Inspirational Artists: James Jean

DC Comics has had a very wide variety of artists, and there are some covers that really leap out to mind. After all, I wouldn’t be able to remember Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke without the iconic illustrations by Brian Bolland. It was here, when I was casually browsing through some of the most infamous artists, when I came across James Jean.


So aside from the fact that he’s living the male version of my dream life – right down to my favourite name, damn it – I knew very little about him. All I had to go by was the beautiful covers he illustrated, which are now being printed as a collection in book form. In his comic work alone there is a wide variety of art styles and inspirations, from the pop-art look of the featured Batgirl comic to his range of hallucinogenic, surreal covers for Fables and Umbrella Acadamy. Not only did I become interested to learn more about the series, but I’ve become infatuated with his fluid, moving, artwork and the range of styles he has in his biography.

Though he was born in Taiwan in 1979, Jean was raised in Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey, residing right in the heart of surreal, urban American culture with a wide range of neighbours and everyday personalities (surreal urban… would you call that ‘surban’?) He graduated from the New York City School of Visual Arts in 2001, going on to win numerous awards and medals in multiple categories: seven Eisner awards (six of which were for Best Cover Artist), three consecutive Harvey awards, two gold medals & one silver from Society of Illustrators of LA, and a gold medal from Society of Illustrators of NY.

To name a few, he’s worked for Time Magazine, NY Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, ESPN, Atlantic Records, Target, and Playboy. And DC Comics, of course. Jean now resides in comfort and talent in Los Angeles, while I sit here and blog about cats, food, and tentacle girls in Australia.

Yeah, I’m kind of jealous.

But grudges aside, it can’t be denied that James Jean is incredibly gifted with the ability to manipulate a wide range of media and art styles to create some amazing pieces. I’m reminded at times of Mark Ryden, especially with some of the taboo themes and occasional use of round-faced cherub characters, but he’s taken on his own sense of self. There’s also influence from his Taiwanese and Middle-East origins, both from traditional, smokey temple artwork and pop culture colours & characters. Polished, organic lines, perfect detail in anatomy and expressions, and in his recent 2012 work there are impeccable brush strokes as he moves into a more realistic style. But my favourite pieces, aside from his DC work, are mainly from his 2008 gallery. The colours are more vivid, the concepts more twisted, and the execution more stunning and unique overall.

Take his two Fountain pieces for example – part of the same name and theme but strikingly different in terms of subject, colour palette, and initial reaction. Fountain 1 depicts two frail children drinking desperately from the warped, almost melting statue of an old man. Blood is splattered beneath the base and at their feet while the man holds onto a captured, struggling bird of stone while he watches the children with an expression much like an ancient Chinese demon. It looked like the man was poisoning the two kids with his own disease, possibly making a message how the media has slowly begun marketing sleazy topics to children, which they are then buying into or ‘drinking’. The dog, turned away from the fountain and resting loyally like a guardian for the kids, could represent simpler joys and values – loyalty, love, home, companionship – that are ignored when put next to the proudly erect fountain and the sweet refreshment he promises. But these promises aren’t true, and this is no miracle, healthy water, for we can still see the weeds that grow from the cracks in his skull, and the dead waterlilies that float around his ankles – an omen of how these morals and lessons that are marketed towards children will only become their downfall.

Even with Fountain 2 things aren’t quite as they appear. When I first saw this, I loved the cool blues and the pleasant, almost sacred feeling that comes from the symbolic, radiant colour. The use of the angelic woman for a water feature only adds to this, especially in a background of soothing cloud-like atmosphere and levitating waterfalls. Like Ryden, Jean has depicted a small cherub-cheeked child to create the sense of innocence. But then on further inspection, I saw that part of the boy’s legs have disappeared completely, and that her braided hair is coiled around her body like an anaconda. The holy relic is supported by a two demons, their bony hands and veins on their skull similar to that of skeletal newborn infants. Meanwhile, a one-eyed skull watches from below. Even in a piece as beautiful and soothing as this one, there is still evidence that death lurks within the deeper meaning. But unlike Fountain 1, which has a hint of man-made walls and solid, earth constructions, 2 has a more seraphic meaning because of the lack of solid lines & features. In this one, I’m more reminded of the Fountain of Youth – the boy is in fact a man who continues to drink from the holy water (hence why the demonic embryos, representing youth, are seated with the watching skull, representing death or aging.) That’s why part of him is disappearing, it’s because he’s drinking so much that he reverts to a stage of non-existence. And since 1 has a message about media influence destroying children, I’m going to go ahead and say that 2 has a similar meaning, only adults are just as corrupted by marketing promises. Both of the Fountain pieces have deeper, darker meanings than the first translation, making a more contemporary statement than the fantastical, mythic elements appear.

