Pursuing the arts as a hobby but delving into the world of science and technology academically? Jeff Lai talks about the joys and necessity of balancing both.

“I love sketching portraits of strangers in public. But I was actually not interested in drawing or the arts in the beginning. In primary school, my parents sent me for art lessons, and I was the last person who wanted to be there. I would have rather spent time at home.

But things changed in secondary school. Art class was compulsory, and for our final assignment, we had to draw ourselves or anyone we wanted to. I chose G-Dragon. He was my favourite K-pop artist, so I was very inspired and motivated to draw him nicely.

I locked myself in my room and spent about twenty hours drawing him on paper. I just kept drawing and erasing, over and over again. I wasn’t expecting any reactions, but when I showed the finished drawing to my friends and family, I got a lot of praise and compliments.

That gave me the confidence to continue drawing more portraits. I’ve been sketching for the past seven to ten years now. Lately, I’ve been taking on work as a freelance artist. Clients will send me reference photos and commission me to sketch for them.

I decided to sketch strangers as a hobby because I wanted to see their reaction when I gave the drawing to them. With paid work, the client already knows what to expect, and I more or less know how they might react. There’s no element of surprise. But with strangers?

In my personal experience, no two people are the same. Some react very positively and say thank you – that definitely makes my day. Some give off cold vibes, while some don’t even show any emotions. But not knowing what to expect is exactly why I continue to do this! 

One of my most memorable experiences was flying with Japan Airlines. I was on the plane to the US and I drew an air stewardess on duty. I presented the sketch to her, but I didn’t expect to be given a drawing in return. She drew me in anime style. It was very cute.

When I was in Washington DC, I saw a lady dressed very nicely at a museum. She was about to leave, but I quickly stopped her because I needed more time to finish her sketch. She stayed, and when I gave her the sketch, she gave me a hug. It was very heartwarming.

No, I don’t do art full-time. I really enjoy it, but my parents come from an old generation of people who don’t believe that the arts will pay you well. I just stuck to their advice and went down the science route. I actually graduated from polytechnic with a Diploma in Optometry.

Now, I’m studying Design and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The highlight of my curriculum is that I get to do internships at different companies and work on real projects that will actually benefit them through the use of AI.

You’re right, it’s very interesting that the things I choose to pursue are on two extreme ends. With Artificial Intelligence, it’s about coming up with something that improves productivity and efficiency. You use machinery and technology to do something quicker and easier.

But with sketching, there is a huge human component to it. A human being is putting in the work, and human interaction is involved. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with a machine. It’s just more meaningful knowing a person created something. There’s just more value to it.

Some people think having too many options or doing too many things is not good for you. But I believe that pursuing two or more things is good for me – even if they are worlds apart – because you get to appreciate the different values they bring to the world and to your life.

Furthermore, I’m at that age and stage in my life where I can try different things and make mistakes. As long as you’re able to justify why you do the things you do – and justify to yourself, most importantly – I think that’s all that matters.” – Jeff Lai

Interview by: Arman Shah