Georgia-based freelance illustrator Changyu Zou creates surreal, dream-like illustrations that harness the written language’s powers and convert them into images that will transport you to another world.
Doors open into places overflowing with magical creatures. Shining stars attract a flock of surreal birds. And there’s a soulful glimpse into the connection between human hearts. These are just some of the topics explored by Changyu Zou in her dazzling illustrations that have won multiple accolades, including a Society of Illustrators nod and an American Illustration award.
Originally from China, Changyu moved overseas to study an MFA in illustration at the Savannah College of Art. But this was just one step in a lifelong journey towards creativity. “My family loved to buy me books from a young age,” Changyu tells Creative Boom. “I have found that words are powerful, and I enjoy the endless thinking and imagination that words bring me. I especially like poetry, which uses the most beautiful words to express what’s most real in the poet’s heart.”
Most of Changyu’s inspiration comes from the written word instead of other artists; poetry, particularly, gets her creative juices flowing. After reading a striking piece, she says she feels compelled to turn her feelings about the verse into an image.
“Although these words are sometimes very abstract and difficult to understand, they are an unlimited source of inspiration for my imagination,” she explains. “I believe that visual language and text have a habit of influencing and blending with each other, so I try to use visual art to express and describe words.”
This doesn’t mean that art doesn’t influence her style, though. Painters who lean towards the surreal and the imaginative also fuel Changyu’s creativity. “Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, for example, are highly original, imaginative, and use various symbols and signs extensively,” she says. “I think they inspire me to think about the composition, imagination, and graphic elements of illustration.”
Changyu has settled on her distinctive style by experimenting with various drawing tools to find her preferred method of illustration. After trying some printing methods and collages, she realised that these were the approaches for her and fell in love with them. These days she draws by hand and creates illustrations with gouache and crayon too. “I try to keep the traces and texture of these hand drawings in my digital drawings, too,” she adds.
A prime example of this approach is her Starry Birds series, which was made using gouache, acrylics, crayons, coloured pencils and collage. Based on the poems by Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, these illustrations explore the relationship between man and nature as depicted in his works. It’s a connection which Changyu describes as “highly harmonious” and forms “a magnificent picture of the universe.”
She goes on to say: “I chose elements from these poems to represent humans, such as cars and houses, and also elements that symbolise nature, such as birds. They are together on a planetary ring, expressing a state of harmony and love.”
This harmony manifests through a colourful explosion buoying up a stranded raft lost at sea, a cosmic ballet of planets and birds orbiting a human head, and even a vibrant trail found in everyday actions like rolling a beer barrel.
“The illustrations in this series influenced my subsequent work,” Changyu concludes. “I began to use flying birds, planets, stars, and other elements in many places, and I think these images can represent many things. I hope they can bring the audience a beautiful and romantic feeling.”