It’s interview time again, and I’m pleased to introduce J.A.W. Cooper, a clever lady who paints and draws with especially clever fingers! I first came across her work while participating in the Sweet Streets II gallery show at Nucleus gallery and have since been a follower of her blog which she updates regularly with rambles, illustrations, sketches, process work and her marvellous paintings.
To me her work is reminiscent of the films by Studio Ghibli, especially Nausicaa, and Princess Mononoke. Her creatures are quite fantastical, and she is able to capture their movement with decisive brushstokes and penlines. The illusive characters that live within her work are beautifully crafted and seem as if they could leap off the page and saunter off through forest or city. This quality is hard to reproduce, and yet she does it again and again.
Here she answers questions about her technique, her passion for art and her adventures across the world. Thank you so much Cooper!
You mention in your artist bio that you have lived all over the world. Details please! :-) Do you have a particular place that you most often draw inspiration from?
Well, I was born in England to an American Father and a South African Mother. Growing up I spent a little over two years in Nairobi, Kenya and around a year in Sweden and Ireland as well as a great deal of time just hopping around various other places in Europe and Scandinavia. I wouldn’t say that one place in particular was an inspiration, but being constantly on the move made it necessary to travel light and drawing is the perfect “portable” activity.
Being South African myself, I am interested in your experiences in Africa. Thoughts?
My earliest childhood memories are of my time in Africa but since I was quite young they often revolve around my house and animals I would see. From chickens and goats to impala and lions, knowing no other life my excitement for animals did not discriminate between the exotic and the banal. From stories my parents have told me I gather that it was a very exciting, though occasionally dicey, experience.
Where in the world are you right now?
I currently live in downtown Los Angeles which is similarly exciting… and occasionally dicey.
Apart from creating things, what do you do?
For better or worse illustration is both my job and my passion so it is primarily what I do for fun. Besides making things I walk my dog a lot and enjoy biking and hiking.
What first made you want to become an artist?
I’ve been drawing compulsively since I was around 6 years old, but honestly I resisted the idea of making it a career until the very end of high school. It nearly came down to a coin flip, whether I would go to UCLA and study zoology or go to Otis and study illustration. I’m so glad that I chose to pursue my passion!
Please describe your creative process. What technique/s do you use?
I almost always start with a list of words: ideas, motifs, subjects, colors… etc. which helps me to quickly synthesize the ideas floating around in my head into a coherent concept or direction. From there I gather reference along the lines of my concept and start sketching until I hit on something that I’m excited about, and then I build the rest of the composition around it. Once I’ve finalized a drawing I scurry out to Kinkos to copy it, adjusting the size and making the lines darker and crisper and thus easier to transfer via light box. I usually transfer the drawing to a heavyweight printmaking paper like Somerset, Rives, or Stonehenge and then mount the transferred drawing with matte medium to museum board for structural integrity and to prevent warping. I let it sit under heavy books overnight and in the morning I’m ready to paint! For my freelance/editorial work I generally start with washes of water/fade–proof india ink to establish the values and then build up the color with thin washes of gouache. With this system I can easily finish a painting in a day. For my gallery work I use everything from graphite, gouache and acrylic to oil depending on what suits the project best and how much time I have.
Where do you do your work? Can you send a picture of your workspace and describe it?
I work from home which is such a luxury! I live in a studio loft apartment (one room) which is great unless I’m using oil paints extensively. FYI, sleeping around drying oil paintings for extended periods of time can make you ralph. Two whole walls are dominated by giant windows, but I refuse to sleep with them open because I am afraid that crickets will fly in during the night… and I am terrified of crickets. Other than that, I love my setup.
Do you work from life, from photographs or from imagination?
All of the above. I love to draw from life at the zoo, Natural History Museum, Angeles-Crest mountains, figure drawing workshops, etc. When I’m working on a job and need something specific I’ll look up reference online or take photos myself to be sure I get the details right and then a great deal of it I just make up off the top of my head from experience.
What influences you? Do you have a favorite place or person you visit when you need inspiration?
My fellow Otis graduates (aka the “Shomako Crew”) are a big source of inspiration and are always willing to give me feedback when I get stuck. They are all so talented; we keep each other “hungry” with a dose of healthy competition. Music is also a big inspiration to me. When starting a big project or series I’ll often make a playlist to set the kind of mood I want to have in that particular work.
I am fascinated by your multi-eyed monster rugs, tell us a bit more about them please.
The mutant bear rugs were such a blast to work on! I owe it all to an amazing class I had in college with the very talented Daniel Lim called “Experimental Illustration.” He encouraged me to think big, literally and figuratively, and I ended up fabricating a life-sized mutant bear rug named “Randal” out of foam, faux fur, fabric, and taxidermy supplies. I sold Randal in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus and made a second one named “Buddy” which currently resides in my apartment… under my giant dog. I hope to make many more in the future!
You have taken part in various exhibitions, what has been your experience and the response to your work, any favorite shows?
I love the freedom of gallery work and being able to explore one idea in a series rather than creating a bunch of fragmented, individual pieces. My principle venue for gallery shows is La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Hollywood though I have shown at various locations around Los Angeles and the west coast. I don’t know that I have had a “favorite” show, since each builds on the previous, but my most recent show at La Luz was titled “Tarnished” and it sure was a lot of fun.
Do you promote your work and if so how?
I promote primarily through my blog, though I do also have a facebook account, send out emails and mail promo cards. I’m working on a new set of promo cards right now, actually. In general I think it is important to have a strong web presence and to go out of your way to make connections with others in your field.
Tell us about about your professional illustrations, you have illustrated for the LA Weekly, what are your feelings on this aspect of artmaking? Creating work for others can often times be tricky. Any tips on working on commissions or collaborating with art directors?
Working with the art/creative directors at La Weekly has been absolutely fantastic. They are very supportive and give me such creative freedom! In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had any major problem working with any art director since they usually know what they want and are familiar with the way illustrators work. I find working for individuals on commissions and such to be far more challenging as they tend to be less trusting and have a more difficult time communicating their ideas, but even that is usually quite enjoyable.
What advice would you give to a young artist just starting out?
Look at as much illustration as possible, promote like crazy, make solid connections, and have fun creating work! After all, what’s the point of becoming an artist if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing?
Who are some of your favorite artists or creative people and why?
Speaking generally I’d say that I have been influenced by the Japanese woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the oil paintings of Sargent and Leyendecker, and the zoological zeal of Haeckel and Audubon.
Treehouse or Submarine?
Excellent question! I would have to go with a treehouse because I love watching people from high vantage points. And watching spit fall from high vantage points. And watching spit fall on people from high vantage points.
In ten years, where would you like to be?
Abroad, living nomadically and drawing/painting up a storm.
Thank you so much Cooper. If you would like to find out more, please visit her website, or blog. You can also become a fan on facebook, perhaps you will be lucky enough to win one of her prints or paintings. Cooper also sells prints here and here.