Artist Interview: JUN CEN


Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman

We introduce to you another amazingly talented Illustrator from China, Jun Cen. He recently graduated from MICA’s new illustration Masters program, in the same class as previous artist interviewed Lisk Feng. Jun’s drawings and short animation Mutual Tunnels are mesmerizing. Perfect color pairing and textures, coupled with beautifully balanced compositions, create an emotional mood in each illustration. It was a pleasure getting an opportunity to speak to Jun, here’s how it went…


SHANON WELTMAN: What is your favorite medium to work in? It looks like you work digitally, but can you elaborate on that?

JUN CEN: I’ve tried many different mediums. For example, pencil, acrylic, gouache and digital. I kind of use them from time to time, but recently I’ve just focused on digital. I’ve been doing a lot of editorial illustrations, so I think digital is easier for me to change and edit.

SW: Because they’re so fast?

JC: Yeah, if you see my animation it’s hand drawn animation, done with pencil. I also really like pencil too, it’s very intuitive. That’s the reason I really like pencil.

SW: It also matches the gentleness in your drawings. In the personal work section of your website, are those ideas or stills from your animations?

JC: Yeah if you go to Mutual Tunnels, that series is stills of the animation. Original drawings from the animation, since the animation is all hand drawn.

SW: Can you walk us through your digital process? Where do you start and where do you end?

JC: Something very interesting about my pencil drawings, sometimes I use digital to do the sketches and then I print them out and finalize it with pencil. This is something I found very interesting. Usually some people will do sketches and then go digital, but I kind of did it the opposite way. For my digital illustrations I think it’s quite straight forward, it’s actually all digital. I do the sketches in Photoshop, I do different colors on different layers to mimic the process of screen printing. You can see colors, it’s kind of graphic looking. You can see when the two colors multiply together to create a third color. This is very similar to the process of printmaking. Especially when you’re using transparent medium. I was a printmaker before, I was kind of familiar with this process. It’s kind of good for me, to apply this technique in my illustration.

SW: Yeah, it seems really useful. That makes a lot of sense, your colors are so flat and they blend so well together.

JC: After I’ve done the drawings, I apply a texture to the top of each layer. I use a lot of layers masks. I apply the texture with the mask. It’s easier for me to edit the shape of the color and the texture since they are on different things.



Miss Minoes

SW: Yeah, so interesting. It seems like a lot of artists today are working relatively like the way you work, but like you said, you do it in reverse with the pencil. Everyone’s got their own little way of tweaking these new ways of creating texture for an older look, which is kind of funny. Do you think you’re going to do anymore animations like Mutual Tunnels?

JC: Thank you so much, actually I’m making another one. It’s an animated music video for a band, a Brooklyn based band.

SW: Have you done some album covers too? Is that in your website?

JC: I’ve done one, that was actually a collaborative project, I collaborated with a musician. I generated this project first and then invited the musician to participate. It’s kind of different from album design, because it’s a small conceptual project. Behind the project there’s kind of sophisticated concepts. As you can see the album is called Hermaphrodite, so we were very interested in things like… hermaphrodites. [Laughs] I’m not sure how to discuss it, it’s a project from a long time ago. It was two years ago, it was a very fun project.

SW: Did you do it in school or just on your own personally?

JC: Yeah, I did it when I went to the graduate program at MICA. In school we were allowed to do many different kinds of experimentation, so I kind of liked the idea. I don’t want to make a boring project, just for the assignment, just something. So I decided to do something fun, something I was very interested in. When I was in school I was very interested in psychoanalysis. That kind of thing. I took classes on psychoanalysis and film and some other types of causes. I was very interested in it. I came up with this idea, making a project discussing gender identity or something. That was something I was very interested in. My interest kind of changed a little bit recently. I focus more on editorial illustration, which is quite a different approach. I do both personal work and professional work, so I have two different approaches.

SW: MMhmm, yeah you can see that in your styles. They’re both beautiful, but you definitely feel a bit more free in your personal work. The other work is very good craftsmanship, really great concepts too, but you can see the clear difference.



Lohas Monthly Drawing

SW: What inspires your imagery and color palette? How do you choose your composition and those limited colors?

JC: I think everything I do reflects my personality. I think art really reflects the artist’s personality, so I think my decisions are very intuitive too. Let me see, inspiration… one of the inspirations was also related to my previous experience as a printmaker. I think what inspires the way I do the colors is very logical. I like to play around with colors and try to find ways to multiply the colors together to make a third color. Usually when I make a piece, the maximum number of colors is four. With just these four colors I can create a lot of colors. I kind of like to play around with this idea too, to use limited conditions to make something more than that.

