For this year’s George Town Festival, illustrator Vanessa Ho was commissioned to create a book featuring 80 of George Town’s finest culinary and cultural establishments. In our exclusive interview with the talented artist, Vanessa tells us about her favourite Penang foods and buildings, her favourite illustrators, and her hopes for the future.

Q: Hi Vanessa! Can you please tell us about yourself?

A: I was born in Kedah. I have a diploma in Advertising & Graphic Design, and a Bachelor of Arts degree. I live in Jitra, also in Kedah. I work as an Illustrator now.  Before that, I was a producer and office manager in a post-production company in Guangzhou, China.

Q: What’s your favourite Penang food?

A: Penang curry mee. I can eat it seven days in a row. First of all, I love curry, and curry mee has almost all the ingredients that I love in it. The rich texture of the soup, the combination of curry with coconut milk, and I can add on almost any ingredient that I like, such as meat, seafood, vegetables, tofu, and hard boiled eggs. It’s perfect. I also like to eat it with a mix of mee (yellow noodles) & bee hun (rice vermicelli), or sometimes, I will choose to eat dry curry mee. It tastes equally as good.

Q: What’s your favourite piece of Penang architecture?

A:  Heritage shop houses. Its charm comes from its history, the architectural form, the materials, the building style, and the stories of people who lived there.  I like the house that has air wells – why don’t people incorporate air wells into their homes anymore? Air wells are so smart because you get to enjoy the natural light source and keep the airflow without compromising your privacy. And you can grow a tree in the house, how wonderful! This is a luxury that most of us do not have anymore. We planted a tree in front of our house. I always wish that I could plant trees IN the house.

Q: Who inspires you? What inspires your art?

A: My parents, the novel Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, my Japanese teacher, and some of my friends. They have inspired me at different stages of my life.  Oh, and also YouTubers and Instagram artists.

One of the prime reasons I started illustrating and keeping art journals is because of the location where I live now. It has almost nothing that I like about it except that my family is here. I left home fifteen years ago. I lived in Taiwan for eight years and my last job overseas was at the satellite TV station in Macau, and I worked in Macau and the Hong Kong office for two years. After that I got transferred to the China’s office.

Four years ago, I came home simply because I wanted to be with my family. Since then, my life was not the same, I don’t get to do things that I enjoy doing. We don’t have a proper museum, library, and art gallery. No theatre, no concerts, no art exhibition…not even a café that serves real coffee. It’s been alright for the first and second year. I travel to other places and it was still new to me. It started to get a little difficult in the third year because I had to face the reality that I need to live a normal life. I got bills to pay and I feel really empty back home surrounded by family. I wanted an exit. I started to feel reverse culture shock.

However, instead of just looking at the bad side and complain about it, I decided to search for things that I truly like about my homeland, and that’s when I started my food art journal. It might sound a little corny, but I really do find peace and satisfaction when I illustrate, especially food illustrations. I do not want to pretend or lie about my feelings that I love everything about home or make abstract art since many consider it to be the highest art form in this industry. I might do it one day if I am inspired. Food might not be the ideal subject for art but it is definitely the one thing that I am truly proud about and appreciate and it’s a genuine affection.

Q: Can you please describe your artistic and creative process

A: It depends. For my travel journal, I take photos and collect little things like tickets, boarding passes, price tags, brochures, little maps, and stamps, or anything that I can insert in my journal. And I make my art journal after trips. It’s more like an art dairy. So the process is not restricted, I just do it how I want it.

For the illustrations that I make for newspaper or clients, they give me the article or requirement and I will highlight the sentences that I want to visualise. I just draw it with my imagination, and if there are things that I can’t imagine or that I do not understand, I will search it online, and look for the suitable images. And the illustrations that I create for newspapers can be little subjective and it’s fun to draw with my imagination.

Q: If you could recommend one artist, who would it be?

A:  Lately, I like Jon Klassen. He is a Canadian writer and illustrator of children’s books and an animator. I simply love his picture book, “I Want My Hat Back”, and some of his other works too. I was first drawn to his illustration style; I love that he uses both watercolour and digital art. After I read the book, I lovde the story even more. It’s cute, witty; simple yet meaningful. I watched his interview videos on YouTube. I find him very charming and genuine too. I really like the way he deals with children, and how he answered little kids’ questions about his art and the stories.

If I am allowed to recommend another artist, that would be Nara Yoshimoto. His drawing subject is “little girl”. I sometimes see the little girl in his drawing as me, or maybe I just wish to be the little girl. His artistic style reminds me a little of Margaret D. H Keane.

Q: Where do you see your art practice taking you in the next three years?

A: I will keep drawing but I honestly do not know what’s going to happen in the next three years. Sometimes, I can be a little pessimistic and sceptical. I have this thought that tomorrow might be the last day as a human being.

Q: Where can we find your work?

A: You can see my illustrations on Instagram at @vanessa_watercolor.

Q: If you had all the money in the world, how would you spend it?

A: Buy land and plant a lot of trees. I believe that the world we live in do not belong to us; we are borrowing it from the future. It’s obvious that we are overconsuming it. It’s totally torn apart. In the town that I am living in, a lot of trees are being cut down. It’s out of control. And some day, I want to adopt children who have lost their parents. Actually, this is something that my husband and I are planning to do. It won’t need all the money in the world to do it. And then I will continue to travel and draw.

You can purchase Vanessa’s GT80 online at or at our store at 86, Lebuh Armenian.