Adriana Bellet on illustrating the world's worst criminals and how to rock at freelancing

in Features / Interviews

Adriana Bellet, aka JeezVanilla, is an illustrator and pattern designer based in Stockholm. She graduated from UAL in 2010 with a postgrad in Surface Design and has been freelancing ever since.

She loves to work with ink and watercolour, and favours bold lines and bright colours for her illustrations. She has collaborated with publications including Little White Lies, Esquire Spain, UPPERCASE and Frankie.

Just recently, Adrianna has produced some amazing portraits of the world’s worst criminals for new trump card game, Dead or Alive: Gangster Trump Cards, where you must pitch the most famous figures of the criminal underworld against each other. We spoke to Adrianna about this and much more.

First things first, why the name JeezVanilla?

"Well, it's a bit of happy accident. The night before my graduate show I realised I had to give myself an artist name, and out of nowhere (and probably with great help from sleep deprivation), I came up with Jeez Vanilla! I liked that it sounded like a cheeky remark and how unusual it was, so I went with it. A few weeks later, I realised it actually was a bastardisation of a dialogue from the movie Juno. But by then the name had stuck!"

Did you always know you wanted to be an illustrator and pattern designer?

"Not at all! I always loved drawing but it never crossed my mind that I could make a living out of it, so I took the straight path and studied advertising.

"As life would have it, I never really worked in advertising but ended up taking a postgrad in surface design, which led to me setting up a small business producing illustrated ceramics, which eventually turned into straight illustration. I just had to accept that the only thing I never tire of doing is drawing. So you could say that I did take the scenic route to illustration."

You graduated and became a freelancer straight away. Was that deliberate?

"I did start freelancing just after finishing my surface design postgrad, but I must admit it was more out of necessity than anything else… It was 2009 and I had just moved from London to Madrid, and I realised that the creative opportunities were pretty much reduced to advertising agencies, which by then I knew wasn’t for me.

"I decided to try to make it on my own instead and I’m still going, even though my business has evolved and changed focus many times along the way!"

How did you survive your first year in business? What got you through?

"I survived… barely! The beginning was hard – no one knows who you are and you have no clue of how to deal with all the other 'non-creative' parts of the business. But in the end, I think it's all about perseverance and blind confidence. I’m a huge believer of the 'fake it till you make it' attitude.

"Also, in terms of the straight business part of the affair, thankfully now you can learn pretty much anything online: it might not be in-depth quality knowledge, but it's often enough to get you by in those first few years, until you earn enough to pay someone else to do it for you."

Describe your process and tell us about your favourite tools

"I love to think about the story behind the illustrations, so my process almost always starts with me scribbling ideas into a notebook. Then comes the research part, mainly by way of movies, photography, the Internet and a lot more note taking. All along I'm thinking of the possible images but it's not until I have a clear picture in my mind that I start drawing. Then I usually get straight to the final 'sketch to size' before starting work on the final piece.

"And as for tools, I do love working with acrylics and liquid watercolours. And I couldn’t live without my erasable pencil colours to draw the under sketch on the final piece. And my Japanese ink brushes to finish off the illustration with the black lines."

You've got a new trump card game coming out this month. Can you tell us more?

"I do! And it's pretty much my dream project so I couldn’t be more excited about it! I was approached by the nice people at Laurence King last year with the best briefing I could imagine: to create 32 portraits of the most infamous criminals and outlaws in history.

"I have always been fascinated by popular history and vintage photography, so I was already thrilled with the theme itself, but they also gave me a wonderful amount of creative freedom, so it was amazing fun to work on it!"

How did you go about creating the portraits? I gather there was a lot of research?

"There was! I actually find the research part of projects just as fun as the illustrating itself. It's when I really get the space to imagine the characters, finding out the details that when added to the illustration end up bringing it to life.

"In this case, I tried to convey the temperament of the person by way of the colour of their hair and eyes. For example, Dutch Schultz had a reputation for being an extremely cold character that became violent at a moment's notice, hence his ice white eyes and his fiery pink hair."

Which of the criminals was your favourite to draw, and why?

"I think it has to be Bugsy Siegel because whilst being a first class criminal and murderer, he maintained a wholesome, almost innocent persona in the public sphere. It was really fun trying to portray that contradiction."

What has surprised you about freelancing?

"How everything comes in waves! There are these dry periods where you fear you will never again get another interesting project and then out of the blue you get too many great proposals to handle in a sane manner. I guess it has to do with the way the markets work and what's in fashion at a specific moment in time, but it still mystifies me every time!"

And what has disappointed you and you'd like to see change?

"That chilling sentence at the end of a proposal email: “we have no budget but…” It just shows that even to this day many people see illustration as a hobby and not a serious business that requires a very specific set of skills, time and dedication."

Can you share some tips for other aspiring illustrators?

"Keep switching mediums! Once you find your medium it is very easy to get comfortable and not try new things.

"When I do commercial work I always work in acrylic or liquid watercolour because that's what I am best at. But whenever I work on personal projects I try to introduce new materials or techniques because every tool requires me to change gears, which ends up pushing my skills. This way, I always have something new or perfected to bring back to my preferred set up."

What's currently bugging you?

"Old illustrations I created at the beginning of my career! I recently found an archive with old drawings and even if I still remember how happy I was with them, now they look so… incomplete! So I've challenged myself to recreate my favourite ones, to give them new lease of life and to see how my own style and skills have developed in the last few years."

What's next for you?

"With luck, more of the same! I have some editorial projects open at the moment and I am working on a collection of illustrations that I hope to turn into an exhibition by the end of the year. So more fun times at the studio."

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