SW: So I guess your answer is intuition. The one piece I was talking about, Lohas Monthly drawing, just orange and blue. The choices that you made like you said are very intuitive. The pastel and the pink and blue one, within the range makes so much sense. Same with the orange one, not too bright, the right amount of muted, it just works so perfectly together.

JC: Actually, what I told you, the purpose of that image was to really try and make as many variations as I can in this one image with those limited colors. So that was a very fun process, to me.



Starry Night

SW: Cool! So here’s a big question: What are the main differences, good and bad, between the American and Chinese illustration world?

JC: I think the big difference is the history. Illustration in China is kind of like a field with not that long of a history compared to America. I’m only saying that of illustration. I think that illustration in China started like… 20 years ago? But if you say illustration in America, it’s like a 100 years or something. I remember when I went to school, we took some courses about illustration history in America. We talked a lot about the golden age of illustration. Those were like early 20th century, but if you look at China, because everything develops so fast and so recently, I think the main difference is this point. The industry has a lot to develop. In China, we don’t have many categories for illustration. The one that we can see very often is editorial illustration, we also have a lot of comics but they’re manga, like Japanese manga. The style is very different too, the way the illustrators work is very different from the illustrators in America. Another thing, because the industry is so young, all the illustrators are trying to develop it. Also, experimenting, so yeah, it’s very exciting but also very hard for illustrators because a lot of times they have to figure out things themselves. Like me, it took a very long time for me to figure out the business side of illustration in China because not all the art directors would talk about contracts or copyrights with you, but in America every job you have to sign a contract to make sure things are right. You own all the rights of the image or something like that, but in China you have to figure it out. You have to remind the art director you have certain rights of these images. And then you have to protect yourself when you deal with clients very carefully. So this is also very different from illustration in America. Another thing is, because it’s developing and all the illustrators are experimenting, it’s also very exciting too. They don’t have anything to limit themselves. They can do whatever they want. Recently a lot of young artists in China are doing independent comics, they’re very interested in something more underground. Especially in Beijing. After I graduated from undergrad I went to Beijing for a year and then I met many illustrators and comic artists and also animators there. I think it’s kind of cool. Another thing is, this field in China is developing but it’s not developed by the government, so it’s kind of very hard to publish a book in China. That’s why a lot of artists decided to self publish a comic or something in China, which is actually more interesting.

SW: Ohh…

JC: If you go to a bookstore in China, you can see, especially when you go to the comics section or illustration section, you can see the books there are very boring, but people try to find a way to publish their work and also do what they want with it. This is interesting to me. [Laughs]

SW: This is all really interesting to me, over in the western world we think of China as this very old culture, that’s very established with ways of doing things. America, we’re the western crazy ones. So it’s like the opposite. We’re an established deity of illustration, you guys are like the wild west.

JC: [Laughs]

SW: That’s so funny, you have to remind the art director you have rights?? That’s crazy! [Laughs]

JC: Crazy! Yeah, I think so too. When I first started doing illustration, the one or two years after I started I experienced a lot of things. Like, I didn’t get paid for the job because I didn’t sign any contracts or something, but now I’ve learned to do what I do in America with the clients, so this way they also learn that illustrators should be respected too.

SW: Mmhmm, in America there’s a lot of times where people don’t get paid, but when you have that contract it’s like, ‘you can pay me late, or I can take you to court. You’re making that decision…’

JC: [Laughs]



Velvet Dream

SW: Alright, that’s cool to know. Can you describe what you like your studio environment to be like? Do you like to have certain music on, quiet, loud, messy, clean? What’s it like in your studio environment.

JC: Actually, right now I have two tables in my studio. The reason why I did that is I love to move to another table when I get the first one messy. [Laughs] I love to work in different places. Like you said, I have to have music on when I work. I don’t watch TV or listen to anything with talking because I can’t focus on the work, but I really need music to create atmosphere, mood or something.

SW: What do you listen to?

JC: I listen to Spotify. [Laughs] I usually have my music preference, mostly electronic or psychedelic, shoegaze.

SW: Last question: What is the last book you read?

JC: Hmm, let me see… can I say a comic actually?

SW: Yeah!

JC: I just finished Chris Ware’s The Building Story, which is an amazing book to me.

SW: He is awesome.

JC: It’s epic, amazing. It took me awhile to finish it, because I have to go through every page in a project, because he’s so great. When I was in school I even made an essay about it, because I was taking a film class. So I was using film theory to analyze the project, because I do think comics and films are very similar in a way. In the way that the artist uses the camera, the movement of the camera to tell a story. For comics, the artist use the frame as the camera to tell the story, so they have similarity. I did that, it was a fun project to analyze Chris Ware’s project.

SW: That’s really cool, that’s a good artist to do that for.

Building Stories, Chris Ware