Bodil Jane on being a professional illustrator, championing 'real' women, and coping during challenging times

Amsterdam illustrator Bodil Jane has become renowned for her colourful portraits of "real" women, the kind of approachable, friendly characters we can all relate to.

Around these female figures, she creates detailed worlds of ornaments, picture frames and plants. It's a characteristic she puts down to her love of visiting flea markets and collecting old trinkets or popping along to botanical gardens for inspiration.

She then adds further layers to bring more personality to her characters, that's whether it's the cut of her jeans, the pattern of a rug or a particular hairstyle. Part analogue, part digital, Bodil's illustrations are full of warmth, homeliness and charm. It's a style that has attracted clients such as The New Yorker, Unicef and Nike.

After a brief stint living in Rotterdam while studying at the Willem de Kooning Academy, she is now back in her home city of Amsterdam. She works from a small mezzanine studio in Amsterdam-West, a ten-minute bike ride from her home. We chatted to Bodil about her creative work and life.

Did you always know you wanted to be an illustrator?

I grew up in a very creative family. My parents are both creative freelancers. My mom is a ceramic artist (painting on ceramics) and makes large tile panels for restaurants and private homes. My dad used to work as a storyboard illustrator in advertising. Besides that, he is an artist as well. Now the stopped working in the ad world and works for my mom's company. My parents have a lot of creative friends, and basically, we were always creating things when I was little. We had a regular craft day with the neighbours, too.

My dad brought us to his atelier to do some charcoal drawings when he was working on a sculpture. My mom brought old tiles back home so that we could make a mosaic mirror. We all had sketchbooks when we were on vacation (when we were not visiting museums). It was not really like there was this one moment where I knew that I wanted to do something creative. It was just a very natural thing to me. The word "illustrator" came to me when I visited art schools when I was still in high school. I did a weekend pre-course at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam during my high school graduation. That's when I decided that illustration was what I wanted to do.

Later on, I realised that both my mom and my dad are illustrators as well. My sister studied fashion but became a print designer for a fashion brand, so we're all illustrators in the end!

That's great, such a creative family. So have you always worked for yourself?

Yes! There was a massive difference between most of my classmates and me. While other children had parents with more standard professional careers, both of my parents were full-time freelance creatives. We had a good life; they managed well. So I knew it was possible and I knew how to make it work. I was super lucky to have a clear vision of what a freelance artist life looked like.

When my mum would have a client over to chat about an assignment, I would sit next to them drawing. I knew a lot about the "business" side as well. I knew that taxes, negotiating, getting your work out there is all part of it. Having this example is something that helped me to pick a route and go for it. I knew this all the time being in art school, and I prepared.

During the second year of art school, I started a blog and created super cute handwritten business cards. I knew I was just a rookie (is that the right word?), but I just couldn't wait to be honest. I was scared and insecure, but I didn't want that to stop me. My parents supported me and told me that getting your work out there will always be scary. So, I decided that networking was going to be my thing.

During art school, I already went to designer meetups by myself, even though I was too shy to talk to anyone. I bought magazines just to take the names of the editors from the colophon and googled their e-mail addresses. I just walked into stores to ask if I could do a window drawing, things like that. I knew that if I wanted to get jobs, I needed to let people know what I could do and what they missed. ("Hey don't you need a stunning flyer to promote the products in your deli?") So, by the time I graduated, I didn't need a job. I had a few things running. And I got one great job a week before graduating. I could save up for three months, so I had a pretty great start.

You've since gained a reputation for your portraits of women. Are they real or fictional?

The women I draw are fictional but based on a blend of women I see around me and those I want to be. The city inspires me to draw these very diverse individuals. Women are a never-ending inspiration: how they behave, their energy, their looks. I'm always inspired by women who are themselves and who are special to me because of their looks. I have to draw them, of course, so the looks are important.

I have to draw them, of course, so the looks are important. Sometimes I bike around, and I see a girl with fantastic hair or an amazing attitude. I take a brain picture and illustrate a girl who looks like her. I'm not very interested in portraying model-like women. I don't want my work to be an extension of the women we see in the media all the time. The "perfect" woman. I'm more interested in quirky, interesting and sweet rather than sexy and smooth. I want them to be approachable, not intimidating.

It's not like I have this one message that I want to bring. But it's important to me that women realise that they are amazing just the way they are in all their different forms. Being "perfect" is boring!

Interestingly, everyone calls my work feminist. Is that because the women are looking our way and we're not observing them with them not noticing? They just look back. I am a proud feminist, so I'm happy to call my work feminist. But I think it's pretty interesting that my work is being called "feminist" when the women look strong and look back. Like it's something special that they are in charge of their surroundings. This should be normal!

