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Stanley Chow, an artist who works in the moment
‘Nothing I do is thought through, there's no planning’
By Jack Dulhanty
They were opposites. Kwai-Chuen — whose name was anglicised to Michael — was hot-headed and crafty; Lai-Ying — or Lesley — was serene and by-the-book. They lived in a short, dumpy building up the road from Altrincham Market, a chip shop named Youngs with a skewed sign, overlapping in the centre so it read ‘Fish & Hips.’ They lived upstairs: a small kitchen, bedroom and living space, with a cycloptic window looking out onto the cobbles outside. They worked downstairs six days a week.
Kwai-Chuen left Hong Kong as an 18-year-old in the late 1950s and found work in hospitality. During periodic trips back to his home country in search of a partner — mixed race relationships were still taboo — he met Lai-Ying and they returned to the UK as a married couple. Two years later, in July 1974, Stanley was born.
As he grew up, he watched his parents working. Chopping, slicing, dicing, and frying. To keep him entertained, they gave him a pen and paper, sometimes the chip paper they wrapped orders in. He’d draw for hours. Fish, cats, customers. Art forged itself a presence early in Stanley’s life. Sometimes his dad would make rice glue — rice boiled down to the point it became adherent — and they’d stick origami pieces together with it.
His parents saw his talents and encouraged him. But their biggest priority was his schooling. Kwai-Chuen had seen members of his family back in Hong Kong stumbling towards a life of low achievement and criminality, and wouldn’t have that for his son. The family saved up and sent Stanley, and later his sister, Michelle, to private schools.
At King’s School in Macclesfield, he sold caricatures on the playground of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Freddie Mercury for £5 a piece, until teachers found out and said he had to donate all the proceeds to charity. He saw little use in most of his classes, except those from his art teacher Robin Hidden, a guiding “Obi-Wan” figure in his life.
He also experienced an insidious strain of racism, like a rot hidden behind the school’s walls; inexplicable detentions, and a chemistry teacher who would call him Charlie Chan and force him to sit at the front. He would later ask himself: what can you do? Who do you complain to when you’re a 11-year-old kid?
He began to reject the Chinese shopping bags his parents offered him to take to school. He got embarrassed when his schoolmates from King’s came into the chip shop and saw him there, behind the till or doing homework.
But among his peers, Stanley encountered a kind of confidence that he hadn’t seen before. His classmates had been brought up to feel that they were entitled to get what they wanted in life. And as he spent time with them, that sense of entitlement rubbed off on him. It fortified his belief that he would one day get what he wanted, too. And what he wanted was to become a successful artist.
‘As he crossed the line’
Stanley Chow is wearing a wool cardigan the colour of caramel and a pair of wide-legged, cropped trousers. His legs are crossed and an Adidas clog is hanging loosely from his foot. He has cool, disinterested eyes that sit behind a pair of wide-lensed glasses. We’re in his basement, where he moved his office during the pandemic, in the ‘Cinema Room.’
There are bookcases crammed with vinyl records, boxes of more records on the floor and low couches scattered with cushions printed with his artwork. Across the hall is his office, and in the room beside that, his assistant, Dom, is working at a large drawing table.
Chow has enjoyed a little over a decade of extraordinary success, including being nominated for a Grammy; working with Manchester United, McDonald’s and Saatchi & Saatchi; becoming the resident illustrator at The New Yorker. He’s so in-demand that his Twitter account politely clarifies: “Sorry: not available for private commissions.”
He is best known for his portraits of famous faces, and his ability to capture their likeness with what appears to be little effort. He captures essential features in just a few strokes. His portraits tease at a sense of royalty — subjects appear upright, shoulders back, formal without losing a sense of humour or accessibility.
"It's interesting that you describe my work as minimal,” he says. "[It’s] probably more simple. You put a lot in, but then you have to take a lot out.”
The great portraitists of Renaissance Europe spent decades jockeying for position at the courts of popes and princes in order to get a commission, and then spent months delivering it. Chow’s process is a bit more spontaneous.
