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Bridging Divides: A Talk with Illustrator Nayoung Wooh

Illustrator Nayoung Wooh creates work that merges East and West, classic and cutting edge, and has created a unique space in the world of commercial art. We explore her work in this interview from 2019.

Nayoung Wooh is a South Korean artist and illustrator, with a career that has been defined by her incredible ability to merge, combine, and reshape expectations. Her art revisits classic subjects and traditional themes, but with a bold approach to art, and to the business of art, that is far ahead of its time.

Changgu Dance by Nayoung Wooh

Wooh was born in Seoul, and loved Oriental art and classical painting from a young age. She majored in Asian Art at university, and then quickly got a job working in Korea’s fledgling video game industry. In the gaming industry, she learned the tools of digital art, and created video game graphics for several years, becoming a successful concept artist and lead designer. But this work didn’t satisfy her emotionally. Speaking through a translation app, she says:

“I got depressed, and lost interest in painting. I had to ask myself not only what I wanted to paint, but why, and tried to catch anything that would interest me.”

Her search for inspiration led her to the fairy tales that had captivated her in her childhood. Animated films from the Disney company, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, and the characters that had excited her young imagination were all still compelling, and yet she wanted to bring something new to those subjects, and to express them in her own way. 

The Wild Swans by Nayoung Wooh

Then, while watching a TV drama about Korean history, she became fascinated with hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing. She liked the complexity and movement of the garments, and wanted to paint them as a subject. In an interview with the Korea Herald, she said:

“At first, I was going to draw an illustration for the folktale ‘The Fairy and the Woodsman.’ Then I thought it is too cliche for [Korean] folktale characters to wear hanbok. So I thought, ‘How about Western fairy tales then?’”

She decided to start illustrating the Western fairy tale subjects of her youth, but in an Oriental style, with the brushes, colors, costumes, and compositions she had always loved in art. To share this work, she turned to the Internet, and started putting her illustrations on Deviant Art, Twitter, and other social sites. And it was there that she found a following. Her unusual illustrations connected with people around the world, who loved the mix of the new and familiar, as their favorite subjects and characters were interpreted in a whole new way. Her art also fostered wider interest in the costumes and culture of her country among people who had never been exposed to it.

Cinderella by Nayoung Wooh

Her newfound online popularity led to a rather unique commercial niche for her artwork, as more and more Western companies began hiring her to create their marketing materials for Korean product launches. After all, who better than Nayoung Wooh to create Korean versions of Hollywood movie posters and product labels for popular Western brands?

The Snow Queen by Nayoung Wooh

In sharing her work directly with the world through social media (she has 100K views on DeviantArt, 63K followers on Instagram, and over 300K followers on Twitter), Wooh found herself yet again at a crossroads. The fine art world tends to look down on “fan art”, and on work that seems too commercial. Her unconventional subject matter and path to success carried the risk of exclusion from fine art galleries and publications. But Wooh points out:

“Visual communication has become more important as more people are using the Internet. Instead of typing long on messenger conversations, people send emoticons to express their feelings and share funny or sympathetic images with their communities. These needs seem to be intertwined with online communications. “

There have often been opinions that rate my paintings as “pop art.” In the past, money and glory could only be obtained if they were recognized as “real art” by authorities and sponsors. But I’m the author of two books, and I’m holding a private exhibition almost every year, which was previously thought to be possible only for “real art” artists.

“I think that rather than the fall of the barriers between the different art worlds, the meaning of those barriers will just fade away. Hasn’t the illustration industry grown with the development of printing since the 18th century and gained great popularity with the public? We are seeing such a transformation happen now.“

Rapunzel by Nayoung Wooh

Defying traditional expectations, her personal work has been featured at many public and private exhibitions around the world. Starting with solo and collaborative exhibitions in South Korea, she has also been featured in America in the Museum of Picture Book Art, and at exhibitions in Spain and France. Her work has appeared in online publications ranging from the popular site, to visualnews, designboom, Wired Italy, and the Spanish edition of Huffington Post.

Nayoung Wooh was featured at the Viborg Animation Festival in September 2019, where  the Expanded Animation Lab showcased her “Alice in Wonderland-The Fall” series, along with some of her existing works. She also premiered a whole new work based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen at the VAF “Flip Book – Stories from the Land of the Morning Calm” exhibition.

The Little Mermaid by Nayoung Wooh

She has found success by balancing at the axis of many alternatives. She merges east and west, old and new, traditional and digital, “pop” art and “real” art. She has found success by pursuing her own interests in her own way, and connecting directly with an audience that appreciates her work and shares her passions. It’s clear that Wooh’s art will continue to merge and cross boundaries for decades to come. She says:

“I am now 40 years old, and I was 20 when the Internet and Starcraft became common in Korea. I have half the strata of the analog and half of the digital age. In that sense, I think I’m clearly in the new movement of digital art.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Check Nayoung’s YouTube channel, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Cinderella’s mouse by Nayoung Wooh

This interview was originally written in 2019 for The Animation Workshop. All images copyright Nayoung Wooh, used with permission.

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