For some people, their work speaks for itself. For artist James Jean, his work can convey anything from a scream to a whisper. When you look at his detailed, surreal artwork, you are able to take an intimate peek into his thoughts and emotions. It’s this kind of direct honesty from mind to canvas that has made his work so remarkable.
“I remember drawing a plane once and drawing the wing on the other side in perspective,” says Vietnamese-American Jean, who has been creating art since he was in the first grade. His teacher’s first reaction was amazement.
“That kind of validated me as an artist, and from then on I knew I wanted to be an artist. ”
Jean has made the successful shift and turned this talent into a successful career. He has built up an impressive portfolio of both fine art and commercial work, from the cover art for DC Comics, to art for publications like Time Magazine, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and ESPN, to celebrity portraits for Philip Lim and a mural and clothing collaboration for Prada.
Whether you think he gets any sleep at night or not, Jean is well-appreciated for his creative efforts. His hard work has led to numerous awards, including seven Eisners, three Harveys, a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators of New York, and a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles.
His published work includes “Process Recess, Process Recess 2: Portfolio,” “Xoxo: Hugs and Kisses,” “Fables: Covers,” “Process Recess 3: The Hallowed Seam,” “Kindling: 12 Removable Prints,” “Rift,” and most recently, “Rebus.”
Jean is set to launch his own jewelry line under his brand OVM this year.
On his recent trip to Manila, he sat down with 2bU to talk about his love for detail and his creative process, and gives us a peek into his current sketchbook.
How would you describe your evolution from when you first started to now?
I keep changing because I just lose interest in things quickly. I hate repeating myself, so I just bounce from different approaches to make new things, from being very impressionistic and loose, to being tight and obsessive.
Are you the type to sketch your art first then plot it on a bigger canvas later on?
With the paintings, I’m trying to be more spontaneous, no planning. It’s the same thing with these drawings, there’s no sketch or anything. I just go straight into it, so this starts out then kind of grows organically.
We noticed you like a lot of detail in your work…
I like a painting that can work up close and also work when you’re far away. When you’re painting on a large scale, you do have to step back many times, and you’re also going to be close to it. I like to hide moments of color and play with texture. With these drawings, I guess I’m a little obsessive. Maybe I’m scared to just do something minimal, but I think it’s amazing that you can take a blank page, and by adding some marks you can create something that feels like an expression of your inner world. It’s magic. (Laughs).
What fascinates you when you’re painting a subject?
I like the intersections of things, of things put together, and the contours. I like folds of clothing and how hands can be as expressive as the face. I like the little details, the creases. I think that’s what excites me in my drawings, and maybe that’s why there’s so much detail in them.
How many sketchbooks do you go through in a month?
In a month? I wish I went through more. I have a lot of sketchbooks and they all contain different periods in my exploration. I have sketchbooks that are more painterly like that.
Do you ever feel like sometimes you’re losing the reason why you’re doing art in the first place?
I think at this point in my career, I have this urge to simplify my life and to just concentrate on my painting, because after a while a lot of opportunities are offered to you. You know you have the ability to do much more than before. I think I’ve learned the art of saying no. I’m still learning to say no, it’s not that easy, but I tend to get pulled in a lot of different directions. I think in the next couple of years, I want to try and turn back to painting. I’m probably working a lot more than I should. I’m always on-the-go.
How do you keep yourself inspired?
I think it’s difficult now for me to concentrate and sit and read like I used to, like when I was a teenager, or when I was in college, especially with the iPad now and everything… But to keep myself inspired I just try and do a variety of things with my work, so if I’m painting and I get stuck, I just stop and start doing something completely different. Or then, I’m developing this line of jewelry that’s a completely different discipline and medium. The Internet is really transformed; it’s a great way to get inspired, but also a railway to get distracted.
When you’re moving from sketching to painting, to making jewelry, to designing clothes, to photography, do you feel like there are any differences in your style?
Hopefully it all feels like part of a coherent universe, so the jewelry looks like it’s plucked from my sketchbooks or my paintings, or the same ideas are expressed that way. My intent is that it all feels like it belongs together.