What does a Google marketing, engineering and senior strategist have to do with beautiful art about nature and food? Everything! Meet our May Teafluencer, Natalie Woo, a tea enthusiast with a fascinating background, immense talent and love of nature and food. She approaches life with the opinion that there is beauty all around us and that possibilities are everywhere. And from the sounds of it, she spends a good part of her days with a cup of tea in her hand!
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational/professional background, where you live, family, etc.
Natalie: I was born and raised in the Bay Area, California, otherwise known as the heart of Silicon Valley. I’m an Asian American originally from Hong Kong and have a beautiful blended family with my husband from Paris and two sons who are 5 and 19. I graduated from San Francisco State University with a marketing degree and ultimately started working at Google and as a freelance illustrator on the side.
Now I live in Mountain View, California, and have worked at Google for over 15 years across various roles in marketing, engineering and learning and development as a senior strategist. I’ve worked at the intersection of learning and development, from program management to learning design. I’ve been lucky to infuse my creativity into my day job while also pushing my skills as an illustrator.
Harney: When did you first start to draw and paint? Did you have someone in your life who influenced you?
Natalie: I drew when I was in second grade, loved to draw books and was fascinated with making restaurant menus. I remember getting an award in fourth grade for illustrating this book about a family of mice in color pastels. I still remember the gold foiled star placed on my book’s cover by the teacher and thought for the first time, ‘wow, I feel proud.’
My grandmother was incredibly creative. She would always knit extraordinary scarves, sweaters and blankets for the family and teach me ribbon crafts (think making fish, pineapples and Chinese lanterns) with these beautiful golden rimmed ribbons only found in Hong Kong at the time. I remember going to her house after school as a child with my cousin and constantly drawing, doing some craft and playing in her garden full of grass-filled lawns, freesia, roses and plums.
Harney: While we know you have many interests, two seem to stand out: flowers and food! Let’s start with flowers – the pictures from your garden are stunning. When did you start gardening?
Natalie: It’s an ongoing passion that inspires my work as an artist, centered around celebrating heritage, moments and memories. I realized that my love of flowers and food is truly a sensory experience that is a big part of being human in my mind. Being in the age of technology (and working at a tech company), I’m often in front of the computer screen, whether in meetings, creating documentation or presentations. When I’m growing something from seed, tending to it slowly and seeing it bloom naturally, there is so much inherent satisfaction from the process and being in the moment. With flowers, it’s just remarkable how a tiny seed, bulb or tuber can turn into something so beautiful - in color, scent and overall character. It makes me want to share them with everyone :)
Harney: It’s obvious that your love of nature inspires your artwork. Do you have any favorite flowers or other plants to paint? If so, why?
Natalie: Where do I start! I think the recent double petal tulips are one of my favorites, there are so many layered color and texture combinations, and they are among the first to grow in the spring. I also love sweet peas, they are so fragrant, and something about the petals reminds me of water because they are so fluid and delicate.
Harney: Let’s move on to food. We’re guessing that you love to cook and bake, yes? Did that come from anyone in your family or is it just a natural love of food coming out?
Natalie: There is always excellent food in a Chinese household, and we love to eat! Growing up, I was exposed to delicious, nourishing soups made from various textures of nuts, meats, grains, vegetables, savory stir fry, braised dishes to different desserts. Now that I’m married to a Frenchman, my love for food is only amplified. We cherish moments where we can cook something with simple, natural and flavorful ingredients. My husband is a master griller, while I love to bake things like tarts. We also love sharing a lovely beverage, be it a cocktail, smoothie, digestif to wine, to mark the moment.
Harney: Are some foods better to paint than others? Or is all food fodder for art?
Natalie: I love to paint food and deconstruct what makes them delicious. I think painting all foods is open to interpretation. I’ve only touched the surface of what foods to paint and would love to explore other food cultures from South America to Africa.
Harney: You have a tutorial video on YouTube (above) showing how to draw a recipe, one that was from your husband’s childhood. It’s quite impressive to watch you work, and the result was mouthwatering! Do you feel that anyone can do what you do? How would you encourage someone who feels they have no artistic skills to try to paint?
Natalie: Yes, I think anyone can paint. It’s such a powerful experience to know that it’s just water, paper and some pigment, yet you can learn so much and make it your own. It’s a mindset, practice and ability to allow your instincts to move through you to create something extraordinary and not let your negative thoughts prevent you from exploring a new technique.
I would say start small. I have a journal called ‘One Color a Day,’ a journal to paint a circle dot every day every week with any color to explore what painting can be like and reflect. It’s liberating because it takes the intimidation from painting something marvelous and staring at a blank page. It’s a simple practice of observation and allowing for serendipity by putting your brush in water, tapping it in pigment and pressing it against the paper at various pressures. That’s it. And you can mix other colors, try different pressures or just use one color. A simple exercise like that can teach you so much, in my opinion, and can strengthen your practice through experimentation and reflection.
Harney: Tell us about what you call “intuitive painting,” the intimidation of the blank piece of paper and how to move past it.
Natalie: It’s permission to forget about the result but instead enjoy the experience of discovering what will come - step by step. It’s trusting in your creativity to guide you and appreciate that beauty. I often start with a simple sketch to get rough shapes like ovals to create lemons and let it evolve by shading, adding lines or circles to add texture. Layering creates depth, in my opinion.
