Charis Loke on illustrating Fantasy rooted in reality

Charis Loke on illustrating Fantasy rooted in reality

Illustrator, writer, and comics editor Charis Loke talks about the process and philosophy behind her work.

By Cole Yap

It’s a cloudy, grey afternoon. Rain starts to pitter-patter as I duck for cover under a tree-lined sidewalk in Pulau Tikus. I’ve arrived at an apartment building here to meet Charis Loke, an illustrator whose drawings in ink, watercolour, and digital media bring stories to life in publications ranging from book covers to editorial illustrations, character designs, and comics.

Since becoming a full-time illustrator in 2017 (having freelanced part-time since 2010), Loke alternates between commissioned artworks and self-directed projects inspired by her interests. An avid reader and gamer of sci-fi and fantasy genres with a passion for socio-political issues, her work often features narratives of diversity and cultural representation rarely depicted in mainstream media.

The Geeky Baju Project is one such example. Adapting themes from fandoms in pop culture like The Lord of the Rings, Pacific Rim, Watchmen, and Mass Effect, Loke does a fantastical take on traditional garments like the Malay sarong, Indian sari, and Chinese samfu, turning them into avant-garde costumes befitting of their respective universes. The series has been featured in Poskod.my, Mashable Asia, The Star, and BFM 89.9.

She’s also documented Bersih protest rallies and the GE14 elections, as well as done observational sketches at local markets. A prolific artist and wearer of many hats, Charis has participated in a number of exhibitions since 2017, speaking publicly and teaching workshops in addition to planning community arts and culture programmes for youth as a member of Arts-ED Penang. She also occupies the post of Comics and Illustrations Editor for New Naratif.

I walk up a flight of stairs and ring the doorbell. Almost immediately, Loke opens the door to her first-floor unit. Like many artists, she works from home. Her worktable is sat in the living room and stacks of sketchbooks, loose papers, and books on illustration and art occupy empty chairs and the floor. Compared to most artist studios, it’s a pretty neat space, with large windows that flood sunlight into the house.

We immediately get to discussing her latest work: an intricately illustrated map of Zhaon, a fictional ancient kingdom, commissioned for American author S. C. Emmett’s latest fantasy novel titled The Throne of the Five Winds, and a personal project of illustrated microfiction exploring Southeast Asian cultures and realities titled Kejora.

As we speak, Charis flips through numerous sketchbooks, each organised by month and I’m amazed by the sheer volume of process sketches and research that goes through each of them.

The commissioned map is stylised in reference to real historical drawings and woodcuts from East and Central Asia. Included in the novel as a two-page spread, it is made complete with hand-lettered fonts, ancient seals, and symbols created just for this piece.

Completed map illustration for The Throne of the Five Winds by S. C. Emmett.

Loke explains that unlike cover art commissions that usually provide the artist with only a short description to work from, map illustrators are sent entire manuscripts to dissect.

“For maps, you actually have to work with the author as well as the art director. I’ll usually take notes while reading and email them clarifications because sometimes, for example, the book might say a journey took two weeks by horseback to a destination, and so you’d have to calculate the distances so that it fits.”

The illustration process usually begins with up to twenty thumbnail sketches pencilled by hand before one is refined as a digital sketch, enabling the manipulation of finer elements in layout and composition. The digital sketch is then approved by the client, printed, transferred by hand onto printmaking paper using pastels, and inked with a brush pen before scanning it back into digital to be rendered in Photoshop for colouring, texturing, and further refinement.

Process and developmental sketches at Loke’s studio.

Despite the workload, Loke insisted on developing her own custom typography for the map’s labels that, although read in English, borrow their vertical format and strokes from Chinese calligraphy. “I really don’t like (stock) digital typefaces. I feel like it throws off the whole thing.”

This conscientious effort to embed authenticity in the layers between each artwork is a common thread through her other projects. The importance of a strong visual narrative and the thoughtfulness she places behind each element is evident in her latest ongoing series titled Kejora.

The series began as 2018’s Inktober challenge and has carried through Loke’s 2019 residency at Rimbun Dahan, exhibiting in June at Hikayat in conjunction with Open Studios Penang.

Notes and thumbnail sketches for Kejora illustrations.

Conceptualised as single panel stories accompanied by written text, the artworks are a mash-up of folklore and current issues of Southeast Asia framed in the style of old colonial-era black and white photographs. Arranged side by side, the text hints at details in the image, and vice versa, encouraging the viewer to go back and forth between the two in order to see the whole picture. “I guess I’m trying to say that you have to slow down, get closer to the work and take your time to look at it.”

The muted aesthetic is a deliberate counter-response to bright, attention-grabbing graphics tailored for screen-based visual consumption of today. The series also wants to subvert a one-sided representation of history from a colonialist viewpoint that is largely painted as truth. It’s a retelling of our own stories in a world where characters within carry more agency, asking the viewer to consider the taboos and tales we pretend to ignore and to imagine a future with more empathy.

Cover photo by Cole Yap
Images of artwork courtesy of Charis Loke

Cole Yap is a photographer, writer, and occasional ceramic artist with a background in fine art sculpture and an endless curiosity for all things creative across design, art, science, and business.