"Challenging moments made me who I am," says Henn Kim

image of Henn Kim in black and white on a black background
(Image credit: Core.A Creative)

Henn Kim is a South Korean artist known for her black-and-white illustrations that blend real and fantasy worlds. Her surrealist art touches on themes of depression, love, family and music and her new memoir I Need Art: Reality Isn't Enough is a striking and intimate look at her life from 17 to 33, through text, imagery and poetry. 

In her early career, Kim drew worked as a graphic designer, and later transitioned into illustration. She shot into the spotlight with her cover illustration for Sally Rooney's Normal People and has worked for the likes of UNICEF, Nike, the BBC and TED. I Need Art: Reality Isn't Enough is her second book, the first being Starry Night, Blurry Dreams.

I spoke to her recently to find out more about her life and work.

Images of front cover of I need Art by Henn Kim

(Image credit: Bloomsbury Publishing)

How did you get into book illustration?

The journey to book illustration began when individuals discovered my work on Instagram and reached out to me – after they recognised that my art precisely conveyed what they were seeking. 

How did you switch from graphic design to illustration?

Transitioning from graphic design to illustration felt seamless. The closure of my previous company left me with a desire to explore a different creative path. I wanted to create my own art and I had a long-standing passion for creating my unique artwork since I was young, so making the switch felt like a natural progression. 

How did you develop your style?

My style remains the same as when I used to draw and take notes with just a black pen during my days as a student. Back then, I used to draw my emotions, and I still do the same today. 

Image of person in a gas mask made of flowers, in black and white

(Image credit: Unicef x Henn Kim)

What's been your career highlight so far?

While it's challenging to pinpoint a single highlight in my career, every project and collaboration has been enjoyable and memorable for me. I felt particularly proud when working on projects related to UNICEF and environmental pollution.

How do you approach a new brief

Starting a new project is something I always find exciting, as every new project is a fresh canvas for me with the foundation of my work being the combination of black and white.

(Image credit: Bloomsbury Publishing)

What's your relationship like with social media?

Social media serves as a consistent platform for sharing my art, though I don't personally enjoy using it.

Tell me about your new book

My new book is a deeply meaningful exploration of the experiences and emotions I've encountered at different stages in my life. Much like my honest approach when it comes to drawing, the book naturally emerged as a reflection of my personal journey.

(Image credit: Bloomsbury Publishing)

The book explores what nearly broke you, can you tell me more about that?

For a more in-depth understanding of my experiences, you'll have to read the book. In short, I had gone through a period of not speaking that lasted two years and experienced the loss of my mother during a crucial moment in my life. All of these challenging moments were part of the process that made me who I am.

(Image credit: Bloomsbury Publishing)

Bandaids appear as a motif throughout your book, why is that?

Bandaids (plasters) are intuitive objects with a purpose to protect and heal wounds. I appreciate them for their various forms and soft textures, which is why I actively incorporate them in my artwork.

Image of Normal people book cover

(Image credit: Faber & Faber)

How did you come up with the cover artwork for Normal People?

Inspiration for the cover artwork for Normal People stemmed from a line in director Wong Kar-Wai's film, In the Mood for Love, which questions whether love has an expiration date. In this context, the love depicted in Normal People seemed to have an expiration date even though they dreamed of eternity. 

Why is art so important to you?

Art represents the most authentic medium through which I can genuinely connect with others and it's the space that brings me peace. 

Why do you choose to use only black and white?

From an early age, I had the habit of expressing my thoughts in short diaries using just a black pen, which has influenced my choice to maintain this monochromatic style. 

What advice would you give your younger self?

I'd offer my younger self no specific advice, as I believe that every experience was necessary for my personal and artistic growth. I believe I've had to go through all that I did, including the moments of breakdown, to become who I am today.

I Need Art: Reality Isn’t Enough: An illustrated memoir by Henn Kim is out now (Bloomsbury Publishing, Hardback, £16.99)

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Rosie Hilder

Rosie Hilder is Creative Bloq's Deputy Editor. After beginning her career in journalism in Argentina – where she worked as Deputy Editor of Time Out Buenos Aires – she moved back to the UK and joined Future Plc in 2016. Since then, she's worked as Operations Editor on magazines including Computer Arts, 3D World and Paint & Draw and Mac|Life. In 2018, she joined Creative Bloq, where she now assists with the daily management of the site, including growing the site's reach, getting involved in events, such as judging the Brand Impact Awards, and helping make sure our content serves the reader as best it can.