Debby Woo is an illustrator and writer currently living in France. She has published two illustrated relationship handbooks and has had her work featured on both i-D and Metal Magazine. Using her first heartbreak as inspiration, Debby turned her thoughts into intricate illustrations. Art for her became a kind of diary; she was able to draw what she could not write. Through these vibrant illustrations, we are encouraged to see the answers to our own insecurities and to appreciate the fact that we are not alone.
In her stunning series, ‘Asian Girl Insecure,’ Debby explores the insecurities of artist John Yuyi, actress Lauren Tsai, model Ju Ho and Chen Xue. As an admirer of these women, Debby didn’t simply want to draw their portraits; she tells us, this would ‘have missed the chance to get to know them better.’ Instead, she questioned them about their relationships, then relayed their answers through illustrations of computer screens.
Fascinated by the contrast between emotionality and rationality, this layout is important to Debby- the computer software represents the rational and the Ukiyo-e, the sentimental. This allusion to the internet also highlights another significant topic for the artist: the fact that we are a ‘media addicted generation,’ spilling our lives online. She tells us,
‘We talk every day on the internet, but don’t really take the time to talk about how we feel deep inside!’
Chroma talks to Debby Woo about Social Media, Ideals of Love and Men and Women in Relationships
The majority of your work focuses on love and insecurities in love, why did you choose to illustrate this topic in particular?
One of the reasons I chose to focus on love is simply because I like to talk about it with friends; I like to solve their relationship problems. I feel like this particular topic allows you to become closer to a person in a shorter space of time. It’s a good way to get to know the people in front of you, so that’s why I started.
You have also published two relationship handbooks, can you tell us a bit about how this came about?
Before publishing my first book, I watched my fans on Facebook grow steadily. I uploaded illustrations almost every day, to the point where I thought I might have enough work to put in a book. I contacted a publisher, and it went well, they felt it was a fresh idea. For the second one, I told them I wanted to make a book on insecurities in relationships- it took around eight months to complete, and I feel satisfied with the results!
I’d love to discuss this theme of ‘love’ with you more- what frightens you most about being in love?
The idea of eventually losing them one day- good or bad. We’re all going to die one day, and that’s not something we can stop.
When growing up, I felt that I was surrounded by fairytale notions of love- in film and literature. Did these false portrayals of love ever affect how you then interpreted relationships?
Not really… You can say that I’m a rational person, sometimes I over-analyse. One reason for me saying ‘not really’ is because in Asian drama, having a ‘happy ending’ is not an easy thing. So yes, I will fall in love because of the ‘feeling,’ but I won’t get into a relationship simply if there’s only feeling (passion, romance…etc.). From observing my parents or even my friends' parents, I know ‘love’ is definitely not the only thing you need in a relationship, you need similar values.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that relationships and love often seemed to be discussed more among women than men. You could say, women are more often encouraged to think about relationships, men about work and ambition. What are your thoughts on this, do you agree?
I think men do think about relationships too, just in another way. If we talk about it from the terms of going through a breakup- girls talk to friends, cry and post their feelings on social media. Men don’t express that much because they are not used to that yet.
Yes, I agree, and I hate to state a sweeping generalization, but- ‘female art’ is often (sometimes wrongly) associated with emotion and sentimentality, whereas ‘male art’ is not. I think men should also be encouraged to discuss their feelings. This is starting to happen, but not enough. What are your thoughts on this, does the same happen in Asian culture?
We do have to admit that men and women are born different in some ways, so the equality here is that we have to see from both a woman and man’s perspective. We will always have two different standards. When I told my boyfriend to ‘express himself more and to tell me how he feels,’ he replied ‘I did!’- he did, just not in the way I would. But, back to the question- in Asian culture, nowadays, in Japan and Korea, we are still a bit traditional- ‘men should go to work and women stay at home.' It’s got better in the past ten years. In Taiwan, I think my parent's generation still have thoughts about what men and women should do, but these thoughts are also being affected by the younger generation. I think everything takes time- if it’s happening, then it’s never too late.
