what she cites as the highlight of her career so far.
“Anthropologie has always been one of my favorite stores,” Shen explains, “so seeing my illustrations there is such a thrill every time.”
As for where she gets inspired, Shen describes Los Angeles as having a huge influence on her style. “L.A. is very laid back, and blue sky in terms of being an artist—and there’s a great entrepreneurial spirit here,” she says. “It’s inspiring to be around people doing their own thing and making it happen in their own vision. There are also so many talented artists in this city, and opportunities to share your work. Additionally, the animation industry here has hugely influenced my work and style.”
This L.A. influence is apparent through the personal side projects Shen shares on her illustration blog Annplified: The Illustrated Life, like the “100 Pin-up Project”—clearly influenced by L.A.’s glamorous Hollywood past—and another which involves painting the “cute houses she sees in her neighborhood.”
Despite our move toward an increasingly digital world, hand lettering and illustration continue to be popular, and Shen’s work is reflective of the demand for imperfection within the digital design space.
“We’re drawn to hand-lettering as a counterbalance to the machine-perfect world we live in now, to feel some human connection and authenticity,” she says, quickly adding “but, I don’t think illustrations are just trendy right now. Illustrations have always been, and will always be, another tool for communication.”
For anyone wanting to stretch his or her abilities and succeed in the world of illustration, Shen has some sage advice. “No one succeeds alone,” she says.
“Be proud of your work and accomplishments, but above all that, always be a humble and kind person because you didn’t get there alone. Don’t waste any time being competitive or jealous, just compete with yourself. Everyone has their own journey,” she says. “Just do good work, and be someone people want to work with at three a.m.!”
Finally, she says “develop ass-power—a term coined by Quincy Jones to describe what set Michael Jackson far and above everyone else, by way of my former teacher Paul Rogers—the ability to sit your ass down and do the work required to be really great.”
A few more questions for Ann Shen
How would you describe your illustration style?
“Fun, happy, whimsical, and warm.”
What is your process for creating and producing an illustration?
“If it’s a project for a client, I’ll start with brainstorming a word association list to come up with ideas. Then I’ll research references for anything I might need, and then do a bunch of rough composition thumbnails. I’ll narrow it down to however many are good, and then clean them up in final sketches. Once a client picks a sketch, I’ll do a color comp, and then a final. If it’s for myself, I usually just start sketching for fun with an idea of what I want to draw, and then let it naturally come out.”
How long does it take you to complete an illustration, from concept to final product?
It varies—for my personal pieces for fun, it may take an hour or a few hours over a couple days; for client projects, it may take a few weeks since there is more collaboration with an art director, so there will be back and forth revisions. Also, to speak more holistically to how long a piece takes, I should really say, ‘it takes me an hour + the last 29 years to get to this point where it takes me an hour.’”
You can see more of Ann Shen’s work on her website at www.ann-shen.com.