I didn’t listen to my intuition at times and had moments where I would stare at a blank sheet of paper and get frustrated with myself for not being able to just paint something right away. Then I learned the value of being playful: being relaxed, showing self-compassion and cultivating your unique sense of imagination while not overthinking or creating something perfect. For me, it’s also a mindful and meditative practice to appreciate the present moment.
Harney: In addition to offering some tutorial videos on your website, you also state that you “help individuals, startups and large companies who care about heritage create vibrant, visual illustration and learning experiences through artwork, coaching and consulting.” Tell us more about that side of your work, please.
Natalie: This is something I dream of doing more with my experience at Google paired with my artistic skillset. I love working with people and companies who care about preserving and creating a legacy, who care about building the next generation, and those who aren’t afraid to explore creative ways to solve a problem with visual beauty in mind. I’ve worked with spas and mentored under-represented populations in the Black+ communities to paint a mural at Google.
One of my most incredible moments of joy was collaborating with my father, director, and an entrepreneur in Hong Kong to film a Wing Chun documentary in China (a form of martial arts popularized by Bruce Lee). We shared a tradition of practicing and admiring this martial art from a renowned grandmaster who passed the craft from generation to generation. I was able to share the parallels of my painting practice to the approach of practicing Wing Chun, which is focused on the centerline concept, being relaxed and allowing your intuition to guide your actions with ease.
Harney: You’ve worked with many internationally known companies like Google, Ritz Carlton, Moët & Chandon (hope you got bubbly perks!), YouTube and more. Can you give us some examples of the work you’ve done for them?
Natalie: I remember always traveling to Zurich, Switzerland, for work. I was so thankful for my colleagues’ hospitality that I partnered with the Google Zurich office to illustrate a map of all the places people brought me to as a thank-you gift for the experience. The illustrated map became an installation in the lobby of the building for hundreds to admire and learn more about Zurich. I truly cherish those times, especially since I’m not traveling much during the pandemic.
I also created a children’s book with a friend when I had my son. It was about welcoming a new baby into a room full of diverse stuffies. I collaborated with Pinterest to distribute the book to all the mother’s rooms at their headquarters. It was heartwarming to be able to share this story with other mothers. Also, my husband and I enjoy drinking champagne in our household to celebrate various occasions (our favorite is French 75). Moët Chandon had a social media campaign called Moët Moments which highlighted moments like this, and one of my champagne illustrations was selected.
Harney: You also do custom illustrations, one-of-a-kind pieces tailored for a customer. How does that work? What kind of inspo can people provide you that make for a wonderful keepsake?
Natalie: This is one of my greatest joys because I am asked to capture something so precious for someone, whether it’s custom pieces for a new baby’s room to a formidable memory in someone’s past like warm memories of grandparents. I usually ask people to provide five things that bring joy to their memory and share a story to bring those concepts to life. From there, I let my creativity guide me, and my collaborators give me complete trust and autonomy to paint something that captures the essence of that happiness. It is a humbling experience and very touching because it’s something that someone truly cherishes.
Harney: What are you working on currently? Any big plans for 2022?
Natalie: I’m working on a commission that pushes me out of my comfort zone yet is heartfelt. A collaborator wants me to paint a piece that captures the struggles and triumphs of the 1960s and Civil Rights era with memories from his childhood. He is African American and shared stories of his family, from his grandmother to everyday experiences and items such as watermelon to cotton.
This will be the first year since the pandemic that my family will travel back to the French countryside to be with family. There, I’ll be able to immerse myself in more cultural wonders like food, environment and traditions (we usually go every year for a month). I’m also honing my skills as an artist by taking various workshops from flower farming to illustration. I hope this continues to inform my work from a multi-sensorial perspective and keeps my eyes open to learning.
Harney: We hope you’re a tea fan! If so, what kind of teas do you enjoy? Any favorite food pairings with tea?
Natalie: I love tea! Tea is such a big part of Chinese culture. I think about the tradition we have gathering as a family, eating Dim Sum (small Chinese dishes usually eaten at brunch) and pairing savory small dishes of dumplings with fragrant jasmine tea or chrysanthemum tea to balance the meal. I drink tea as a ritual and start my day with matcha topped with oat milk and a dash of turmeric. Then, I continue the day between roasted Hojicha and peppermint tea to help digestion. My husband and I love to share a Verveine tisane at the end of the day together to wind down - it reminds us of summer in the French countryside.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea or anything on your list you’ve been wanting to try?
Natalie: There are so many! I tend to be a traditionalist and love the Harney & Sons Egyptian Chamomile and Earl Grey teas. I remember trying them at a hotel once, and it was so delicious and instantly relaxing. I want to be more adventurous and try the White Peach Matcha teas to variety in your Wellness Collection like Butterfly Pea Flower, Lemongrass and Roasted Buckwheat Matcha teas.
Don’t you just feel more relaxed and peaceful (and hungry!) learning about and seeing some of Natalie’s work? We encourage you to explore more on her website and Instagram page. We loved introducing you to Natalie and thank her for sharing her time and talent with us. All photography was provided by Natalie.