Introducing Juliana Neufeld, award winning illustrator and mixed media artist whose work has travelled throughout Canada and all the way to Japan. Inspired by everything from eighties textiles to the art of Margaret Kilgallen, Juliana makes whimsical landscapes come to life with quirky creatures, meditating monsters and wine-sipping jungle animals. We visited her studio, devoured her collection of old sketchbooks and had an excellent conversation about working as a freelancer, self-confidence and perks of living in the city.
How do you think your style and techniques have developed over the years?
I went to an arts oriented high school and my background is in photography, but I’ve been drawing since I was a kid and I’ve always known that art was the direction I wanted to go in. I did a lot of digital art initially and I was very much into monochromatic scales and possibly slightly intimidated by colour. I love experimenting though, and after four years of photography I decided to go back to painting. I feel like it’s where my voice most lies.
Out of all the fields you’re working in (children’s books, magazines, personal fine art, etc) which one do you think accentuates your illustration best?
I think that, at the moment, my work is lending itself best towards children’s illustrations. I am, however, taking it in a slightly quirkier direction and I’d love to abstract it more and make it a little bit darker. Doing commercial projects is fun as well, but it sometimes make me want to do the complete opposite, you know? Not to mention that it’s difficult at times to find consistency, with me wanting to try everything and loving a challenge. I’m always trying to pinpoint my voice as an artist and hopefully there’s a commonality that ties my work together in all of these fields.
Has making client’s stories, ideas and characters come to life through illustration ever been a struggle?
It’s can get frustrating with the bigger clients because you have to go in with the mindset that it’s their project and you’re just there to help illustrate it. Being picked for personal style, though, I actually get a lot of creative freedom for most childrens books: I create the characters, make some text decisions…To some people, having to change a character’s nose or something small like that can be considered a great compromise, but to me it isn’t. It can get frustrating, but to tell the truth I enjoy the process so much, it’s never a real struggle.
Do you remember your favorite children’s book?
Most of them were books my parents or grandparents would have lying around: really old classics such as “Blueberries for Sal” and “Make Way for Duckling”. Then there were books like “The Golden Book of Elves and Fairies” and “Where the Wild Things Are”…I loved those little fantastical worlds. I’m illustrating another children’s novel at the moment and I appreciate so much what it has allowed me to do. I would love to create one of my own that’s purely visual, maybe with watercolour illustrations or something.
Is there a specific or recurring character in your works that you relate to personally or feel represents you?
That’s a good question… Sometimes I plan the characters and sometimes I don’t. Lately, there’s been this woman character that keeps popping up in my landscapes and it feels sometimes as if I’m representing my points of view through her. It may be a little strange, but I think it’s a way of personalizing the work, figuring it out, maybe even leaving it open ended… Then there’s a whole bunch of quirky, fantastical characters I’ve created, but I don’t relate to them in the same way.
What’s your work process like?
It always depends. In the sketching process, I find that the outcome is usually better when I’m not trying to take it in one specific direction. I always try to balance out the illustrations as I go. My artwork generally ends up more honest when I’m not attempting to define it straight away; it’s only once the sketches are finished that I look at them more formally to decide which ones work and which ones don’t. There have also been times in which I’ve tried to repeat a sketch and because I was relocating it, it’s as if something was missing from the original idea. Oh! And I got this new drawing tablet a while ago, which is making a huge difference in how I work: I had a smaller tablet before and things like accuracy and speed have definitely improved.
How do you go through and select which pieces are going to be exhibited?
Well, for my latest solo show “Flotsam and Jetsam” at the Gladstone Hotel I only had certain space to exhibit in the gallery. So once the pieces had been filtered conceptually or colour-wise, I pulled out the ones I felt weren’t strong enough because I like keeping a certain space between the works to make it look cleaner. The most important part of the process for me, though, is the painting itself. Seeing how the finished artworks tie together has helped me learn a lot about how I work.
Are there any techniques you haven’t experimented with yet that you’d be interested in exploring?
Well I’ve just started a ceramics course which I’m very excited about and looking forward to dabble in. I’m also in love with Jim Henson’s puppets and the monster-like characters in movies such as Labyrinth. I’m very inspired by those styles and I think it would be so cool to create backgrounds and see my characters made into puppets. I don’t have a specific project in mind, but I’m also tinkering with the idea of fetishizing objects. I collect things all the time so I’d like to investigate what these objects mean to me, why I’m bringing them into my life, what they represent, how I can create this aesthetic. There’s so many things that can be done!
Have you ever animated any of your illustrations?
Some of my work was animated by directors into a stop motion style and I’ve created elements for music videos as well: shapes in a sort of eighties aesthetic, things like that. I’ve never done something where my characters move through a landscape though… I’d love to see them come to life in that way.
What do you admire in an artist?
It’s interesting because there are artists I really admire that don’t necessarily relate much to my work. I love Maurice Sendak, the children’s book illustrator, because he saw a darker side. He also has a respect for children that not a lot of artists have: an ability to see them as little adults with depth of emotion, which is a view I really appreciate along with his visual style. I’m very much into Picasso as well, Margaret Kilgallen, Renaissance art…I have to say, I’m getting more and more into the small gestural representations of abstract work. And there’s also something special about artists such as Frida Kahlo and Emily Carr. I love strong women, and it’s nice to see a woman’s perspective in a very male-dominated industry. Surprisingly enough, there aren’t that many female painters out there, which is something that is hopefully changing,
You mentioned that you know many of the artists featured previously on our blog. Do you find there’s a close-knit art network in the city?
I think that’s very true, especially for people who are showing in the West End. If you go to shows often you eventually start recognizing works and seeing familiar faces. You could definitely say it’s a small community which is funny because it felt so much bigger when I was younger. I guess as soon as you know more people you realize how supportive everyone really is.
Being here in Toronto, how has that affected your work?
I’m always looking at other artists so it keeps me thinking in a forward, current direction. I think if I was living in the country or something I would probably get really comfortable with one style and keep it at that, so I think it’s good to be surrounded by creativeness when you’re young. It inspires you, intimidates you…it does all the right things to keep you on your toes. I always want to be evolving, so being in the city is perfect for that. I’m not only inspired by the artists but by the movement, the life of the city itself. Toronto is an interesting city. I think there’s a lot of room for growth, a lot of people will leave sometimes to find success but they come back. There’s a sense of everything is new, and you can create these communities. It’s really young, it hasn’t reached it’s full potential yet. It’s fun when people stay to develop that.
If you could change anything about the art scene in the city, would you?
I think that for the most part, the worlds of illustration and fine art are still a little segregated. There’s still people who think that illustration is less conceptual or has less meaning and power and it would really be interesting to bridge that gap.
What advice would you give to artists in search of a voice?
I’d say don’t be afraid to try out different things. Experiment and continue working because your style will eventually find you. There’s always a reason for being attracted to different styles so get inspired by others and never underestimate the little details you repeat in your own work. Showing your art is very important as well: getting out, doing group shows, meeting other artists…There will always be moments in which you experience self doubt, but there’s something special in what you’re doing and you need to start somewhere to see it.