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Five Minutes with: Sophia Hotung, illustrator

By Jen Paolini 4 August 2022

Header image courtesy of Sophia Hotung

When it comes to finding purpose, there is no hard and fast rule; sometimes, you find your calling after years of search, and sometimes, your calling quite simply finds you. Faced with a mounting number of chronic illnesses, Sophia Hotung fell onto an artistic path when her autoimmune diseases affected her ability to hold down a traditional job. We sat down with the Eurasian illustrator and writer, best known for her Hong Konger artwork series, to talk about her journey into digital art and how she juggles her work with her health.

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What does a day in the life of Sophia Hotung look like?

One of my chronic illnesses is myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). I compare myself to a phone with an unreliable battery. I can charge myself overnight and wake up with either three percent battery, 70 percent battery, or anything in-between. Because of this, it means anything besides basic body functions takes an inordinate toll on my battery life.

I have a routine that can accommodate the unpredictability of living with ME. In the morning, I’ll work on commission work or business admin. I’ll walk my dogs after lunch to get some vitamin D-infused exercise, then spend the afternoons working on personal projects. If it’s a day where my battery is low, the personal projects get replaced with a nap.

How did you get your start as an illustrator?

I never planned on being an artist. When I graduated from university, I went into IT audit (sexy, I know) trying to make it big as some corporate techie. But when my autoimmune diseases made it impossible for me to get out of bed or go to work, I had to rethink what I was going to do with my life. I taught myself to draw when I got an iPad for Christmas 2020 and began posting travel posters and joke art on Instagram. One joke artwork was a “Hong-Kong-ified” cover of The New Yorker. It garnered far better engagement than I expected, so I made more and ended up becoming known for The Hong Konger.

Despite going into tech after university, I always wanted to be a writer. Much of my work now brings my writing and new illustration skills together.

“Balconies” and “Colours & Whites.” Photo: Sophia Hotung

What is your illustration process?

When I get ideas, I’m almost always in the shower, on the go, or about to fall asleep, so I end up scribbling notes, making voice memos, or taking screenshots for later. When I’m at my desk, I sort through all my archived goodies and find the pearls, which become ideas.

I work mainly on the iPad and Procreate app. My sketches start out rough and I build up layer upon layer until I have sketches to paint over. I don’t feel as though I have found a style that’s recognisably “me” yet because I have only been making art for a year at this point, but I like having the freedom to experiment and change up my process.

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Who and what inspires you?

Magazine, book covers, current events. The driving force behind my work is usually story instead of technique, so most of my ideas are built around a narrative. Whenever I read certain news articles or see a visual that effectively captures a story, I’ll save it, which I’ll later refer to when it comes to generating new ideas for books and illustrations.

One of the reasons I started The Hong Konger was because I was trying to teach myself to draw, but was aware that if I taught myself by copying one artist, I’d end up creating art that looked just like theirs. The New Yorker used different artists’ work on their covers, so if I based my lessons on their covers, I wouldn’t end up with just one style or technique. 

I ended up gravitating toward favourite cover artists like Mark Ulriksen, Peter de Sève, Christoph Niemann, and Roz Chast. Outside of The New Yorker, my favourite artists are Niki de Saint Phalle, Beryl Cooke, Edward Gorey, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. My favourite children’s illustrators are Chris Riddell, Brett Helquist, and Quentin Blake.

“Covid Closet” and “Go to Gate.” Photo: Sophia Hotung

What are your challenges as a self-taught illustrator?

Battling imposter syndrome. I’m relatively new to the industry. I’m not trained as an artist. I’m disabled and there’s a risk I could relapse and derail a project. But I also know I’m a value-add and bring a good corporate and creative combo to the table. I have this seesaw dilemma in my head of never knowing quite where I stand. But by sharing experiences, resources, and industry rates with other artists, I’ve felt more comfortable calling myself an artist.

When I feel blocked as an illustrator, I don’t put pressure on myself to churn out work. I let myself collect inspiration and let ideas percolate until inspiration strikes. It can take weeks, even months, but it’s one of those things—I only have breakthroughs when I’m not trying.

What does success look like to you?

I had a very unhealthy idea of success before I became an artist. I came out of university wanting a fancy job title at a fancy company. I wanted to be one of those women in tech who broke the glass ceiling. But, in 2020, when I had my worst autoimmune relapse, was diagnosed with more and more chronic illnesses, and ended up bedridden, I panicked when I realised that if I couldn’t work, I wouldn’t have anything to justify being around. It took a long time to accept that I still could have purpose without being productive. 

I need to remind myself daily that I can’t link my work to success, because I could always end up too sick to work again. A part of me still wants to be a “boss lady” but my body’s a lot more limited now and my brain is a lot wiser. My new philosophy is that as long as I can be there for my friends and family and support myself with my work, I’m successful.

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“Horoscope Zoetrope” and “Gongxi Gongxi.” Photo: Sophia Hotung

Favourite things to do when you’re not working?

When I was a teenager, I had a high school scholarship for orchestral tuba and classical guitar (it’s easier to get a scholarship on the tuba than the violin). I don’t think I have it in me to carry a tuba anymore, but I still play the guitar for fun. It’s tricky when your hobbies become your work—with writing and illustrating—because then it feels like you’re always working. I deliberately keep my guitar-playing non-commercial and private so it always feels like something I can do to unwind, not something that I need to do for other people.

What new projects can we look forward to?

I am launching a book based on a new art series at the end of the year in time for Christmas. It melds Hong Kong history, colour theory, and janky Canto-English translations.

I also have a mural as one of the installation art pieces at the Affordable Art Fair. The Hong Konger Wall is based on crowd-sourced photos of Hongkongers doing the finger heart gesture as a sign of love and solidarity—the pose was based on the anniversary cover of The New Yorker which features a monocled man in profile. I challenged myself in June and July to draw 216 Hongkongers to create a grid of portraits. My goal was to get Hongkongers excited about art by bringing them into the creative process and featuring them.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Jen Paolini

Content director

Born in Hong Kong, raised in Germany, and educated in the U.S., Jen is an award-winning creative with a background in illustration, communication design, art direction, and content creation. When she’s not getting lost in a good book, you’ll find her doing crosswords, eating dim sum, covering all sides of a “Hamilton” number, and taking naps.