Interview: Jessica Fortner
With a penchant for rich detail, intricate patterns and jarring colour combinations, Canadian artist, Jessica Fortner, creates editorial, advertising and children’s illustrations that captivate industry experts and art lovers alike.
She has an ever-growing list of high-profile clients and has seen her work featured in an array of mainstream publications already, including ‘Digital Arts’, ‘Ammo Magazine’ and ‘The New York Times’. A self-confessed design enthusiast, Jessica also contributes at FormFiftyFive, and edits fellow online arts magazine, ‘Squidface & The Meddler’ – in between picking up new skills via YouTube.
We recently slowed Jessica down long enough to talk about innate style, silent studio practice and her (many) obsessions.
First up, we’d love to find out a little bit about yourself and how you became a professional illustrator?
I’m a bit obsessive by nature; I get extremely interested in topics that I delve into wholeheartedly, but also quickly forget about once something else catches my attention. I also like to experiment with different materials and approaches. For a few years after I graduated from OCADU, I made images by sculpting characters and sets, and then photographing them. After a while I found this technique too limiting for the kinds of ideas I was thinking up however, so I moved on to making hand-drawn illustrations – the work you see now. Illustration then, was something that I came to gradually sometime after I graduated.
Have you had much formal training?
I studied printmaking at the Ontario College of Art and Design, so I never had any formal training in illustration. Instead, it’s something that I have taught myself slowly by experimenting and working on projects.
How would you describe your artistic style?
The idea of style is a funny thing to me, and it’s something that I’m often asked about. I never really understood why people need a style because it’s something I always believed to be fairly innate, rather than consciously developed. I find that I’m limited by my capabilities and approach, which for me, tends to dictate the look of my work. That’s not to say that I don’t spend a lot of time practicing and experimenting though – I do. But even in doing that, there are particular things that I’m drawn to, or that interests me and informs my work. I tend to make images that are a mix of abstract, conceptual and allegorical. I’m also obsessive about colour combinations that are unexpected, vibrant and sometimes jarring.
The idea of style is a funny thing to me. I never really understood why people need a style; it’s something I always believed to be fairly innate, rather than consciously developed.
Aesthetically, my illustrations tend to be rich in detail and heavily patterned, although they’re still very graphic and simple in their overall structure.
You mentioned having particular things that interest you and inform your work – can you tell us more?
It’s hard to pin influences down to only a few, as we all consume so much. I definitely follow certain tangents and get on ‘kicks’ when I’m obsessed with a theme or object. Still, I really love all types of work – from comics, animation and design to textiles and typography. Lately I’ve been obsessed with the work of Canadian comic artist, Jesse Jacobs. The intricate patterns and organic look of his work really speaks to me. His books, ‘By This Shall You Know Him’ and ‘Even the Giants’, really motivate me to try my hand at storytelling.
The haunting and majestic work of Canadian duo, Tin Can Forest, is always an inspiration too. And after reading a few Jack London stories, I was definitely focused on all things wild and desolate. Apart from those, I have tons of favourite movies and such that influence my visual and storytelling approach: Stanley Kubrick movies; Jim Henson’s movies; and my all-time favourite British comedy, ‘How to Get a Head in Advertising’. And of course, there are specific things – animals, patterns, nature, etc. – that recur within my work.
What is a typical day like for you and how do you approach you work?
I get up, take care of emails, have some breakfast, shower, walk my dog and then get down to work. It’s all very practical. When I’m coming up with concepts I need quiet; no music; no distractions. Generally, I’ll sit with my eyes closed and think about a couple of different ideas. Then I’ll do a few quick thumbnails to see if I like the direction, and I will continue that process until I have something that I like. Once I start drawing and inking, I like to listen to music. Colouring requires something a bit more as it can get fairly monotonous making cut-outs in Photoshop – especially with really detailed pieces – so I tend to listen to podcasts like Radiolab while I work.
Specifically, what techniques and materials do you use?
