Creating whimsical fashion illustrations with flower petals
Grace Ciao shares her love for the arts and how she combines flower petals to style her fashionable watercolour illustrations.
Delicate flower petals are laid intricately on fashionably-dressed illustrations of women – some forming the ends of classy gowns while others in a chic mini-skirt.
This series of flower girls, also affectionately known as Bloom Belles, are the elegant illustrations of 29-year-old artist Grace Ciao.
“When I first started out, I was mostly doing events for fashion brands where they would engage me to illustrate for their events. Over time, I started to get more brand collaborations such as The Face Shop’s Yehwadam brand last year,” she shared.
With more than 79,800 followers on Instagram, the fashion illustrator’s combination of delicately drawn watercolour illustrations and flower petals have seen the likes of various local and international clients including Pandora, Christian Dior, Singapore Cancer Society and ION Orchard, just to name a few.
In fact, Grace was also recently inducted into Forbes 30 Under 30 list – an annual list recognising outstanding individuals, leaders and entrepreneurs under the age of 30.
Youthopia spoke to Grace at her former studio space located at North Canal Road to find out more about her journey as a fashion illustrator and how she came to create her signature floral artwork.
Blooming a passion for the arts
Drawing is almost second nature to Grace who has been interested in the arts since her childhood and would often create illustrations of female characters, mothers and daughters.
Inspired by her love for fashion shows like Project Runway, her characters were often decked out in fashionable outfits as she tried to recreate the clothes she saw on television.
“It is about the ability to turn my imagination into something I can see and to storytell through my art which I enjoy. I would design a background and imagine what they are doing at the beach or at a cafe. I also like to draw the interaction between my characters,” Grace said.
Although her art style has evolved from a cute, cartoon style to life-like figures over the years, one thing never changes in her illustrations – the human element.
She said: “The human element is something people can relate to which gives more life or story to my work. For me, I enjoy drawing humans and exploring other elements related to them such as cars, buildings, accessories, fashion and apparel.”
A chance encounter turned career
While Grace has always been fond of the arts, her most recognisable work with flowers – which helped kick start her career in the arts – was actually a “happy accident” after her Instagram post went viral in 2014.
After noticing a wilting rose she received from valentine’s day, Grace decided to experiment with its soft, cloth-like textured petals on a dress that she was illustrating one day.
She shared her artwork on Instagram and it unexpectedly went viral. Her work was also featured on media outlets like Buzzfeed and her Instagram page blew up with a surge in likes.
“This was how it all started. It was very natural and I did not really think about what I should use or do. Sometimes certain kinds of accidents can be sort of happy accidents,” she said.
Brands began to reach out to Grace, who was then in her final year in business school at the National University of Singapore, with requests for commissioned pieces or inviting her to illustrate at paid events.
But entering the art industry was not an easy decision for Grace, who had different plans at the time.
Just as her artwork began making its rounds on Instagram, she was already working full-time at a bank for her internship. This meant that she had to turn down some jobs despite her excitement towards the new opportunities presented towards her art.
“Receiving emails from big brands was really exciting because I didn’t know that my art could be a career. I was still studying, going to school and attending classes so I didn’t think that people would take me seriously but they did,” she recalled of her first commissioned event with luxury watch brand, Jaeger Le-Coultre.
“It was tough at the beginning because I had to juggle both so I was thinking if I should just enter the banking industry or give art a try.
“Since I had one more semester in school after the internship, I gave myself six months to give this art career a try after my graduation. I decided that if it works, it works. But if it doesn’t, I’ll go and work at the bank instead,” she explained.
But six months became a year, then two and Grace has never looked back since.
Working with flowers and creating Bloom Belles
Following her success on Instagram, Grace began experimenting with different types of flowers – from common roses, lilies and carnations to seasonal flowers such as the butterfly ranunculus and peonies.
