Four Freedoms & Art: Q&A with Victo Ngai

The Four Freedoms, Victo Ngai

The Four Freedoms, Victo Ngai

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, Four Freedoms Park Conservancy commissioned artist Victo Ngai to create a series of images that commemorate and honor the President's words. Under Ngai's pen and brush, each image evokes an imaginative rendering of freedom: words taking flight, hands clasped in prayer and giving shelter, life asunder from need. Her birds, international symbols of peace, personify Roosevelt's vision for a better world, giving hope that this world is indeed "attainable in our own time and generation." 

You may recognize Ngai's artwork from the New York Times, the New Yorker, or even from our 2015 annual appeal campaign (below). Her style is one that blends new and old techniques, takes inspiration from a childhood in Hong Kong, and is ultimately "an extension of [herself] and [her] experiences."

We are thrilled to have these images represent the 75th anniversary of the Four Freedoms speech! We asked Ngai to share more about herself, her work, and the process for creating these images for us in the following Q&A. 

Four Seasons at Four Freedoms Park, Victo Ngai

Four Seasons at Four Freedoms Park, Victo Ngai

FFP: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

VN: I am a New York based freelance illustrator from Hong Kong. "Victo" is not a boy nor a typo, but a nickname derived from Victoria - a leftover from the British colonization.

I create art for newspaper and magazines such as the New York Times and the New Yorker; I make books for publishers such as the Folio Society, Abrams and Tor Forge; and works on advertisement campaigns with companies like the American Express, McDonald’s, IMAX, MTA Art for Transit, Lufthansa Airline, and General Electric.   

FFP: What is your artistic process like? (i.e., How do you create your art? What medium do you work in?)

VN: Illustration is all about communication of ideas, so coming up with the right conceptual solution is the most challenging and fulfilling process of my work. 

When I get an assignment, I would read through the material a number of times to understand the main point. After extracting the essence, I like to work with that alone and forgo the given given material – this helps to free my mind from literal images and obvious metaphors. I want to make sure the visuals I develop are effective solutions to the assignment, but also stand alone well as interesting art pieces.

If there’s extra time, I like to do something unrelated to art and forget about the assignment all together. I have noticed some of the best ideas come to me when least expected. For instance, I struggled quite a bit with the 75th Four Freedoms Project, as the topic has been well explored by forerunning masters such as Rockwell and Szyk. After fruitless days spent at the drawing table, the birds idea came to me while I was waiting outside a restaurant one evening. 

Sketch of the Four Freedoms, Victo Ngai

Sketch of the Four Freedoms, Victo Ngai

Sometimes it’s very helpful to think backward, especially with more abstract concepts. I like to think of the kind of imageries I am in the mood of and see if I can make them work with the story. I like this approach because this makes the piece that much more personal and fun.

When it comes to execution, I work in a hybrid way. The lines are drawn with nib pens, sometimes with brushes or rapidograph pens. Then I create layers of textures on paper with various media (pencil, charcoal, crayon, paint, etc). Finally everything is scanned and colored digitally in Photoshop. It is a process evolved from print-making, a media that I have been loved since childhood.

FFP: How long does your artwork usually take to complete?

VN: It really depends on the projects. Black and white pieces for newspapers call for same day turnaround. With color pieces, I can finish one in 3-4 days if I am lucky. The most tricky and frustrating thing with art is that, sometimes I can be working for hours and get absolutely nothing done. 

FFP: We love your insignia - can you tell us more about it?

VN: My insignia is meant to resemble a traditional Chinese seal, which is what artists used to sign their pieces. The symbol inside the square also looks like the first Chinese character of my given name “傳" , while if you turn the seal counter clockwise, it reads Victo.

FFP: What inspires you/your artistic vision?

VN: Asian influences when I was growing up. Living in different countries, traveling, reading, being around other creatives. It’s hard to pinpoint one or two things as I think my work is an extension of myself and my experiences.

FFP: One of the things I love about your Four Freedoms artwork is how textured the background of each image looks. How was this accomplished?

VN: They were print textures I created on paper, then scanned and composed into the image digitally. 

FFP: What was your inspiration for the Four Freedoms artwork? How did you incorporate this meaning into the process of creating the Four Freedoms?         

VN: Art director Madeline and I agreed that a modern interpretation that’s less propagandistic was preferable. When President Roosevelt gave his speech, he stressed over and over again that the Four Freedoms are fundamental rights that people “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy. Birds came to my mind as the perfect agent as they are a whimsical metaphor for freedom, and do not represent any one country, one religion, or one group of people.  

FFP: A number of artists, including Arthur Szyk (above left) and Norman Rockwell (above right), have created artwork based on the Four Freedoms. Did you reference their work?

VN: I did, and I would be lying if I said there was no pressure following these masters’ footsteps. This is another reason why I decided to go a completely different route than these forerunners and forgo depicting humans in my interpretations. 

FFP: Do you think art can be a means for social change? If so, how?

VN: Definitely, good art do not tell a story but “paint” it with vivid colors. While using art as a mean of communication, the ideas are appealed through emotions. As a result, audiences not only understand the messages intellectually, but emphasize with their hearts. That is why art is so often used in political propagandas and commercials. For the same reasons, art can become a powerful mean for social changes. 

FFP: Who are some of your favorite artists?

VN: Miro, Matisse, Monet, Calder, Hokusai, Jakuchu, Gauguin, Turner, N.C. Wyeth, Amano, Moebius, Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, and many more!

FFP: Do you have a favorite piece of work you’ve created?

VN: I create around 50-60 pieces a year, so it’s hard to pick just one. But the Four Freedoms project is definitely in the shortlist. 

Learn more about Victo Ngai and view her portfolio here.