Meet Justine Wong: The Food Illustrator Behind Our Serum Mixer Kit

(Photographer: Celine Kim)

For food illustrator Justine Wong, work and pleasure comes from the same source - her meals. As soon as we saw her detailed and nostalgic paintings of Japanese cuisine, we knew she was the one we wanted to work with. We loved that she’s no food snob. Browse through her work repertoire and you’ll see that it consists of everything from a platter of sashimi to a bottle of Calpis (a type of sweet yogurt drink found in Japanese convenience stores). Like us, she also seems to have a sweet tooth, judging by the number of paintings of colourful snacks and sugary desserts.  

 
So we reached out to her, pitching the idea of illustrating the ingredients behind our serums - sourced mostly from local farms in Japan - in a style that resembles the softness of wagashi. Visually appealing and inspired by nature, wagashi is a type of Japanese traditional sweet made with plant-based ingredients and served with green tea. She loved the idea, and the rest was history. Like most food illustrators, Justine’s best work shines through whenever she gets to taste the food that she draws and paints. ‘Being able to experience the food’, she states, ‘completely changes my emotional investment in the piece’. 
 
We sit down with Justine to chat with her about what it takes to be a food illustrator and what her favourite Japanese meal is.


 

(Photographer: Pam Lau)

How did you get into design and illustration?

In the beginning, it was a toss-up between being a pastry chef and being an artist. I was lucky to be encouraged to draw throughout my childhood, and would often bake treats for my classmates in my high school art class. I applied to university for graphic design, but within my first year, I found out that illustration was a thing! I quickly switched over for my second year, but I didn’t feel like school encouraged the skills and discipline required to be an illustrator. So after graduation, I ironically found myself as a Junior Designer and Photo Editor for an interior magazine. I worked there for two years before I took the leap and traveled to Japan for personal development. That’s when I did my project 21 Days in Japan for fun, which eventually trained me to be the food illustrator I am today! It’s funny how things work out.

How would you describe your style to someone who hasn’t seen your work before? 

For someone who hasn’t seen my work before, I would describe my style as nostalgic. The fluidity and hand-crafted characteristics of watercolours give the feeling of a layered story or the remembering of tender memories. It is a very romantic process for me when projects allow me the time to create it, so I like to think that it shows through too. 

A lot of the work you’ve done is food-related. For your project 21 Days in Japan, you drew one hundred paintings of Japanese cuisine. Why Japanese food in particular? 

It was by chance that I started my illustration career by painting Japanese food. After quitting my design job, I knew that I wanted to travel by myself and have always been curious about Japan. Once I decided to go, I wanted to have an exercise to guide and challenge me throughout the weeks of travel, and so my partner at that time and I came up with the idea of documenting my journey and sharing it through Kickstarter. It was all in good fun. I knew so little about Japanese food before my project, but in experiencing and learning about the depth and expanse of Japanese food, it has really changed my relationship to food forever.

 

What is the process of drawing each dish?

My process of drawing each dish varies based on what is available to me. But my ideal process is to be able to taste the food that I draw and paint. Being able to experience the food completely changes my emotional investment in the piece. When I know what my subject tastes like, or what textures and subtleties it embodies, it allows me to include details that I would otherwise never know about. Every dish holds a story, and it really helps me to know how it was made too! If I don’t have the actual dish to draw from, then I would go and collect reference photos to draw from.

 

Sushi, ramen and sashimi are popular Japanese dishes that are enjoyed all over the world. What’s an under-appreciated Japanese dish that you enjoy? 

An under-appreciated Japanese dish that I enjoy would be roasted ginnan, or gingko nut in English. My friends in Japan would always laugh at me when I would order a whole plate of ginnan at an Izakaya because only older people order it. If you’ve ever walked under a female gingko tree during fruiting season, you may have noticed an especially pungent smell as you walked on its fallen fruits. Ginnan is painstakingly harvested from these smelly yellow fruits, cleaned, and roasted over charcoal before serving. What a treasure!

Can you tell us about your creative process in designing our Serum Mixer Kit? 

Since this Serum Mixer Kit is intended for spring, we wanted the design and illustration to reflect the quality of colour during spring season, and to express the softness of flower petals and Japanese wagashi. I am so grateful to Hayley and the Rooki Team for being so trusting with the art direction, and allowing for the overall feeling to guide us to the finished design.

 

What’s the best thing about your job? 

The best thing about my job as a freelance illustrator is that I get to draw for a living! My job has allowed me to learn to set my own parameters around how I want to work  and sometimes, what I want to work for. I realise that it is a luxury to be able to choose. I love that I am able to travel and work at the same time, or travel for work. The work and the hustle is constantly challenging, but the rewards, the mistakes, and all the lessons that I learn along the way are truly long-lasting.
 

Lastly, describe your perfect Japanese meal. 

I get asked this question often, and often people are curious to know what grand meal of colours and textures, or Michelin star meals that I may have had. But my perfect Japanese meal is simply one made from the aged hands of a grandma or grandpa — it looks something like a humble teishoku meal set with the season’s fresh fish and mountain vegetables. Oh, and did I also mention extra pickles? What can I say, I’m a simple gal. 

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