“I look out for flowers with large petals or prints as I found them really unique. One of them is the iris flower which has three kinds of petals. I find them really cool because it brings a sense of spontaneity in my work since I don’t know what to expect when working on them,” she said.
Her illustrations mostly consist of traditional mediums using watercolour, as well as mixed media using flowers and other embellishments like sequins or beads. Her most recent experiments also include an ensemble of vegetables and fruits.
She chose watercolour as it is a more “forgiving medium” that is easier to work with and gives off a “soft touch” that matches her feminine style.
She also creates digitally using programmes such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Fresco for complex pieces that are drawn in several layers.
“A huge part of where I gain my inspiration is directly from the flowers since they are my main medium. The flowers will affect almost 90 per cent of how my artwork will look, what my characters wear and their poses.
“Flowers are also really unique because the lilies I buy today may be different in colour or pattern from the lilies I bought last week,” she explained.
When working with clients, Grace has to consider the types of flowers to propose, its availability and how the flowers can best suit her illustrations as well as her character’s poses.
While she hopes to explore as many species as possible, not all flowers can be used. Certain flowers are not acclimatised to our tropical weather or are unable to withstand the shipping journey, and Grace has to take into account such considerations when working.
Grace’s work centres around her female characters – whom she affectionately named Bloom Belles – a series of chic characters that have been the face of many illustrations.
“My Bloom Belles came two years ago when I decided to give my characters more personality so that others could relate to them instead of just being pretty girls and models. I wanted my followers to recognise them as characters so I gave them individual identities,” she shared.
Each character is not given a specific name. Instead, their identities are expressed through their diverse physical appearances – skin colour, hair and cultural background – so that every individual can find a Bloom Belle whom they can “feel an affinity towards”.
Grace said: “I haven’t thought too much about individual characters having individual personalities but I try to let them have fun by giving them a sense of humour, writing small quotes of what one Bloom Belle would say to another or even just using puns.”
One of her most memorable projects was a television commercial for Soft & Gentle – a female personal care product in the United Kingdom – which she had worked on back in 2016.
“It was really cool because many times, my girls or illustrations exist as still images or pictures. But Soft & Gentle saw the vision of her spinning around and we managed to create an animation out of it which was later played on prime time television in the UK,” Grace candidly recalled.
“That was quite memorable for me because it was my first time seeing my characters dancing and moving on screen.”
Seeing her characters blossom on screen has long been a dream for Grace, who hopes to grow her Bloom Belles into a household name in the future.
She said: “My biggest goal as an artist is to hope for people to know me for my Bloom Belles and not the other way round. People would usually read my story and find out about my art, but I hope that one day people can find out about my art on their own and then read about the artist behind them.”
Growing as an artist in the digital age
Being a fashion illustrator in Singapore is no bed of roses for Grace who faced her own share of doubts from friends and family – and even from herself – who did not believe that a career in the art industry was possible.
“Many ask me if I find it a regret since my work has nothing to do with my degree but I beg to differ because it has everything to do with my degree and how I run my business now,” said Grace, who feels her background in business equipped her with the needed skills in negotiating deals and managing administrative matters like bookkeeping when she began as an independent artist.
In spite of the difference, Grace believes that an individual’s drive to learn, practise and explore takes precedence, even if they choose a non-conventional path.
She said: “Since I was young, I’ve always been interested in art and it’s the only thing I want to do. When you are interested in [a skill or hobby], you should go all out to learn and become better at it. Being self-taught is really okay if you are in this industry.”
Reflecting on her journey as a fashion illustrator thus far, Grace shared: “In the past, what I enjoyed about my job was being able to do what I like – to paint, draw and create art. As I grew older, it became more about how I bring value through my art.”
Seeing her art bring joy to others even in the smallest ways is an aspect of her work that Grace finds most fulfilling.
“It makes me think that my work is not useless and that it’s not just for myself but also to bring happiness to others. This is something that I hope to continue doing.”