When he was watching the 2012 Tour de France and saw that Bradley Wiggins was poised to win, he hurried to his computer to start a portrait. As Wiggins crossed the finish line, Chow posted the portrait on Twitter. “The second he won it,” he says. “Not before, not after, literally as he crossed the line.”
After Andy Burnham briefly became the “King of the North” last year during his spat with the government, it was Chow’s portrait of him that started popping up all over the city and all over social media (Burnham also made the picture his Twitter avatar).
Chow’s early adoption of virtually all social media — it was recently his 12th Twitter anniversary, and he’s clocked 10 years on Instagram — has played a pivotal role in his success as an artist. "Even at a time when I didn’t have that many followers, people were retweet-happy. So, I'm thinking: I've drawn a picture here and within the space of an hour, half a million people have seen it.”
In 2007, he noticed the White Stripes were playing and designed a bootleg gig poster, which he posted on MySpace, where it started to spread. Eventually, the White Stripes saw it and reached out to him. He says when he got the call, he thought he was about to be sued.
That stroke of luck led him to him designing a limited-edition USB flash drive (very noughties) for the band, designed to look like caricatures of Jack and Meg White, for their Icky Thump album. The flash drive was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Boxed/ Special Limited-Edition category in 2008, which proved a major turning point for Chow at a time when he felt like his career was plateauing.
For around a decade, he had been scrabbling around for work. He’d left Swindon School of Art in 1995 having picked up a single commission as a student: a caricature of Buddy Holly, done with oil paints, for Oxford University Press. It was never sent back to him, nor was the book it was used in. But he got the cheque, and the cheque was what mattered.
He remembers Swindon as a hotbed of racism, where he was spat at in the street. After graduating, he remembers sitting in the passenger seat of his best friend’s car, on the way back to Manchester, with a stolen cat named Mao. He didn’t know where he was going.
One lecture at art school stuck in his head. It was a talk from Brian Grimwood, who owned the illustration agency Chow would go on to join. One of Grimwood’s remaining ambitions was to be commissioned by the prestigious American magazine the New Yorker. At one point Grimwood looked to his audience and said simply: ‘You know you've made it when you've been in the New Yorker.’
Back up north, Chow briefly worked for his parents at their chip shop, by then in Marple, spending ungodly amounts at the printers making portfolios to send to illustration agencies. Then there were the stock letters coming back: “We don’t take on students.”
Chow’s life seems so thickly spun with moments of fate and coincidence that it makes sense that he doesn’t try to make too much sense of it or impose grand explanations of how he’s got where he has. He landed his first agent, not with his portfolios, but after someone spotted him idly scribbling on chip paper. "Serendipity. It's a word I say a lot,” he says. “There's a lot of that going on, I have to admit.”
Once represented by an agency, he tried to fill a gap in the fashion illustration market but ended up drawing lifestyle scenes and yoga poses for magazines like Just Seventeen and Sugar. He resented that work. A DJ friend who knew that he collected records asked him to cover for one of her sets because she was double-booked, and he started DJ-ing regularly. He also spent a few years managing a band.
Looking back, this decade looks like a fallow period before Chow’s great flourishing. But of course, there was no inevitable flourishing and emergence of Stanley Chow until it actually happened. Still, he says he learned a lot in that period. "I don't think I would have reached the level of success I have reached without those 10 years,” he told me. He learned what he now calls hustle. Spinning multiple plates, making money, trying to keep the show going, all of which proved valuable when he returned to illustration full time.
Chow works directly on a computer, not even bothering to sketch first. In 1999, his father took him to a PC World in Stockport. Computers are the future, said Kwai-Chuen, and if his son was going to make a success of illustration, he needed to move with the times. Chow just wanted to draw, but his dad bought him the new iMac. Learning the computer programme he now uses every day proved infuriating. "The first time you're on it, it's like: garngh,” he says, stirring in his chair as if reining an out-of-control Stallion. He also learned how to forge Megabus tickets — something his dad approved of and his mum less so.
