How I Write (and Draw) with Lee Lai


Comic artist and illustrator, Lee Lai. Photography by Catherine Orr
Comic artist and illustrator, Lee Lai. Photography by Catherine Orr

Lee Lai lives and works between Montréal and Melbourne, writing comics and running art education collaborative projects with kids. Her work is queer fiction, coloured by memoir that she will only admit to in degrees. You can find her on Instagram here and on tumblr.


Thanks Lee!


Where do you work? 


Currently, my life is sort of split between Montréal and Melbourne. I did an early twenties lifestyle upheaval thing and planted myself in Canada on a two-year visa, and so far it’s been a good decision. Ask me again in the middle of the Canadian winter, though.


I work in a dreamy studio that’s run by one of my best friends, who’s been running a ceramics production out of the space for a bunch of years now. Maybe it’s like how people talk about gym memberships; it’s always been hard to justify to myself the idea of paying for a space outside of my bedroom to make comics, when I could be doing the same thing for free in libraries, or at home. It’s changed my practice pretty drastically though, in quality and in terms of legitimising the feeling that this is real work. It’s right up there with buying a scanner, building a lightbox instead of tracing on windowpanes, and saying I’m an artist, without cringing.


How do you start your work day? 


Getting to work depends a lot on whether it’s a day where making comics is smooshed around other bill-paying commitments, or whether I have the luxury of waking up and going straight to the studio. I wish I was one of those cool cartoonists with dark circles under their eyes who work way into the early hours of the morning, but I’m more of a get-going-at-8am kind of worker. I used to have all these methods of psyching myself into sitting down and drawing, but I realised it’s actually a kind of procrastination and the best way for me to get it done is to just start. If I’m not warmed up and my first few drawings are no good, I can always erase them and do it again.


What kind of headspace do you need to be in in order to make something? 


If you catch me on a day where I’m a judgmental jerk, I’d say something scathing about people who ‘wait for when inspiration hits’, but I think I just need to remember that everyone does it differently. There are definitely times when drawing and writing and ideas come super easy and there are times when they don’t. But, for me, the moment when making art stopped being a hobby and flipped over into something more of a daily experience was when I stopped being so responsive to those feelings.


Even though sometimes I’m still just sitting at my desk and staring at a blank piece of paper, I’m getting more practice at pushing through the days when it doesn’t come easy. The joy of getting paid more often for the work I want to be making also means deadlines and not having the luxury of making art solely when I feel like it. That said, I guess I have methods for dealing with the ebb and flow of productivity. On the good days I try and get as much writing and layout work done as possible, so that when I hit a wall I can go into cruise control, put pop music on and do the more mindless penciling and painting work.


Do you have a daily routine? 


I wish. At the moment, my life is very much split between working as a cook (which I actually love, just not as much as comics) and working in the studio. And every few weeks I work with a group called En Masse Pour Les Masses, which employs artists to go into schools in and around Montréal and collaborate with kids to make huge black and white murals. I think the variety is pretty good for me, and since so much of my writing process involves conversations I’ve had in real life, all these things feed into my comics pretty well. I’m still trying to figure out how to have regular weekends though. I haven’t managed this yet.


What is your favourite medium and what are your favourite materials?


I’m kind of neurotic about the materials I use. I pretty much only use fine tooth multimedia paper, mechanical pencils, a handful of small acrylic brushes and the same four tubes of gouache. Maybe I’ll take this back in the future, but I have a theory that having stability in my materials allows me to be more adventurous with my concepts and my writing. That, or I’m just a creature of habit. Anybody who knows me would probably agree with the latter, since I’ve been wearing the same clothes (in the same colours) every day, for years.


But every now and then, I’ll find a new tool that makes things a little easier and it totally rocks my world. One pay day I decided to get fancy and buy the slightly more expensive ultramarine blue gouache at the store and my palette has subtly shifted ever since. Now I use it more in my mixes. Recently my studio mate leant me their kneaded eraser and it’s making penciling so much easier. Sometimes it’s good to have external factors push you to try new things, I guess.


What does it feel like when you are on a roll and things are flowing nicely? 


When things are going really good, it’s like reading an engrossing, exciting book, that sucks you into the story so much you don’t even notice the process of reading. I see the practices of writing and drawing as a series of hundreds or thousands of tiny decisions: where to place characters in a frame, how much weight to put on a certain line, how a face should be angled, how many leg hairs to draw, etc. When it’s going well, I’m making these decisions with a kind of ecstatic confidence that doesn’t happen very often. On the flipside, all these decisions leave me totally frozen sometimes, with the (false) idea that if I make the wrong decision, all hell will break loose and I’ll be a huge failure.


Whose work influences you? 


Recently, the cartoonists that have influenced me are Cathy G. Johnson, Annie Mok, Sam Alden and my main guy, Tommi PG. Plus, I’ve had a forever-crush on Jillian Tamaki’s work. Over the years, the artists that I’ve been drawn to have changed and I’ve gotten over the work of people I was fixating on when I first started making comics. But Tamaki has stuck with me as a steady inspiration because she just keeps getting goddamn better.


Outside the comics sphere, there’s a hoard of painters and illustrators I look at regularly to learn about colour, form and portraiture. Alice Neel, David Hockney and Neo Rausch are some favourites. Plus, I’ll add myself to the long list of cartoonists that grew up with and now worship Quentin Blake.


Where does your art come from? 


Generally, I think my personality swings towards being anxious and over-analytical so I spend a lot of time in my head having conversations with myself and other people. I guess when things are on enough of a loop and I can discern a theme, I try boiling it down into a comic. My friend Marc Pearson made an anthology a few years ago called Self Help Comics, and I think the idea behind it is pretty pertinent to my method; using a slow-grind and labour-intensive medium to process problems and ideas. I don’t think my work can be defined as autobiography or as memoir (at least most of the time), but it certainly sits pretty close to the bone.


Why are comics/graphic novels/illustrations important? What can they do that other mediums can’t?


From a maker’s perspective, comics are important because they provide a platform for a diverse range of people to express themselves. On a basic level, writing comics is just mark-making on paper, so the fact that they are so economically accessible to make (and to consume) means that the art form is more open to people with different levels of education and privilege. I believe there is a pretty solid readership for comics that exists on every aspect of the highbrow/lowbrow spectrum.


I also like to think that it’s a soft, intuitive medium—it’s generally really visually appealing and not too text-heavy. I have friends that have secret world-domination plans to convey all their most radical ideas through comics because it’s such an effective way of consuming information. I think that is awesome. For me, my aim is more to leave crumbs of recognition and love for people who are already on my page. I want to use the medium to subtly nod at queers, people of colour, and trans siblings that largely occupy my headspace and my heart space. I want to make things that are beautiful, things that tell stories, and also things that can maybe be stuck on the back of a toilet door.