10th Book Illustration Contest | 2020  
"I like to give to the public an opportunity to connect the puzzle pieces in a different way, find their own solution of the jigsaw puzzle I’ve created and interpret the story in their own way."
Mikki Lee
All Illustrations © Mikki Lee
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The 10th Book Illustration Competition theme is Love Poems which was selected and edited by Imtiaz Dharker. The winner will be commissioned to complete a further six illustrations and a binding for the book which will be published by The Folio Society. 

Mikki Lee is the Winner of the 10th People’s Choice Award at Book Illustrators Competition 2020. Mikki is a Korean American illustrator from California and a current student at Art Center College of Design.

Hi Mikki, thanks for talking to TNC, how's your week looking?

Hello and thanks for getting in touch with me. My week's been pretty busy. I'm finally graduating this term so there's a lot to prepare. I'm working on some TV animation style background pieces at the moment to include into my portfolio. Other than that, there's definitely an air of restlessness in my environment. We haven't been affected seriously yet by the coronavirus in LA County, but people are panicking and I see empty aisles in supermarkets and less cars on the road.


Our school graduation ceremony and exhibition is still scheduled to carry on, however it is susceptible to be delayed. In addition the political climate has been tense preparing for the upcoming election, and I'm doing my best to be supportive on the Bernie train.

Congratulations on making the longlist for the BIC 2020 People's Choice Award, what does it mean for you be part of this competition?

It's such an honour be on the longlist! My professor passed the news onto me of the competition last October. I initially decided to take up the challenge to experience real world freelancing assignments and hoped the outcome would lead to some nice portfolio pieces. I honestly didn't expect to be selected for the longlist. I feel like I really hit a milestone after this, and it really informs me that my art is appreciated and loved by many people.

Do you ever feel any apprehension when you hand over your work like this to the pubic?

Absolutely. I've always been shy about sharing my work but being an artist in this day and age where sharing our work on social media is such a valuable way of getting exposure, I had to crawl out of my shell in my third year at the behest of my instructors. 

Is this the first time you have been part of such a competition like this?

I've submitted my work to the Society of Illustrators, Spectrum, and NYTimes but I never won or was featured in anything. This is my first time being considered which is an absolute treat!
Can you tell me a little bit about the work you submitted to BIC 2020?

The work I submitted to BIC this year was based off of three love poems. All three illustrations are figurative work and are graphic with attention to repetitive patterns, overlaying textures, glowing line work.    

The theme for this years BIC 2020 is Love Poems, how did you go about creating your pieces based on this theme?

Being a digital artist, I worked on brainstorming, notetaking, and sketching on Procreate. For each one I threw out a series of rough thumbnails and chose two to three to develop into a tighter sketch. From there I selected my favorite sketch and did a few value studies and color studies. When I was ready, I uploaded my final sketch to Adobe Photoshop and finished it off there.

I definitely wanted my pieces to strike the viewers with feelings of romance and tried to capture a unique essence for each piece. 


The mood I went for each poem is as follows:

John Donne's "The Good Morrow," heartwarming.
For Imtiaz Dharker's "The Trick," mysterious and sensual.
For Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights," sexy.

What was the most challenging aspect of creating these pieces for BIC 2020?

This time around, it was deciphering the poems that was the most challenging. Some of the old English and sophisticated phrases completely blew past me and I had to read them over and over again. I filled up the margins with a lot of notes and some serious scribbles. The main concern I had was that I didn't want the illustrations to look too similar, so I had to flush down the first several rounds of cliché thumbnails.

Did you use any love poems to help you whilst you created your pieces for the competition?

Yes I used the three selected love poems as mentioned above John Donne's "The Good Morrow", Imtiaz Dharker's "The Trick," and Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights." 

Do you have a favourite love poem?

I really like "The Trick" by Imtiaz Dharker because it was the most descriptive and easiest to visualize. That's all illustrators ask for, haha!

Have you always had a passion for art and illustration?

