Alice X. Z. - Living Rainbow Taking Flight

39 min read

Deviation Actions

techgnotic's avatar

Living Rainbow Taking Flight

The vibrant digital paintings of alicexz are fiery, emotional, and incredibly memorable.

The colors of her creations (mostly portraits of popular TV and Film characters) are unusually vibrant, which is remarkable considering how layered they appear to be. It’s sort of like what manga characters might look like if painted by one of the Dutch Masters. And this artist exhibits just the right amount of quirkiness to leave us wanting to know more: she has a penchant for painting redheads. But, then of course, there’s a lot of red and golden fire burning through most her artworks.

Sherlock - Time Lapse Process Painting

alicexz’s amazing art has recently been extended by the artist into a whole other dimension. Be sure to experience her marvelous live-stream time-lapse digital painting video, “Virtuoso.”

"Virtuoso" is a process video showing how her “Sherlock” portrait was created, step-by-step, on a Wacom Cintiq tablet. It’s an art+ music video that’s not only mesmerizing to watch, but one that can serve as an instructional resource for deviants and others. Watching the artist’s invisible hands brings to mind the Venetian painting from the Rennaissance, in which painters created compositions directly on the canvas, using layered patches of colored brushstrokes rather than line to define form. In this way they explored the relations of color, light and air on the substance of their subjects, replacing contour lines with transitions of light and shadow. They also used rich, saturated hues to imbue their paintings with a sort of luminosity. alicexz appears to have recaptured the spirit of the "Venitian Palette" and is now exploring new dimensions for the effect digitally, using only her tablet and her talent.

alicexz has recently come to the “devil’s crossroad” that many a deviant member of the deviantART community has found herself or himself approaching with a mixture of exhilaration and dread: She has decided to make the leap to supporting herself exclusively as a freelance illustrator. She has been quite successful with her commissions and selling prints of her artworks on deviantART, and she’s created a number of stunning, unique t-shirt designs (see especially “Deliquesce”!) But this is nevertheless always a nerve-frazzling moment for any artist.  Surely the deviantART community will always be there to support her as she spreads the flames of her digital paintings (and videos!) worldwide.

Interview with Alice X. Zhang

You’re an “artist on the edge” in more ways than one, not only breaking out as one of deviantART’s more well-known illustrator online but also in deciding to quit the day job and support yourself as a fulltime freelance illustrator. Is this scary or do you have everything under control? Any words of advice to fellow deviants facing this same crossroads?


I'm continuously grateful for and humbled by the support I get for my artwork, on deviantART and elsewhere online; I don't think I would've had the guts to leave my job otherwise! I was happy to be hired after college in an art field (as a designer at an apparel graphics company) and full-time work was a very educational experience. In the end, though, I felt a freelance career as a illustrator/painter would be more personally rewarding. I was spending nearly every free moment painting anyway (or thinking about painting), and I was losing (a lot of) sleep trying to balance the job and the side projects I always had going on. I had a never-ending to-do list that I kept putting off - I really just wanted to finally 100% focus on my own projects. I've already found some success as a freelancer and that gives me confidence - it is a bit scary, but I think I'll be okay. And I also now have more free time to travel, to read, to catch up on TV shows I've always wanted to watch… and to sleep more. Maybe.

As for advice, I feel that I can't specifically direct anyone's choice, as everyone's situation is different… But! I would definitely advise that this decision isn't the type you make on a whim. I thought about my choice for months, and talked to many people I trust; I think it's so important to talk it out with those who you know will be honest with you, and weigh the pros and cons completely. A year ago, two years ago - I don't think I would've been ready.  I think in the end it comes down to personal happiness. If you begin to wake up every day thinking you'd rather be doing something else, then it's time to make a change. There's always a level of uncertainty in a freelance career, so you have to truly believe that you have the potential to "make it" on your own. Another important factor was that I knew there were many things I could improve on as an artist, and I really wanted the extra time to practice and to learn. Removing the security blanket and the luxury of being paid steadily no matter what you do each day forces you (or at least forces me) to work harder than ever, to keep people interested in your work!

