Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you decide to become an artist?

Artist and illustrator Serena Phu

I was born and raised in central Connecticut with my parents and brother, all of whom enjoy art in some capacity (my brother is currently a hobby artist, and when I was younger my mother would often paint and tell us about her brief time in art school; my dad will occasionally doodle).

As a child, I would spend my free time drawing cakes, and later on my brother introduced me to anime, which started my foray into drawing people. When I entered the 6th grade, I made an unknowingly powerful decision that art would be my schtick.

 

How do you start your day?

I wake up between 8:30 and 9:30am and usually check social media on my phone, to catch up on artists I follow, as well as general current events. Once I’m satisfied or feel I’ve spent too much time in bed, I’ll wash my face, brush my teeth, and head to the kitchen to eat breakfast and drink water/tea.

I typically go to bed with an idea of what I need to do once I start the next day, so I try to get right into it, despite my lethargy. Although, if I’ve woken up to a very time-sensitive plan of the day, I might skip breakfast until I’ve finished the first important task.

 

What does your workspace/studio look like? What aspects of it are most important to you?

My workspace is rather cluttered at the moment! I tend to have a variety of stuff-making schemes, dabble in several different mediums, and hold onto a plethora of objects, materials, and doodles that I think could contribute to my work at some point.

My studio room has a wall of shelves that are mostly organized by type of object/what they’re used for/how often I might need to access them. I’m also a fan of tiered rolling carts, so I have 3 in my studio; one for watercolor & acrylics, one for oil paint, and one for miscellaneous things with a focus on merchandise production (screenprinting materials, tape, sticker paper, and some of my inventory).

I have a desk set up right in front of a south-facing window, and a drafting table on the opposite side of the room. On the walls, I tape up my paintings, useful notes or color studies, and in one section of wall I have hooks that hold badges I’ve accumulated from the conventions I’ve shown at.

Serena Phu workspace with art tacked to the walls using painter's tape

 

 

What’s your favorite medium, and why do you love it?

My absolute favorite medium is oils, for sure. I love the tactility of the paint, and the way that it and I seem to both leave our own personal trademarks on a piece. I’m fond of how easily I can achieve immaculate, realistic detail or large but still visually interesting spaces, depending on what I need.

 

What tool has improved your workflow or creative process recently?

I’m constantly relying on the lists I jot down in my Google Keep app. I have so many lists, both personal and work-related, with things like tasks I’m in the middle of, long-term plans, ideas I have for pieces I want to make, and so on. I find myself overwhelmed very easily, mostly by my own choices as I try to be in the middle of several different projects at once.

Maintaining lists allows me to redirect my focus on a whim and gives me a mental “shelf” where I can passively keep tabs on everything I’m doing, and not have to think about all of them simultaneously at every moment.

 

 

When you’re feeling “artist’s block,” what do you do to get “unblocked”?

Most of the time, “artist’s block” comes to me in the form of a lack of activity. I feel most “blocked” when I haven’t made something that makes me feel genuinely excited or happy or satisfied for a long time, and I usually have to realize that first before I can address it.

Once I have, I go back to the list of ideas that I haven’t gotten a chance to work on yet, and pick whichever one I’m most interested in. If I’m in between a lot of projects, I make it a quick study or even a sketch, just so I can get something finished and rejuvenate my motivation.

 

What’s particularly inspiring to you right now? Where do you go when you need a dose of creative inspiration?

I don’t have an immediate go-to for inspiration resources per se, but I do take a lot of inspiration from fashion, so I may go to social media to find people’s fashion snaps or some streetwear blogs, especially Japan-based street fashion photographers. One of my favorites is Tokyo Fashion, which I tend to go to if I’m trying to think of an outfit design for a character.

When we’re not in a pandemic, I usually try to travel. It never has to be anywhere far, but I find that seeing new things gets my gears turning. I especially get hyped up whenever I see very modern architecture or interior design. If I can’t find that, I always feel inspired by very dramatically lit clouds; most of the time I don’t even have to look for them, but I’ll simply glance up and see an intense vision in the sky, and it always urges me to paint.

