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Why a successful art director quit her corporate job to be a freelance artist

Elen Winata is the artist behind the Japanese card game: Say What? Japanese card game and all the quirky Japanese art and pop culture. She decided to go freelance after she left her role as an art director in multiple studios. What made her decide to make such a move? Let's find out.

Q: Please give the readers a short introduction about yourself and how you started drawing. What is your “origin” story?

To sum it up, I am your typical girl-next-door who struck the lottery of life by being able to draw for a living. Growing up, I was that kid who draws all the time – and being the ever optimist, I’ve always known I would work in the creative industry.

After graduating with a degree in Graphic Design, I started my career at Kinetic (an advertising & design studio based in Singapore) as a Jr. Art Director. Under the guidance of my boss at the time, Pann, and the seniors in the studio, I had the opportunity to learn more about design and how to apply it properly to different client briefs. I was also able to hone my illustration skills through the projects I worked on, something I am truly grateful for.

Afterwards, I had a stint at an ad agency called Tribal Worldwide as an Art Director. After a while, I realized that I’ve always incorporated illustrations in my works – most of the times unintentionally, like it was pre-programmed in me. That made me realize how much I love to do illustration, and I made the plunge to go freelance.

I decided to freelance when I realized that I wanted to focus on illustration projects. As illustration is a specialized field, I could not pursue it to the fullest if I was still tied to an agency. I also enjoy the freedom freelancing gives me. I am the kind of person who becomes stagnant by staying in the same place for too long, so the spontaneity of freelancing drives me to work harder.

Q: What challenges did you face when you first started? How about the challenges you face now?

When I first started, some of my challenges revolve around finding a personal voice and creating an illustration style that is distinctly mine, while also creating works that can resonate with people. The illustration world is crowded with talented people; building a personal brand that is unique but marketable is difficult.

Currently, most of the challenges I face centers around growing as a creative individual, as well as how I can further expand my work. As with everything in life, there are always things that can be improved – but I guess that’s what makes working as a creative fun!

Q: What inspires the illustration behind Say What? Learn Japanese card game? What made you decide to embark on this project?

Lilian, the founder of Say What?, approached me to work on the packaging illustration. She gave me the creative freedom to do whatever I wanted for the project, which was not something that happened often. I decided to take on the project because of it. The cover illustration itself was inspired by the different things I enjoy during my trip to Japan.

Q: Do you have a favorite board game? What is your favorite board game or digital game art?

Unfortunately, I do not play much board game. I mostly play RPGs like Final Fantasy or Zelda.

Q: Singapore has often been criticized as a “boring” place for art. What is your opinion of the art scene in Singapore and where do you think we are heading?

I believe that any place can be boring if we do not make the effort to seek out the fun in it. Singapore, with its many restrictions in place, can be seen as boring because there are limits to where we can push the creative voice locally. However, I think that the local creatives have done a very good job in pushing the boundaries of what they can do, while also developing a distinct style of their own.

The world is also becoming more connected with more overseas commissions coming for local creatives and vice versa. I believe that there is no longer a need to label things as ‘local’ or ‘international’ as we are no longer confined to where we are based. Good art is good art wherever it comes from and wherever it goes.

Q: Which are some projects you are working at the moment?

I’m working on a book cover project, some illustrations for an app, as well as some artworks for a branding project. I’m also taking some courses to improve my 3D skills, as well as picking up other craft skills like punch needling.

Q: Is there any advice or lesson you would like to share with budding artists out there?

Never stop learning, never be complacent and always remember why you started.

Q: Where can we find out more about you and your artwork and where can we buy them?

You can view more of my works on or Instagram @elenwinata.


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