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Olympic, Paralympic swimmers to be portrayed in manga campaign

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By Rita Mingo

During the planning stages, it went by the code name Project Wasabi.

Now, with Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic swim teams getting ready to travel to Tokyo for the delayed 2020 Olympic Games, Swimming Canada is ready to reveal portraits of all team members with a nod to a unique Japanese art style.

Swimming Canada commissioned a pair of young Canadian artists to render the swimmers’ likenesses as manga drawings, in the style that originated in Japan.

Kathy Luc, from North York, and Oakville’s Isabella Li have been working on images of all 45 members of the Olympic and Paralympic teams in this fitting homage to the host country.

‘We’re always looking for ways to portray our athletes in a strong and unique light,” noted Nathan White, Swimming Canada’s senior communications manager. “Usually in an Olympic and Paralympic year, you want to do something that is a little above and beyond the ordinary.”

After several creative meetings starting more than two years ago, an idea cropped up in which the athletes could be depicted in an art style that would be a nod to Japanese culture. The intention was to capture fun, Japanese flavour and a bit of a superhero vibe.

Artists were contacted and demos were provided. In the end, Luc and Li were handed an amazing chance to show off their talent.

Li was recommended to Swimming Canada by a friend from Alexander Mackenzie High School.

“I was super excited because I’ve never really done such a big illustration project,” noted the 18-year-old Li, who is in the Sheridan College animation program. “It’s always been little things on my own and trying to get into post-secondary. So I was excited for this opportunity and I couldn’t believe it was real.”

Luc, who is in computer science but is a fixture at conventions like Comic Con and Anime North, selling her artwork, was contacted through Instagram.

“I really never thought that I would do something to this scale,” began Luc, 22, “I didn’t expect to get this far so in that sense it’s super exciting. It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s such a large scale, but at the same time it’s a good kind of nervous, if that makes sense.”

The artists have an Excel spreadsheet with the athletes’ names and information and then it’s up to them to do research on each, see what jumps out and can be used in the individual drawings. Each swimmer also has a symbol, be it a dragon or a musical note or their dog, which the artist will incorporate into the piece.

“I get four or five photos as a reference and their Instagram accounts so I can get more perspective of their faces,” Li explained. “I first do the research portion where I get to know the athlete and then I research their swimming style. Personally, I don’t know how to swim so doing research – and I’m learning how to swim myself – so I can portray them in the painting. I watch a lot of videos and tutorials and figure out which hand is above water and what is the other hand doing … that kind of stuff.

“Afterward, I start a sketch and send them the rough version so they can give me some feedback. Then I do my second version, third version and communicate with their team and send them to the athletes for more feedback.”

The finished product is a digital painting.

“My style is half Japanese and half western, not all completely Japanese manga style,” noted Li. “I’m in the animation program so it’s kind of surprising for me to get such a big illustration project. I’m just super excited because the Olympics isn’t a small thing.”

“I think my normal art work is like a mix of realism and anime, but I do more anime drawings for simple things,” Luc said. “My normal posters and illustrations, I go with realism/anime style so I guess I’m more flexible in that sense.

“I actually really like that it’s the Paralympic swimmers as well. I’m really passionate about inclusivity and inclusive design.”

These 45 works of art will be a focal point of Swimming Canada’s “Meet the Team” social media campaign heading into the Games.

“In the last few months, it’s really come together,” added White. “Now with the pandemic, it could become even more important. We haven’t had many opportunities to have our athletes do photo shoots or things we normally do. So this will be a real signature piece for us this year.”