Moody fantasy anime inspired oil painting by Serena Phu

 

What’s a favorite project that you’ve worked on so far in your career? What did you love about it?

One of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on will probably always be the series of paintings I had done that were based off of a music video by the K-pop group, BTS. They were very self-indulgent pieces for me, but I was very satisfied with the process of painting them, and overall they are a nice showcase of my capabilities with oil paint. I made them in undergrad and presented them to my professors and colleagues at the time, and felt validated to know that they could be addressed as serious pieces outside of the context of my being a fan of a music group.

 

What is your dream project in the future?

For sure, my dream project is to work with BTS on basically anything. A lot of the themes that inspire me to make my own work are themes that I can also find in theirs, which means that a) I’m very interested in what I interpret as the intent of their work, and b) I think I’d jive really well with any creative project that they could ever invite me to work on.

In a more general sense, I come from a fine arts mindset, as that was what I studied and got my degree in. I’m very much into taking the stuffiness out of fine arts and bringing it to a more modern and accessible (perhaps even “mainstream”) landscape, and would love to get myself to a point where I could do a collaboration with a huge brand or non-painting artist, similar to how Takashi Murakami has done so many unconventional collaborations from the art-world perspective.

This is also why I’m interested in illustration, because of how it combines fine art with practical appeal — for example book covers for mysterious or fantastical novels that share my work’s aesthetic.

 

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?

I wish I could tell my younger self to just do what they liked, and to not worry about looking smart or clever.

Serena Phu oil self-portrait

 

How do you balance work and art with personal life?

A lot of my personal life is actually, in ways, intertwined with my art. As someone with an interest in clothing, for example, I’ll be drawing and need to look at reference pictures of clothes and fashion, and doing that research will satisfy that itch for me. A lot of the people in my life are also involved in the arts, so I find that talking to them will often lead to discussions about art, which motivates me to get back to work, haha.

The thing I enjoy about being an artist is that more often than not, when I find something I become interested in, I try to express this excitement through drawing. Eventually, whether I consider it work or play, everything in my life coalesces.

 

 

What’s an example of a past rejection or “failure” that ended up helping you? How did it help?

As a sort of continuation of the advice I’d give to my younger self: I spent a long time framing the idea of a successful artist as one who makes completely new things that no one has ever thought of before. I thus spent a long time trying to come up with unorthodox ways to paint, mixed media pieces, and complicated metaphors and symbolisms to achieve this, without actually putting much thought into the simpler things that I enjoyed doing whenever I made art.

It wasn’t until my senior year in college, when I was trying to justify the art I wanted to make with a difficult, intangible metaphor, that I understood trying to keep it under this lens only hurt the work. It revealed the ego that I had developed about my art.

After a long trip, looking at myself and my favorite works, and looking at a bunch of art, I was able to see this, and reframe how I approached things.

 

How do you maintain your art career? Either in terms of marketing yourself, or developing multiple income streams?

In all honesty, I haven’t quite figured that out yet. I’m still getting the majority of my income from non-art-related work, but I try to maintain social media presence within reason. My focus in terms of the work I make and the things I post has been on authenticity, being more genuine about what my work is about, and trying to create for an audience of people that are truly interested in what I make and why I make it.

This question is difficult to answer mostly due to the pandemic, but usually, I try to build my presence by traveling to conventions and sharing my work at in-person events; I find this to work better than any attempts I’ve made at marketing myself purely through social media.

What are you working on now?

I’m working with a therapist to illustrate a children’s book about tolerance, as well as a new line of merchandise for my online store. And I have a large 9’ oil painting that I’ve been slowly making progress on, although I may be pausing it to focus on the book and merchandise.

I am also trying to start up more quick painting studies to do in between working on all of these things, to satisfy my painting itches.

In broader terms, I’m also working towards unifying what has always felt like 2 distinctive streams of thought in my body of work into something that’s perhaps multi-faceted, but also consistent.

 

Connect with Serena Phu:

phoodledoodles.com

Serena on Instagram

Serena on Twitter

Serena on Facebook

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