Illustrator Ping Zhu says she’s been fascinated by animals since she was a child—though, growing up in a family without pets, “it felt like it would always be a distant relationship.” Below, the artist who created the cover for our May 2018 issue answers questions on her ideas about animals, her process (gouache on paper), and her two pet dogs.
I take it you like animals. Fair?
I’ve always been fascinated by animals in both the actual world as well as fables. I watched a lot of nature documentaries and films growing up, and a very memorable one was Anima Mundi, by Godfrey Reggio. It’s this nonlinear 30-minute film of all different sorts of creatures that’s paired with music by Philip Glass, which created a very mesmerizing combination.
Years later, as I was studying illustration, I found the work of Charley Harper and was immediately drawn to his depictions of animals. They were so geometric and unnatural that it seemed like a middle ground between humans and creatures. It definitely influenced my work, and for a long time all I wanted to do was tell stories with animal subjects. Eventually I realized that it was limiting and branched out, but I never lost my love for using animals in narratives.
I am drawn to the strange and tough ones. But I do have two dogs: a Shiba Inu named Uma and my stepson Boston terrier, named Cody.
What story were you trying to tell with the cover illustration you created for us?
I channeled my own obsession with nature documentaries and thought the juxtaposition of domesticity and wildlife would be interesting to visualize. Being around two dogs reminds me how dependent they are on people, and I often think about how quickly nature would just destroy them if left to their own devices. So I felt like I had to use a dog—the most domestic of the animals. I drew it sitting comfortably on a blanket indoors, surrounded by houseplants, while it watches two wolves battling for their lives. It seemed pretty absurd and on point.
You were born and raised in Los Angeles but now live in Brooklyn, where there are lots of dogs. What have you observed with regard to how residents of each city interact with their pets?
LA is much more spread out. In the suburbs, where I spent most of my childhood, a lot of dogs were just kept in yards and probably not socialized with others. New York dog ownership feels like a status symbol because it’s so expensive and there is almost no space for people. I say this knowing I have two dogs, but to be fair, they’re both very small, and one of them was part of package deal that came with my boyfriend when he moved in.
Which do you think you’re better at illustrating: animals or human beings?
It’s a hard comparison, because we’re much better at recognizing humans’ likenesses and proportions. Animals are a bit more of a mystery but can be used to explain so many more situations than a human figure would be able to do. I like using animals to represent situations that can utilize their traits or wildness, and humans for things that are very specifically human. There are also subjects where it could be either-or, such as emotions or instincts. Choosing whether to use animals or humans then depends on body language, facial expressions, or reactions that exist in all living things.
Why did you choose to depict what appears to be a dachshund in your illustration?
People have bred dogs into all kinds of bizarre proportions and dimensions, and I wanted to pick a breed that was a bit tough but still very domestic and dependent. Dachshunds are tenacious and probably embody the spirit of their ancestors, but those legs would get them killed in a heartbeat.