Sim Sim’s notebooks are filled with portraits, his main preoccupation. He borrows recognizable subjects, like Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit” or Zendaya in “Malcolm & Marie,” from his favorite scenes on screen. “A movie is a cool thing to study, but it’s not very personal because I didn’t shoot it,” he says. “When I work on a piece of art from the beginning – from the models to the photography to the background – it’s in my control, so it’s my story.”
His favorite subjects are his close friends; Jeanne standing on an escalator, or a candid shot of Zoe in a hoodie on the couch texting on her phone. Drawing his Asian friends is particularly meaningful to Sim Sim. “I like to empower this culture by drawing people who look like me, who share some culture with me.”
Taking Polaroids gives Sim Sim the same nostalgic feeling as drawing in notebooks, and experimenting with film photography has been a way to improve his drawing. “Every aspect of photography teaches you how to make a better image,” he says. It taught him how to frame, to work with people, to use background details to add to the story, and to use light to create a mood.
The light he most enjoys capturing in charcoal is artificial light; the headlamps of a bus on a rainy day, the glow of a billboard at night, the fluorescent lights of the subway underground. He enjoys that this places his work in contemporary times, distanced from the old masters in the museum artworks he sketches for practice. “Now we live in a more digital world, a more electronic world with so much artificial light. It’s part of our life. I think it creates so many interesting effects.”
While Sim Sim enjoys aspects of photography in his work – the grainy texture of analog film, the blurred details of Polaroids – he doesn’t want his drawings to look like photographs. “You have to be able to tell it’s a drawing,” he says. For him, drawing people is committing to seeing them. “Representing people you love like this is different to capturing them with a camera,” he explains. “When you draw them, you pay attention, and you’re like, ‘Wow. This nose bridge and this little bump, it makes her.’ It’s like a puzzle; you have all these shapes that you put together, and boom, it makes a person.”
While most of his drawings are tucked away safely in his many notebooks, he also loves being able to give his friends their portraits. He considers drawing them to be his love language. “I’m not a chatty person. I don’t text a lot. I don’t talk a lot. I don’t share my news. It’s my way to say I love them, and that I’m not forgetting them. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, don’t worry, I’m still there and I still love you’.”