Will most of your commissions income be from your t-shirt designs or from your commissioned art scenes and portraits? So many of your artworks are homages to the modern TV and film pantheon of heroes and heroines. Can you talk to us a little bit about how that evolved?


To be honest - usually, quitting a steady job in exchange for more free time to work on personal projects… is not something you do because you're hoping to suddenly make more money, haha. (Although one hopes for that eventually, of course.) Thus, I am not focusing at all on the "income" aspect right now - I've reached a point as an artist where I'm confident that if I need money, I will always be able to take on a project that offers it - be it a t-shirt design or a "please draw my entire family tree" commission. There are always art and design jobs out there (really!), as long as you have the ability and willingness to do them. I made my decision not for any income-related reason but because I want to improve and branch out artistically; I want to spend a good amount of time dabbling in new media, new projects, and creating a fresh body of work that I am proud of, and not always feel constantly rushed about it because of other obligations.

I think it's no secret that I am a huge film/TV/literature/pop culture geek; always have been, always will be. I think I will be forever influenced by it - I have SO many ideas all the time - for example, I'm doing an ambitious personal movie poster series this year that I'm really excited for… I think my interest in painting famous characters really just evolved out of just pure, simple fangirlishness. I am very easily excited and obsessive (haha) and it's just great to express that excitement through art and inspire other fans at the same time. I draw what I love, I draw what is visually and emotionally inspiring to me - everyone should draw what they love as often as possible!

Particularly in your portraits of TV and film characters there’s such an amazing vibrancy to the colors that there’s an almost 3D effect. The faces are so much more expressive than in other “flat” illustrations. How do you capture this effect? Can you explain a little about your process and tools necessary in creating your artworks?


Portraits are probably my favorite type of art to create, for many reasons. I think there's really a measure of romanticism, prestige, and timelessness associated with having one's portrait painted - I mean, as I'm sure every aspiring artist knows - whenever you mention to random people that you like to draw, usually the first words out of their mouth are "You're an artist? WILL YOU DRAW ME?!" It's a universally appreciated type of art… I think portraits of beloved characters appeal to many in particular because a portrait is especially moving when a viewer KNOWS, loves, recognizes the person in the artwork - be it a painting, photograph, sculpture, whatever. Portraits of your personal friends and family are moving in the same type of way. A compelling portrait captures the "essence" of the person; that "expressiveness" and "vibrancy" that you kindly mention of my work is me trying to capture that essence - there's many things to consider, getting the subject's correct features down is just a baseline requirement.

Color, cropping, and composition are all as important, if not more important, than mere accuracy, as are a wealth of other factors… for example, what expression best suits this character for this particular piece? Are they happy, spirited, loving, angry, sad, cold, distant, frightened, dangerous, flirtatious? Even in a simple headshot, a bit of personality should shine through… choose your models and/or photo references wisely, and always think to yourself: why am I drawing this particular person? What am I trying to say about this character? What mood am I trying to get across - what type of lighting best highlights their features - is this photo ref giving me enough information - what sort of color scheme would be associated with this character… etc, etc.  This is the kind of stuff goes through my head in my painting process, and it's also why I like to paint characters I know and love, because the answers come naturally that way. There's a lot more to think about if you're unfamiliar with your subject; I always get very paranoid drawing people or characters I don't know, because I'm worried that it won't "look like their personality"… crazy as that sounds. I choose to express myself through vibrant color and a style that's somewhere between impressionism and realism, but there's many other ways to paint a portrait of course. In my opinion it's important to consider all these factors no matter what your style though - think about being compelling, eye-catching, interesting  - think about what will be memorable to your audience, elevate your subject, and always add your own artistic touch!

Your t-shirt designs are very different from your “character studies.” How do you come up with ideas for illustrations that are going to be worn as opposed to framed?


