A Woman’s Journey from Engineer to Artist

By Li Zhang

Art has always been my biggest personal interest and I never stopped teaching myself about it during any free time I can get. For me, drawing is one of the most important parts of my life. When I feel upset or frustrated, only drawing could calm me down. I would draw feelings that I cannot speak out clearly. I always find that it is more interesting and easier for me to express myself through visual language.

From kindergarten all the way to senior high school, I was taking painting classes during weekends as well as some weekday nights. I was supposed to choose fine arts as my undergraduate major; however, I ended up studying engineering in university due to rather realistic consideration. 

After graduation, I worked as a product engineer in a French automobile company. As an automotive lighting engineer, I needed to communicate with car stylists a lot. In order to be understood better, I expressed my ideas by drawing the mechanical sections of the car. I found that my drawing abilities have allowed me to accomplish my work in a more efficient and creative way. I also gradually realised that being an engineer would never be a dream worth pursuing for me. I had too many constraints to consider such as engineering process standard, lighting regulation and so on. After accomplishing one project after another, my sense of achievement became less and less.

Therefore, I made up my mind. I decided to pursue my real dream and bring out my real talent and passion. I went back to school and studied  art. While I thought that it was maybe too late, I later decided that in terms of the course of our lives, late is better than never actually doing it. Driven by that inner desire, I sent my resignation and started the road to becoming an illustrator without any hesitation.

Life is a matter of choice and I chose to change. I chose drawing because of both instinct and love. For the most part, my illustrations are inspired by women. Conincidentally, I read an article that introduced a young female illustrator named Victo Ngai, who is one of youngest artists in latest Forbes “30 under 30”. I liked her unique and imaginative illustrations and her persistent attitude towards her dream. Although most people think drawing was something that could only be a hobby, or a “teenager’s dream”, her story and professional success strengthened my dream of becoming a professional illustrator. I want to be a famous illustrator like her, and I cannot wait to bring my fantastic talent to the world.

In August 2016, I got an offer from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). I flew to New York City from China and started my art journey. I studied for two years. For the first year at FIT, I learned the foundations of drawing, western art history, illustration process, how to use different media  including more traditional ones such as watercolour, gouache, oil painting, acrylic, ink, charcoal pencil, etc. During my second year, I realized that I preferred the commercial new digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Aftereffects. Moreover, I’ve invested time into learning specific things  about illustration online. I tried my best to absorb all the information about art like a sponge. I felt like I finally found my love and true passion. 

It was funny that most of my classmates were in the last years of their teenage life. I was like the aunt of the classroom. In order to improve my professionalism, I treated every assignment at school as a real commission. I thought I’ve sacrificed a lot to get my second chance to learn art so I cherished it a lot. With regards to my personal life, I almost gave up my leisure time. My personality was very active before. I loved to hang out with friends. However, since I came to NY, my life was just school and home. Except sleep and meal time, my whole day was focused on creating art works. (I don’t encourage this life style though.)

Of course, I felt very lonely.  During the summer holiday of 2017, with the purpose of saving money and time, I chose to stay in New York for three months. This was the first long and lonely time I’ve had so far. When I was at school, I had classes to take with classmates so the loneliness was not that strong. However, during the summer holiday, almost everyone I knew went back to home. In order to earn money to pay my rent and daily bills, I started to do the customer oil portrait painting. During the days that I painted I rarely talked to anyone except for the cashier in the grocery downstairs. 

While that was a lonely summer, something good happened! In July, my professor, John Jay, who taught me in my second semester before recommended me to do a live painting commission work for Melissa Shoes in Southampton, New York.

Check out Li’s Gallery here.

Time flies when you are busy. In the summer 2018, I graduated from FIT.  Frankly speaking, I was lost and frustrated rght after leaving the school environment without the guide of our teachers. I felt like I had to build my own portfolio to get more clients. This was not easy. It was a huge challenge for my initiative and discipline Once again, I became a lonely soldier who kept exploring different art styles and building my portfolio through online courses. Meanwhile, I had to find other part-time jobs to pay my bills. With no stable income, time to relax, friends around and being under a lot of  pressure, that winter – in my memory – was quite dark and lonely. I felt hopeless. At night, I always cried myself to sleep. I didn’t know how I came through the darkness, but I am glad I finally did. Those dark days also gave me the inspiration for one of my illustrations.

This illustration by Li was published here.

After one year of experimenting, I finished my portfolio and created my own website. However, another challenge came. How do I promote mywork to win more clients? I’ve tried to write and send about 2000 emails within three weeks. I haven’t counted my responses but they are maybe no more than 50. Nonetheless, I got some commissions through email promotion. Below is the illustration I did for Sierra Magazine.

This illustration was published here.

I’ve also tried to attend many popular illustration competitions, such as 3×3 Illustration Annual, AI-AP, Creative quarterly, Society of illustrators, etc. So far, I’ve won Graphic matters, 3×3 Illustration and creative quarterly within half year, which is not bad as a new illustrator. However, I am still learning and trying to improve my work.

As times goes by, I feel like it is not easy to be a full-time illustrator. It is not just about how good your skills are but it also involves other business related skills, which I still find that I am lacking of. However,  I’ve made my decision that I will continue my art journey. There are always challenges along the way. . I changed my attitude about all the challenges from negative to positive. When I look back, I feel very grateful for all the things that happened during these years. Those tearslate nights I have suffered through became my own special treasure that nourishes my soul. Without those, I wouldn’t become a  more independent and stronger woman.


Li Zhang is graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) with a degree in illustration. She is originally from China but is currently a freelance illustrator based in New York City. Prior to moving to the States she worked as a product engineer for Groupe PSA in Shanghai. Combining rational logical thinking with creative imagination, she enjoys creating intricate, symbolic, geometrical illustrations that celebrate diversity and the power of storytelling through a colourful pattern-based style. Her works are mainly focused on portrait, editorial map and infographic field.
Follow her art exploring and self-growth journey on Instagram (@lizhangart), Facebook, Behance, or her website.

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