Studio Visit with Priscilla Yu

Please meet Priscilla Yu! Spring has taken over Vancouver, trees are bursting with blossoms and vibrant greens are finally painting the tips of the trees. I love this time of year, when we can slowly wake out of our winter slumber and embrace the colour and light once more. Priscilla Yu's artwork has that some kind of Spring energy, while reminding us that Summer is just around the corner. Her vibrant paintings seem to burst forth with energy and life and draw you into a magical world of geometric shapes and alternate universes. Priscilla had lots of insights to share, and many gems of inspiration are to be found in her words and paintings.

Studio Visit : Friday December 4th, 2015

Introduce yourself. How would you describe yourself as a maker/creative. How do you spend your days?

Hello, my name is Priscilla. I'm an multi-disciplinary artist.

I make paintings of imagined worlds using geometric forms and lots of colour, while exploring geometry in nature and playing with perception cues. I also make zines, pop-up books, design t-shirts, and illustrate. I work part-time at a retail store/studio as a Visual Merchandiser as well.

What I do in my day varies quite a bit. Some months, I will be spend the majority of my week in my studio working on paintings for an art show. Other times, I take my portable art kit wherever I go and hang out in cafes. My boyfriend is also an artist and we like to do this on weekends. Occasionally, I find myself being overwhelmed with working part-time at the store and having deadlines for projects or art shows. I enjoy keeping my creative juices flowing and rarely go two days without doing a drawing or something creative.

Lately, I have been thinking more about getting involved in print licensing and printing on textiles so I have been doing lots of research into fashion programs in Vancouver and also looking into other avenues where I could use my illustration as print. My part-time job also gives me access to custom embroidery, digital garment printing, and laser cutting so I feel more and more that I should taking advantage of that perk.

The way I dress is a big part of my identity, I'm realizing or at least starting to admit that I have a knack for colour and pattern. I have had lots of comments from people about wanting to see my paintings on clothing, but I hadn't seriously thought about pursuing that. Fashion is something that I would like to explore further.

Describe your journey. Were there some pivotal things that helped propel you to where you are now? (Perhaps there were some struggles that you see, in hindsight, helped you get to where you are now?)
I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, being an only child with parents who were strict about me hanging out with friends after school. However, they gave me lots of art supplies, supported my interest in art, and tolerated my severely and perpetually cluttered room growing up.

I would spend hours in my bedroom painting, making colourful collages with textures that I found interesting, rearranging the furniture in my room according to colour and form, and also assembling different outfits. Sometimes I would even make “furniture” like a couch made from a cardboard box and towels. Rolled up towels as arm rests.

I spent as much time painting as I did assembling different outfits of varying colours and textures, and redecorating my bedroom. I'm almost embarrassed of how much time I have spent in front of a mirror in my life, assembling textures and colour to my outfits, and making jewellery from found objects.

I think that this time in my life really had an impact on my art and personal style. Colour, texture, and creating worlds that are expanding from room structures are a big part of my work. Carving order out of a cornucopia of colour and pattern and then adding more colour and pattern is something that I do a lot of in my paintings, and it reminds me an awful lot of cleaning my childhood bedroom.

I went directly into art school when I finished high school. In some ways, I wish that I had waited a little bit after high school to figure out more clearly what I wanted to take from university and use the time more effectively. I feel like I spent a lot of time socializing and partying in the first couple of years. It was fun though and it got me out of my shell more and gave me a network of other artists and friends. I have found that to be very important.

One very pivotal moment was fairly recent. I graduated from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2013, travelled in Asia, did an illustration internship at a product design company in Hong Kong, and then immediately found my first studio space.

Having this new space where I had to pay rent for, gave me a place to concentrate. It really grounded my art practice and took it to the next level. A couple of months later, I got involved in 'The Duality Show', where twenty-five artists were paired with twenty-five writers to create one piece of art and one piece of writing. Next, I started participating in shows almost every month. I had my first solo show in the same year, where I made lots of work that I really loved and that set into motion my new work ethic and obsession with seeing what else I could create and love.

In the past year, I had my first couple of commissioned illustration jobs and artwork commissions, a live painting gig for a private party with Loreal, participated in the annual 'Frontlines' show at the Robert Lynds Gallery, winning the Populist Award, and also participated in the TEDxVancouver exhibition.

With all of these new steps that I had never taken before, came exciting new work, better craftsmanship, better marketing, but also more encounters with “Imposter Syndrome” and social anxiety. I'm not sure how obvious it is to other people but these two things are actually boulders for me and I work really hard to not let them sabotage my life or get in the way. It's been a year of growth, with owning up to my accomplishments with self-pride and also handling new social situations like the shows and recorded interviews.

Where did your fascination with geometric patterns and bright colours begin, or has alway just been a part of your visual vocabulary?

The fascination with geometric line work came from math class. I doodled a lot because I had the hardest time understanding mathematical concepts taught in class. I was hooked on doodling organic vine-like patterns for a long time, and then I started extending the lines on the trigonometry worksheets in tenth grade and making “3D” forms. I was really obsessed with finding out how geometry worked, how to warp space on paper, how to angle lines to make it feel like you're inside or inside of a geometric form. I guess that I enjoyed exploring my perception of perspective and depth with drawing pretty early on. I took a lot of art classes in high school as electives where there was lots of freedom and full access to art materials. For someone who was fairly self-motivated when it came to art, it allowed me lots of time to explore and get carried away.

The bright colours that I use really are intuitive. I'm not sure how it works really. I think that this is where my hours of standing in front of a mirror trying on different colour outfit combinations, may have contributed to my natural way of making colour choices. To me, it's almost like temperature. If I concentrate and I'm really feeling my painting, there's always one objective answer of the colour I should use next. I feel it kind of in my gut even. It makes sense that this came from observing fashion and textiles because essentially, in my dress-up moments I am observing design choices that people have made in the clothing. I am internalizing the design involved in selecting and placing colour.

I love the tension and temperature of hot and vibrant colours next to muted tones! In more recent times, I've been researching into seventies era fashion and interior design. I am very inspired by the aesthetic of that time.

In the years later when I went to art school, I started exploring how to use geometric line work as a design constraint and how to create regular things like people and objects using only angular lines. I also began to explore the metaphors and psychological aspect of these forms. For example, a box shape can have lots of metaphors. Each shape has a frame structure, an exterior and interior, much like a person for. I looked into architecture for inspiration as well. Through all this exploration, I internalized a visual language that I can use pretty naturally. This has been especially useful when doing illustration work for a client because I can think in this visual language and create something in my own style while effectively conveying their information.

Do you have any rituals or a routine that helps ground you & primes your creative mind?

Before I begin, I do my mandatory procrastination or perhaps it's just warming up, which usually involves looking at nice interior design, fashion, and art blogs. It's nice to have some imagery for my brain to chew on beforehand. I allow myself about thirty minutes of that. Next, I set up everything that I need or may need later before I start. Some may call it laziness. I may even call it laziness myself, but when I'm painting or working on something, I don't like to have to move very far from my work. I like everything to be at arms reach. This includes my large coffee that I feel also helps ground me.


Fear and uncertainty seem to be an innate part of the creative process. How do you confront your fears, instead of letting them stop you?

It's actually pretty tricky. I can be really hard on myself and I can place a lot of weight on some art shows. I often have that “Imposter Syndrome” thing that I mentioned earlier, when I'm stuck. I get thoughts like, “Did they just commission me because they like me and they don't know any better?” or “Don't they know that I'm unsure about my ability? I'm not actually an artist.” It's really silly because I should really give my clients and myself more credit.

One thing that I have found that helps, is accepting that not every single piece of work that you do will be your “best piece EVER”. That's the reality. It kind of helps eliminate some of the pressure. Sometimes, I get lucky and I produce two or three pieces in a roll that excite me, that I love, and feel like I've gone to the next level where I have learned something new. It's the most wonderful feeling, it's addictive, and I want that feeling every time.

What I started doing is beginning paintings with that mindset that not every piece will be the best. It helps me focus on what I'm working on rather than on the fear of failing. Often, this “no pressure” approach allows me to get into the creative process, and by the time I've gotten lost in the painting, I'm at a place where I am excited.

I also find with larger paintings, that it's almost always better for me to keep painting rather than sitting there and thinking about it too much. If I already know a certain part of the painting will be some colour, I paint it first. That helps because, a more covered canvas is more comfortable to look at and less daunting than a blank one. In addition, I use so much detail in my painting, that if I just keep painting a pattern when I'm stuck, it will keep me warmed up until I think of the next crucial part of my painting. It's never a waste because I always love more pattern. The more, the better. If I need to, I can paint over and carve out negative space.

What kinds of activities/interests do you have outside of your actual art practice, that you feel informs or inspires your work? (or maybe just contributes to a richer life)

I'm very materialistic but not in the usual sense. I'm not particularly interested in brand names or logos, but I have a passion for beautiful materials and objects. I love going through antique stores, and high-end interior design stores, just to look at the beautiful objects. I like seeing things that are really well made, especially vintage coloured glass. Hand-blown glass can be so beautiful with varying opaqueness and translucencies. I love walking up and down South Granville or hanging out in New Westminster. I definitely feel that these visits to these stores inspire my work. For example, I went to this really cute store just off of South Granville, on 8th Avenue called, The Goodge Place a couple of months ago, where they had gorgeous tiles. I took a photo of the tile design by their front door because I loved it so much and I have used that design in a variety of ways in my paintings since then.

When we have time, my boyfriend and I like to pick a destination in the lower mainland to explore for a day. It helps to unwind and be a stranger or tourist, and it's cheap! We also try to visit an island nearby as often as we can. During one particular trip to Mayne Island, I spent a lot of time looking at water patterns in the ocean. The way that the little concentric diamond shapes formed larger concentric diamond shapes worked their way into my paintings. I love drawing from the geometries and patterns in the water.

Turning off my phone for a couple of days to fully enjoy the island experience also feels wonderful and necessary. I think that it definitely contributes to a richer life. There's nothing like spending a couple of days on a mostly secluded island, without a phone, camping, and just being a human monkey on a piece of earth, looking at water and sea life run around.

One more thing. My boyfriend and I love inviting people over for dinner and making a meal for them. Whether it's an old friend or a newly made acquaintance, it's really nice for the soul and for the comfort of knowing that everyone goes through similar situations. When I feel discouraged or I'm really exhausted from juggling a part-time job with studio time and social time, it's nice to talk about it and hear other peoples' insight and similar experiences. I'm also lucky to have my partner be another artist. His name is Sean Karemaker, and I get to be inspired by his work-ethic, passion, and the way his brain work in his comics and art, everyday.

I’m a sucker for good quotes. Do you have a favourite you’d like to share?

Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.
— Anais Nin

Any exciting projects that you are working on?
At the moment, I am finishing up a set of six small ink drawing commissions. These were super fun because I collaborated with the client on the theme of each drawing, reflecting different aspects of her life. I also set the limit of only using three colours so that has been a fun challenge. Next, I will be switching gears to designing, illustrating, and producing a series of narrative-based printed scarves in the upcoming months.

Thank You Priscilla!

You can find more of her awesome work here: