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Meet Sandra Hsu

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sandra Hsu.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Like most little kids I loved to draw. My earliest memory is of sitting for hours on my grandmother’s couch in Taiwan, copying the big-eyed girl with the pretty hat on the cover of my favorite pencil box. But I never thought I could make art a career. When my family emigrated to California in the seventies, we were comfortable but never had a lot of extra money for art classes. So I took as many as I could at school and went about my business of being an A student like every Chinese girl is expected to be.

I went to Cornell University to study fashion merchandising in the fledgling Textiles and Apparel Program (today it has evolved into the Fiber Science Program), which was about as close as I thought my family would allow me to get to a creative field. While there I took as many fashion design and illustration classes as I could, taking part in one of the first student fashion shows and holding a solo fashion illustration exhibit.

After graduation, I came home to LA and convinced my father to give me the seed money to start a clothing line while I worked for him part-time in the family manufacturing and trading business. I worked my butt off for three years running every aspect of the clothing line. I sketched and drafted patterns, wrote up cost sheets, hauled giant bolts of fabric to seamstresses in downtown LA, arranged photo shoots, orchestrated fashion shows, and ironed, packed and shipped all my orders.

After three years, I was mildly successful. I had gotten a small order into Nordstrom’s and was selling to boutiques along the West Coast and in Hawaii. But when my father fell ill from a rare auto-immune disease, there was no question I had to give up my clothing line in order to take over his business. I was barely breaking even, while his business was basically supporting the entire family, myself included. Sadly my father was too ill to ever return to the business and passed away four years later.

My sister joined me after the first year, and we continued working together in the business for twenty years. I honestly thought I was doing the right thing by suppressing my artistic urges and staying in the company for familial reasons. The Chinese sense of duty to family is almost impossible to overcome when you’ve been steeped in it all your life. I didn’t realize that by staying, I was making not only myself but also my sister unhappy. I finally left after twenty years at my sister’s encouragement, and I have to thank her for making me take that step out the door.

Luckily for me, my husband had launched a successful company by then, so I didn’t have to find a paying job. But I had also suppressed my creativity for so long I didn’t know what to do. I spent a couple of years doing the helicopter mom thing, probably driving my kids crazy. Little by little they didn’t need me as much, and I started branching out. I have this one friend who is always trying the latest thing, and she convinced me to sign up for a painting class with her, then a dance class.

Mimi has since moved on to other classes, but I have to say I’m so grateful to her for putting me on these creative paths! After three years of watercolor classes at the local art school, I began to feel stifled by all the still-life flowers we were required to paint. A little less than two years ago I decided to take a break from the class and paint what I wanted. I started with landscapes on vacation and started posting some of my work on Instagram.

Soon I rediscovered my love of rendering beautiful faces and pretty dresses and decided to return to fashion illustration. Friends and family paid attention, and I quickly started getting commissions. One of my first commissions was for a series of flowers from a New England garden. I decided to make a set of greeting cards from based on those pieces and sell them online, first on Etsy, then on my own website. I later added prints and other card sets from my original work.

Instagram has been so instrumental in helping me get to where I am. I’m not saying I’m a huge success because of Instagram, but I don’t think I would ever have even pursued an art career at this stage in my life without it. I’ve never liked promoting myself, especially in person, and I probably would never have shown my work to anyone. Instagram allowed me to put my work out without having to clear that first hurdle, and the reaction there gave me the confidence to turn my thoughts to selling my work.

I’ve met so many fantastic artists and art lovers through Instagram and had wonderful things happen through the connections. Some really big brand accounts and celebrities that I illustrated have reposted my work, and those posts really boosted my following. I’ve also connected with other illustrators and artists who have inspired me, provided advice, and even gotten me work. For instance, I got my first live illustration gig through an Instagram illustrator friend.

Finally, I can’t say enough about the encouragement and support I’ve gotten from my followers who are also at various points along their artistic journey. Hearing their comments, answering their questions, and seeing the growth in their artwork has been immensely gratifying.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I haven’t been doing this that long, so luckily no big setbacks yet, But I would say marketing is the most difficult thing for me. I need to promote myself and my products more, on social media and in real life, but I’d rather spend the time painting. I’m also not super tech savvy in regards to managing my website, so it takes forever when I need to change something or post something new. Any readers out there looking to help me out?

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
I accept all kinds of painting commissions in watercolor. Past commissions have included everything from portraits to florals to landscapes to pets, but my favorite is portraits.

I have a particular affinity for faces and people, especially women. My portraits stand out because I have strong drawing skills, know how to create a dynamic, interesting composition, and am unafraid to use strong color and contrast to enhance the overall effect.

I’m also a fashion illustrator and do live illustration for special events. For live illustration, I draw quick, stylized portraits of guests on site for them to take home as a special momento of the occasion.

In addition, I sell prints and cards of my original artwork, which includes all of the subjects above, on my website and on Etsy.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
My art business is still very young and still a work in progress. I’m taking it slowly and letting it develop organically, so I don’t yet have any regrets. If I could, I would’ve liked to have started much earlier and been further along in my art career.

Pricing:

  • • Custom watercolor commission rates start at $300 for an 11”X14” painting
  • • Live illustration rate: $300/hour
  • • Hand signed prints $20
  • • Greeting card sets $16

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Katy Nasitka

    February 20, 2019 at 00:47

    Sandra Hsu’s art is beautiful and provocative. Her paintings draw me in and inspire me to take a closer look. I like the range of her paintings from ultra-detailed portraits saturated in jewel colors to sketchy bare pieces that emphasize essence rather than specifics. I also appreciate Sandra’s personal focus and strength. It takes a lot of courage to step out of a familiar safe business and into a self-guided artistic business. Thanks for this story of Sandra’s life and artwork.

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