A Visual Language

Interview by Charlene Chan, Kaiyee Tay & Mindflyer
Photographs courtesy of Jean Jullien

For someone whose style of illustration has become one of the most recognisable in recent years, Jean Jullien is refreshingly self-deprecating. He mentions—at least twice during our conversation—that since he started out in his line of work, he’s managed to get a handle on only a few tools of the trade. This, of course, includes the brush he typically uses to create most of his drawings, which has given his work its trademark black brush strokes.

Perhaps ‘illustrator’ doesn’t quite capture the breadth of work that Jean does. While illustration continues to form the bulk of his projects, he has been steadily taking up projects in areas like sculpture and animation, which he works on with his brother Nico. Between his seemingly never ending stream of work and responsibilities as a new father, Jean takes some time to reflect on his relationship with social media, and why his drawings look the way they do.

Hi Jean, congrats on your new baby! Has becoming a father changed the way you approach illustration?

Thank you. I think my illustrations have always been quite close to the world of childhood, so that has remained the same. I guess it’s changed my way of working, and the time that I spend working. I’ve worked very intensely especially with social media for quite a few years, and I’ve really loved it, but now I feel like I want to focus on fewer but longer projects, such as animation, sculpture, etc. Even though I will always draw everyday, because this is what I do.

You recently published a new book, called This Is Not A Book—although it’s targeted at children, you’ve mentioned that it’s really accessible to everyone.

Yeah, for me it was never designed for children. The way [Phaidon Press] approached me was really great, because they were very open-minded and they’ve been publishing the work of Tomi Ungerer, Sempé, all these iconic illustrators, and they wanted to create new content for [their young readers]. I was already working on some storybooks with other publishers, so we agreed to do something a bit different. I was sort of claiming my love for people like Bruno Munari, and designers who’ve created work that is accessible to adults as much as children. And that’s the way of approaching childhood and creativity that I find very intelligent and progressive. Because instead of talking down and dumbing down things for young children thinking that they don’t understand, it’s about creating something that is not too defined, that’s simple but intelligent enough to be like an open hand, like an invitation.

In general this is the way I approach my work, to try and have something that is universal, simple enough to communicate to different cultures and ages. So I’m really happy with the feedback I’ve received because it seems like people really understand what we’re trying to do there.

The book doesn’t behave like a traditional book—it’s a bit sculptural.

Yeah, that’s quite important to me. When I do what I call my creative gymnastics, it is to challenge the perception, the definitive definition of things. If you have a pen, you assume you are going to draw with it, but if you turn it around and try to see what sort of shapes it is reminiscent of, see what else you can do with it, see how you can incorporate that into another creation, you can tell a different story. It’s all about challenging your surroundings. And the book follows this logic very much.

Read more in The U Press N˚13 (Singapore edition).