His signature geometric style reduces faces to puzzles of shapes for him to piece together. "When I was working with him, there was more of a painterly quality to it,” says Ben Cox, head of Central Illustration Agency. “Not in a rich textural manner, there was more of a sort of fluidity to the strokes and a certain level of geometry arrived back then.”
As he became more proficient in his new style, Chow also became more prolific. "In my head, it was getting from A to B as fast as possible,” he says. “The logic is: the less time it takes to do one picture, the more pictures you can do, the more pictures you can do, the more money you make.”
Not long after the Grammy nomination, the New Yorker spotted Chow’s work and commissioned him to do an illustration of the Scandinavian band called Múm. Then, in 2011, Wyatt Mitchell joined the magazine as its first creative director, tasked with redesigning its digital presence and online brand.
“I was thinking: what can I use to mark my entrance here?” Mitchell told me. “And I thought: Why don't I call that guy Stanley Chow?” Mitchell is a football fan. Arsenal, specifically. He had come across some Chow portraits of Brazilian footballers on social media, and thought they were magnificent. Like seventeenth century portraits, they could be in gold frames. They made players who he always thought of as royalty, look like royalty.
Mitchell’s plan worked, and soon it had expanded into a broader idea. “It was so popular that I took it another step and said: let’s make a portrait of everyone who works at the New Yorker, using Stanley Chow's style,” he says. Around 15 years after Brian Grimwood’s lecture had planted the idea of the New Yorker in Chow’s mind, he was now in charge of portraying the magazine’s staff.
"I was so pleased when I got that New Yorker gig,” says Chow, a smile passing across his face. His portraits became a cornerstone of the magazine’s brand, with staff using his work for their social media profiles. His style took on a new significance, and he has continued to illustrate for the magazine. "He became, which was my hope, a familiar illustrator,” says Wyatt. “He became: oh, that's a New Yorker illustrator. It became okay to use him for anything.”
The spontaneity of Chow’s work means that he can often reflect the present moment, or his present thought. “When I did the Andy Burnham one, when he did the talk outside the library, it touched me. I felt I needed to reciprocate that feeling, that passion he gave."
It echoes his decision to portray Jeremy Corbyn during the general election, and his reticence to portray Boris Johnson: “Some people can celebrate Boris Johnson becoming prime minister, not me,” he says. “I'm not going to be drawing a picture of Boris Johnson."
In previous interviews, Chow has been neatly packaged. The drawing on chip paper became what he calls a “true myth,” a too-neat summation of his career and life: chip paper, Grammy, success. His identity as a Mancunian is often used as the final lacquer on the storyline — Manchester lad makes it. The reality is he feels his identity as a Mancunian isn’t particularly relevant to his work.
His work on the Great Northerners exhibition, illustrating icons from Manchester’s past, left him feeling pigeonholed. Queues of prospective commissioners are hungry for portraits of Mancunian legends, like cards in a deck of overwrought nostalgia. “When there's new hotels and new restaurants opening, and they're like: we want to design all our rooms with all your Greater Mancunians. I'm like: guys, think of better ideas. If you're going to have pictures by me of Tony Wilson and Ian Brown, it's just going to look shit and cheesy and boring.”
Chow’s ascent to fame via moments of social media providence is a story of an artist in the internet age — where thinking quickly and capturing a moment is the path to greatness. One minute you’re managing bands and DJ-ing clubs nights in Manchester. The next you’re illustrating for the White Stripes and the New Yorker, via a picture on MySpace or a well-timed tweet.
"Nothing I do is thought through, there's no planning,” he tells me. “I think it frustrates my wife to high-heaven.” Writers — humans, even — like to impose satisfying narratives on events and lives, but Chow rejects my attempts to frame his life. “I've just kind of existed and lived, just done things,” he says.
Chow doesn’t overthink things. “That's what makes my work successful,” he says. “It's all style and no substance, I just want it to look good, there's no thought process behind it. It's very shallow. Though I expect, in that shallowness, there's depth somewhere, but I can't express it."
Related story: 'Nobody buys art in Manchester' - or do they? A joyous read from Phil Griffin about the Manchester art market, published on Thursday (members only).
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