Apparel graphics in general have always been almost an entirely separate artistic category in my mind - it's always been more "commercial" and less personal for me. It was, after all, my full-time job for quite some time - there's just a variety of other outside factors you have to consider and that's why those designs seem to vary stylistically from my other work. What people want to wear can be very different than what they're willing to hang on their walls - you have to think about your market, as my art director used to always tell me. People like graphic tees that have an interesting concept, or a funny inside joke, but it still has to look good on a shirt, y'know? It's a very specific subset of apparel design, because you have nothing but a basic tee or tank to start with; you usually don't have an interesting shirt or anything - it isn't clothing design, but it isn't exactly graphic design either. You absolutely have to think about the piece differently if you're trying to make it work on clothing - tee illustrations are usually "borderless" - it's very important that the design melds with the color of the shirt, so that it's not just a harsh-edged rectangle. That's why a lot of my other paintings wouldn't work on shirts unless they were heavily modified. You also usually have a limited number of colors to work with (although I've generally disregarded this, as screen-printing techniques can be quite sophisticated as long as you have the budget.) I think it's most important to remember that in a tee design, clarity of your concept is key. There's no point in getting to hung up on tiny storytelling details, as no one will see it anyway and a print on cloth much less crisp than a print on paper. The most popular type of graphic tee, or at least I think so, is a design that combines artistry with an interesting concept. I often collaborate with other artists on my tee designs if I come up with a great concept and need help with the execution - for example, if I feel I need very clean lineart (which isn't my strong point) to make my concept work, then I will send another artist a proposal and split the earnings with them. Two heads are usually better than one!

Sometimes a shirt will be very popular for no other reason than it looks awesome - no concept or joke or anything. Sometimes a totally ugly shirt (haha) will sell massively just because it says something funny. Anyway, to anyone who's looking to get into tee design - is a fabulous place to start; it's where most of my designs have been printed and sold. It's an ongoing contest - basically, you submit a design, and if it's picked they buy the design from you and print/sell it online. There's also a rich community over there that's very willing to help out new artists!

What sort of response have you gotten from your “Virtuoso” video? Have you any ideas about creating longer “video tutorials” for budding digital artists? Is there a special reason you prefer your current combination of digital tools?


The response I've had to the one and only time-lapse video I've managed to edit together has actually been stellar! (I will make more in the future, I promise!) Process videos are really interesting to any art appreciator, I think. The Virtuoso video is just a sped-up version of one of my Livestream recordings - I do Livestream sessions occasionally - streaming my monitor to viewers so they can see me creating a digital painting from start to finish.   Slightly nerve-wracking, but I do the sessions because I know a lot of people like to "watch and learn." I have many Livestream recordings in my channel, but they're all in real-time so they're hours long and quite dull to watch - in the future, I do plan to make more "speedpaint" videos out of my recordings and perhaps even incorporate some visual tips and/or voiceovers.


My program of choice for all digital artwork has always been the illustrious Adobe Suite, specifically Adobe Photoshop, combined with a Wacom tablet. I use Photoshop because it's an incredibly versatile graphics program and suits all of my needs perfectly. Currently my home workstation is a dual-monitor setup consisting of an iMac desktop and a Wacom Cintiq 21UX. Dual monitors are great because it allows you to work on one screen… and watch TV on the other. The Cintiq tablet is a wonderful luxury item (a pricey monitor/graphics tablet that I received as a gift, it allows you to draw directly on the screen), but has the drawback of being absolutely non-portable. Since I travel a lot, many of my artworks are done with a laptop and a "regular" tablet - either a Wacom Bamboo or Wacom Intuos. I believe a graphics tablet is essential to anyone hoping to get into digital painting. A common question I'm asked is "what kind of tablet do you have/recommend??" My philosophy is buy whatever tablet you can afford at the time, and practice with it as much as possible. I have seen digital painters create masterpieces with the cheapest, littlest tablet and the most unsophisticated of programs - it is more important to familiarize yourself with and "learn the hell" out of whatever tools happen to be available to you!

alicexz's Travel Space & Workspace

As the Gallery Moderator who selects daily deviations for the digital art gallery, do you find yourself conflicted between choosing a piece that you simply like, that inspires you for some unknown ineffable reason, and another piece that, while not so much to your liking, displays a superior technique, a more notable artistic achievement, than the piece that simply moves you more? Do you feel like the community enjoying the daily deviations you find for them has any idea how questions of ethics, fairness, responsibility and other concerns can exert such tremendous pressure on a "moderator" -- especially when the moderator really cares about the job they're doing?