Can you describe your style?

My illustrations are colourful, playful and maximalist. There's a lot to see: patterns, details, objects. My illustrations are digitally made but have a bit of a watercolour feel to them. I think you can see that, traditionally, I'm a watercolour illustrator, but I've developed into making digital art.

I get inspired by busy surroundings like botanical gardens and flea markets. My illustrations are like collages, where I put all the different sources of inspiration together. I never really "just add a vase". Everything in my illustrations is carefully curated. I collect everything that influences me at that very moment and freeze it. When I look back at older work, I remember everything I was fascinated by back then.

Every freelancer has ups and downs. What recent challenges have you overcome?

One of the recent struggles I had was a huge creative block. After a few years of working very hard on my illustration career, doing work just for me slowly faded out of my life. My passion became work. Every moment I didn't have a deadline, I just wanted to spend with friends or do other things I enjoy, like cooking and doing yoga. Outside of client work, I just needed time to breathe and not make anything. But the longer I didn't make any personal work, the harder it got.

Whenever I suddenly felt inspired, within an hour, the pressure took over. Only so little time and I always thought I had to make something relevant. One day I realised I didn't do any personal work for almost two years. Can I still make something for myself just for the sake of making something? Can I still enjoy non-client work? Or am I simply an illustrator who doesn't do any personal projects? I missed enjoying just drawing and felt kind of ashamed. Didn't I have ideas of my own? I thought I needed more time to get into it, so I tried taking days off. But that added even more pressure, leaving me frustrated because even with the time I didn't make anything.

Maybe I needed to be more disciplined, don't whine and just make stuff. I realised the more you make, the more relaxed it becomes. To keep it casual, you just have to try to make anything whenever you have time. Keep the creativity flowing. Every day it's possible to make something that makes you happy. Even if you're not satisfied with the result, at least you have hopefully enjoyed making it. It took a long time (and a lot of tears) to commit again.

From the first week of 2020, I've made one painting a week. I try not to set the bar too high; the main reason is to enjoy again and not overthink it. Still pretty small things and pretty random, but at least I start to enjoy it again!

How are you coping with the current crisis?

I feel like I'm in an easy position compared to most of my friends. I am incredibly grateful for how lucky I am. Usually, my life is already pretty solo. I live with my boyfriend, who is a freelance game developer. We work a lot, but we also need a lot of downtimes. Of course, we see our friends and do sports etc. but we do have a lot of quiet evenings and weekends too. We like that and are used to not having a million plans all the time.

We both work in a studio outside our home. He stays at home now because he shares his studio. But I'm fortunate to have a studio for myself. Because we're not in a full lockdown situation (yet), I can still bike to my studio and be there by myself all day. It's a bit more lonely though; now I can't have lunch with a friend, for example.

I had a job for a restaurant that was cancelled obviously. But most of my work is still going on, and also new jobs are still coming in. It's harder to concentrate when you know everyone is home and killing time with home improvements and playing games. But at the moment I can still keep on going. I'm so lucky.

It is harder, though, now that I have less distraction. I think as a freelancer, it's always a challenge not to be working all the time. Usually, I'm pretty disciplined. I try to work regular hours and leave my work in the studio. But this whole situation has mixed it up a bit more. It's easy to keep on working at home, and things get blurry. I also try to accept that I'm maybe not as productive as I usually am. Of course, the whole crisis also affects my mind.

We have to carry on as best we can. What advice can you give to emerging illustrators, hoping to make a success of themselves?

One of the things I've seen a lot with fellow illustrators and former art school classmates is that the insecurity or fear stops them from getting their work out there. But this shouldn't prevent you from going for it. The thing is, no matter how good you are, you'll always stay (a little) insecure about your own work. As someone starting, it's strange to realise that everyone you look up to, is still insecure about their work. It's not like those people think they're amazing. They just learned to cope with insecurity.

I think there are two types of illustrators. The first one is the illustrator who develops their style secretly in an attic room. You don't see anything from them for years. At one point (if they even come to that) they decide their work is good enough and their website can go online. They come out of nowhere, and they're amazing and have success from the start. Or they're not so good, and it doesn't work. And they're very disappointed because they worked so hard to get there.

The second one is the illustrator who develops in full sight. They started a blog when they were fifteen years old and kept posting their work online. They've made a new website five times in their life and maybe had 10 different logos. When you Google them, you see that at first, they were into paper art, later on, gouache and now vector. Some of the work looks crappy and unprofessional. I am this type of illustrator. My work grew over the years (and continues to do so). Everyone can Google my crappy work from when I was in art school. It can be embarrassing, but my name has been out there all that time. It worked for me.


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