The brushstrokes, styles, and techniques have very close similarities, but they still differ according to the atmosphere Jean wants to create. 1 looks more like the paint has been smudged onto the background, creating a grimy and sickly texture in moss-like, gangrene colours. The modern message comes through in the geometric lines to imply structured walls, as well as the pop, acidic colour of the green child (it’s highly unlikely you’d find a colour like that in a fantasy-inspired piece.) While Fountain 1 consists of randomly place shadows and tone, Fountain 2 has splashes of white in the reflection of the many waterfalls. The palette is lighter in tone and softer in texture, with more of a blend of the pink, blue, and creams while the green of 1 doesn’t have the same use of primary, infant colours. The strokes all seem to be vertical to highlight the flow of the water, making a more inviting feel for the viewer. But in both pieces, there is intricate and polished detail of the statues and the characters which reminds me of the same round, polished look of Salvador Dali’s artwork and creations. There isn’t that much of a change in texture to tell hair and skin from clothes, creating a heavily stylized version of human characters and adding to that surreal, otherworldly feel while still having something recognisable. This kind of style echoes throughout many of Jeans’ pieces; textured but barren backgrounds with the slightest implication of atmosphere/setting, and then a contrast of detailed characters.

This is used so that the focus point of the picture is the detailed characters and symbolism, as that’s where the message and interest lies in the piece. As these are painted on portrait canvases, the viewer’s eye takes in the height and strength of the fountains before moving down to the drinking children. Oil paints on paper gives the set a natural feel and texture, letting the flow of the material stain and age the canvas. There is also a slight use of lines, especially in Fountain 1’s precise, geometric red lines, to guide the viewer back towards the children by either cropping or directing the focal point (e.g. the back wall crops around the fountain’s back, and in 2 the lines of water slowly lead to the drinking child and statue’s grotesque base.) Red is frequently used in painting as a way of focus, and this has been used in the Egret’s beak – along with the crisp line it creates which leads back to the bowl of the fountain. Even the angle of these two pieces is slightly altered depending on the message: 1 is looking down on the two children, able to see the hunch in the old man’s back as he leers at them in their naivety, and then 2 is painted at level with the statue and boy, putting them on equal level of intentions (i.e. the fountain is intended for good, despite the negative effects of the greedy boy/man.)

In terms of intention, after looking through Jean’s variety of absurd, wonderfully twisted characters and pieces, I think that he’s the kind of artist that paints for his own enjoyment. He clearly had a wonderful idea and image in mind, which he then executed perfectly in both sinister and aesthetically pleasing manners. It’s my number one pet peeve to draw something completely random to put an idea on paper, and then have somebody look for the deeper meaning. A rose is just a rose, a pedo-looking fountain is just a pedo-looking fountain. But because it’s so bizzare, it’s easy to interpret it with a different meaning, or any meaning at all. That’s some of the beauty about Jean’s artwork, really: you can either have it as face value, or look for something dark and wonderful underneath.

Okay, fine, I’ll stop with the fangirling. But I can’t help it! Not only is this guy living my dream life, he’s got the talent and creative eye to outmatch many contemporary artists. His awards and contracts with top-of-the-line companies only add to the infamy, and to my envy. You can expect him to be referred to a lot during the next few drawings and pieces I concoct. His colour palettes and characters are giving me a lot of ideas…


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