Welcome back to the Artists of Color interview series. I’m very excited to share that this week’s interview is with one of my favorite young artists working today, Malaysian-based artist and illustrator, Qistina Khalidah. I first heard of Qistina’s work on the Starting Bloq podcast, and recognized her work from last year’s Month of Fear challenge. I’m honored to have her, and can’t wait for you to read all about her story! Enjoy.
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
My name is Qistina Khalidah and I’m 24 years old. I’m a Malaysian woman of mixed heritage, and I am the youngest out of 3 siblings. I was born and raised in Malaysia, and I still live and work here. I’ve been doing freelance full-time for 3 years and ongoing since the day I graduated. My style is a mix of realism, surrealism and a touch of Art Nouveau. A lot of clients hire me for cover work and tabletop games.
2). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
I fell in love with art the minute I discovered color pencils! I used to beg my mum to buy me a bunch of art supplies and a lot of coloring books as a kid. I don’t know when I consciously decided to pursue art as a career; It was something I’ve always known from the beginning, like I have to be an artist. Even the friends I grew up with knew.
My parents have been very supportive too! In fact, they’re the only ones who approved of my career choice while other people suggested I should be more practical with my life choices. I can never imagine myself stuck to a desk job, honestly. My biggest nightmare.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I studied in The One Academy of Communication Design here in Malaysia. I have a diploma in Illustration and I graduated back in 2015. Art school did teach me a few things, but I learned to be disciplined most of all. That’s a trait that I think is very, very important to have especially when you’re doing freelance. Passion and patience are also super important to have as well. I also took a Masterclass under a great artist named Eduardo Peña. He’s an art director at Lucasfilm and he’s based in Singapore. He taught us a lot about concept art for movies and triple A videogames. The stuff I learned from his class was invaluable. I still utilize all of his tips into my current workflow, even though I don’t handle concept art. I loved his style of teaching because he valued ideas more than technical skill. Because of his classes, I always try to think outside the box with my artwork.
4). Your work has such a poetic, dreamlike quality with an edge of darkness, that I absolutely love. What inspires you to create this type of imagery?
Thank you, I appreciate the comment. Even though my style is influenced by a number of artists, I try my best to be as original and honest as possible with my artwork. The reason why my artwork always has a certain dark feel to it, is because I struggle with my mental issues. I feel like the only way to get past it is to paint it out. Even if the art I made isn’t related with my struggles, its still a theme that I can relate to a lot and it manages to make its place in the canvas.
Of course, I don’t always do dark stuff. I also appreciate doing majestic and regal women. I’m heavily inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the way the women are beautifully portrayed and the jewel-like color palettes. Some would also say that Klimt’s artwork is my biggest influence, but truthfully his work isn’t the only one. I could name so many more artists but it will take an entire page.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
I nearly gave up art school because I got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and my mental health declined too and it affected my art. At a certain point, my work kept getting rejected over and over and it took a toll on me but I love art too much to just let it all go. My mum even convinced me to push through and I did. I still get my stuff rejected every once in awhile but I learned not to give up so easily whenever I hit an obstacle. Of course, my issues remain to this day, but I can handle them well.
6). Does representation matter in art?
Where I come from, the topic of representation is not widely discussed. I only learned about it from the people who live in the US and other countries, but I can see why it’s important to be correctly represented in art and in media. So far, Western media hasn’t touched on South East Asian cultures yet (if there are, then it’s not done well). So I hope that maybe in the future I get to represent my people through my work and show the others our culture, the right way.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
I think it’s extremely important to do tons of research that doesn’t only involve Google searching. There is still a lot of knowledge that cannot be obtained through the internet. If people want to understand my culture, I’d prefer that they have a chat with me and ask me about it, rather than relying on online sources. I would do the same if I’m trying to represent a culture that’s not my own.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
I actually adore Jessica Pearson from Suits who is played by Gina Torres. Her character has such tenacity and leader-like quality that I really respect. You just know by the way she carries herself that she is a force to be reckoned with.
I also loved Mulan as a kid. Mulan was the closest thing I had to being represented because I’m part Chinese as well. I was never a huge fan of other Disney Princesses because all they did was sing songs and looked pretty, but Mulan was the only one who actually beat up the bad guys herself.
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
I wish people knew more about Tyrus Wong, the lead artist behind Bambi. He recently passed away in 2016, but his work will always have an everlasting effect on me. His art is so magical and has a dream-like quality to it that I myself am trying to capture in my own work.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
I’m not sure if I can impart any sage-like wisdom yet because I’m still a young artist, so all I can say is: Just have fun with your art, really. It really shows. Don’t feel pressured into doing stuff that you’re not really into. It’s also important to take note of your life experiences, because that too can be translated into your craft. Most of the art I make was inspired by the things I went through personally.
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
Well, I’m already fulfilling my dream of making book covers for a living, but I would still love to be a part of more cover projects. I really enjoy what I do, and I hope that I can work with famous authors in the future!
Thank you so much, Qistina, for sharing your story and your gorgeous art with us! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Qistina’s answers resonated with you, please comment and share her interview far and wide.