Drawing from all this, can you talk to us a little about your project ‘Asian Girl Insecure,’ why did you decide to use these particular women, and why did you decide to lay these illustrations out in this way?
I have followed all four girls on Instagram for a long time, and as a fan, it’s always fun to draw portraits of people you like. However, I wanted to do it in a more interesting way. Doing a simple portrait would have been a pity, I might have wasted the chance to get to know them better. Since I’ve written about relationships on the internet for years- I gave them a list of questions based on ‘insecurities in a relationship.' Afterwards, I used their answers as elements to finish their illustrations.
I also asked them what software they used on a computer and made the illustrations as if it were their computer screen. I think, by doing it in this way, people can see and understand more the particular issue I want to talk about: a social media addicted generation. The overlapping windows represent how our feeling are in real life.
Can you talk to us a little more about what each ‘window’ represents in these illustrations?
Each window represents an element of the answers I received from each girl. They didn’t really specify particular objects- I just ended up illustrating how I felt their answers would look. For example, during that particular time, John Yuyi was going through a breakup- she really wanted to get back with her ex but knew it wasn’t going to work. From my perspective their relationship wasn’t equal, I felt she was in a lower position, so I drew an ukiyo-e and removed the face of the man to show her answer. In another window I drew a fish, it was something I saw and felt was connected to John Yuyi at the time, a little bit lonely and blue.
For Xue Chen, there is a mountain in her drawing because her name in Chinese means “snow” and her surname makes “snow mountain” in Chinese! I think ‘snow mountain’ and her personality have something in common.
Another of the things I noticed after finishing the drawings was the level of nudity somehow represented the level of insecurity for each of the girls- in comparison to the other three girls, John had less security at that time.
For me your work does hint at a social-media addicted generation, which brings me to the question- over recent years there seems to have been a rise in problems with mental health- do you think perhaps social media and the internet has played a part in this?
I think, yes! Around 6-7 years ago, people started to put their lives on social media. We became individuals with no patience, who wanted feedback fast. One of the things I’ve noticed is that we don’t blog or write about how we feel like we used to. Rather than writing in long-form on the internet, where there is no ‘liking,’ we post short sentence, youtube links and images we think people will like. I think this creates one of the reasons why people nowadays have become more anxious: we talk every day on the internet, but don’t really take the time to talk about how we feel deep inside!
Would you say you use art as a form of therapy?
Yes, and I hope that people can get inspired by my work- and use it to solve or find their own answers.
Another series that involves computer software is your most recent project ‘How About Forever’. Can you talk to us a little bit more about this?
I have been really into software symbols and Ukiyo-e recently, so I wanted to do a project that included them both. It represents the contrasting style I like- the Ukiyo-e women looks like they are thinking about loved ones (emotion), and the Excel background represents rationality. I put words like ‘forever,' ‘love,' ‘ice-cream,' ‘bikini’ into the spreadsheet, so it looks like the diary of a teenager. The theme is based on ‘summer love,' and this is because I feel like when you’re young, you believe that love can last forever. When we grow up, we doubt this more, and that’s kind of a sad thing.
Your style seems to be pretty eclectic- you illustrate a range of different themes. Is this a conscious decision? Or do you feel you are still searching around for a particular style? Or do you feel like you’ve found ‘your style’ in recent projects?
Yes, I’m still searching, and recently I’ve tried different materials- like acrylic or painting on larger pieces of paper. In my recent projects I have discovered that I enjoy drawing things like software- and for now, I think I will continue to do projects like that.
And finally, can you talk to us a little about the illustrations you’ve done for Chroma and what red means to you?
As I've said- I like to have rationality and sensibility in my drawings; I find it interesting. With the illustrations I did for Chroma, the windows represent rationality, and what I drew inside represents ‘how I feel and what I think about when I think of red’- which is- heat, love, fire, passion, dangerous and young!
words: Emma Phillips