James Jeanius: A Master of Illustration Shares His Sketches

An interview with the six-time Eisner Award–winning artist.

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Nov 14 2014, 12:45pm

A sampling of sketches new and old by James Jean. He drew the X-Men characters when he was 13 years old

James Jean is the person I most wish I could draw like. I practice often, and occasionally I see flashes of his delicate forms and lines appearing in my work, but these qualities always dissipate quickly. Like many other artists, I tried buying the same brand of sketchbooks Jean uses (widely known as "the James Jean sketchbook") and his preferred line of pens ("the James Jean pen"). Getting my hands on these sacred items actually helped a little. But even as I study his past work and try to understand how he made the amazing sketchbook images from his art-school days, he is methodically producing new work that is even more complex and multidimensional. There's a whole generation of artists tripping over themselves trying to imitate or at least understand how his six-time Eisner Award–winning brain is able to make his hand do what it does.

I recently had the chance to ask Jean some questions, but I don't know if I got any closer to understanding how to be more like him. I did get some insight into the way personal economics have influenced how he balances fine art and commercial work. We also talked about his heroes and how the internet dispenses with traditional hierarchies in the presentation of images. He also threatened to slap me.

VICE: Are your parents artists?
James Jean:
My parents are not artists. I didn't grow up in an artistic environment. But a friend gave me a Wolverine comic book when I was thirteen, and I became addicted.

Do you remember which issue it was?
Wolverine 37, drawn by Marc Silvestri.

Who were the comic artists you looked at the most as a kid?
As a teenager, I looked at work from guys like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Geoff Darrow, Frank Miller. I was fascinated with the indecent anatomy and how they could describe different surfaces and textures with just a few variations in line weight.

Do you ever get annoyed when you see people imitating your style?
No. I've emulated many artists, but most of them are dead.

What sort of advice do you have for people who want to learn to draw like you do?
Draw constantly, but avoid cheap mannerisms.

Is your work influenced by the history of Asian art?
I moved to the States when I was three. In my early twenties, I was fascinated with the work of Giuseppe Castiglione. He was an Italian missionary who became a court painter in China during the Qing dynasty. The work is a beautiful blend of Western and Eastern sensibilities. Also, I was influenced early on by [Katsushika] Hokusai, [Tsukioka] Yoshitoshi, and manga artists like Maruo Suehiro. However, I'm not sure this predilection is genetic.

Was there ever a moment when you felt like you'd turned a corner and begun to really understand drawing?
There was a pivotal moment after my first year at art school when I started to work obsessively in my sketchbooks. I rejected the academic and experimental things we were being forced to draw, and returned to the imaginative doodles of my childhood. Interspersed through the pictures of figures and strange creatures were sketches of people riding the subway, and journal entries. It was very pure—each spread was a personal challenge to make something new and interesting. I kept working in my sketchbooks the following 12 years, but recently I stopped. I'm not sure I have the energy these days.

What forces have caused your work to evolve?
Certainly, doing so much commercial stuff from 2001 to 2008 has changed and influenced the way that I work. My first solo show, Kindling, in 2009, was a reflection of that refined kind of energy. But shortly thereafter, I started making art that was more painterly, expressionistic, and experimental. I find that I keep boomeranging around different approaches. Maybe it will only make sense in a macro view of my body of work—but at the moment, I understand that it can seem a bit schizophrenic.

One of the things I admire about you is that you are able to do "low art" like comic-book covers and "high art" like your paintings and you don't seem to pigeonhole yourself. Have you been living by a specific career plan, or have you just taken the work that comes your way?
In my early twenties, I was supporting someone else, so I felt compelled to take on as much work as possible to build up a safety net. I wanted to be a painter after graduating from art school, but I didn't plan on becoming so prolific and well known as a commercial artist. The world is changing so rapidly it's almost impossible to follow a plan or previous model of how your career should transpire. But at least now, I can be more selective.

What artists are interesting to you lately?
There's too much stuff out there. I'm not a very good filter. I followed a lot of artists in my twenties, but many of them aren't as prolific now. What informed some of my work in the early stages were etchings by [Albrecht] Dürer, Shanghai advertising posters, anatomical mezzotints. Cartoonists like Carlos Nine and Chris Ware. Painters like Neo Rauch and Michaël Borremans. But now, there's so much stuff out there that it's hard to be moved by anything in particular, and it all ends up looking the same or derivative.

Why?
I think the internet has encouraged and enabled more people to be visual artists. But there seemed to be a more linear progression of visual styles and approaches before. Now, there's no hierarchy to the access or presentation of images. It's all there in a multicolored stream of visual diarrhea.

Tell me about the new book you have coming out.
It's called Xenograph and will be published by Asuka Shinsha. It's around three hundred pages and will contain all new work.

What creative things do you still want to do that you haven't done yet?
I'd like to make ceramics. And play more music. But I love making images the most.

What sort of music would you like to make?
Dave Choe just invited me to play in his band, Mangchi.

Do you listen to music while you work? Do you ever paint to the rhythm?
Paint to the rhythm? I should smack you.

Oh man, I bet I could resell that slap for so much money.
My caresses are priceless.

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