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In the Jeans: An interview with James Jean.

March 30, 2010
Los Angeles is home to the Taiwanese-American artist and illustrator James Jean. Born in Taiwan but brought up in New Jersey, Jean went through the School of Visual Arts in NYC before becoming a cover artist for DC comics. His awards list is impressive- seven Eisner awards, three consecutive Harvey awards, two gold medals and a silver from the Society of Illustrators of LA and a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators of NY. His illustration clients include Time Magazine, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, ESPN, Atlantic Records and Prada amongst many others. Somehow in between all this, Jean has also found time to work on four of his own books, Process Recess Volume 1, Process Recess Volume Two, Fables: Covers and XOXO. They are all available on Amazon, though the Process Recess books are printed in limited runs.
Jean’s work comes in three different styles: the chroma-outlined comic work, the almost abstract, Jackson Pollock-ish pieces which you  need to pick apart with your eyes and the more serene, soft and flowing pieces. If the name rings a bell, it may be that you heard of the Offset design conference last year and noticed his name in the lineup.  In our interview with him, we started off by asking what his favourite part of our Fair City was. ‘The Francis Bacon studio at Hugh Lane was inspiring in its complete disregard for cleanliness. It’s a struggle for me to revel in the dirt, and Bacon reminds me to get dirty now and then.’
Jean says his earliest memories  were of being fixated by a picture of a giant dump truck in a magazine. ‘I would turn it around in my mind like a toy, projecting the flat picture into the multi-dimensional world of my imagination.’ A worthy beginning indeed for an artist. He says he didn’t work on his art much during high school years due to an obsession with his trumpet. Art school was another world and he was deeply influenced by his teachers there, Steve Assael, Thomas Woodruff and Jim McMullan.
james jean the hunters
Jean graduated in 2001 from the School of Visual Arts with a strong sense of style, very much evident in his work are the influences of artists such as Hokusai (The Wave), Shanghai advertising posters and Russian constructivist artists. As is the case with most illustrious artists, Jean takes his influences from as wide a range of sources as possible. While in art school, Jean worked in a rather more photorealistic style, pinning down the skill and technique that would be a mainstay of his work in years to come.
Without the skill, realising what you have in mind is a difficult task, even for an abstract artist. Picasso’s early work is extremely accomplished in the traditional realist style and left him with the ability to understand the elements of design, proportion and colour which are evident in his later work. Jean’s journey from ‘traditional’ to playful, semi-abstract work shows a similar track. These skills disappeared in the 60s due to overenthusiastic anti-traditionalists, but are slowly starting to make a comeback.
Jean carries a sketchbook everywhere he goes and he displays a selection of his sketches on his website (www.jamesjean.com). These sketches indicate the extent to which Jean took his lifedrawing seriously. Wiry muscles and delicately sketched floral forms show a lifetime of careful observation.
When starting a canvas, Jean first prepares a ream of preparatory sketches, often taken from his sketchbook and lays in the darks. Highlights come in next and the whole piece is worked up with local colours. This is the traditional method of working, but it differs slightly for his Photoshop pieces. They start off similarly, with graphite on bond paper (of a similar weight to photocopier paper, but slightly heavier), then a copy with blue pencil and white chalk to mark extremes of value. This is scanned in carefully and brought into Photoshop for colour. Jean extols the virtues of Photoshop. ‘There are circles where Photoshop is anathema, but not in any that I travel.’ He says everything he does finds its root in paper drawings, be they oils or Photoshop.
He says his break came ‘when DC/Vertigo offered me the series of covers to Fables, my commercial art career began. At the moment, I’m beginning a new career in developing my personal work.’  Jean is unusual in being accepted both in the comics world, illustration, graphic design and galleries. This is becoming more and more common, as the lines between ‘high’ and ‘low’ brow art ‘merge and become a nebulous mix’. Another example of this is the increasing incidence of film production artists being exhibited, such as the Ardiluk Gallery in Paris which is currently showing a range of concept art from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the Nucleus Gallery in California which exhibits illustrative art from books, visual development artists and concept artists.
I asked Jean what his process is like when starting a new piece.
‘I work in a variety of ways — with my current paintings, I work from a very loose sketch or idea, and develop it directly on the canvas. Occasionally, I’ll work from a very well developed sketch if I plan on doing something more graphic and designed. But at the moment I prefer a more spontaneous and improvisational approach.
I’m very happy to be able to work constantly on my personal work….this is what I’m most proud of.’ This has resulted in a much softer, more organic style that will come to dominate his ouvre. He’s not so much one to look out for as one that people are watching. He has his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary illustration.
In the middle of the last century, artists used to network and communicate via tapes, they would record any information, tips or tricks, onto a tape and send it on to the next one on the list, a sort of phone tree. The explosion of the internet has resulted in a tighter, more international artist network in which an artist from one side of the world can easily communicate with another one via forums, blog comments or facebook. Most artists currently have their own website or blog which they use as a sort of standalone gallery and to share their process with other artists or fans. Jean is no exception,  having recently moved from one website (processrecess) to jamesjean.com and is on twitter. He uses twitter to post progress photos so if anyone is curious to see how his work develops, his twitter username is processrecess.
Every artist has their own favourite one of their paintings, one that resonated in a particular way and continues to do so.  Which one is Jean’s? ‘At the moment, the “Hunting Party” remains a favorite of mine. I think the best paintings of mine are born from the deepest recesses of the mind, from dark and surprising places.’
I ask him what advice he would give a young artist starting out. Besides the standard advice to work hard and cultivate obsession, Jean advises us to’Keep making work even if you don’t know what you have to say. You’ll only find your voice through the struggle.’ The hardest part is getting over the feeling of smallness you get from the beauty everywhere and try to make something halfway meaningful from it all. No artist is an island unto himself and Jean is no exception.His current favourite inspirations range from old Chinese scroll paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, and anatomical lithographs and mezzotints. He also quotes Brian Cronin, Tomer Hanuka and Chris Ware as inspirations.  I ask him what plans he has for his artistic future. I see he has painted some very beautiful shoes- Vans- a blue rhapsody of flowers and crickets. It makes me want to go and paint shoes, to paint crickets and to paint flowers. That’s the definition of inspiring- monkey see, monkey like, monkey paint. Jean is young yet-only 31- and has a long and crystalline future ahead of him. Where does it see it all going? What’s ahead?
‘I’d like to keep making images. I don’t have a clear vision of where I’d like it to go, just impulses that carry me from day to day. I hope I will be making my best work until the day that I’m too decrepit to hold a brush.’
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 7:33 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this! How did you get to interview him? He is one of my favorite artists.

    • March 22, 2011 2:19 pm

      Last year I was the art editor for a newspaper in Dublin- I emailed Jean and he kindly agreed to give me the interview. His stuff rocks.

  2. February 7, 2011 11:30 am

    Hello man, I used to be browsing on yahoo as well as on the lookout for the article to see and stumbled on your site. We are really glad Used to, you wrote some great information. Did an instant bookmark during this page and will be checking back once in a while to find out when you submit anymore stuff.

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