Jean Jullien: Musings about creativity, freedom and the joys of illustration

in Features / Interviews

Jean Jullien‘s instantly recognisable signature style and observational take on modern life has seen him become one of the most sought after image-makers in the world. Often character based with his distinctive black line illustration style, his work is always well observed and very funny.

Originally from Nantes, Jullien studied at London's Central Saint Martins and later at the Royal College of Art before adopting London as his new home. In 2011, he launched Jullien Brothers with his brother Nicolas – an animator and electronic musician under the name Niwouinwouin. The pair create films and animations together, and are currently working on a new animated series.

After nine years of living and working in East London, he moved to New York City last October where, alongside illustration, he continues to explore other mediums such as film, animation, installations, books, clothing, product design and music projects. With a new playground to draw inspiration from, Jullien certainly has plenty of projects in the pipeline, as he continues to be regarded as one of the finest contemporary artists of our time...

First of all, how did you get into illustration?

"I grew up reading Franco-Belgian and American comics and watching Japanese cartoons: my fate was sealed! That got me drawing, but it is really through skateboarding and studying graphic design that I got into professional illustration.

"I was fascinated by the practical aspect of skateboard graphics, how beautiful they were despite the fact that they were printed on a surface that would eventually get ruined. Contrary to treasured mediums like comics, books or films, there was a sense of utility that really struck a chord with me. I liked the idea of drawing on everyday objects, rather than in protected and more cultural mediums.

"Then I got onto a graphic design course that was extremely practical and, at first glance, boring. But I had fantastic teachers who introduced me to the work of Saul Bass, Paul Rand, M/M Paris, Savignac and Ungerer, who all use their talent to bring beauty into everyday commercial ventures. I was sold."

One of Jullien's #JeSuisCharlie illustrations, tweeted on January 7 in response to the attacks at the Paris satirical magazine.

One of Jullien's #JeSuisCharlie illustrations, tweeted on January 7 in response to the attacks at the Paris satirical magazine.

It's Nice that: billboard design for London's Graphic Centre.

It's Nice that: billboard design for London's Graphic Centre.

Jullien's first app "Jean Jullien's Clock Face".

Jullien's first app "Jean Jullien's Clock Face".

Tell us about a typical working day

"I get up, check the news, check my emails, catch up with them as much as I can, then get on with work. The rest of the day is spent bouncing between emails and drawing. I work from home at the moment, which is quite strange and somehow claustrophobic. I get cabin fever! I draw most of my inspiration from observation, so spending all my time inside feels like my creativity is running on a low battery.

"I recharge by going out for coffee or a walk, and drawing things or getting ideas. I'm annoyingly critical and I even draw inspiration from things that annoy me on a daily basis. So, the more time I spend outside being grumpy, the more inspiration I get."

What has surprised or disappointed you about the industry you work in? What would you like to see change, if anything?

"People asking you to work for free! It's one of the very few disciplines in which that request still passes as acceptable. It's like illustration is a hobby that we should giveaway as a favour when asked."

What tools, apps and software can you not survive without?

"My brush pen is something I'd miss dearly. But I like to think that I'd be resourceful enough to keep being creative without my regular tools, apps and software."

What's your work setup like?

"Pen, paper, laptop, scanner, tablet."

Album cover and T-shirt for Niwouinwouin's album: Catastrophe

Album cover and T-shirt for Niwouinwouin's album: Catastrophe

LA PLAGE, solo show at Beach London.

LA PLAGE, solo show at Beach London.

Ralf is Jullien's first picture book, published by Comme des Géants.

Ralf is Jullien's first picture book, published by Comme des Géants.

Hoarding for Byron Burger's new restaurant in Shoreditch, London.

Hoarding for Byron Burger's new restaurant in Shoreditch, London.

What's your top secret for productivity?

"Keep on working. Creativity's a muscle that needs to be flexed everyday."

Any interesting projects you've just launched or currently working on?

"Oh yeah, my brother and I have been working very hard on an animated series. We're currently finishing the pilot to present to producers. We really hope it'll be picked, as it's something we're both very excited and eager to show to people.

