A Peek at the Creative Space of Alina Chau

3Alina Chau is the illustrator of several picture books including Double Happiness (written by Nancy Tupper Ling), The Year of the Sheep (written by Oliver Chin), and the picture book app Pickle. Her latest picture book is The Nian Monster, written by Andrea Wang. The Nian Monster tells the story of the legendary monster who returns to Shanghai at Chinese New Year, and Xingling, the clever girl who figures out how to stop him.


Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review and said, “Wang’s story thrills but doesn’t threaten: Chau’s wonderfully vivid watercolors give the monster doe eyes and a round body that make him seem like a cranky, overgrown teddy bear, and Wang shares cultural information about the Chinese New Year with the lightest of touches.”

This free story time kit for The Nian Monster is available through Curious City includes materials to make a Nian Monster mask, origami bookmark, and more.

Here is a book trailer for The Nian Monster:


Alina received her Master of Fine Arts in Animation from UCLA and has produced three internationally acclaimed independent animated films. She has over ten years of production experience in the animation and gaming industries including titles such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Battlestar Gallactica, The Tale of Despereaux, The Land Before Time and the Emmy-awarding TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

To learn more about Alina and her work visit her website.




new LA studio

Describe your workspace.

This should be a simple question, but my workspace is currently in transition. I just recently moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so things are a bit confusing right now. Let me try to break down the various locations . . . My San Francisco home was the place where I completed all my children’s books so far. It was a very tiny but cozy studio apartment, I called it a Hobbit Hole. My work desk pretty much took over most of the house. I had a cute little courtyard, where I would go to when I needed fresh air and to get my mind out of a creative block. And then there is my parents’ home in Hong Kong, where I finished half of the Nian Monster book during my Christmas vacation last year. Since I was a little kid, our dining table is also my drawing table. I usually sit at a spot where I can see my mom going in and out of the kitchen and see what TV shows my dad is watching in the living room.


San Francisco courtyard


Hong Kong workspace


And now I am staying at my best friend’s home in Los Angeles temporarily, while I am looking for a new home . . . This will be the beginning of a new adventure. I am hoping to start writing my own stories as well as keep on illustrating.

Here are some painting videos from my San Francisco studio:


Describe a typical workday.

I usually wake up around 7:30am. Eat breakfast and then start my work day around 8:30-9am. If I have a lot to do, I usually start the day earlier. I prefer to wake up early than staying up late. I usually take a lunch break around noon – 1pm and end the work day around 6 – 6:30pm. If there are crazy deadlines, I may wake up earlier and stay up later, but I try to keep my daily schedule balanced if possible. Throughout the work day, I will take a few little 5 – 10 mins short breaks to water the plants or walk the dog. In the evening after work hours, I usually make dinner, watch TV or read a bit before I go to bed. I usually sleep around 10:30 pm ish. I need a lot of sleep to function efficiently . . . LOL




What media do you use and which is your favorite?
My favorite media is watercolor. I also use Cintiq and Photoshop for sketching, layout, and compositing. While I prefer traditional mediums, I find myself relying on sketching in Photoshop more often these days. It’s faster and easier to work with the clients during concept stages. It’s easier to make changes and bounce ideas back and forth. For final art, I prefer watercolor. I love the organic feel and look of watercolor.



List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
My plants – I often find inspiration from nature. While I can’t go out to the countryside every day, having plants around is a good alternative. If you observe the plants closely, they have many beautiful textures, patterns, colors, shapes, and stories to tell you. They make great design references!

MY plants

Gift from friends – I love to keep special gifts from friends and family around me. Life as an artist and writer is fun, but it’s also a journey with many up and downs . . . and sometimes it can be a lonely path. Toys and gifts from loved ones are sort of like my Linus’ blanket. It helps to keep me going, reminding me of what’s important during challenging times.


Books – They are great for inspiration, references, and entertainment. I simply can’t survive without books!!



Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I don’t think I have any particular rituals. I talk to my doggy and my friend’s cats a lot when I work at home. I like to share my ideas with them and ask about their days. Animals are pretty creative creatures, they often surprise me with funny creative ideas.



What do you listen to while you work?
That depends on what I am doing. When I am developing a new idea, I prefer to be silent or listen to classical music. Once I know the idea well, and am working on the sketches, I then can listen to more exciting music, audiobooks, or listen to Netflix shows in the background. Again this depends on the complexity of the task. If the task requires more of my brain power, I would go for somethings less distracting . . . like music or a familiar TV show. If the idea is very clear, then I would go for an audiobook. I tend to pick a story that’s similiar to what I am working on for inspiration. When I start working on final art, I usually have everything planned out in my mind. I just need to copy the idea from my head to the painting. I would listen to whatever I feel could energize me. At the moment, I am in-between projects, and mentally plotting new book ideas. I am currently obsessed with Hamilton, the musical. I listen to the soundtrack and trying to analyze the writing for inspiration . . . It’s so good!!


Nian Monster cover sketch



Nian Monster character sketch


What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
For a long while, it was Chinese take-out, dim sum, potato chips, cookies and cakes etc.. But, eating all those foods kind of back fired on me. My body complained about it, and I got a lecture from my parents and doctor. So now, I try to be a lot healthier, eat fresh fruit and vegetable smoothies with the occasional little ice-cream pie or cookie.



What keeps you focused while you’re working?
As long as I get to draw and paint, I can stay focused for a very, very long time without noticing time passing. Drawing is my bliss, it always put me in the happy zone. But, doing paperwork on the other hand, it’s not my cup of tea. As an independent artist, you are not just an artist, you have to be the admin, finance, marketing personnel etc.. … all in one. I always have to force myself to do the paperwork. I don’t like it at all. Psychologically, I often feel less productive on the day I am doing paperwork, even though it’s an essential task. I feel guilty that I am not making art. I should be creating, writing, or painting.


Double Happiness character design


Double Happiness art and sketch






What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?
Illustration, especially in children’s book publishing is about storytelling. As a visual person, I tell stories through pictures. I am currently working on a graphic novel and two picture book ideas. I must have the story outline written down, before I can dive into design. While I sketch, I don’t think of what design would make the characters or the page look good. Instead I think of what is the character’s motivation, what drives him or her to act or react in a certain way. All the design elements must serve some storytelling purposes. This part of my thought process is the same as how I storyboard for an animated show. The story in each page must flow. The color, the composition, the expression etc. are all serving the same purposes–STORY!

Telling a good story is fun, but very challenging. There are many elements to consider. With a graphic novel or longer format storytelling, one little alteration could mean revising a few pages or even chapters. It’s a laborious process. For picture book, it’s a lot shorter, and seemingly less workload. The challenge is how to compress complex, sensitive, and profound contents in few pages, while the story must remain clear, fun, age appropriate, and hopefully educational for young readers.



If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
My puppy?! She always help me to stay calm, when I am stressed out and worried. Plus she always reminds me to take breaks and forces me to walk away from my work desk, so I can see my work with fresh eyes . . . keep me grounded. On second thought, I wouldn’t mind having someone who is talented with marketing and business to help me out with admin work. I am not too good at those and partly I dread to do paperwork.



current project


What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
Be persistent . . . practice and keep writing, don’t get discouraged when someone rejects your story or gives tough feedback. Read a lot of books and don’t give up if this is your dream. Writing a good story is hard work, but very rewarding.