Have you ever imagined a book without illustrations? If the content of the book itself is not extremely interesting, then it is easy to get frustrated or tired of reading the book. Here is a person who makes the world a lot more vigorously through his artwork. His works are all around us, from the juvenile literature Nobinson Series to the newsweekly Si-sa-in. His work can even be found on the logo of the big franchise coffee shop, Angel-in-us. Figured out who he is? The Sookmyung Times (SMT) met up with Lee Wooil (LEE) to learn about his desire to fill people’s hearts with cozy lines.
SMT Despite of a lot of adversities you have become one of the most popular cartoonists and illustrators in Korea. Would you please tell us a little about your childhood?
LEE As a child, I used to draw images I saw in children’s magazines or on animations broadcasted from Japan or on AFKN. This naturally drew me to art. Decisively, Confession of An Advertising Man by David Ogilvy* made me yearn for advertising agency work; regrettably, I found that profession didn’t really suit me. Thus, I joined Nemorami, a cartoon club while at university. Other students in the club drew really well, and I felt their indifference or obedience to society norms. Since then, I have tried to draw like a person who had never been taught to draw; I try to use only simple lines. This made my work more eye-catching. True as it may be, I faced big criticism, but I learned a lot at the same time. Afterwards, I published the Donald the Chicken series in Dong-A ilbo, and it was then that I started to make a big name for myself.
SMT Then, what was your first reaction to being requested to draw Nobinson, on 1999?
LEE Science Dong-A requested I illustrate the idea ‘What if you were on a deserted island?’ Thus, I thought the practical article would benefit from a synergy effect through an eye catching illustration, which gave birth to Nobinson. It was after Science Dong-A, I received a call from the publishing house and started to work on the series, illustrating the same character. At that time, I didn’t expect to be that successful; however, over million books sold immediately. The series gained energy from this renewed popularity. I continued to maintain the series’ color, the same character should appear and only the owner of the copyright has permission to draw it.
SMT Among your many works, including the books you both wrote and drew, which ones do you favour the most?
LEE I prefer to tell you about my least shameful works rather than talking about the ones I felt were most worthwhile like Cat Kafka's confession and Blue Corn Bread, which I both wrote and drew. Even though I am always content with my drawings, my final work always leaves me with the feeling that I have forgotten something or could have done better. However, I feel relatively free with most work solely created on my own because with joint work it is difficult to determine success or failure due to the number of stakeholders such as publisher and marketers. Also, when I have difficulty objectifying my own work, I start to draw two months after finishing a piece of writing because it’s easier to objectify a text I’ve written.
SMT Although the drawings look simple, it is clear that producing a variety of artworks requires big creativity. Can you offer any useful tips for stimulating one’s creativity?
LEE Seemingly simple and easy are the concepts behind my work, and I gain ideas by drawing a lot. On my personal blog, there are more than 100 pink post-it note cartoons. When an idea comes to mind, I draw it on a memo paper immediately. Also, my drawing style differs slightly with those of other Koreans who make obvious conclusions or make people laugh out loud from a four-frame comic strip. Therefore, I was inspired by Matthew Abram Groening who drew The Simpsons and Charles Monroe Schulz the cartoonist of Peanuts. Their styles seem calm, yet they foster a comfortable atmosphere.
SMT Some think illustrations are subordinate to the text; that is, merely decoration. As an artist joining a diverse genre of works, how would you define them?
LEE One cannot segregate illustration and text since the importance of either differs according to purpose or situation. Therefore to define my work, I would say it is the synergy that the audience feels from both the text and illustration. That is, neither a reader nor an observer can “feel” my vision by merely typed words or images, but together my work is truly illuminated. A good illustration should be drawn by reconstituting the content of the writing and arouse one’s curiosity. Moreover, I emphasize “fun” regardless of whether it’s for education or satire.
SMT The exhibition of an association of nine illustrators, EYE9 was held recently. What motivated you personally to join the group?
LEE There was almost no opportunity for freelancer illustrators to gather and collaborate; therefore, EYE9 was established. We provide feedback and discuss each other’s work with the aim at improving ourselves. We bring to the meeting different ideas and values, lots of things that we can learn. Personally, I think communication is a significant factor but I do not consider it as a top priority. In this sense, I participate in the exhibitions to fulfill an emptiness inside me due to a lack of communication. It can also be an opportunity to experiment with my talent.
SMT Lastly, where do you see yourself in the next 10 years? Also, please offer a short piece of advice for university students.
LEE One of the biggest advantages of being an artist is that there is no set retirement. In the future, I hope to continue to draw fun and interesting drawings just like nowadays. Based on my past life, I would like to encourage students to read. I purchase more books since they provide a chance to experience other worlds indirectly, which stimulate my imagination and raise my ability to sympathize with others. People should be careful not to get locked into a closed universe. I am sure students are already fed up with such talk, but rather than merely concentrating on job preparation, I hope students read books.
Lee Wooil (LEE)
• BA in Visual Communication Design, Hongik University
• Author of Cat Kafka's confession, Blue Corn Bread and more
• Drew Revolt of Red Stockings, Donald the Chicken, Nobinson Series and more
• 2014 Group Exhibitions Eye9, Sa-i-sa-i and more
* Influential book about advertisement considered as a must-read for advertiser.