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James Jean is an artist based in Los Angeles, California. In 2001, after graduating from the School of Visual Arts, he became a regular cover artist for DC/Vertigo Comics. Jean's covers received great critical and popular acclaim, winning him five consecutive Eisner Awards and three Harvey Awards for Best Cover Artist—an unprecedented accomplishment. This early exposure led him to create work for clients such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Records, Playboy, Nike, and Target. His latest book, Fables: Covers by James Jean is a collection of covers he created for DC and reveals the techniques behind each image. Since 2007, he has stopped commercial illustration in favor of personal paintings, book projects and gallery shows.

03.31.09

Painfully Self-aware And "Serious"

If you have a degree in what field is it? I have a BFA from the School of Visual Arts.

Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? I have always drawn for pleasure. College only made me painfully self-aware and “serious.”

What was your first paid assignment? Thomas Woodruff, the chair of illustration at SVA, gave me my first real assignment for print: creating the cover and a series of portraits for the New York Academy of Science’s annual report.

Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? Henry Darger, Neo Rauch, Chris Ware, and on and on.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? I’d probably play the piano and compose music.

From where do your best ideas originate? They come from an endless amount of thumbnails and scribbles and a mess of graphite garbage that occasionally crystallizes into something precious.

How do you overcome a creative block? By smashing it with my frontal lobe. Actually, I’ve never really felt blocked. If I don’t feel like painting, I’ll draw. If drawing’s not happening, I’ll work up something on the computer. This merry-go-round is punctuated by bouts of eating, grooming and tomfoolery.

In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment? Randy.

Do you have a personal philosophy? Never answer e-mails from Nigeria. That said, I feel sorry for people who are actually sending legitimate emails from Nigeria. My point: If you’re running a business, be professional, honorable and worth every penny. Your actions affect the industry at large.

Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? Making art encompasses everything; aside from eating and tomfoolery, the only other time I get to be creative is in the bedroom.

What music are you listening to right now? Elliot Smith Radio on Last.fm. But I usually have KCRW, the best radio station in LA, playing in the studio.

What's your favorite quote? “I've developed a new philosophy... I only dread one day at a time.” —Charlie Brown.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Keep working, even if you don’t have any assignments. Self-initiated projects always seem to lead to real jobs. In any case, if you don’t feel compelled to create work on your own, then you probably shouldn’t be a professional artist. It’s important to realize that being your own boss has its rewards, but it requires discipline and diligence.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? The best piece of advice for someone starting out is really simple, yet only whispered in private conversations and dark bars: Don’t get married or start a family until you achieve some semblance of stability.