Still life in Brooklyn

Primary meets ping zhu.

Words by liv siddall,
Pictures by daniel cochran
Still life in Brooklyn

Ping Zhu may well be one of the only people in Brooklyn who doesn’t spend her days tapping on a laptop. From her studio she creates commissioned pieces for the clients illustrators really want to be working for (The New Yorker, Pentagram, Google, Reebok etc.) alongside making exquisite book covers and portraits of people around her. Just because Ping doesn’t paint on enormous canvases doesn’t mean she’s not a painter: she chose the medium of gauche nearly a decade ago at art school and ran with it, carving out a distinct swooping brushstroke style which no one else seems to be able to replicate or carry out with the same sense of vitality. She’s most well-known for creating imagery filled with colours and creatures we associate with the naivety and daydream-like nature of childhood, but a lot of her more recent work is focusing more on people, and seems to have a curious dark streak running through it. Here Liv Siddall talks to Ping Zhu about commissioning, painting, her day-to-day life, and the podcasts which accompany it. 

Hi Ping! Can you tell me about your exclusive print for Primary?

I don't think it has a name, but if it did it would be something simple like "figure and florals and fruits.” I wanted the figure to be ambiguous, just human. The skin colour is almost recognisable, but also strange. It was an imagined form that was meant to ground the different types of flowers they were surrounded by. The flowers and plants are exaggerated studies from real life, so the colours and shapes are a little distorted but aren't totally fantastical. I wasn't interested in depicting beauty and eroticism in the way most things can be seen: lush colours and hints of genitalia mixed with hyper sexualised body parts and cut-open fruits. Instead I was hoping for something more subtle, and maybe beautiful in its own way; desaturated and unnatural colours where the plants almost look like they're decaying or wilting.

The piece is painted to scale, and the lifework from the sketch was projected so I could have the proportions exactly right. There were additional details in the final piece that were added once the painting got going. I like having original pieces be the same size as the final because of their immediate impact and preservation of details. Hopefully people who purchase this print will be able to see it in many different ways, depending on how they feel and at different points in their lives. I think we're in constant motion and its nice to have something still, or that changes with you over time.

Do you sell work in print form a lot? People commissioning you to make work specifically to go in a frame and hang on a wall, as opposed to editorial commissions?

No, I think at most it will be people who see something that I did for an editorial or some kind of work that’s already out there in the world and they’ll enquire about whether or not they can buy the original, or if I sell prints. Most of the time, when I feel like making a print for someone it’s when they have a direct connection to why they were interested in the piece: whether it relates to a family member or if they were the person who wrote the article. I think that makes it really meaningful because it feels really collaborative in that way: the image wouldn’t have existed before the article was written. Having people reach out and feel like they’re connected to it is really wonderful.

“All the things make a painting a painting just
don’t exist in the computer for me.”

What kind of things do you have on your own walls? Have you ever commissioned a print or bought something by another illustrator or artist that you saw and were like, “I’ve just gotta have this!”

We have a lot of work on the walls by friends because we know a lot of illustrators. Actually one of the things I saw and was like: “I need this made for me,” was a piece by Charlotte Mei. She does these really wonderful ceramics and paintings and I love her work a lot. I never got to meet her but I follow her religiously like borderline stalker. 

Yeah she is amazing. I was talking to someone recently about the community of cartoonists and illustrators. Is there a scene that you hang out with in New York of other artists and illustrators?

Even just the studio building that I’m in there’s a lot of other illustrators and designers. I think there’s this natural community that happens because we could very easily all work from home but I think all of us need a way to reflect or get perspective on what we’re doing since it is very isolating at times.

What’s your favourite type of commission? Does it tend to be editorial where you can read an article and respond to it?

I think it’s usually based on what the illustration is for. I guess not necessarily what kind of format, like editorial or advertising, it’s oftentimes what I get to do. The fast-paced nature of editorial is really exciting. But I think sometimes the subjects are not necessarily super interesting, or maybe it's not very relevant to myself and it takes a lot of time to figure out what I’m going to do for it.

I wasn’t sure if you do rearrange things on a computer, but if you did you could never tell and that's what's nice about your work, it looks as if you’ve just painted it.

I actually just don’t really know how to translate it into a computer. The things that make a painting a painting just don’t exist in the computer for me. Some illustrators do it very well, but I think that’s because they’re more skilled at using the computer than I am. The feeling of painting is something I have a hard time with on the computer because there's something blocking me from being able to immediately touch my work, and that bothers me. It’s messy, and I have to find space for all the things I make, but ultimately I don’t see another way of doing this. I mean, I’m still planted in front of my computer and have two screens staring at me because unfortunately email is still a huge part of my day. I can’t get away from it. But I am happy I don’t have to be staring into it when I’m working, its a different experience for my brain and eyes.

“The process of painting is very immersive, and it has to be very deliberate for me. It’s kind of explorative, both in a physical and mental way.”

What is it about gouache that you – and a lot of other illustrators – love so much?

I guess it’s a mixture of things. When I started using it originally it was for a design class, we just had to learn how to mix it and paint swatches and it was so boring just sitting there making colour wheels, I was like, “what am I, five?” But I think there’s something really gratifying about the way it looks, it’s also a finicky material that's not the easiest thing to work with, and I like that struggle where you have to fight it a bit. I also like the matte, silkscreen look to prints, it helps to emphasise very graphic shapes.

I read you listen to a lot of podcasts at work, what kind of stuff are you listening to at the moment?

A lot of my friends say I listen to really morbid podcasts. There’s one called Sword and Scale which is all about serial killers and true crime. It’s really real, I guess is the only way I can describe it. Some people I know just refuse to listen to it!

It’s funny to imagine you drawing beautiful drawings of animals and nature while listening to these murder podcasts.

I think that’s where the macabre is seeping through, I’m just unintentionally putting really dark notes into the paintings without realising it. I have a few podcasts to thank for that…