Creating a New Visual Reality: Interview with Illustrator Katherine Lam

Cover art by Katherine Lam for The Criterion Collection release of “Toni”, 1935, directed by Jean Renoir

 
It was Jacques Tourneur’s film I Walked with a Zombie that sparked illustrator Katherine Lam’s interest in the history of cinema, the gate that lead her to the films of the likes of Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa and Tarkovsky. Classic cinema opened up a new visual world and the possibility to experiment with art in ever changing ways, and, most importantly, in ways that are specific to the medium of illustration – because artists who choose to create in a visual medium should accept and pursue the challenges of form-creating work, Katherine believes. Bernie Fuchs, whose creative restlessness was one of his biggest assets, and Edward Hopper, the visual bard of American solitude and a masterful painter of light and shadow, are two other big influences on her work.

An element of surprise permeates Katherine Lam’s art. Her illustrations have a distinctive mood, she has a way of working suspense and voyeurism into her pieces, beautifully contrasting dark corners and streaks of light. Hitchcock comes to mind again – his suspenseful visual narrative tactics remain unmatched to this day. Katherine invests her pieces with a sense of suddenness in sights that compress time, her subjects feel taken by surprise, and we, the viewers, are too, from afar. It’s as if we are waiting for something to happen and the moment keeps being prolonged. And it all happens in a single image. That’s the work of a true visual storyteller.

In our interview, I am talking with the artist about her timeless cover art for this week’s Criterion Collection release of Jean Renoir’s Toni, about what fostered her creativity as a child and, naturally, about Hitchcock.
 

Illustration by Katherine Lam

 
I rewatched Toni for our interview and I am glad I did because there were certain details that I didn’t remember well, like the bee sting sequence. It’s a key moment in the film, the moment that unleashes all the events that follow, and one that you beautifully used to illustrate the Criterion cover art. But I find that these key moments that can capture the essence of a film are not necessarily easy to land, and it requires tremendous talent from the illustrator, especially in this case, when your design grabs the viewer’s interest by showing restraint rather than making it more explicit. What was the process behind your work on Toni?

Most of the credit for using the bee sting scene as the cover will have to go to my art director, Eric Skillman. He came to me with this project and asked me to center the piece around that scene. I wouldn’t have been able to conceive the cover without him. His idea was that the bee sting scene, where she flirtatiously lowers her dress for Toni to suck out the poison, and a later scene, where she lowers her dress to show Toni the abuse that she had faced at the hands of her husband, was a nice visual rhyme that showed the stark contrast of the first half of the movie and the later half.

The scene in the film was flirty and cute, but later, the film takes a dark turn, and I wanted to make sure the cover showed the ominous overtones of the film, even if the subject matter is innocuous and light.

Do you ever seek for inspiration outside the film itself?

Yes! I was looking at Edward Kinsella, who makes a lot of portrait work that is a little eerie, and I believe this is achieved by his mostly dark monochromatic colour palette. I decided with a sepia-toned colour scheme to get that old, dramatic look. I was also looking at Hammershøi a lot for this cover. Hammershøi’s work is quiet, still and also a little eerie, and most of his subjects aren’t facing him. His soft rendering of shadows and light makes his subjects and rooms look like they’re glowing. Usually my work is flat, but I like the soft glow effect in his work, so I was inspired to render the piece out more.

Besides its subtle and defining references to the film, there is something more about your cover art for Toni. It has a timelessness to it, the kind of artwork you want to frame and put on your wall, that has a lasting life of its own, regardless of the film’s. Is it important for you that a film cover can stand as artwork in its own right?

Definitely! As an illustrator, my work tends to be more artwork-centric and I enjoy creating poster artwork that doesn’t depend on familiar faces or typography. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing film posters where the poster was treated as a placeholder for a celebrity’s face. Posters can draw viewers in just as well as a trailer or a familiar celebrity. They are meant to be eye-catching and informative. You can get creative with them and make some really great pieces.
 
 

”I think people tend to get caught up in telling a good story
or having great visuals – a book can tell a great story,
a photograph can have great visuals – I want to see
something that only film or illustration can do.”

 
 

Poster art by Katherine Lam for The Criterion Collection release of “Panique”, 1946, directed by Julien Duvivier

 
Your work with The Criterion Collection includes Julien Duvivier’s Panique and Yasujirō Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, another two classics. What would you say is the biggest difference between contemporary and classic cinema?

I think a lot of contemporary cinema has reflected the change in the industry where movies are made quickly to appeal to as many people as possible with the purpose of generating revenue. Obviously, this is not the case for all contemporary films, but for me, the difference between contemporary and classic cinema is that one tends to care more about revenue and one tends to care more about wanting to say something. Classic movies are timeless and everybody of all ages and eras will be able to resonate with that, even if the time period or culture is different from the one that we’re used to, like Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Roma, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, etc. It’s a movie that leaves you with more questions than answers, that starts a conversation rather than ends one.

If you could choose one classic film to make the official poster art for back in the day, which one would it be?

I would love to make a poster for the horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I love working with anything that has an atmosphere of suspense, and the film is so stylish and abstract, I think trying to capture its essence in one poster would be exciting.

