That night, we got to know each other while discussing creativity, our cats, and outdoor adventures over pizza and beer.
Ma is a Los Angeles-based professional concept artist. Her diverse portfolio includes client work for Universal Studios, Warner Bros., Google, and Evergrand. Currently, she is working on designing immersive experiences for the Netflix series Disenchantment and Final Space on TBS.
Creating something every day is hard as hell. It's a hustle. To perfect her craft, Ma completes an art project every single day. She'll be the first to admit that they aren't all "perfect," but that's the point. Showing up is 90 percent of the battle.
In person, Ma is incredibly humble, ebullient, and witty. Beneath her chill vibe, though, there's a hyper-focused intensity — a palpable sense of intention, of determination. After our inspiring conversation that night, I wanted to learn more about her story.
Check out our interview and her beautiful artwork below.
Where are you from originally? Why Los Angeles?
Qianjiao Ma: I grew up in a small town in China called Shenyang. Before moving to Los Angeles, I lived in Seattle for a few years. Why Los Angeles? Because it is the center of the creative world. I studied at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Even though I don't have any family members here, LA is home.
What made you want to become an illustrator/concept artist?
Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been curious about the world. I love to draw and paint and will probably continue pursuing it forever. I was inspired by manga, early Pixar movies, and movies from Studio Ghibli. I'm very passionate about animation, storytelling, sharing my imagination through creative works, and producing anything that touches people emotionally.
How did you end up working as a background artist for Netflix?
I've been working in the animation industry professionally for three years now. One day, I saw a posting for the Netflix job while I was browsing through Facebook on my phone. I decided to share my portfolio and forgot about applying. I had another job at that time. Two weeks later, a recruiter emailed me about the job. I seriously had no expectations but when I got to visit the studio and meet the team I was excited. Everyone is super friendly! The next week I found out I got the job. Currently, I'm working on the Netflix series Disenchantment and Final Space on TBS.
Tell me a little about your experience with animation background and location design. Looks like a very intense, grueling creative process.
It's basically a production pipeline. I start out with a lot of rough storyboards, scripts, and environments that guide the idea. Plenty of research is involved, too. Different shows have different styles and references. For example, the work I create for Matt Groening's animated fantasy series Disenchantment is super realistic while my other project are more cartoony. My art lead typically helps choose which direction I'm going in. There's tons of image reference gathering that happens behind the scenes. It's the most important part. The more research I do, the more I can really get the meticulous details down.
Can you remember some of your earliest artistic influences or inspirations?
It was most definitely Studio Ghibli movies, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Those animated films are master works. In particular, Spirited Away taught me to be very independent and resilient. That film showed me that if I stay strong, I can get through anything. My favorite scene is at the end of the film when the protagonist Chihiro tries to get help from the kind wizard. When she couldn't help her, I remember being inspired as a young girl not to rely on anyone. I guess that's why I don't ask for help. I grew up watching films that brought strong, female characters into my home. Disney movies were always showing women being saved by a prince. I never wanted to be be someone waiting for someone to help me. I grew up with that reference.
Which of your projects has been the most important to developing your personal style?
I think my Big Cat series has been the most important. It features my cat and other cats in various environments. Whenever I go someplace, I imagine painting a cat in that scene. Camping with friends. Surfing. Eating cakes during a friend's birthday party. I'm always taking something from my life experiences and turning it into something creative.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in becoming a professional artist and how have you overcome them?
The feeling that I'll never be good enough. It's strange but you constantly feel bad about yourself. I think all artists feel that? I practice every single day but there's always room to get better. I can also pursue better. That's the fun part about art I guess. You will never be good enough so you just keep trying.
To overcome self-doubt as an artist I have to get moving. I love to workout, go hiking, connect with friends, eat delicious food, and go surfing. There are so many things in life which give me inspiration and joy. When I come back, I'm creative again.
Your work has a very distinctive style. What does your creative process look like?
I love to paint and draw on a daily basis. I also like to look up fine art artists, such as Chinese Painter Mian Situ. His deep-toned impressionistic oil paintings feature techniques that I'm learning to emulate, to master.
Favorite thing to paint/draw?
Honestly, I think I enjoy painting and drawing pretty much anything. It's fun. When I'm creating, I have my own language and way of expressing myself because everyone views the work differently. I really love people, nature, and landscapes. My travels influence a lot of my work. Last year before the pandemic, I traveled Iceland, Spain, Vienna, Czech Republic, China, and Japan.
What's currently on your music playlists?
I definitely listen to a lot of Studio Ghibli soundtracks, classical music, and movie soundtracks to get in the creative vibe. The music paints the picture.
When you're not creating, how do you spend your time?
Lately, since we've been stuck in quarantine, I've been spending my time hiking, camping, surfing, and cooking. You can often find me plein air painting with friends. Oh, and doing a lot of Porto's curbside pickup. It's so good and so close by!