Digital artist Khoa Le is among the rare cases of Vietnam’s publishing industry whose works are published in a foreign country before hitting local bookstores.
Last year, Hanoi-based children’s publishing house Kim Dong spent a large sum gaining the rights to the picture book/art book ‘The Mysterious Princesses,’ which tells illustrated stories about princesses who possess mysterious powers uniting to protect a magical kingdom from the claws of a fire-breathing dragon.
The children’s book was originally published in Italy via joint work by local publisher Nuinui and a Vietnamese illustrator, Le Thi Bich Khoa.
Khoa’s illustrations are warmly welcomed in Italy and France and negotiations are already underway for her works to be published in Spain and Finland.
More widely known by her pen name Khoa Le, the female illustrator works as an editor at Kim Dong, and her success story has been surprisingly natural.
Vietnamese digital artist Khoa Le. Photo courtesy of Khoa Le
A life-changing decision
Prior to finding herself in digital art, Khoa had spent over two years in Japanese studies at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
“I dropped out after two and a half years,” Khoa said. “Perhaps I had always loved drawing, and writing of course. But at that time my love for drawing had grown too big to let it sleep any longer.”
Khoa then passed the entrance exam to make it into the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts, and graduated five years later.
“Those five years to me was like the ocean to a fish that had been out of water for too long,” Khoa recalled.
But the female artist never regretted having spent two and a half years ‘out of water,’ as she said it helped develop her language skills, without which she would not have been able to pen her own stories and step out into the world.
“The advantages of an illustrator who can write her own stories are immense,” Khoa explained. “Oftentimes, by the time I finished writing a story, its illustrations had already been drawn in my head.”
In 2006, when traveling abroad was still a luxury for most young Vietnamese, Khoa saved up and went on a backpacking trip to France, dubbed the capital of art books, where works by artists from all countries converged.
Eating sandwiches bought from supermarkets and couch-surfing in the basement of a friend’s house, Khoa spent most of her money on a suitcase full of art and comic books to bring home as ‘souvenirs.’
The colorful illustrations printed on cotton-white, fragrant paper were so captivating to Khoa that she started having the dream that one day she too would be the author of such beautiful books.
Since 2009, Khoa Le has been actively participating in drawing competitions in Vietnam and abroad, while frequently updating her works on online art portfolio sites to attract potential publishers.
“In other words, you should have an impressive portfolio of working domestic projects before targeting foreign publishers,” Khoa said. “It helps you better yourself, fill up your portfolio and ‘tame’ your artist ego, which is very important when working with a foreign publisher.”
The cover of ‘The Mysterious Princesses,’ a children’s picture book authored by Khoa Le
“A dreamer, travelholic and artist who draws with her cats,” reads the online biography of Khoa.
A married woman who has worked in the art industry for over a decade, Khoa still considers herself a girl who never grows up.
“I was born with the gift of romance,” Khoa said. “Even if life is filled with unpleasant, off-putting events, why trap your imagination inside reality when you can let it roam free with the power of your hands?”
And with such romantic imagination, Khoa’s princesses were born and grew up under her minute digital strokes and splendid, captivating manipulation of colors.
While categorizing her works as “pictures for children,” Khoa admitted, smilingly, that “they are not entirely meant for children.”
It is in Khoa’s unique style of drawing in her book ‘The Mysterious Princesses’ that art critics find something curious about her, as mysterious as ‘the sixth princess’ in the book, which is always present in those works that reflect on herself.
Between 2008 and 2016, the woman participated in multiple art expos and galleries, including Art Expo in Malaysia, Asia Contemporary Art Show in Hong Kong, and AFCC Illustration in Singapore in 2012, the Epicase 4th Showcase in South Korea in 2013, and individual galleries at the Craig Thomas Gallery in 2016.
At these galleries, visitors were drawn by the charisma of her ‘inner princess’ expressed passionately through her drawings, even though the physical embodiment of that princess is a woman whose only crown is readers’ interest in her books.