Q & A with Tianhua Mao, the artist behind The Monsters

The Monsters Tinybop

Monsters created in our app The Monsters

Tianhua Mao's mysterious and inky illustrations help make the monsters kids create in The Monsters come alive. Her drawings of willowy shadows and murky corners magically transform into wild beasts and horrible creatures that haunt kids' imaginations. In turn, she took inspiration from the creatures kids created with her artwork.

Can you talk about your process for The Monsters?
This was my first time illustrating for an app. The process is full of surprises. Before, I was focused on still images. But this time, the team animated the monsters and gave them voices, which is magical!

I found apps to be an interesting media. I created the style and the assets first, and then let the kids make their own art based on that. Some really surprised me by putting mouths, wings, or limbs in some unexpected positions, which is amazing! Also, different people had their own color sense. Their creations inspired me a lot.



One of Tianhua's sketches for scenery in The Monsters

What do you think is the most important or most exciting thing about illustrating for kids?
I’m not that good with kids. So, it will be nice if we can communicate through this app. Next year when I go back home, I will play the game with my nephews. Maybe they’ll think I’m the most awesome adult!

我是一个不擅长和小孩相处的人,能通过我的创作和孩子沟通,是一个有趣的体验。明年我回中国的时候,就能陪我两个侄子玩The Monsters,然后我就是他们最棒的阿姨了!

What were your inspirations for The Monsters?
The ideas for The Monsters mostly came from my thesis project—A Brief History of Puffisland. It’s a picture book that tells a story about evolution in a made-up place called Puffisland. I spent one year on this book designing whole towns of weird creatures. I see The Monsters as an extension of this project. I’m really happy to see an obscure project fit into a children’s world in such a fun way.

灵感来自我的研究生毕业设计 A Brief History of Puffisland,讲述了一个叫做 “puffisland”的地方上发生的一段生物进化史。我用了整整一年时间画了这本神叨叨的书,书里的小生物就是 The Monsters里很多怪物的雏形,很高兴 Puffisland 这个相对生涩的系列创作能有这么有趣的延伸。

A Brief History of Puffisland Tianhua Mao

A drawing from Tianhua's A Brief History of Puffisland

Tell us a bit about where you live. How does place affect your work?
This is the third year I have lived in New York. This city has affected me so much that I can’t call out specific aspects of it. If I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t be able to make a career as an illustrator. I’m moving towards my dream life, I think!

给我们讲讲你生活的城市。 你生活的地方对你的创作有影响吗?

What advice would you give to a young person?
I’m a young person myself, so it seems like I’m not qualified enough to give advice. But there’s one thing I keep telling myself: don’t set limitations for yourself, and take every chance to try new things. "It’s better to try and fail than to regret not ever trying."

啊哈哈,我自己都还是年轻人呢。 看上去似乎还没有资格教育别人呢!但是有一点,是我一直提醒自己的。"不要给自己设定界限,有机会就去尝试新东西。做了失败了总比没做空后悔来的好。"

Do you have a work ritual? What does it look like?
Preparing: a cup of green tea, laptop, tablet, plenty of snack supplies, and work time music.
Working: 11 p.m. until whenever I finish the work. I really enjoy my solitude late at night. I’m more creative and focused.



Inside the Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery

Where do you go for inspiration now?
I’m quite addicted to vintage science illustrations of human anatomy, animals, plants, and insects. Recently I got a giant book, Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery. It’s so so so good!

我对科学插画特别着迷, 人体解剖, 动植物图鉴之类的。最近刚买到一套人体解剖插画的大集子,如获至宝。

What were some of your earliest influences?
When I first got into art, I learned about a lot of Buddhist art. I’m not a religious person, but the mysterious and decorative style of Thangka and Buddhist wall paintings attracted me. Both the themes and style of my early work were affected by this. My work is very different now, though it still has shadows of my early influences.


The Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya Tibetan thangka late 13th century Honolulu Academy of Arts

Late 13th Century Tibetan thangka painting

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Wuxi, a small city in southern China. People in China call it "Water Town." As the nickname suggests, it rains a lot in Wuxi, and it’s full of lakes and rivers. I think this translates in my drawings. The worlds I create always have a watery feeling and the monsters are juicy, like they’re made of jelly.


Was art a part of your childhood?
My grandpa was my first “art teacher,” even though I had no sense of “art” at that time. Grandpa was really a creative and artistic person. When he was practicing calligraphy or ink painting, I would stay at his side, observing and learning. Grandpa was also an excellent maker. He handmade lots of toys for me—a kite, a bamboo-copter, a squid-bone boat, a swing...

在你童年的阶段, 对艺术就有接触吗?

20150126 Translation Journey

Cover illustration from The Journey to the West, revised edition, volume 2

What were your favorite books as a kid?
Journey to the West and Calabash Brothers, of course! The best, forever!


Thank you, Tianhua! See more of Tianhua’s work on her website.


P.S. You might like some of our interviews with other artists, too.