On becoming an artist, “good” design, and a look back at where I came from

I grew up wanting to be an artist, but I wasn’t sure what kind of artist. All I knew of art and how to express myself through art was the typical “traditional” means like drawing and painting. I once seriously considered going to art school to get a fine arts degree, a direction my high school art teacher Mrs. Banville encouraged. Ultimately, I could not get the image of being a stereotypical starving artist out of my still naive and immature head, so I did what any artistic introvert who grew up in a small mountain town would do: I enrolled in a hotel and food administration degree program nearly 4,000 kilometres away in Guelph, Ontario.

That did not work out so well.

I should have listened to Mrs. Banville. (I actually tracked her down a few months ago and told her this, to which she said I’m still young and I have time to learn and develop a career doing what I love. Thank you, Mrs. Banville). But there is no such thing as perfect timing for anything nor is it technically too late to pursue something (barring highly unusual circumstances, of course), especially since the time will pass anyway so I might as well spend it doing things that are worthwhile.

Still, my journey towards becoming an artist would not take a linear path.

I was introduced to the concept of graphic design – or more generally, digital art – through a former boyfriend. It started with an introduction to Adobe Photoshop. It slowly evolved into online and DIY tutorials and muddling my way through a program so intricate and powerful to my eyes, a program that would lead me into the artistic direction but in a more modern sense.

A lot of those early months and years were spent creating fan art. I joined an online forum for fans of the (now) ultra-famous K-Pop boyband Shinhwa (although I kind of cringed when I wrote “boyband” because they’re technically all… not boys anymore, being in their late 30’s). I think at the time I prided myself in doing something that people really enjoyed and I was proud of the graphics I created, either for my own enjoyment or for other forum goers I befriended. Here are some examples of the type of graphic fan art I created back in those days:

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Evidently, I really enjoyed rainbow palettes and using gradients.

I was also fancied myself quite skilled at mashing together a bunch of photos together and layering different elements. I didn’t know anything about image quality, colour blend spaces (CMYK vs. RGB), or different image formats. I was working on a foundation built on sand – I lacked the fundamental skills and knowledge to understand anything beyond pure aesthetics. I created art based on looks alone. Did I know what “good” design was back then? Maybe. But I was only seeing “good” through a superficial lens.

When I look back on my earlier art, I’m simultaneously amused and horrified. Amused because it takes me back over a decade to a time in my early years that really were quite enjoyable. But horrified because… well. I didn’t know any better.

Art is highly subjective and it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if I’m being honest, these are not what I would classify as “good” design. Perhaps they were good at the time; they were fulfilling a specific purpose. They were done purely for pleasure and to be given as gifts to friends. They were not trying to convey a company’s message or represent/symbolize a brand. They were merely for fun, which is a part of the design process that I believe is critical for success. But in the context of how I would view good design nowadays, in a professional sense, I don’t believe I would have been able to judge these back then. I lacked the know-how to distinguish good vs. bad from other perspectives.

I suppose I tackled my foray back into the art world with a naive type of zeal. I thought that this was finally my chance to go back to pursuing an art-related career. I could become a proper Graphic Designer! I could make art like this all day long and get paid for it. Oh, I was so young and hopeful back then. So I did what any artistic introvert who tried to get a business degree and failed would do: I enrolled in an online graphic design degree program that was based in the U.S.

That also did not work out so well.

Long story short, I thought pursuing a safe and stable corporate career would be a much better option than trying to do this art thing that kept me going back to the intersection of Failure and Despair.

I didn’t stop making art for fun, though. My evolution took me from rainbow palettes to a more ethereal look (I still favoured gradients, however). Truth be told, I still love the aesthetics of these pieces. I suppose you could say that it became my signature “style”.Β Here are a few examples:


But as with all things that are deeply ingrained and innately embedded, my little inner artist lay dormant, hibernating until the right time to come alive again. So I did what any artistic introvert who tried to get a business degree and failed, then tried to get a graphic design degree and failed: I quit my safe and stable corporate career to become a freelancer.

That actually worked out well. FINALLY.

Over a decade from the first time I met Adobe Photoshop, having learned the fundamentals and now working in the graphic design field, what I would consider “good” in design is highly dependent on the context and purpose of the design. If the purpose is to communicate a message, the design can be judged as “good” if it fulfills that goal. If the purpose is merely to have fun, to create something purely out of the joy of creation itself, then the design can be judged as “good” so long as the creator had a heck of a fun time during the process.

I still create graphic art that is reminiscent of my earlier days, just for fun. And I think they’re pretty damn good:


These are not meant to represent the type of graphic design I intend to do professionally; it’s a window into Cindy Cheung as a whole. The art I create that is deeply personal is what helps to provide a fuller picture into who I am as an artist and what goes on behind the scenes when I’m not hustling for even just a tiny piece of the very big and competitive business pie. It took me a long time to get here, time that could have been better spent travelling on a more linear path. My intent in going back in time to reflect on where I began and where I am now is to challenge my assumptions and beliefs about my own design journey. It can be heartbreaking and embarrassing to put my art on display for the world to see, but I appreciate my earlier missteps all the more because I can see that I’m still learning and growing.

I’m still not 100% sure what kind of artist I am or want to become, but the important thing is that I’m at a point where I’m comfortable saying, simply: I am an artist.