Interview with Illustrator Billy Yong

I have the great pleasure of sharing an interview with The Minor Miracle’s talented illustrator, Billy Yong with you, such a thrill. I first connected with Billy through his work while looking for my “dream illustrator.” It was a privilege to get to be part of the search, and when I saw Billy’s work on instagram I just loved his style. One picture in particular captured my heart.

I also loved his action sequences and sense of humor in books like Thor Quest: Hammers of the Gods and he did not disappoint. He captures, action, heart and humor in The Minor Miracle so well. A brief bio: BILLY YONG is an illustrator and character designer who loves drawing the sweet and nonsensical. He’s been privileged to work on a wide range of projects, from picture books to middle grade novels and even packaging for fish. When he’s not doodling around, he’s busy surviving parenthood or fighting against his addiction to bubble tea. Billy lives in sunny Singapore.

It is an honor and a thrill to share more about him, his creative process, his inspiration and his “angst-filled goblin” alter-ego in this interview.

Billy, have you always loved drawing? What is the path that led you to The Minor Miracle?

I have! When I was young, it was all about huge robots or tanks blowing stuff up. Then came Final Fantasy 7 and I was so enamored by the character designs that I wanted to draw people more. My sister was also a big fan and would draw the characters from games like Metal Gear Solid. Her influence on me to become an artist cannot be overstated haha.

Eventually I wanted to become a visual development artist like Helen Minjue Chen, who worked for Disney as one of the concept artists. Through that journey I stumbled upon other artists who were illustrating works that were NOT like the CG animation aesthetics I had been chasing, but were drawing in ways that felt both personal and at the same time, completely marketable.

It’s so cool to hear about the path that led you here. I’m curious, when you get a job to illustrate a middle grade book, cover and interior, what are the steps you take to tackle the job?

Most times I’d first be doodling out what the characters look and feel like. It’s usually really rough, but that’s the whole point. I typically ask for a simple description of the characters. What are their mannerisms, who they are in their environment. At the same time, I’m also reading the manuscript and piecing together a cover idea that tells the audience what the book might be about. Kinda like a synopsis made visual, but not detailed enough that the audience knows what’s going to happen.

The team liked the vibes C6, though the idea of a falling baby was rather unsettling ~~~ So that part was dropped. 

Left was initial cover design, right is final cover design

Interior illustrations can be very direct. Oftentimes I just translate the text into an illustration. That said, with the case of THE MINOR MIRACLE, having our characters defy gravity allowed me to use the pages themselves as distance from the ground. So that was a fun one to apply.

I remember how exciting it was to receive those first cover sketches! And it’s so cool to see how these characters took shape during revision. What keeps you motivated when you’re feeling stuck?

Ahahaha, paying my bills! I also go out for bubble tea runs, or just meditate by doing something else completely. I practice Iaido, so when I’m stuck, sometimes I pick up the sword and practice. It’s very refreshing, since I am moving and also turning my attention to something that is not related to drawing or design. Even rarer, though I wish it was more often, I like to play indie games. They often have design elements that catch my eye and I let those elements brew in my head while I play.

 I agree that sometimes stepping away is exactly what I need to clear my head and get unstuck. I wish I did something as cool as Iaido! You do such a great job infusing each character with personality. What’s your process for doing this so well?

 Aww~ Thank you. I had such a wealth of information describing our characters from you that it was pretty much a breeze. For secondary or tertiary characters without much description, I often look to the script to see how they behave towards our main characters. That gives me an idea of how they might look / act like.

Some early designs below:

Seeing the behind-the-scenes development of each character was such a cool part of our process. I love the little details like the Dizzy Gillespie cheeks on Rodney’s t-shirt and the cowlick on the back of Rodney’s head. Also, your notes were awesome. I felt like I was getting to know you through the evolution of the characters and the creativity you brought to the project. You have a great sense of humor. Who was your favorite Minor Miracle character to draw?

Haley! I’ve always loved drawing girls more. Haley was quite a difficult one to design since there were so many ways she could go, but through Sonia (our art director) and yourself, we were able to narrow her look down quite a fair bit.

One of Haley’s many designs:

Your note that “even her curly hair has to fall in line with Haley’s will” is so perfect, even though Haley ended up looking quite different. With each iteration, you capture a different aspect of her spunk and type A personality. Who are your artistic influences or favorite illustrators?

Ha, that’s quite a bit to unpack. Perhaps for The Minor Miracle, my inspirations were a mix of Cory Loftis, GuriHiru and Cam Kendall. Kendall’s work on FART QUEST was instantly a favourite for its design and sense of humour.

(pausing here to LOL and immediately order Fart Quest . . . okay, back to the interview)

I’ve lately been trying to adopt some of Amelicart’s work. I really love how gentle his works are.

Otherwise, I’m starting to revisit my love for manga and anime. I love the designs of EVANGELION’s Asuka, but also the soft gentle designs of YOTSUBATO’s Fuuka. I’ve been re-watching SKIP AND LOAFER for its super positive and gentle vibes, as well as the silly antics from BOCCHI THE ROCK.

There’s also Ulysse Malassagne’s work for KAIROS. Such defined shapes with such gorgeous texture.

Haha, all this to say, I’m so overwhelmed by the works of so many artists, that sometimes I’m completely stuck on who to follow or be inspired by. Most recently, I like soft, gentle shapes. But there’s always the inner edgy, angst-filled goblin in me that wants to make these shapes edgier, more sorrowful. I’m sorry I’m like this. (TT ^ TT)

I think this blend of soft and gentle with a surprising “inner edge” is what first appealed to me. What’s something about your job that we might find surprising?

 When I’m not drawing, sometimes I draw / design in my head. I often let my thoughts brew around an idea and just do other things to give the ideas time to cook.

I think what many of my non-art friends are surprised by is that you don’t really need talent. Most successful artists were not the best in their class growing up. They simply persevered and studied the things that they liked. 

My stories brew in my head even when I’m not writing, too-we have that in common! And I agree, perseverance and pursuing what you’re passionate about are the key to a successful creative career. Talent will only get you so far. For aspiring illustrators, what’s your best piece of advice?

Draw what you like. But also learn how to communicate with others. It really helps to be able to communicate clearly with your clients so both of you are in sync. It also helps to build a reputation that you are easy to talk to, which will put your clients at ease.

Also agree with this. Relationships and clear communication are so important in this business! Are there any upcoming projects you would like to tell people about?

I’m working on a cute little project about an eco-friendly girl who’s all about reusing as much as she can. It’s a fun story about being gentle to your environment. I try to make my designs have a similar vibe.

I’ve also started a washi tape design shop called SWASHIMI. It was borne out of a conversation between my wife and I over sushi and how we could make something cute from it. So we came up with a name that combined washi tapes and sashimi. If anyone is interested, you can buy SWASHIMI on Etsy and follow via Instagram.

You can find my main works on my website at www.billyyongdraws.com or at billyyongdraws on Instagram.

Thanks again, Billy, I look forward to seeing more of your work in book two of The Amazing Adventures of Noah Minor (currently titled The Minor Rescue) and using my new washi tape to make all sorts of ordinary things extraordinary. 

a Billy Yong original-he captured me well!

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