Working out of Brooklyn, Ping Zhu is known for her gorgeous, wispy editorial illustrations that feature regularly in the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Independent, and The Sunday Times. She is a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and as well as receiving the ADC Young Gun in 2013, her work has been recognized by the prestigious American Illustration annual.

Today, Zhu tells us the story of her first big break, an editorial illustration commissioned by Leanne Shapton in 2009 for The New York Times Letters.

Ping Zhu. Photo Daniel Cochran.
Ping Zhu. Photo Daniel Cochran.

“It was during my last year of college in 2009 when I decided to go out to New York City for two weeks. My idea was to gather some first hand illustrator experience by towing my portfolio across the country and knocking on some editorial doors.

“I was at the Art Center College of Design in California, and this event became my first ‘business trip’ as an illustrator in training. My instructors Paul Rogers and Brian Rea were teaching a class that was modelled after Brian’s previous job at the Times (before his move out to LA) that focused on fast-paced turnaround. In class, I realized that having to‘ think on your toes’ made me really excited: I enjoyed the challenge of a short deadline as well as the unpredictability of the articles.

“Brian had given me the contact information of Leanne Shapton, who was then the art director of the op-ed section at the New York Times, and I wrote a short email asking if she had time for me to show her some of my work. Surprisingly she agreed.

“Our meeting was pleasant and my nerves were mostly in check because I don’t think I expected her to give me a job anytime soon. On the day before my flight back, she sent me an email asking if I wanted to do the Letters piece for the following day’s paper, which then (cue dramatic lighting and triumphant music) made me realize that I just got my first illustration job.

“After accepting the job, my reaction was of silent glee until I realized that I had no scanner.

“The assignment was to depict the benefits of reading out loud versus silently in your head. It’s also worth noting that at the time I had been incorporating all sorts of animals into my work as characters or metaphors, so my approach to this job for Leanne was the same. One of them had been of an elephant rolling around on its back with a book in its hands. I sent the sketches off and waited for her reply, frantically looking up where the closest Kinkos was so that I could scan the final painting.

“Eventually Leanne responded and I was once again unprepared. She said that the ideas were accurate, but to depict them as animal characters incorporated other symbolism into the drawing that could seem loaded and political. Her immediate example was the elephant sketch in a liberal paper could read as a Republican related commentary. She asked for sketches that featured human figures instead. I was in total agreement and kept my embarrassment to myself.

“Keeping her notes in mind, I then had to think of situations where there would be people reading silently next to the opposite action of reading out loud. A few sketches later and I had settled on the subway as a setting for the piece, which fortunately came quickly because I had spent the last week and a half observing how hugely different a commuter city NYC is compared to LA.

“The sketch was approved and I set out to paint the final since I work with gouache on paper. The original was a lot larger than the print size, but it helped to preserve the details and also gave the scanner something to scan when I finally found one at Kinkos.

“The final was sent on time with no extra revisions, and the next morning I went out to buy the paper before my flight: an incredibly good and surreal end to a whirlwind trip.

“There’s a lot of similar habits and procedures that I follow in my current editorial assignments. This first job definitely gave me a good start with reenforcing some confidence in taking on jobs of this nature, but it also shined a light on the fact that I was more fit than I realized for the pacing of editorial work.

“The benefits of having your work in frequent circulation is that it promotes itself and has introduced me to a wider range of work including books and advertising, yet I also realize that as a result of getting used to the touch-and-go, I struggle with longer term projects. I’m less used to spending so much time with a single idea.

“Editorial work is such a small faction within illustration that I still hold in high regard, though at this point in my career I would like to explore projects that need more cultivating and nurturing. My goal these days is to practice shifting gears and experience different pacing with job variety, which I’m hoping will help build the stamina and hunger I need for those moments in the editorial fast lane.”