Colin Zhang, of San Francisco via China, accepts an award for Illustrators of the Future, a science fiction art contest.
San Francisco artist Colin Zhang illustrated this cover for Elizabeth Ticknor’s short story, “The Phantom Carnival.”
News Producer
Colin Zhang, of San Francisco via China, accepts an award for Illustrators of the Future, a science fiction art contest.
San Francisco artist Colin Zhang’s most powerful tool is not a pencil or a tablet, but his unwavering wonder at how life can unfold before our eyes.
As a child, Zhang loved science fiction movies so much so that he re-created scenes and characters from the genre in his notebooks. This pastime eventually became an obsession and then a career — and his visual machinations won the 2021 Illustrators of the Future science fiction art contest.
Born in Chengdu, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, Zhang chose to pursue art at age 10. “I remember the first day, my teacher told me, ‘Don’t limit your imagination or your creativity.’ That was the start of everything,” said Zhang.
The science fiction genre, with its intersection of life and technology, gave Zhang the liberty to express himself because, he says, “People have no idea where we’re going. … That’s the most exciting part. Just looking forward to the future, it’s the best thing.”
Zhang graduated from Sichuan Normal University with a bachelor of fine arts in 2017 and enrolled in graduate school at Academy of Art University in San Francisco shortly thereafter at the recommendation of several professors. He already had a personal interest in the university as several alumni went on to work for the “Star Wars” franchise.
While completing his master’s degree in visual development, Zhang held jobs as a video game developer, an animator and a graphic designer for companies such as iQIYI, a Chinese online video platform, and Zing Games, a game development company. Coursework allowed Zhang to practice illustrating characters and creature designs.
After graduating, Zhang says he decided to stay in San Francisco because The City had become his muse. He has grown accustomed to sourcing inspiration from sculptures, graffiti and anything else that catches his eye. Additionally, Zhang says, “In China, artists can be limited. Sometimes they cannot do whatever they want.”
Zhang’s friends encouraged him to enter the Illustrators of the Future art contest, resulting in the artist’s biggest break yet.
The contest, which names three winners every quarter, is open to artists who have not previously published more than three black-and-white story illustrations or more than one process-color painting in magazines or books distributed nationally. 
Zhang submitted three pieces of original, unpublished artwork to a group of judges. The panel consisted of, among other creatives, “Dungeons & Dragons” book cover illustrator Larry Elmore and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” lead storyboard artist Rob Prior.
After 12 winning illustrators were named, they were paired with a winning story from the Writers of the Future contest for the next part of the competition. Each illustrator was given a month to complete a finished illustration for a written work. Zhang was paired with Writers of the Future contestant Elizabeth Ticknor, who submitted “The Phantom Carnival” for her entry.
San Francisco artist Colin Zhang illustrated this cover for Elizabeth Ticknor’s short story, “The Phantom Carnival.”
Both Zhang’s illustration and Ticknor’s story will be published in the anthology “L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 38,” which is set to be released on June 28. Zhang also earned a weeklong professional artist workshop, a cash prize and a trip to Hollywood to recognize his achievements.
He described the contest and the award ceremony as “a paradise for the illustrators and the writers. They need a place to share their experiences, share their art and get instructions from the more professional people.”
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jsalazar@sfexaminer.com
@jamesbewriting
News Producer
James Salazar is a news producer for The Examiner.
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