"I'm also preparing my new solo show opening at HVW8 gallery in Los Angeles on March 27. It's called "Poor Traits" and will be a portrait show. After my last show "Us" in December at Kemistry Gallery, I wanted a clear change. Change of subject, change of technique, change of display. This show takes inspiration from my fascination of people. What makes us? Is it nature, culture, or a bit of both? There will be a series of facial portraits as well as a series of personality portraits that look at what defines iconic personalities. I'm very excited, a bit wary and eager to see people's reactions. The gallery is in West Hollywood, which echoes nicely with the theme of icons and people."

"Creativity's a muscle that needs to be flexed everyday."

Any projects you're especially proud of? Please explain why

"I'm pleased with the diversity of my practice so far. I feel very lucky to be able to do so many commercial jobs, and still have a personal practice with shows and self-initiated projects with my brother and others."

What are you currently reading?

"In the Dust of this Planet, by Eugene Thacker."

What was the last movie you saw at the cinema and what did you think?

"A Most Violent Year. It was absolutely incredible. It's set in New York in 1981 and is absolutely astonishing. It stars Oscar Isaac as the lead, who does a fantastic job portraying a man of strong will caught in the turmoil of an outlawed system.

"He strikes a captivating resemblance with a young Pacino (circa his Godfather role). It's grim, addictive and not at all what the trailer might lead you to believe. Go see it! The team behind the movie released this very short documentary about NYC in 1981 that gives you a chilling sense of context..."

Who's work do you admire and why?

"My friend Yann Le Bec, who is an outstanding illustrator. He is extremely meticulous and has the most extensive graphic culture I've ever witnessed. He's a living museum as well as a graphic genius. He's also very humble and shy, who does zero self-promotion. If only people knew of his work, we might all be lucky enough to see it adorn our daily environment."

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Ident work for the 2014 edition of Norwegian festival Webdagene.

Ident work for the 2014 edition of Norwegian festival Webdagene.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever had?

"Add colour."

Who's the best person or brand you've worked with to date?

"Ouch, that's a tricky one. I'm gonna play it safe and say my brother. We're extremely close in life and working together has happened quite naturally. We have the same culture and upbringing, we understand each other so well that it makes it very smooth and natural to produce things, yet because we're two different persons, we are able to assess what the other wouldn't necessarily spot. He's a great musician and animator, I do the images. We complement each other naturally."

What do you do to unwind and relax?

"I put my head in the sun. But I've never lived anywhere really sunny, so I just put my head where I can."

What do you love most about your profession?

"Freedom! Freedom to say no, to move around, to express myself and to plan my day and life however I see fit. Most of the time that is. I also love the everyday challenge of the client/illustrator relationship, which involves not always having it your way, listening to one's opinion and making concessions.

"I don't feel like I always have the right opinion about what I'm producing, and really rely on my wife and friends opinion, as well as client feedback. I used to think that if I hadn't mastered the entirety of a project, then I couldn't claim it. Working with others have opened my eyes and horizons greatly. Letting go and trusting third party is, for me, key to a healthy practice."

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

Series of modern life observations, presented at "US", Jullien's solo show at Kemistry Gallery in December 2014.

What's on your daily reading list for inspiration?

"My morning tab is made of:

BBC News
Twitter
It's Nice That
Nat Geo Found
Newsarama.com
Haw-lin.com
petmilk.tumblr.com
blog.yimmyayo.com."

Where are you next going on holiday?

"New Orleans for the annual carnival and Los Angeles for a bit of a holiday after my show."

"I think if you draw and that feels like the only thing you want to do with your life, then you won't even think twice about it, you'll be an illustrator."

If you could sum up why others should get into illustration - what would you say?

"I don't think you should get into illustration. I think if you draw and that feels like the only thing you want to do with your life, then you won't even think twice about it, you'll be an illustrator. I don't think it's a career path as such. I think it happens naturally."

Finally, tell us something about yourself that might surprise people.

"I have a frog phobia."


To find out more about Jean Jullien visit www.jeanjullien.com. Make sure you also follow him on Twitter @jean_jullien and check out his inspiring Instagram feed where he shares his latest work, amongst other things.

Close