Ahh… the coveted Daily Deviation. A very notable, occasionally dramatic bit of deviantART culture, I think, because of all the attention an artist can receive from the feature. As someone who selects DDs I am completely familiar with the pressure and the multiple factors that come into the selection process - my primary standard being, above all, excellence (oh, and please - the art shouldn't be plagiarized.) Of course, there's the ideal "everybody-wins, perfect Daily Deviation" - a beautiful, original, and well-executed artwork from a relatively unknown talent, who has had no previous DDs and is also an active deviant who would see and appreciate the feature - it's very hard to find something like this every single day, even with suggestions from the community. So, as a mod, you try and hit at least two of those "good" factors. And I think sometimes naysayers of a so-called "amateur" DD (or a "this artist is too popular already" DD) might not realize all those factors exist during the selection process, and also might forget that DDs are chosen by a real person, a person who's volunteered their time to the community, and not some web algorithm. It's impossible to take personal taste completely out of the picture, and impossible to please everyone in general.

That aside, though, I do believe a mod DOES have a certain obligation to the community-at-large to choose the features as tastefully as possible, and not let that personal, what you call an "unknown ineffable reason," come into it too much. It's more important to me that I choose something polished and well-executed that can be universally appreciated, something that I think the community would enjoy - after all, the DD section isn't my Favorites folder, I've got my own Favorites folder. I always write a caption saying why the piece was chosen, as I think that's important as well. I'm lucky to be moderating the Digital Art gallery, which is an absolutely enormous field and there's plenty of talent for me to look through everywhere! It's a job I care about deeply and I hope to keep up the highest standards during my volunteer term.

What technical, business, spiritual (or any other) advice do you have for beginning illustrators who would like to emulate your success and one day achieve your advanced level of artistry (and self-sufficiency)?


This is an incredibly loaded question! In terms of advice on a technical/business level… the best advice I can give any aspiring artist in this day and age to remember what an incomparably powerful tool the internet is. (Yes, the interwebs.) I've self-taught myself nearly all my digital painting skills through tutorials and other information available online - but that's an obvious use of online resources - information isn't the only thing that makes the internet so powerful. After you create a body of work that's good, that you're proud of - often the question is, "what now?" Then comes the struggle to get noticed for your work, right? What I mean is - what really matters - and this is something I feel many artists forget - is the raw power of a web presence. If you want to achieve any kind of "self-sufficiency" as an artist, it's not good enough just to be good if nobody knows you exist. If you were opening a gallery show, you'd print fliers, you'd put up ads, you'd send invitations - you'd do everything possible to get people to come to the show. Agents at galleries often require you to pay thousands of dollars for this sort of advertising and promotion service. The best thing about the internet is that you essentially have your very own endless gallery show… and you are your own agent! And it's completely free! I mean, think about how awesome that is, and how it should always be taken advantage of. It's important to learn how to market your work, and one of the best ways to do that nowadays is to maintain an interesting presence online. That includes immersing yourself in a community (such as deviantART); collaborating with other artists; helping your fans, sharing your insights, answering questions, doing an interview, letting a bit that artist personality shine through can go a long way. You get what you give, just like everywhere else in life. The support and love of the fans of your work is crucial if you want to make a career out of art.

And as for spiritual advice… please, please draw what you love, as often as possible. My favorite type of comment to get on my work is when someone tells me they now love so-and-so show because my art alone intrigued them enough to go out and watch it. That's kinda the best feeling ever. So keep calm and carry on, don't be afraid to get silly, and don't forget why you love to make art in the first place. :)

© 2012 - 2024 techgnotic
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In
Ralenore's avatar
This is beautiful.