French illustrator, Jean Jullien, is someone whose work you will have seen before, even if you don’t know it. His recognisable black line drawings have appeared on numerous big brand ads but his comical one-liners of illustrations full of sweet irony and witticisms are what make his work so memorable. Drawing is his way of expression. It’s honest, humble and oh so clever.
His childlike cartoons have a playful and creative take on reality, often facing serious issues from a standpoint of humour. But, as he tells us, you don’t need to be an artist or critical thinker to enjoy his work. His seemingly innocent illustrations are as pleasing to the eye as they are challenging to the wit. We talk to him about electronic music, Charlie Hebdo and working with his brother, Nico.
Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you first realise you wanted to be an illustrator?
I never really approached illustration as a career. I've always drawn, but got into graphics through 3 graphic design degrees. I first learnt the basics, something very practical, then started playing with it and realised that there wasn't a need for me to limit myself to a discipline. So I used my drawings in my design projects at school, and this slowly morphed into an illustration career, but in a Communication sense, more than a narrative sense. I like to see what I do as practical images.
Your illustrations are very cartoon-ish and childlike, and often look at serious issues from a humorous perspective. How did you discover your distinctive, comical style and what influenced it?
I grew up watching cartoons and reading French Bande-Dessinée so I think there's an obvious influence from there. I was always fascinated by these bright colours and dynamic designs. I love illustration when it's at its least realistic, when it stretches the body, twists things, etc... I don't want reality. I want a creative and playful take on it. I'm also quite conscious that my academic skills are rather limited so instead of trying hard to depict reality, I try to tell stories about it. And because stories usually exist thanks to their audience, I think it's key to make the deliverables as inviting as possible. In that sense, I think my simple aesthetic reflects two things: a certain humility, that maybe makes it quite relatable; and a seduction aspect, something easy on the eye that anyone can "read". You don't need any art background to enjoy my images. Like you said, they look like cartoons, because that's what I grew up with, but also because it is the look of popular culture, something that is dear to my heart. I'd rather try to have sophisticated content than sophisticated looks.
I also try to use humour to get rid of the seriousness and stigma of certain current and political topics. There's something friendly that makes everyone realise that we're in a discussion without too much gravitas, that it's ok to take it easy and not necessarily "get it". You can take what you want from my work: you can just see it as a pleasing image, as a graphic joke, or as something a bit more, a hint of a reflection. I want to engage people and exchange. I don't have a wise mind. I benefit and learn from exchanging with people, through sharing ideas about things that make me tick.
You studied at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. In what ways do you feel your education in art helped shape your style?
My life in general has shaped my practice. From French Bande-Dessinée to Japanese manga to comic books, to graphic design, music, skateboards and illustration. The first I mentioned gave me an appetite for drawing in general but I could not get into art school because of rather appalling marks in high school. So I "ended up" in a small graphic design degree in a small town called Quimper, in France. This was a very practical course that taught me the basics of graphic design, the key rules: composition, colours, typography, etc. I was lucky enough to have fantastic and passionate teachers that also showed me the work of gifted creative practitioners like Saul Bass, Raymond Savignac, Paul Rand, Alan Fletcher and many more. That made me realise that you didn't have to be a director, a comic book artist or an illustrator to make fun things. Even better, by working for commercial ventures, you'd take the creativity out of its privileged gallery cocoon and into everyday life, free to be seen by everybody. There was something fascinatingly democratic in that effort that really got to me. So I applied and got into Central Saint Martins.
The minimalist black brush is your signature tool. Why did you choose it? And what attracts you to drawing above other mediums?
It's what I do, naturally. So I use it to express myself when I need to say something. Some use words, I find myself more comfortable with drawing. We all live the same experience through the lens of subjectivity. I think the very unique nature of drawing reflects that quite well. It's a very skewed depiction of reality, a very opinionated one, so in that sense it's quite honest. I find that the brush is very forgiving the way I use it. It's a bit brutal; there are a lot of mistakes, quite a lot like what's going on in my head, so it's the perfect tool to translate my ideas. But I'm not devoted to it, I'm eager to experiment and try other tools. This one is just a habit that I've grown into.
You have worked with many big names including clients such as The New Yorker and Nike to name a few. What’s your creative process from the moment you’re given a brief?
It's often quite like problem solving: you're being given an idea to communicate and you have to find the most effective and interesting way to do it. I'm not good with narration because it often makes me linger and be self-indulgent. I like "practical" illustration because you have to be efficient, you can't listen to yourself too much. You're a tool in a communication process more than an Artist. I keep that process in my personal work so that I can express my own ideas without being too self-indulgent, by always keeping my audience in mind, and the fact that my work is quite futile if it doesn't manage to stimulate and engage people.
