“Genuine, unfeigned spontaneity”: exploring Jean Jullien’s portfolio

In this excerpt from Jean Jullien’s debut monograph, Raphaël Cruyt explores the illustrator’s “rough-and-ready” drawing and satirical edge.

Jean Jullien’s work is instantly recognisable. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2010, he has produced more than two thousand creations: sketchbooks, graphic designs, posters, satirical drawings, sculptures, clothing, photographs of everyday objects with added human features, oil paintings, animations, product designs, and other inventive gems.

And key to all of these creations is his approach, about which he says, “My work is about communicating the positive in things, making people smile, making them think, too, sometimes, I hope.” Over his decades-long career, Jullien has done just that. He has produced an extraordinary body of work, proving he has more than a few strings to his bow –⁠ he’s got a whole harp load. And what he creates isn’t some reedy one-note affair but a serenade deploying the full range of his talent.

Sketchbook. Courtesy of the artist and Jean Jullien Studio

Within this prolific body of work, Jullien is probably best known among his fervent fans for the witty takes on everyday life that he posts on Instagram –⁠ with the strokes of his pencil, he captures familiar scenes and gives them a distinctly comic twist. For example, his image of two toothbrushes facing one another, with an electric “you” on one side and a manual “me” on the other. Sometimes the thrust of the joke is more direct, as with the image of a man with his dog lying on top of him, each lost in sleep, oblivious of the other.

Jullien’s gently satirical images of society are very graphic in style, with markedly simple black lines. His use of colour in the work is similarly restrained and perfectly pitched, adding to their emotional impact. Jullien draws just as he paints, or perhaps it’s the other way round. Every colour is sparingly distilled, giving the subject all of its meaning, in the pure tradition of twentieth century graphic arts. They are characteristically kind in tone and lightly mocking of their subjects, his favourites being couples, work, holidays, interactions with technology, little daily struggles and victories. He holds up a mirror to society in which we can all see ourselves. The tone is light, his empathy natural, the message universal.

La Coiffe at Jardin de Plantes. Courtesy of Ville de Nantes/Jean-Félix Fayaolles

In a slightly different register, he likes anthropomorphizing things. I am thinking of the brilliant way he can take a light bulb, for instance, and with three quick brushstrokes turn it into a radiant face smiling out at you. His public sculptures are similarly brought to life: friendly, simplified figures with rounded outlines, made of cut and folded sheets of metal, are placed in locations such as the Jardin de Plantes in Nantes, greeting people amiably as they pass by.

Through both his fine art work and commercial projects, Jullien has spent his time with his nose glued to a piece of paper and his fingers gripping a paintbrush. He has worked for hundreds of clients, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Guardian, Beams, RCA Records, National Geographic, Esquire, Hotel Amour, Champion USA, and Petit Bateau. He has also published countless books with publishers including Phaidon, Walker Books, Comme des géants, Hato Press, and teNeues. His clothes and design objects are sold internationally. He even finds the time to support humanitarian and philanthropic causes, helping both large and small organizations alike, from Amnesty International and Secours populaire to Socksial Club.

Face cup and pitcher, Nounou Spring/Summer 2021. Courtesy of Jae Huh

Clearly Jullien doesn’t wear only one hat. He is not just an illustrator, or a painter, or a designer, or a stylist, or a sometime surfer. Jullien is eager for the opportunities that come his way –⁠ ready to rise to a challenge and change hats to do so. Very much in keeping with today’s cross-disciplinary culture, free from the constraints of the past, in the days before the Internet, he gets his energy from the sparks he generates with his constant switching from one creative field to another. In fact, it is actually quite a simple practice, he says, because his ideas always come to him through doing. His job is to open his sketchbook just as he would a newspaper and watch his drawing appear under his fingers.

The pages of his sketchbooks speak for themselves. Every inch of the page is used. His drawings consider an idea and embrace it instantly and completely, pursuing it with the ease and gracefulness characteristic of his line. Take the image of a suntanned bather seen in profile. A white patch where his smartphone had been glued to his ear is impossible to miss. It encapsulates a generation in a single sweep of the brush. Or his series of drawings of hairstyles sported by passengers sitting opposite him on a train. It would make a fine cast of characters for a new version of the classic board game Guess Who? This is Jullien’s work in the raw, as it comes, direct from the source. His sketchbooks demonstrate his genuine, unfeigned spontaneity.

Suntan ALLO. Courtesy of the artist and Jean Jullien Studio

What is most important in Jullien’s work is what is being expressed rather than the technical wizardry. The less-than perfect, sometimes rough-and-ready quality of his hand drawn lines lends an added sense of honest immediacy to his drawings. It’s a style that has something of the “French touch” associated with May 68, the student-led protests that took place in Paris in May 1968, and the likes of Sempé, Savignac, and Tomi Ungerer.

In fact, social caricature is more or less universal and timeless. Cartoons addressed to “ladies and gentlemen” existed long before they became a feature of the New Yorker in 1925. You only have to think of the work of nineteenth-century artists such as Honoré Daumier, Rodolphe Töpffer, and J.J. Grandville, and of their countless predecessors, including Hokusai, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Lucas Cranach the Elder, and stretching right back to antiquity and a host of anonymous artists who left their mark on vases and walls.

Sketchbook. Courtesy of the artist and Jean Jullien Studio

But what makes Jullien different from his predecessors? The time he lives in. Each generation naturally repeats what the previous one did before. Emotions speak straight to the heart, without reference to the rational mind. In other words, they are the most direct means of communication we have. Life would be dull without the things that trigger them: sunsets, a child’s laugh, a parking ticket on a car windshield. The range of emotions we feel hasn’t changed since the dawn of time. But that is not the point –⁠every human being, every person, every civilization has to express them anew, over and over again.

Raphaël Cruyt is a curator, gallery director and cofounder of MIMA, a contemporary art museum in Brussels.

This extract comes from Jean Jullien, which is published by Phaidon and is available now from the publisher’s bookshop. The banner image shows Jullien’s sketchbook, courtesy of the artist and Jean Jullien Studio

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