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Illustrator Rex Lee enjoys the simplicity of ink, which he considers a humble yet powerful medium. Images courtesy of Rex Lee (left and centre) and by Sim Ding En

Artist Behind The Art: All He Needs Is A Pen To Create Monochromatic Magic

An artful double celebration was held at Funan at the start of 2023 to usher in the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit and to commemorate Singapore Art Week. From 6 Jan to 5 Feb, the mall collaborated with 12 local artists, one of whom was illustrator Rex Lee.

The artist works primarily in black ink (his “weapon of choice” for now is the Sakura Pigma Micron Pen), and his charming drawings can be found on posters, notebooks, and face masks as well as in the pages of “Musings on the Moon: Loony Rhymes for Playful Minds”, a collection of whimsical poems created by Rex and Florence Lim (aka Flo-Jo).

For the Funan project, Rex joined forces with pop culture gallery BLAXK by ActionCity to customise a limited number of MIMILA, the cult rabbit-kaiju vinyl figurines by DEVILROBOTS, a Japanese creative collective founded in 1997 by its art director Shinichiro Kitai (“Shin”).

“I first met Shin San at a convention at Suntec City in 2009. In 2018, I had the pleasure of working with Gagatree where I inked one of their OBOTs that was displayed at the Art Toy Invasion exhibition. That was also the second time I met Shin San, whose signature OBOT exhibit was placed next to mine. I had been a fan of Shin San’s work since my youth, and had a few of his toys in my personal collection, so it was really meaningful for me to have had the opportunity to meet him in person back then,” recalls Rex.

“This year, through my collaboration with BLAXK by Action City, and as part of an initiative organised by the Singapore Art Week, I had the great honour to meet Shin San again, and work with him on this project that would have me inking twenty of his bare MIMILA figures. He has been an inspiring figure to me, and I count my blessings for this wonderful experience that I’ve enjoyed tremendously.”

We talk to Rex (who is the Director of Sound and Motion at Bold Ideas Studio, a Singapore-based creative marketing agency) about being an illustrator in Singapore, the choice to work with ink, and being an ukulele player extraordinaire.

How long have you been an artist, and what has been the most rewarding part of it?

I started drawing at a young age, and became a cartoonist in the early 90s, when I had the opportunity to illustrate for my own column in Lianhe Zaobao. In my youth, I illustrated for various books and publications, and later ventured into character design and animation through my professional career, where I spearheaded productions for tv commercials and children’s programmes.

I’ve always loved art, and I’m thankful for the various opportunities in life that have afforded me the ability to hone my interest and my skills. Drawing is a form of expression that comes most naturally to me. As I journey through life, I process events and experiences in daily life much like everyone else, and I sometimes internalise thoughts and observations that are meaningful to me, and I translate them into drawings.

I’m an optimist, and I always try to see the brighter side of life, so my drawings tend to be a bit on the happy side. Whatever the nature of events that inspire my drawings, be they funny or sombre, I always try to inject some fun and a happier read on things, through my own interpretation and art expression. When that happens, and when my drawings elicit smiles, laughter or some sort of a positive reaction, I think that’s what makes it most rewarding for me.

I get that life isn’t always easy, and there are struggles at every level of society. But I am also a firm believer that life is a gift, and it can be good, and it is up to each person to get the most out of his or her own life, whatever station he or she is at.

It may sound cliché but there’s always something to learn, from the humblest to the richest of experiences, from joy, and from misfortune. Learning keeps me happy, and it keeps me going, and as I translate these nuggets of life’s lessons into drawings, I try to inject them with a humorous take on things, as a reflection of how I choose to take on life, as well as the energy I wish to share.

So being able to elicit joy or a positive feeling from experiencing my work, feels a bit like meeting a kindred spirit, or receiving validation that I created something meaningful, and that is the greatest reward for me.

Wah! You’ve had some amazing art-related experiences, from being part of Inktober to working with renowned animation studios like Stan Lee Media, Illuminated Film Company, Gonzo Animation and Shanghai Animation Film Studio. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt from your rich experience with art?