The man I credit for my passion in art is the great Hayao Miyazaki. I started drawing at a very young age, but through his Studio Ghibli films I found a love of storytelling. He was my first inspiration and I still revisit him films when I need a reminder of why I chose the path of being a visual storyteller. Art is powerful. It can evoke strong emotions in ways we can't imagine.

You are currently at Art Center College of Design, what has this experience been like for you?

Being in my last term at Art Center, I can definitively say that I "glew up." Art Center changed my plans. It helped me realize what I didn't want to do, which I won't say because I want to keep my opportunities open.

Through group projects, I learned I'm a great leader. Through being a teacher's assistant, I learned I give great crits and offer insightful advice. My only regret is that I didn't make more friends like students at other colleges. I didn't prioritize time for socializing so it's been a journey of solitude and self growth, but life is more enjoyable when you can share it with friends. On another note, my body didn't react well to the stress and all-nighters. My mental and physical state was affected negatively from the mold of sitting in front of the computer all day long without an ounce of sunshine. I knew I had to honor time everyday to recover from the inevitable artist's disposition and found motivation to go to the gym regularly with the help of my fiancé. I feel so much healthier now!

"I finally landed on image making that is highly stylised and graphic then I started incorporating texture, patterns, and coloured lines."

How much would you say your style and approach to you illustration and design has evolved since you started?

I guess a gift and a curse for me as an artist was that I was interested in too many mediums and programs. My instructors constantly nudged me to find a "voice" and one style to brand myself. I had a difficult time settling on one and often wrestled with which direction to go. I strayed from the Entertainment Arts track curriculum that I was on and danced around with the Illustration Design track. Wherever I went, I didn't know where I belonged. My style was all over the place. When I was oil painting, I strived to fully render like that of an old Master. Then I steered towards concept art with acrylics and gouache. I discovered a love for stippling and cross hatching through ink pens. All of a sudden I developed a keen interest in animation through After Effects and 3D modeling/animation through Maya.

I didn't have a cohesive gallery of work, and I knew that it would be off-putting for some art directors. One of my instructors told me I was "Jack of all trades, master of none." Around my final year at Art Center, I finally landed on image making that is highly stylized and graphic then started incorporating texture, patterns, and colored lines. 

"I want my art to spark all the senses in people's minds and bodies, evoking visceral emotions and deep understanding to issues that shouldn't be ignored."

What inspires your work?

Art! I can go down a rabbit hole of looking at other artists' work and can get lost in a museum. I love Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Alphonse Mucha, Vittorio Zecchin, Eyvind Earle, vintage Vogue art and Bally art. In the Entertainment Arts track curriculum, I decided to make my focus in Background Design mostly because of my appreciation of environments. I love designing landscapes because I'm inspired by the beauty of nature: the colors of the changing day, dappled lighting, the long shadows, sunsets; bilateral symmetry and asymmetry in plants. I also find inspiration in patterns, anomalies, midcentury modern architecture, and films. When I watch a film I like I often wonder how I can sum up a two hour movie into one image.

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your work?

One of the greatest challenges we have today is that we are disconnected from the reality outside of our own. We exist in a bubble where we don't suffer the immediate effects of global issues like hunger, war, and climate change. We're all somewhat informed to the extent that we think about these issues from time to time, but that's it. My goal is to translate ideas, concepts, and stories into visuals. I want my art to spark all the senses in people's minds and bodies, evoking visceral emotions and deep understanding to issues that shouldn't be ignored. At the moment my focus in Background Design requires me to create scenic illustrations which I very much enjoy, and I take up a lot of projects where I emphasize decorating for aesthetic pleasure; but I would like to eventually be in a position where I can use my art as a platform to send messages that mean a lot to me such as environmentalism and pacifism. I'd be ecstatic if my work can resonate deeply with others just as Miyazaki films resonate with me.


I want to transform the notion of "art is luxury" into a tool that will inspire people to think differently and outside of their comfort zone.

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