Cool drawing instruments were what first drew Michael Ng (better known as Mindflyer) into the world of illustration. Since then, he’s progressed from drawing technical diagrams as a trainee draftsman to illustrating surrealistic, psychedelic imagery as an independent—and quickly becoming known as one of Singapore’s leading illustrators. Together with illustrators Andrew Tan (Drewscape) and Lee Wai Leng (Fleecircus), the 50-year-old is also the co-founder of the Organisation of Illustrators Council (OIC), a champion for illustration in Singapore. Who else better than this veteran to give us a tour of the Singapore illustration scene and introduce us to some of its emerging talents?

What does illustration look like in Singapore today?
Somehow when you talk about illustration here, straightaway people think of anime, conceptual art for production, and even graffiti. Illustration for editorial and adverting is a minority, and this is what we’re trying to change through OIC. There’s just more exposure for the other forms of illustration here through computer games, movies, and anime.

How has Singapore’s illustration scene changed since you started over two decades ago?
When I first started, an illustrator was called in when the look and feel of a design was already set. Often, it was “Can you do a Keith Haring style? Or an Andy Warhol style?” If you’re a Singaporean illustrator, you wouldn’t be known, so we were always asked to emulate something else or copy someone else’s style. It was a pain, but I took it as practice to see how far I could push and learn something.

Now there’s a distinct change in the job brief. They look for me because of what I can do instead. But the price for a piece of illustration was much higher then. Especially for newspaper advertisements, it was easily double what we’re getting now. The kind of work has also evolved, too. Print was king, and there were a lot of annual reports. I was working then with design agencies like Epigram and Equus that championed the annual report as a storybook, a format which was more creative to work on and needed a lot of illustrations. That whole sector of business is now gone.

What prompted the founding of OIC in 2006?
Even before that, some illustrators and I helped put together a directory of illustrators for a book publisher in the mid-’90s. But without the internet, things moved very slowly and we barely scraped together 15 names to make it look substantial. After two issues, we got busy and forgot about it until 2006, when there was the internet and Facebook. We started noticing the websites of other illustrators and we knew a few of them personally, so we thought, why not organize a dinner for everyone to meet?

It started as a gathering to chat, and we would occasionally hold drawing sessions. Nothing much came out of it until we were invited to organize a portrait drawing session at the monthly Market of Artists and Designers (MAAD) in 2007. We didn’t think much of this at first. The first few sessions of “Portraits After Dark” only had about 10 illustrators show up, and we even had to drag volunteers from the market to pose because this was unheard of then. Nowadays, each session has an average of about 40 drawers, and those interested in posing for portraits have to preregister. We’ve been doing this for the past seven years, and I think it even holds the record for the longest running drawing event in Singapore.

“Portraits After Dark” is our flagship event that allows both professionals and amateurs to jam together. It has also been a good public outreach for us. Many people don’t know illustrators like us exist in Singapore and they’re amazed. Companies have also come up to hire us for work because of the event. We also network amongst ourselves, passing on opportunities and collaborations. OIC also organizes show-and-tell sessions with design agencies and schools to promote illustration as a career. So what started as a simple gathering has borne fruit and brings illustrators commissioned work and helps more of them get visibility.

A poster for the December session of "Portraits After Dark" featuring the illustration of Sharon Yang.
A poster for the December session of “Portraits After Dark” featuring the illustration of Sharon Yang.

What are some trends you’re seeing in Singapore illustration?
Right now it must be doodling and the hand-drawn look. We have a lot more requests for wall murals, especially doodling. That’s a new market I discovered after the loss of annual reports. More corporations are willing to engage artists to draw on their walls, buildings, reception areas. When I first started, this was unheard of, other than graffiti artists doing it illegally.

Another senior OIC member and award-winning syndicated artist, Miel, has also noticed a lot of “Japanese-y stuff,” and he feels it smacks of the scene being second-rate—when our illustrators are so influenced by others that they don’t develop their own language. That said, if you’re unique, there’s more recognition for illustrators in Singapore today. If you draw in a particular style, you may be able to build a following. That’s why we encourage our illustrators to think of themselves as personal brands and not just rely on commissions.

Would you say Singapore is in a golden age of illustration?
This is just the beginning. There are a few pioneer illustrators, but many of the young illustrators are in transition and their work is still very heavily influenced by what’s happening in the United States, Korea, and the anime circuit in Japan. They don’t have their own style yet, but I can see some promise in what they do—give us five to 10 years.

Right now, illustration is seen as very trendy and glamorous, but being successful is tough because there are more practitioners today. Many young design students specialize in illustration way too early. They try to get an illustration job right after graduation, which is unheard of in Singapore. There are only a handful of companies that hire. Other than that, everything is freelance. When we’re invited to talk to students about illustration as a career, I always paint a more realistic scenario:

  • First, try to get a solid foundation in design so you know more than just drawing. A lot of them think that just because they can draw, they can make a name for themselves—but it’s not true.
  • Secondly, spend a few years in a design-related job before you start out on your own as a freelance illustrator. In Singapore, if you want to be an illustrator, you have to work harder than someone who just wants to design. You can’t survive just doing illustration here.

Who are some Singapore illustrators the world should look out for?
Ann Gee Neo (anngee), Esther Goh, Kristal Melson, Dan Wong, André Wee, Adeline Tan (Mightyellow), and Teresa Lim (TEETEEHEEHEE).

This interview was condensed and edited.