I have Jake Parker to thank for Inktober because it got me back into a discipline with inking, which is a medium I’ve always loved. Character design and animation are also extensions of my passion for storytelling through pictures, and I’m very grateful for the learnings through those engagements with animation studios that were at the top of their game, so I could glimpse the workings of a world-class studio, and I have so much respect for them.

It’s difficult to pin a single most valuable lesson from one’s experience with art. Art is a bit like life - it’s a journey, and an ever-evolving one. I suppose I could say that the most important thing is to keep an open mind to art, as one might with life, so that one continues to evolve instead of stagnating.

Technology has opened so many possibilities for artists as well - not just with new media (e.g. digital art), but also with knowledge sharing and blending of perspectives and experiences, and new channels of outreach. And it will continue to do so, because just like life, the momentum has to go on. Artists, creators, inventors… and most people, actually, have to keep evolving to stay relevant as we each play our part to contribute to humanity’s progress as a whole.

There’s much to say about it but in the interest of simplifying my answer, I think that a person’s art reflects his or her narrative in life at the moment of the (artistic) expression, as well as the dominating influence(s) in his or her life, which may include, amongst other things, societal trends, as well as the chosen medium of expression.

I cannot speak for others but I like to think that artists should have a symbiotic relationship with receivers of their work, and grow with and alongside them. What motivates me as a person who expresses through art is to be able to connect with people through my work, and I think it’s important that I should continue to be a keen observer of life and never cease learning and being open-minded, for my personal growth and expressions that I hope could be meaningful to society in one way or another. So I suppose the idea of Growth is probably a mantra of value to me in my art.

How and why do you choose to work with ink?

I’ve dabbled in different kinds of media as a multi-disciplinary artist, both in my professional career as well as in my own artistic pursuits, and I’ve chosen to focus on inking because I like the simplicity of the medium. All I need is a pen!

Before colours were introduced in mass media, people experimented with creative ways of expressing text and pictures with just black ink alone, and even till today, it has an appeal that never quite goes out of style. I have fond memories of storybooks I read as a child with pictures rendered in ink, and it was amazing to observe the detail and intricacies of the artwork that could spark the imagination and made stories come alive.

I personally enjoy experimenting with different techniques in inking, to create textures and effects that fill out a character or a scene, and bringing it to life. It compels me to make the best use of a single colour, to pay great attention to the tiniest detail, and to appreciate how every stroke of a pen affects the life of the entire picture or narrative.

Inking is indeed a humble yet powerful medium - one can do so much by simply playing on the contrast between stark black against a white backdrop. And with keen observation and skill, one can create art that moves, that delights and engages, and evokes emotion. And just with a pen and sketchpad too - there is a profound beauty in such simplicity.

You’re also a veteran ukulele player! How and when did you pick it up?

I have been playing the ukulele for around 15 years. I co-founded The Ukulele Assemble with some like-minded friends and ukulele enthusiasts over a decade ago, and we’ve since formed a group and got ourselves a busking licence where we play for leisure, charity and self-improvement.

I was self-taught - but I used to play the guitar in my youth, so that background probably helped when I transitioned to the ukulele.

Do the worlds of art and music ever collide? For example, when you’re illustrating, does it inspire a tune? And when you’re playing, do you think of something to illustrate?

Both art and music are very important forms of expression for me, and while I cannot say that they collide in the manner as you have described, I did compose some music and launched an EP after completing my illustrations for the book “Musings on the Moon”, and it was titled the same.

I suppose when I draw, I get into a kind of groove - the head forms a story and the hand just does what it does. And when I play or compose music, it comes from a place of inspiration, and then I also get into a kind of groove. But they don’t necessarily collide in their respective processes. Except maybe in animation productions, where both forms of media are so interwoven that I could subconsciously think of the picture when composing, or think about the music while creating the artwork.

Any upcoming projects (books, customised figures, stationery, animated film) that we can expect in 2023?

Talks are ongoing for exhibitions and possibly toy figures. It’s still work in progress at the moment, but it’s likely that I’ll be getting more of my art out there. Meanwhile, I’m still creating and experimenting with new stuff.

I’ve also been trying to work on an animated short film for a while, and although it’s a long process (and a lot of work!), hopefully I can make it happen this year - wish me luck!

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