Photography by Daniel Cochran
Ping Zhu is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York whose work is frequently featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other notable publications, big and small :). We’ve long admired Ping’s gestural painting style, where she layers bright swaths of colors in expressive strokes. Ping opts to use traditional paintbrushes and gouache on paper rather than work in a digital format, giving her work a spontaneous quality that can only come from an appreciation for analog processes. Our shared experience of an (admittedly) unremarkable suburban upbringing by immigrant parents, highlighted by Sanrio, followed by art school (p.s. we went to Art Center with Ping), lends us to feel a specific type of kinship and gratitude for her journey.
Below she opens up about pivotal moments, what she defines as success, and how important it is to remind yourself that life is long and nothing is forever!
Can you describe the path that led to the work you do now?
I think the self deprecating version is that I wasn’t very good at or interested in anything else. Like many people, I pour a lot of time and attention into things I care about, and really enjoyed imaginary worlds and storytelling. I wasn’t someone who knew as a kid that they wanted to do something artistic as an adult, maybe because it was a hard job to define. Perhaps it was a mix of luck and opportunity that I ended up learning about illustration in high school, and was good enough at drawing to get into art school. I feel very fortunate that my parents took a chance on my future. There was never really a back up plan, and being allowed to nurture a creative self is a gift. All that growth and life experience is what allows me to be here today, working as a freelance illustrator in NYC. It can still feel surreal sometimes!
Can you share a bit about your upbringing and childhood?
My parents immigrated from China in the 80s and I’m an older sister to a younger brother. We spent our formative years in LA after living in Washington and Rhode Island, and were raised very Chinese at home. It felt like a typical childhood, and since there was a decent East Asian population where we grew up, we had lots of friends with similar backgrounds. I really loved animals and would opt to draw or write about them for fun. A couple of my friends and I used to copy Sanrio characters and Pokemon cards because we thought they were cute. I still have a strong affinity for cute things, so I am lucky I can still express that through my work currently. My brother and I also played lots of video games when given the chance, and those good memories still carry through in terms of world building ideas and creative freedoms. The rest of my childhood and formative years were spent in the suburbs of LA and daydreaming about when I could gain autonomy as a person and what adulthood would be like. I was a very average student and couldn’t wait for college and beyond. I’m glad to be where I’m at now, but I will always miss my days at home eating my parent’s cooking. No one talked about how much food prep adulthood requires.
We’ve long admired your analogue painting style, can you talk a little bit about what it means/how it feels to make a living communicating through paint?
Thank you! I surprise myself when I describe my line of work to others because it is so normal for me doing it full time, in contrast to someone else who might have a much more recognizable 9-5 job. Most people don’t know what being an illustrator means, and liken it to cartoon making or comics- which isn’t necessarily unrelated but has its own characteristics. It took a while to learn what working as a commercial artist meant, and how there are as many perks as there are stressors. Now that freelancing and the gig-economy are more commonplace, it’s like applying that same mentality but the service is drawing/painting. Clients will approach me with briefs, which range from small spots in a magazine to larger branding projects. My understanding is that the work you show in your portfolio is what others would hire you for, and as that evolves, your work can change and find itself needing to adapt. I do still paint most of my finals for jobs, and try my best to keep it that way since a lot of what I enjoy about art making is about the tactile nature of hand to paper. However I have learned that flexibility and adaptability are very important for a career’s longevity, so being able to paint digitally has also been an asset. I’m grateful that my job allows me to wander in all directions, but it’s also important to maintain a sense of self and not give away all of your thoughts and feelings for the sake of money. It’s a way to keep the joy of painting alive, and continue to be surprised by the medium when engaged in a play mindset.
How do you define success?
Being able to continue pursuing your interests and curiosities in a way that also supports your financial overhead. Managing time to include space for life as well as career growth and experimentation. Experiencing a sense of pride and joy in how you spend your time. Having goals and keeping an open mind so that if anything isn’t achieved, it doesn’t stop you from trying again or something else. Extending generosity, kindness and patience to yourself and others.
What are you working on right now?
I’m freelancing with a motion graphics studio called Buck, which is something I didn’t think my work would ever fit into. Luckily I’m learning a lot about working on a team in ways that I don’t experience during my usual freelance projects. I’m also working on a a project with an Australian agency as well as some baby food illustrations. Not as much personal work these days, but I hope I’ll have some time in the new year!
Personally, we tend to carry things in our bags that hold some balance between creature comforts and necessity. What do you carry with you in your BB Brick Bag?
Only the essentials since I don’t like feeling dragged down when I’m out. Phone, keys, wallet, mask and lactaid, which I started taking it in 2021. I never thought I could eat ice cream ever again! It’s probably the most important thing on that list.
What about your life now, would be most unexpected to your younger self?
Many things! I started running for pleasure even after all those years of forced laps around the track during PE. Trying to form a deeper relationship with my family as people and not just as my parents and brother. Wearing high waisted pants? I recently bought a pair of shell toed Adidas Superstars and that really surprised me. Never getting a tattoo. Still not knowing exactly what I want in terms of motherhood and where a long term home is. I thought these things would just make sense as I got older, but there are still so many possibilities that has made making decisions harder than expected. I guess it keeps life interesting.
Can you describe a typical day?
(See below for answer)
How do you feel, at your age, right now?
I was talking to my mom not too long ago when I was feeling anxious about this exact question, worrying about her and my dad getting older and how it felt like our salad days were ending. She was very straightforward in her reassurance, which was simply that as she herself has passed through different chapters of life, that each moment felt like the best time, and that there are many. Worrying about when the best years of your life are is a sure way of missing it when it’s happening.
At 34 I feel like I’m on the cusp of adapting to things that could be a part of my life for a long time, but also that there’s still lots of time for new discoveries. I try to remind myself that life is long and nothing is forever. For now I feel at peace with where I am, that my family and friends are healthy. I don’t look forward to the sadness that comes naturally with time, but being able to celebrate all the nice things here and now will hopefully make that inevitable future less gloomy.