Creating an Illustrious Career

Meet three women who’ve turned illustrating into a career, and their art into a brand.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

No one does beautiful images quite like the fashion and beauty industry. Increasingly, brands are using illustrations as a way to stand out. Take Gucci – its creative director Alessandro Michele has a muse, Jayde Fish, an illustrator whose artwork made up some of the prints in his Spring ’17 collection. And let’s not forget Chanel, long known for its illustrations. Or Donald Robertson, who started out as an Instagram illustrator and is now Estee Lauder’s creative director.

Illustrations lend a more personal, quirky voice to a brand, says Michael Ng, co-founder of the Organisation of Illustrators Council. And with social media, it’s easier for illustrators to showcase their work and get noticed. Which helps grow their following, as well as their cult status.

Brands from other industries have also begun buying into the idea of standing out with unique artwork, and with that comes more respect for an illustrator’s vision.

We meet three women who’ve turned their passion into a full-time career, and their art into a brand.

Tinee Dino
does all he can to
keep fit, but will
cut himself some
slack when he
needs it.
Tinee Dino does all he can to keep fit, but will cut himself some slack when he needs it.
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“I designed an imperfect influencer.” – Rachel Tan

Call Tinee Dino an influencer. But one who’s way more down to earth than what you’re used to on Instagram. The chubby dinosaur – who has more than 5,000 followers – tries to keep fit (he’s big on sit-ups though his tummy gets in the way), but can’t help having cheat meals (he eats cabbage for dinner because he wants cake for dessert). His favourite yoga pose is lying flat on his back, but he also does cool activities like zip-lining and hiking in Bali.

You could say Tinee Dino is 30-year-old illustrator Rachel Tan’s response to influencer culture, and she’s built her brand around it.

“Influencers have an aspirational life. People follow them to get tips on where to go, how to dress, what to eat. While I can see that there is entertainment in that, I wondered how real the scenes were,” explained Rachel. “So I created an influencer people could identify with.”

Rachel, who studied journalism, has always enjoyed sketching and painting in her spare time. But it was only in January this year that she began posting about Tinee Dino on Instagram, sharing daily musings and vignettes of his life, inspired by her own observations. The response to her rotund creation was positive, and this encouraged her to take her work offline. At her first art fair two months later, Rachel sold more than 20 drawings in a day, and decided to take the leap into illustrating full-time.

To grow the relationship between Tinee Dino and his followers, Rachel has to build him as a living character, so people can get to know him. That means responding to followers as Tinee Dino, and putting herself in his shoes. “I think in terms of Tinee Dino. In a way, he’s almost become me. He’s so positive, it’s therapeutic for me,” she says.

Rachel makes a living mostly from custom design work for individuals and brands (she’s worked on body positivity, self-love, and animal welfare campaigns), but also sells notebooks, prints and cards. “It’s not just a drawing, it’s a piece of positivity,” she says.

Next up – working with Singapore lingerie brand Perk by Kate to create sketches about body positivity, as well as with Earthfest to encourage people to live greener.

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“I am 100% my brand.” – Candice Phang

Candice Phang looks like she’s stepped out of one of the dreamy watercolour fantasies that she creates. Bubbly and warm, with silver hair and kooky clothes, she has as much fun with her personal style as she does with her whimsical, character-driven illustrations – think elephant-unicorn hybrids and rainbowcoloured dogs.

This is because Candice the person and Puffingmuffin (her work pseudonym) are one and the same. “I am my brand, and it’s important to stay on point with its identity,” she explains. “So I like to add lifestyle elements like behindthe- scenes photos or OOTDs to my Instagram account so my followers can get to know the person behind the posts.” For Candice, authenticity is what matters. “I use colours (like pink, purple and blue) in my artwork because they make me happy. The same goes for my attire,” she adds.

Candice was one of the early adopters of Instagram as a platform to showcase her work (she started in 2013; her current following exceeds 8,000), and in a way, it launched her illustration career. As her number of followers steadily climbed, enquiries for work started coming in. But her full-time job as a designer for a magazine here meant that she had to turn offers down.

Then in 2015, she decided to go full-time with Puffingmuffin. Her gamble paid off. Now, two years after making that call, the 32-year-old boasts a portfolio of clients that includes big names like Rimowa (her work adorned a suitcase), the National Library Board (for a sticker illustration workshop), and Samsung (she did live drawings at an event).

She gets most of her gigs through word of mouth and, of course, the visibility of her art in public spaces (she’s done a window display for Swatch and an ad board at Citylink mall) and in cyberspace. Clients know that hiring Candice means getting the otherworldly, tongue-in-cheek art that populates her Instagram feed. She curates her posts for a consistent look, deleting older posts that don’t represent her aesthetic.

But not all clients buy in, even though they’re convinced she’s got talent. “There is stuff that I take on just to pay the bills, like work clients want to do in a style that’s not my own.” It doesn’t happen often, but it’s all in a day’s work.

So what’s the story behind the moniker Puffingmuffin? Candice laughs. “I tell people different versions. Sometimes I say it was created during the cupcake craze, and I thought of a muffin puffing in anger,” she says. “But I just happened to be drawing a smoking muffin when I set up the Instagram account. That’s all, really!”

Candice and
dance on an iPhone
– which is where
her journey started
when she created
an Instagram
Candice and Puffingmuffin dance on an iPhone – which is where her journey started when she created an Instagram account.
Anngee pays
tribute to people who
have raised her up,
and kept her head
above the weeds
– especially when
things got tough.
Anngee pays tribute to people who have raised her up, and kept her head above the weeds – especially when things got tough.
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“I’m super versatile.” – Anngee Neo

From the get-go, Anngee Neo was an artist at heart. She’s worked as an illustrator since the pre-Instagram era – you know, when artists actually had to network, make contacts, and showcase their work at exhibitions and art fairs to get gigs.

Now 30, Anngee was discovered when she was a design student at Temasek Polytechnic, and was one of the first illustrators invited to exhibit her work at the nowdefunct gallery-bar Night & Day. That introduced her to well-established illustrators, who handed her gigs they didn’t have time to handle. Anngee was also part of the early days of the former MAAD (Market of Artists and Designers), where she befriended experienced artists who gave her invaluable guidance.

And unlike many illustrators who are adamant about sticking to a particular aesthetic, she’s happiest experimenting with various styles – from intricate line work to sketches and graphic cartoons. “When I started, a lot of mentors told me that if I stuck to just one style, I would be a lot more well known,” she says. “I tried that and got bored. I like adapting to new things.”

That versatility might have something to do with the fact that when she started out 10 years ago, clients were less open to using an illustrator’s personal style, and preferred them to imitate a certain style they’d seen elsewhere. “I had to learn different styles without plagiarising, and still make them distinctively mine,” she adds.

Having built a solid reputation over the years, Anngee now has the luxury of being able to cherrypick her projects. In fact, she doesn’t look for work – it’s the clients who seek her out, either through recommendations or because they’ve seen her work and liked it. “If I’m interested and available, then I send them a fee quote. I don’t send sketches and illustrations for their project before we’ve signed the contract.”

Currently, she makes a living largely from commissioned projects like children’s books as well as corporates like Singtel (she illustrated an ad) and the Centre for Liveable Cities (she creates art for its social media channels and publications).

A book she illustrated – The Rock and the Bird – has won awards, and she’s also illustrated a book written by late President S R Nathan called The Crane and the Crab. Most recently, she did the drawings for The Mermaid Who Became a Champion – a children’s book about Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu.