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On the cover: ‘Beauty Kill’ by James Jean

How difficult was the transition from graphic novels to fine art?

It was a bit of a risk to change course and to turn down lucrative projects, but I have always wanted to be a painter. Even though I haven’t done any illustration work since 2007, there is still some difficulty in being recognised as a fine artist. This difficulty in semantics is rooted in my success in the comic book world and in lazy journalism: even if I have an exhibition of paintings, the press will label me as a commercial illustrator. For me, the difference is that an illustrator serves a client, while an artist is his own master.

How do you set about creating your pieces?

It all begins with a few cups of tea and a little meditation. I work in a variety of different ways. Sometimes I’ll make a fully realised, carefully crafted sketch and enlarge that into a painting or digital work. Other times, I’ll start with nothing and let the piece grow from my imagination, usually in the laboratory of my sketchbooks. And the other major vein is purely observational and figurative, without injecting any kind of fantasy or invention.

Enoki II


What prompted your decision to retire from illustration? 

After a while, I felt like I was regurgitating the work, and the acid reflux left a wake of resentment towards art direction and clients. . . I needed to change course before I became too jaded. I don’t miss it at all – any void left by my former career has been filled by the anticipation of things I intend to do as an artist.

You currently live in exile from the States – can you explain why?

After a series of unfortunate circumstances, I decided to give up all of my possessions and move abroad, where I could live quietly and trade art for room and board.

James Jean in his studio

How does being away from your homeland affect you?

It’s been profoundly peaceful and healing. I miss my family and friends, the life I had made for myself before in Los Angeles. It was quite nice, by any standard. But I’m enjoying the simplicity of things now.

Does your recent art reflect this period in exile?

I think my work has less angst now. It’s more colourful and maybe more confident, in a way. The old cliché that artists have to suffer to make good work is probably not true for me – when I look back on my body of work, the images that have affected the most people were created in times when I felt at peace. For me, anger and depression are antithetical to the production of work.

Does your experience make you more sympathetic towards people such as Edward Snowden, who can never go home again?

During the first six months of my departure, I shut down my website and social media, and went completely dark. I left to escape what I felt was persecution. I had actually achieved a pretty fantastic life before, but it was an illusion. You just have to hope you don’t ever get sick or sued. But I am lucky in that unlike Snowden I was able to just drop everything and leave, and had the full support of my business partners, friends, and family. That kind of freedom is a luxury and a blessing.

You can see more of James’s work at and follow him on Twitter at @JamesJeanArt.

James Jean in his studio

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