Your News of the Times blog proves how the Internet and social media play a big part both in what your draw and how you share your work with the world. Tell us a bit more about your relationship as an illustrator with the cyber world.
I use my computer everyday to scan, colour in, check emails, etc. So it's very much a part of my practice. But beyond that, I talk a lot about the digital age because that's something quite omnipresent and relatively new. We're still learning how to live with it, and like all learning phases, there are a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are funny, they're interesting, they are what generate unexpected happenings and happy accidents. I am a big fan of mistakes. And I'm also the first person to check my phone too much, to binge watch series on Netflix, etc. I feel comfortable making critical images about it because I'm the first butt of the joke. I'm mocking my own dependency and inability to master my digital addiction.
Your #JeSuisCharlie cartoon was one of the most iconic images in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. How did the events impact you as an illustrator?
I think it impacted me on three levels, actually: as an illustrator, as a French person, and as a human being full stop.
I grew up reading Cabu's comics from my dad's collection. And as a student, we laughed a lot at Charlie Hebdo's outrageous cartoons. There was a very inspiring sense of irreverence that I looked up to as a creative. These cartoonists were brilliant satirists; they loved people, any people. After the events, there were a lot of misconceptions regarding what Charlie Hebdo was about. Some people who heard about it from the other end of the world (and because of the tragedy) did not get what their fight was about. They didn't see the third degree of humour. They used grotesque and abrasive cartoons to mock outrageous behaviour. They used extreme humour to mock extremists. They loved freedom of speech above all things and they died for that.
What really resonates with me was the fact that this was not about Charlie, this was not about cartoons, this was not just about Culture even, this was about Freedom in general. If you let that happen, if you caution this disproportionate and barbaric response to a cartoon, then what is next? You condemn but you also "understand" censorship of a book, of a movie, of a song. There is a fantastic short novel called "matin brun" (Brown Morning), written by Franck Pavloff. It's set in an unnamed country that sees the rise of this party that starts slowly, but surely, to forbid this and that. People neither act nor react cause they're not targeted by these interdictions. The party becomes all-powerful and of course starts forbidding almost all freedom until the main characters realise that they should have acted before it was too late. I really recommend reading it!
How did your project Jullien Brothers come about? What do you like about making animations as opposed to still images?
The Jullien Brothers project is less about making moving images and more about working with my brother. We are best friends and our skill sets complement each other perfectly. He makes music and is very skilled with computing and animation, I make images and art direction (with him though). It just makes sense. We also share the same upbringing, tastes and culture. But we're very different people. I'm quite abrupt and impulsive; he's more reserved and chilled. It makes for a great, albeit occasionally tumultuous, duo. We started working together with his music, by me doing his covers and us wanting to do music videos for his songs. It worked well I think because we both shared the same enthusiasm, despite our lack of skills. We had ideas, lots, and didn't care how to bring them to life, we just wanted to try. That experimental and playful part of our collaboration is something I really cherish as I think my best work somehow stems out of these "sessions" of playing around with Nico (my brother).
You’ve done a lot of work with electronic musician, Niwouinwouin. What is this collaboration about?
Niwouinwouin is actually my brother Nico. He goes by the name of "the coward" now.
How do you feel electronic music in particular complements your work?
I think a lot of art forms complement each other actually. They are expression of senses, and the more senses are used, the more aware of it we are. I've always been fascinated by this notion and would love to find an occasion to create something that could use all 5 senses. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one with this obsession though. Music adds another layer of narration. It's as subtle and open for interpretation as image making. Animation is a bit different in the sense that it "tells" a story. I merely hint at one, so does my brother Nico. So for example he can do a moody instrumental song with odd aquatic noises, it will transport you into a certain setting but without necessarily being overly descriptive. It transports and tells without describing. I find this differentiation to be key in what I do. I want to tell things, not describe them. I want to leave room for interpretation and this is something that music helps a lot. I am a huge music listener; I do it continuously in the studio. It stimulates me without me having to intellectualise the stimulus.
What are you currently working on and what’s next?
I have a big solo show in Paris in June called PETIT APPÉTIT, with the great people of Fricote and Colette. This is going to be all about food. A big mural in Hong Kong, a chocolate collection with French makers À la mère de famille, a collection with Olow, another one with .only, an animated series with my brother Nico, and many more things that I'll announce soon.