Above: From the 'Kindling' collection: 'Vanity', Oil and Pastel on Rives BFK, 29 x 41", 2008. Copyright James Jean 2009.
At only 29 it's staggering to consider the impact James Jean has had on the illustration and comics world in such a short time. He's won six consecutive Eisner Awards for Best Cover Artist since the start of his career in 2004, a feat unmatched by any other artist.
In the wake of winning many other accolades, he has moved on from comics and advertising to concentrate on more personal work, creating his first solo exhibition 'Kindling'. The body of work has since been exhibited in New York, Auckland and Melbourne, and collected in a 12 print portfolio from Chronicle Books.
I met James on his recent visit to Auckland, unfortunately it turned out to be impossible for us to find a spare moment to conduct an interview with him during his short visit. However he very graciously suggested an email interview when he returned to the US. So he's James Jean on the creation of 'Kindling'.
AK: To start off, how was your New Zealand visit? I know the exhibition went extremely well (standing room only). You had previously exhibited 'Kindling' in New York; how did you find the reaction to the show here?
JJ: New Zealand was great, though I wish I had more time there -- the food especially was terrific. I hadn't planned on exhibiting anything until Semi-Permanent suggested that I show some prints along with the signing. I really had no expectations . . . I think I saw more people there than anywhere else in Auckland.
AK: I understand 'Kindling' is you first solo exhibition. When you started producing this series were there any particular themes or imagery you were interested in exploring?
JJ: I didn't go into the body of work with a set theme. The work evolved naturally. But in retrospect, I can say that there is a connecting thread of memory and games. The fantasy element in the work is a bit nostalgic, while the characters interact and play out their desires through series of games.
AK: There's a paragraph on the back of the folio that kind of ties the narratives of the paintings together as a unified fable. Did you plan for the paintings to have an over-aching narrative relationship to each other, or is it more of a loose association?
JJ: It's definitely more of a loose association. It's interesting to try to connect the pieces together after they are done, to see the subconscious themes running through the work. The pleasure is in the surprise associations that happen when everything is finished.
AK: I associated the title 'Kindling' with the german word for children, 'Kinder'. Many of the painting in the series feature children, at play and in fantastical fairy-tale settings. I was curious if this series was about exploring certain aspects of childhood?
JJ: It's more about memories and the origin of our desires. I was interested in seeing how these characters would play and interact in that world that could evoke some feelings of loss and longing. For this particular body of work, children seemed to be a natural way to shepherd the viewer into this world.
Above: From the 'Kindling' collection: 'Toymaker', Oil on Rives BFK, 41 x 90", 2008. Copyright James Jean 2009.
AK: Along these lines, I felt there was also a very strong under current of folk-lore and fables mixed in with the childhood themes. Not necessarily references to specific fables, but suggesting some of the dark duality present in those early versions of well known fables. For example 'Toymaker' has a playful touch to it, but could also be quite sinister. 'The Willow 4 and 5' paintings particularly, have a very Brothers Grimm/cautionary tale feel to them. Are early fables and folk-lore stories a particular interest of yours, or is it more the imagery they suggest that you find interesting?
JJ: Certainly, I draw inspiration from fables and folklore. I'm interested in how these stories reveal the deepest elements of human nature. The best stories seem to be the darkest and most tragic. But since we can transform and communicate that darkness into art, the beauty of the resulting work completes this dichotomy of experience.
AK: To move to the technical side of the painting: what is your process of creating a painting from initial idea to finished piece (and how long does the painting stage take once you've decided on the composition?).
JJ: Usually, I'll create a small sketch from which I'll create the larger work. The work for Kindling was done from more tightly drawn sketches, but the paintings I'm doing now are more spontaneous, done with little planning. The painting stage can be as quick as a week to as long as 6 months. Sometimes I need to let a painting rest for a while before I can revisit it with fresh eyes.
AK: From reading your blog I understand your preference is to work in oils, but you're also equally accomplished at colouring/painting digitally. Do you have to make any adjustments to your working methods when painting digitally, or is it just using different tools to accomplish the same result?
JJ: It's different tools for different results. I enjoy the range of effects I can achieve with all sorts of different media. I'm interested in the whole spectrum of drawing and painting -- hopefully that's evident in the range of my work.
AK: What's your daily working routine like? (ie. do you have set studio hours during the week, or is it more loose?).
JJ: There's never a routine; everyday presents new challenges in running my business and in life. However, I don't think I spend enough time in the studio.
Above: An illustration created for Prada. Copyright Prada 2009.
AK: I think it's been almost two years since you finished illustrating full-time for clients to focus on more personal work. Has it been a freeing experience, not having to worry about clients and deadlines hanging over you, or do you miss the routine of regular deadlines?
JJ: Actually, it was comforting to have the deadlines, though the volume of work eventually drove me crazy. My web store has also experienced consistent growth over the years, and now it's doing well enough that I don't need to take on any commissions. The projects I'm working on now feel much more important, and the work is also getting much better. I also have a 5 project deal with Chronicle Books, which is keeping me pretty busy.
Above: An early cover for 'Batgirl', written by NZ writer Dylan Horrocks, 2004. Copyright DC Comics 2009.
AK: You started out doing covers for DC Comics in 2004, but soon picked up some very high profile advertising clients. I imagine the pay for some of those jobs would have been substantially more than you were making on comics covers, but despite that you stayed on 'Fables' for a lengthy run. 'Fables' looked like a very comfortable fit for you creatively, I was wondering if that was a factor in you staying with the title for that length of time, when perhaps you didn't need to financially?
JJ: I enjoyed working on Fables. The book was a kind of "showcase" of my work every month that provided a comfortable place to experiment with different graphic ideas. Since I had worked on the title for some time, I felt like I had considerable freedom in what I wanted to create. Also, the original art I had done for the series became quite sought after. The advertising world is much more lucrative, but it can be hell dealing with so many art directors at the same time.
Above: The Fables Covers Collection, designed by James Jean. Copyright DC Comics 2009.
AK: Apart from your covers work, you also illustrated a short story for the 'Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall' graphic novel. Do you have any plans in the future to tackle a longer comics or illustrated narrative? Would you be interested in writing and illustrating your own project?
JJ: A long form story book is something that I plan to do one day. However, I'm not a good cartoonist. My work is much more suited to single images.
Above: The cover of 'Process Recess Vol. 3'. Copyright James Jean 2009.
AK: Speaking of future projects, do you have any other new works/projects coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
JJ: My next book, Process Recess vol. 3 with be coming out in September! It will collect drawings from my sketchbooks. It's a very personal collection of purely observational studies. It's probably the strongest book I've done to date. In addition to my paintings, I'm also working on a variety of exciting objects that will be unveiled this next year.
Thanks to James Jean for his time, and don't forget to visit his website and his Process Recess blog for more information on his artwork and published work!