Alice Cao Vietnamese illustrator living in England


What brought you to illustration?

When I finished secondary school and discovered that making art was what gave me the most joy, and that I’m not half bad at it, I knew I wanted to have a creative career. Then, through the two years of A-level, I realised that my favourite thing about art in particular was not just making pretty pictures, but the act of visual problem solving. I enjoy the challenge of translating ideas through the medium of image making — like turning words on the page into pictures, for example, and that’s when I knew that illustration is the field for me. This led me to choosing to study illustration at the Cambridge School of Art, and here we are now.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I would normally wake up at 8am, relax, do some exercise, have breakfast, and start work at 10am. I begin by going through my emails, getting the admin work out of the way, and then I go through my planner where I keep track of all my projects, decide what needs prioritising and what I need to get done today. Then I would start work/drawing, have an hour lunch break at around 1pm, and get back to work until 7pm. I’ve been very lucky lately to have some big consistent projects going so I can spend most of my work day drawing, but more often than not, work consists of more emailing, troubleshooting, planning, researching, taxes and marketing. ’Tis the pros and cons of working for yourself — you get to be your own boss, but also you’ve got to do everything yourself. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

"Dustfinger"; Illustration from the Inkheart special edition (Books Illustrated, to be published autumn/winter 2023)

"Dustfinger"; Illustration from the Inkheart special edition (Books Illustrated, to be published autumn/winter 2023)

Are there any illustrators who influenced/influence you?

Many, many, many! As you may be able to tell from my work, I am hugely influenced by the old masters of illustrations like Gustav Doré, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham and Franklin Booth. I am a big fan of the Golden Age illustrators like NC Wyeth, JC Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, EH Shepard and Bernie Wrightson. I am also hugely inspired everyday by the work of my contemporaries and peers — Nicole Rifkin, Tran Nguyen, Olivia Daw, Marlowe Lune, just to name a few. I really can go on forever!

What was your very first illustration?

That’s a tricky question! I used to write and illustrate very strange stories on paper ripped out of homework notebooks and pass them around to all my classmates if that counts. in case it doesn’t, my first professional paid illustration was a book cover for a friend I knew through a writing website who was self-publishing his books. It’s called "The Brandywine Prophet" by Jake Vander Ark. You can still find it on Amazon.

What inspires you? Where do you get your ideas from?

I like to think that I stand on the shoulder of giants. Almost every piece of work I make draws from and pays homage to the long history of art. I am obsessive about the Pre-Raphaelites and I find their work an endless source of inspiration. I also adore fantasy and mythology of any kind. Greek Mythology is always my go to, but lately I’ve been trying to dig backing my roots and finding a wealth of fantastical ideas in the strange tales of Vietnamese mythology. I’m also lucky to live in a lovely little town in England where you can find history in every little crack in a wall. Where there is history, there are stories, and where there are stories, illustrations are just begging to be made.

Do you have a favourite illustrator/artist/author?

This is a cruel question, I can’t just choose one! Since I already gave a very extensive answer to illustrators, I will say my favourite author of all time is Neil Gaiman. "The Graveyard Book" is one of the catalysts in me wanting to be an illustrator.

Do you like listening to music or audio books while working or do you prefer silence?

Yes, I listen to loads of things while working, and I have a very specific system for it! I listen to a lot of Japan Pop when I’m trying to come up with ideas for illustrations since they get me pumped up just right to feel energised, but I can’t get distracted by the lyrics since I don’t speak Japanese. Sometimes I will need to put on music that set the right mood — Celtic music if I’m illustrating a story about fairies for example. Once I move onto the inking stage of an illustration that requires less brain power and more draughtsmanship, I can let the hours drift away with a podcast or an audiobook. I absolutely cannot handle silence, I need something to be playing at all times.

Do you have a favourite place to work?

Yes, my home studio. I spend a lot of my time in here working so I’ve filled it with things that spark joy. This makes me excited to go to work everyday because I get to spend time in a cosy environment surrounded by my favourite things. I’m a big proponent of romanticising every aspect of your life.

Is there a particular story you would love to illustrate?

"Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke. I love statues and liminal spaces, so to draw a liminal world of statues sound like a dream. I also very much want to illustrate the Vietnamese founding mythology for a more global audience. According to the myth, Vietnamese people are descended from the children of mountain fairies and ocean dragons, and I just think more people need to know that.

Meggie and her books. Illustration from the Inkheart special edition (Books Illustrated, to be published autumn/winter 2023)

Meggie and her books. Illustration from the Inkheart special edition (Books Illustrated, to be published autumn/winter 2023)

What was your favourite illustration you have made so far?

Meggie with her books and book box for "Inkheart". Sometimes everything just goes exactly how I want it to with an illustration and that was one of them.

What can you be found doing when your are not illustrating?

I am a glutton for hobbies, which is not good for someone who barely has any time to do any of them. When not illustrating, you can probably find me caring for my plants, gardening, embroidering, doing DIYs around the house, or making cosy dioramas. It very much depends on what mood you catch me in. I also watch a lot of anime.

"Mary Wollstonecraft"; Illustration by Alice Cao

"Mary Wollstonecraft"; Illustration by Alice Cao

What makes the art of illustrating special to you?

To me, illustration is very much like translation, or interpretation. I get presented with a concept, and the job is to immerse myself in that world to find a visual way to bring that concept to an audience, but also along the way put my own twist into it. There’s a story about a Japanese professor who asked his students to translate the phrase “I love you” into Japanese, and each of them came back with a different answer, one of them being something to the effect of “isn’t the moon beautiful tonight?”. That story very much resonated with me, because that’s what it feels like to be an illustrator. A hundred illustrators will illustrate the same story a hundred different ways. As one of them, I get to say “this is what that story looks like through my lens”, and I find being able to do it to be a very special thing.

What makes a good illustrator?

I always come back to what one of my tutors said to us when I was studying illustration at Cambridge School of Art. When he was explaining the difference between a fine artist and an illustrator, he said, a fine artist looks inwards, an illustrator looks outwards. A fine artist does not need to care if an audience “get it” or not, it is in the eye of the beholder. One can’t fail to create art. An illustrator, on the other hand, needs to care whether the audience understand the image, because our job is information delivery. There is always wiggle room for interpretation, but if you’re trying to express A, and the audience understood B, your piece of illustration has failed. Art can just be. Illustration has to serve its purpose. A good illustrator, therefore, I would say, is someone who consistently makes illustrations that serve their purpose.

"Ladies final"; Illustration by Alice Cao

"Ladies final"; Illustration by Alice Cao

Do you struggle sometimes? Do you have to motivate yourself, and if so, what helps? Is there a kind of "illustrator’s block?”

I do, I think everyone does. It’s clichéd, but I find taking a break does help. Sometimes you’re staring at a piece of paper for hours and ripping your hair out because not a single idea would come. You can just sit there for a few more hours doing exactly the same thing, or you can take a little break and find the answer you need in a leaf floating down the river, or in the way the afternoon light hits your cup of tea. I like to think of an illustrator’s block as being like walking down a road and being met with a wall. You can just bang your head at the wall and if you do it for long enough you’ll probably smash a hole through it, but now you’re bleeding and your head hurts. But if you just take a second and step back to look at it from a different perspective, you might find a ladder tucked somewhere just out of view.