June 2013
Jeanie shared with HKUST students her creative experience of illustration at the "Meeting with Artists" series held at campus
Painting with Passion

HKUST focuses on science, technology and business subjects, but that does not mean students are only interested in numbers. In order to produce graduates who are well-rounded, it is important that students broaden their horizons in order to embrace other pathways. Some students may already be into artistic or musical pursuits, while others have latent skills and interests waiting to be tapped. 

Jeanie Leung graduated in 2003 with a business degree – but gave up a career in banking to pursue her childhood dream of being an artist. However, she still cherishes the foundation laid during her time at HKUST, and uses capabilities she learned during her undergraduate days to help her.

"I loved painting as a small kid, but being an artist was a dream that was so far away," she says. "I chose to study science in secondary school, because it would give me more choices in my career." HKUST was her "dream school", and its business program was her first choice. "I paid a visit to the campus and I loved its atmosphere – it is very energetic. The University was up and coming in 2000 and the School of Business & Management had just started to build its reputation. Because it was new, I saw that there was great room for development."

University life, with great professors, good facilities and interesting courses, provided her with the incentive to be a hard-working student. "This has contributed a lot to my creative life now," she notes. To date, Jeanie has produced three picture books – the stories and art work all her own, has another in the pipeline, staged solo art shows, collaborated with a variety of commercial and charitable organizations, and has developed a line of merchandise.

When she graduated however, life was very different. It was 2003 - a difficult time in Hong Kong because of Sars and it wasn't easy to find a job, but she got a chance at Dah Sing Bank, and after two years moved to Hang Seng Bank where she worked in marketing involving personal loan products. In 2009, she took a short painting course at a continuing education college, where she learnt the basic skills of sketching and painting in watercolor and oil.

"This made me remember my childhood dreams. I had just got married, and my husband asked if I had considered painting [full time]," Jeanie remembers. "With his encouragement, I decided to quit my job and give it a try for a few years – I thought that if it doesn't work out I can return to work. I don't want to regret not even trying when I had a chance." She admits that her mother found it difficult to understand. "Her generation had a difficult time financially when they were young – a job was to earn a living, not a passion – so she was worried. But she was very supportive."

Illustrative Inspiration

At the very beginning, Jeanie painted day and night without much of a plan, simply trying to improve her skills. Then she remembered the picture books produced by Taiwanese illustrator Jimmy Liao. "They touched my heart with their inspirational messages, and so I tried to think up my own story. I didn't want to just create a ‘cute character', but a story that conveyed my own thoughts about life. I did around 50 pictures and I sent them to a few publishers in Hong Kong. Asia One responded, we met and they decided to publish it and become my agent." It was a new departure for Asia One, too; they published art books, but this was their first picture book. The stories are aimed at the young adult market – 20-30-something years old.

The book, A Time for the Heart, was published at Christmas 2010. She was surprised at the book's success. "Many people in Hong Kong paint well, while I don't have the skill, but I went to the publisher with a complete package... the story and all the pictures were already painted. It was also good timing, as the publisher wanted to explore a new market."

Another breakthrough came when Jeanie held her first show, entitled "Smile, please" at Zzcatter Z'Studio - the Kwun Tong space which encourages creative design talents and helps artists stage exhibitions.This exhibition garnered her publicity in newspapers and magazines. As a result, she began to get enquiries from commercial clients such as Starbucks, Page One, the Peak Tram and Sun Hung Kai Properties and organizations including the Joyful (Mental Health) Foundation. In 2011 she published her second book, which centers on the character of Oowa – now well known to many Hong Kong people.

Jeanie finds a balance between the commercial and artistic sides. "I focus on the artistic side, the painting and the story, and the publisher does the rest. They contact potential clients and deal with the merchandise that includes phone cases, cards, tote bags and so on. They take care of production, marketing and distribution."

Marketing activities have included a presence at the extremely popular Hong Kong Book Fair, which attracted 900,000 visitors, in 2012 in collaboration with Metrobooks. She also took part in the Hong Kong Gifts & Premium Fair for 2012, where one of the contacts made was with a Belgian company that is now Jeanie's agent in Europe, and 2013. Her publisher participated in the world-famous Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011 and lined up a Russian publisher there. 

Broadening Horizons

The most valuable experience of Jeanie's time at HKUST was the opportunity to take part in the exchange out program. "I wanted to explore myself and broaden my horizons, make new friends and learn to be more independent. I attended Boston College where I met people from different countries and cultures. I saw Monet's original paintings for the first time at an exhibition of Impressionist painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I fell in love with Monet's work then, and it has greatly influenced my paintings. I also got to be more sensitive to my surroundings and this has helped me in creating stories, because I need a strong sense of observation to discover the sensation of tiny things in daily life."

Attending HKUST had other benefits, too. "I have to meet a lot of clients to present my work and I also do a lot of media interviews. The organization, communication and presentation skills I learned at the University have helped me a lot. My experience from the Business Case Competition, for which I won a Johnson & Johnson Scholarship, also strengthened my analytical skills; this is useful in creating stories, as I have to analyze the structure, the rhythm of visual effects and so on, a process that is logical instead of just sentimental. People may think that painting is only emotional, but it's actually logical at the same time – you have to think about the composition, the color palette and so on."

Canny Advice

When people ask Jeanie if they should do as she did and follow their dreams, her answer is not always simple. She says that you can't always have everything in life. "It is a trade-off regarding what you want in your life. Make your own choices and don't live for the world's expectations. On the other hand, don't let a ‘dream' become a ‘well-packaged desire'. And strike a balance if you need to support family members.

"Sometimes we make problems more complicated than they are. I kept imagining that being an artist was impossible, but if you take a risk you may find it is not as difficult as first thought. On the other hand, you need determination. It is easy to do something for a day, a week or a month, but it may not be easy to do it for years or even for decades. But I believe the result of doing so will surprise you."

Arts at HKUST

It is not just about "science", "technology" and "business" at HKUST. The University believes in producing well-rounded graduates interested in many facets of life, including the arts. Visit HKUST website to see the program of arts courses available to our students. In addition, HKUST's Center for the Arts organizes a variety of arts programs from time to time.

Arts course


Center for the Arts