Irresistible Illustration: Stanley Chow’s Takeaway

Stanley Chow

Emma Sumner quizzes the MacDonalds illustrator about celebrity portraits, big screen avatars and his current retrospective ‘takeaway’ exhibition…

An illustrator and artist with clients all over the world, you might be surprised to hear that this interview took place in Stanley Chow’s studio, four flights up in a converted Manchester warehouse, and interrupting a session of World Cup football sticker swapsies.

Born in 1974 and raised in Manchester after his parents emigrated from Hong Kong, the artist’s 20-year career has seen his unique style attract clients like MacDonalds, the New Yorker, Ted Baker and The White Stripes.

Takeaway, currently on show at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), is a retrospective of Chow’s varied and unique practice; a combination of portraits of famous faces, places and advertising campaigns, culminating in an opportunity to purchase a piece of original artwork in a ‘takeaway’ sale — at takeaway prices — of all his exhibited works this Thursday.

“I had this idea to turn the gallery into an installation chip shop takeaway, with the front being the chip shop and the back a living room, as a way of showing how I grew up”

Emma Sumner: Tell us a little bit more about your current exhibition at the CFCCA; how did you decide that it would be a retrospective? 

Stanley Chow: The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art gave me an open brief. I had this idea to create new work and turn the gallery into an installation chip shop takeaway, with the front being the chip shop and the back a living room, as a way of showing how I grew up. I lived above  a chip shop as a kid, and it was how my career started as my parents would give me chip paper to draw on to keep me entertained, so all I did was draw.

But as the project progressed, it became apparent that we couldn’t really afford to do what I wanted to do, but also I had taken on so much work that I just didn’t have the time to make a new body of work. So I started to look at how I could turn my idea around and still keep it within the chip shop theme, and came up with the idea of making the exhibition a retrospective of my work that people could ‘takeaway’ at the end.


Maorio (2011), Stanley Chow

Were you drawn to the idea of looking back at your catalogue of work because Manchester is your home town, or was it purely to do with time and financial restrictions? 

It was mainly my time restrictions, but even though I grew up and live in Manchester, I don’t feel people know who I am or what I’m about, so it was a great way to show how my practice has developed. I have so much work that most people haven’t seen before, so it became a great opportunity to use this previous body of work and to show the people of Manchester what my work is about.

A lot of your illustrations are of famous faces. How do you choose who to illustrate? Do they have to inspire you in some sort of way or is it purely a spontaneous choice?    

No, it’s usually a spontaneous choice. I’ll see someone on TV or in a magazine and think they have an interesting face and want to illustrate them. I don’t have any sort of master plan or reason to why I choose someone, but everyday I have people emailing me asking if I can do a certain person and sometimes people do come up with good suggestions. There is no rule or formula, but I tend to do my portraits in between commissions as a way of keeping me sane. I get so many commissions it can be pretty draining and I don’t necessarily like doing what I get asked to do, so my portraits are a way of  reminding myself that I like illustrating.

When I grow up (2014), Stanley Chow

Have you ever drawn anyone that you’ve seen on the street whose facial features have really interested you? 

I’d love to, but I’m not the type of person to approach someone on the street. When you’re illustrating someone famous, there is context to their portrait, but if you draw someone off the street then no one knows who they are apart from me or their friends. The only worth in that is to illustrate someone ‘different’, but if your illustrating someone famous you’re appeasing a market.

Is there anyone you’ve not yet illustrated that you would really like to? 

I do want to illustrate more historical figures like past kings or Ghandi, but I’ve just never had the time yet. I want to turn this into a series of portraits, as when I illustrate a footballer, I can just do this as a one off, but I feel that illustrating historical figures needs to be a bigger project.

Do you have a favourite illustration? 

There is one illustration that I particularly like, which is of my record player with my records and iPod with a speaker next to it. I love this purely because of its simplicity as there is no drawing, just a  series of shapes and circles put together to make it look like that image. This is what I want to do with my portraits, but I feel like I’m still in that stage of progression to make my illustrations simpler through a series of geometric shapes; I’ve not quite worked out how to capture a likeness through this technique yet.

The White Stripes album Icky Thump, Stanley Chow

I read a previous interview with Mancunian Matters in 2012; in it you described the pinnacle of your career as designing artwork for The White Stripes’ 2007 album Icky Thump. I wondered if you have done a project since  that you feel has been a new pinnacle, or are there projects you still want to do? 

I think that my ultimate commission would be to work on a feature-length movie as the art director, creating the actual imagery for the film. I’m not interested in animating myself, but I want to see my work animated and the film using my illustrative style to tell the story.

Have you got any idea what the film might be about? 

No idea whatsoever — my problem is I’m not a storyteller, so it’s more about the film using my designs and illustrations to tell the story.

So really you’d be looking to collaborate with someone on this sort of project. 

Yeah, what the story is about is almost irrelevant; what’s important to me is that it uses what I’ve done or what I can do, but it would need to be about something that I liked or was interested in. This would be my ultimate job, but I’ve recently completed a big commission for MacDonalds [see here] re-designing their neon billboard in Piccadilly Circus. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing billboard for which I’ve created little bits of a person’s body, which you can use to create an avatar of yourself. It’s pretty immense, as if you go to Piccadilly Circus, your iPhone will link up to the board and prompt you to create your own avatar and then when you look up, you will see your avatar on the billboard.

Emma Sumner

Link to Little Piccadilly project for MacDonalds –

The Takeaway exhibition continues at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) until 22 June 2014

Bag yourself a bargain at the Takeaway Sale Closing Event, Thursday 19 June 2014 @ 6.30pm! All proceeds of the sale go towards the CFCCA artistic programme. The evening will also feature food from Manchester’s Hip Hop Chip Shop, who will be taking up residence outside the CFCCA building, providing tasty bites for visitors

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Posted on 17/06/2014 by thedoublenegative