Most of my illustrations are hand-drawn with pencil, inked, and then scanned in Photoshop and coloured digitally. On occasion, I will paint them using acrylics if there’s time.
Any favourite pieces amongst your work to date?
That’s a difficult question to answer because so much of yourself goes into every piece. I suppose there are a couple that stand out for different reasons. The Sentinel for instance, was one of my first successful paintings and I love the image on many levels. The cable knit sweater border and the sneaky/furtive look of the eyes peering out from the heart… It’s a very personal piece that I think we can all relate to.
Recently I did a gig poster for the Converse Rubber Tracks show with Kevin Drew and Comet Control that was a bit of departure from my other work. I had an idea of how I wanted the final piece to look, but was unsure as to whether or not my approach would work. It was a fun experiment though, and I really love how it turned out in the end. Also, it was a pleasure to get the chance to work with a client like Converse!
Do you have a dream client or brief at all?
I love working on music projects, like album covers and gig posters. And I love, love, love doing editorial work. I guess what I really want is the opportunity to try my hand at many different things. I’d love to work on some textiles, and make designs for clothes or scarves… maybe even for products like plates and mugs. It would be especially cool to get the chance to illustrate a classic novel, maybe with the folks from The Folio Society. I can’ get enough of the books they put out. I’m really looking forward to checking out Sam Weber’s illustrations for Dune, coming out in the spring!
I’d love to work on some textiles, and make designs for clothes or scarves… maybe even for products like plates and mugs. I guess what I really want is the opportunity to try my hands at many different things.
I guess the list could go on forever! What do you get up to when you’re not drawing?
I love learning new disciplines and I’m an avid YouTube enthusiast. You can teach yourself practically anything by watching YouTube! Lately, I’ve been teaching myself how to play the banjo and to weave tapestries. Other than that I live a simple life: hiking with my dog and boyfriend; having elaborate meals with friends and family; and enjoying time curled up reading a book. It’s all pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, I think.
Getting back to your work, I know that you’re also involved in the online arts magazine, Squidface & The Meddler. For anyone unfamiliar with the site, can you tell us a bit about it?
I founded Squidface & The Meddler with my boyfriend a few years ago. Our goal was to create a place to showcase the work of emerging Canadian artists. We wanted ever article on our site to really give the artist due attention, and the graphic treatment that you would expect from a feature article in a print magazine. This means long, in-depth articles and interviews, each with their own custom design/layout consistent with the style of the artists being featured.
So far, it’s been incredibly rewarding to get to know artists we admire and feature their work on our site. We’re currently in the middle of re-launching it. Mike and I have fully re-designed the site, and it’s been a monumental task adapting and redesigning years of content to fit the new concept. But we’re hoping to get the new site live in January.
And on a personal level, I can’t wait! Are you looking to become more involved in publishing at all?
Mike and I have thought about doing a book of some of our past interviews as we have so many good ones. Money is always a factor with self-publishing of course, but these days – with crowdfunding – we feel pretty confident that we’d be able to pull it off. Finding the time is our biggest obstacle at the moment though!
We understand you’ve just started working on a new side project with Mike, making art inspired by your favourite songs. Where did this idea come from and what else can you tell us about the project?
We really love working on music projects, and both needed a place to experiment and have a bit of fun. We thought it would be just that to imagine our designs as seven inch vinyl singles, so we have designed to site to showcase them that way. Essentially, it’s a chance to share some of our favourite Canadian musicians, whilst being able to make art. For anyone who may be interested in it, the project is called ‘Eh Sides!’, and every few weeks we’ll be adding new art and music.
Are there any other plans in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
I love comics and animation, and I’d love to try my hands at both. I have dabbled a little bit in making short, four-panel comics and short looping animations, but am planning to do something more in-depth.
We’ll keep an eye out then! Finally, where do you hope to be in 5-10 years time?
Working remotely from the tip of a rocky outcropping in B.C.