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, it is a dark and visually striking cinematic experience that uses sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines, structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets. And the original poster art for the film, some of it by Otto Arpke and Erich Ludwig Stahl, is a visual experience in itself. Is there any artist who has had a defining influence on your work and style of illustration?

Edward Hopper is definitely the biggest influence on my work. His work has always stood out to me because of the mood and atmosphere he creates in his work. I am drawn to the fact that his work looks like the world has stopped, as if time froze and everybody is stuck where they are and we are only spectating them from afar. I see a lot of art that is very immersive and tries to make it so that the viewer feels like they are a part of the action. I find that Hopper’s intentionally distanced work to be an interesting diversion from that and I try to incorporate that into my work.
 
 
 

”Illustration can create a whole new reality of its own.”

 
 
 
What is your first drawing memory?

My first drawing memory was when I was a kid, about 6-7. My mom had signed me up for an art class, and the first assignment I had to do was to draw some cartoon fish. I still remember pretty vividly how confidently I drew those fish, and how sloppily I scratched on the blue colour of the ocean around it! I actually didn’t like drawing at all at that point and it wasn’t until later in my life when I drew in my free time that I gained an interest towards it.

What was it that ultimately fostered your creativity as a child? In his autobiography, Kurosawa wrote that in his school days “art education was terribly haphazard. Some tasteless picture would be the model, and it was simply a matter of copying it. The student drawings that most closely resembled the original would get the highest marks,” continuing with praising his art teacher, “but Mr. Tachikawa did nothing so foolish. He just said, ‘Draw whatever you like.’” Do you find it important for an artist to have formal education in art?

I definitely agree with Kurosawa. When I was young, being able to draw whatever I wanted was what got me interested in making more art in the first place. I had a pretty active imagination as a child and I had a bunch of crazy ideas, and drawing for me was a way to materialise those ideas into a reality. Trying to make me copy something that already exists exactly the way it is has never really interested me and, more often than not, hindered me. The class that my mom had put me in when I was younger was similar to that – she would give me a copy of a still life that she had drawn and asked us to copy it. My interest in art came from trying to draw fanart for my favourite shows and books.

I personally don’t find a formal education in art to be necessary in becoming an artist. While it can be very beneficial to learn from veteran artists and be among other creatives, art is one of those things where you can learn a lot from self-study. Art is also one of those things (as with most things) where your portfolio matters more than which school you went to. And especially these days, where a formal four-year art education is synonymous with a lifetime of debt, it’s no longer the one and only way to being a “real” and professional artist. There are so many resources online that are free or cheap that will give you more than a BFA ever will.
 

Illustration by Katherine Lam

 
You also do editorial illustration and you have collaborated with some great print publications. What does an illustration bring new to an editorial in comparison to photography?

I think illustration can bring so much to editorial in terms of trying to depict certain concepts or trying to depict a mood that photography can’t capture. Photography has to work with reality, while illustration can completely dismiss that and create a whole new reality of its own. It’s better for depicting concepts, or things that can’t necessarily be seen, while photography tends to be better for more factual depictions such as portraits or news events.

I think editorial illustration can only be successful once you’ve done a good amount of research and gained some knowledge on the topic at hand. Most of the articles I get are about social issues, so it is usually expected that I already have some knowledge about the topic, and if I don’t, read up on it on my own time to help get a better understanding of the topic. Conceptualising takes up most of my time, because I essentially need to boil the article down to its main point, and find a way to portray that in a visual metaphor that is easy to understand.

Your print magazine work and movie cover art translate into a physical connection with the audience. Is it important to you, as an artist, to have this tangible relationship with the public?

I’ve never really thought about that, to be completely honest. Most of my work is done digitally and meant for digital spaces. I do think that artwork in a physical form allows you to appreciate more than artwork that you see on a computer because it feels more like an item than an image. It’s always nicer to hold a book or a print and have it exist in the same space as you.

In this time and age, what do you wish people appreciated more?

I wish people appreciated the medium of art and film more, rather than the story or the content, if that makes sense. With film, for example, I love seeing filmmakers experiment with elements that are only specific to film, like time or camera movements, like how 1917 looks like it’s only one shot. For art, I love seeing artists manipulate the canvas, such as Sergio Toppi playing around with comic panels. I think people tend to get caught up in telling a good story or having great visuals – a book can tell a great story, a photograph can have great visuals – I want to see something that only film or illustration can do.

It makes very much sense. That’s why I love Hitchcock’s films so much. His films belong to cinema.

I love Hitchcock! He is definitely one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. All his films feel smart and refreshing no matter when I watch them or how many times I watch them. You can probably tell from my work, but I love suspense and tension, which he does so well. I think the way he taps into our deep inner fears and makes us wait the whole length of the film to get any closure is so effective and smart. Most horror and thriller films these days can barely get under my skin the same way his films do. And as you said, his stories can’t really be told in any other way. I can’t imagine getting the same kind of suspense if I read Psycho in book form or as a comic. A lot of his work inspired a lot of the way I approach my work, especially with the voyeurism aspect.
 

Illustration by Katherine Lam

 

Website: katherinelam.com | Instagram: @katherinelams

 
 

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