A full English, Doritos and a flying White House: Julia Dufossé talks us through her trippy airbrush illustrations
The Chicago-based illustrator quit her doctorate in history in 2019 – a bold move that’s amounted to a portfolio filled with work for The New York Times, Bon Appétit Magazine and The MIT Technology Review.
- Ayla Angelos
- 25 January 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
In one of Julia Dufossé’s illustrations, you’ll see a greasy breakfast; a sausage, some bacon, an egg, a few mushrooms and tomatoes – your typical offering of a tasty fry-up placed atop of a chequered table cloth. Another depicts The White House flying above the clouds, served hot on a silver platter; another sees an exploding bag of cheesy Doritos let loose in space; and another centres a switched off television reminiscent of a rainy, boring day. Everything this Chicago-based illustrator creates seems familiar at first, but then, like magic, she gives it all a sprinkling of her signature 1980s plush aesthetic. The result is a trippy concoction of bizarre scenarios littered with everyday objects.
Surprisingly, Julia was a historian in her previous life. It was only in the Autumn of 2019 that she quit her doctorate in History at the University of Chicago, yearning for a more creative occupation. “Overall,” she tells It’s Nice That, “I think I was ill suited to the life of an academic and I’m happy I was able to discover this relatively early on.” After leaving her settled life behind – including her “steady stipend and rigid life plan” – Julia took the plunge and underwent a complete career transition. Doing so is a risky move, one that takes courage, and would expectedly leave the person feeling slightly pickled as to what to do next. Panic aside, Julia was able to take some time to figure things out, paying special thanks to the support and trust of her wife Kate Dehler. “The shift into creative work was a huge leap, and a journey filled with self-doubt and anxiety; I still can’t believe I can call myself an illustrator today.”
With a style that’s reminiscent of 1980s airbrush techniques, the French-born illustrator’s nostalgic works have garnered recognition and have been awarded the winner of The Design Kids’ 2019 Awards. She’s also got a client list to match: MSNBC, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Quartz, The World Health Organisation, Zeit Verbrechen, Bon Appétit Magazine, The MIT Technology Review, among others. Alongside the 80s, the 70s makes a strong appearance as well – two eras that she refers back to fondly. Observing the work of Michael English, Peter Palombi, Masao Saito, Hajime Sorayama, Richard Bernstein and old copies of Graphic Annuals, this takes up a large part of her pre-making process. As for more contemporary sources, it’s Robert Beatty, River Cousin (Mikey Burey) and Max Loeffler, “three very different approaches to airbrush but all brilliant.”
Julia has always been drawn to the tactility of airbrush art, most notably for the ways in which it transforms an ordinary object into a “glossy ethereal apparition”. It’s precisely this visceral, soft and shiny version of reality that she’s inherently drawn to within her work, in turn striving for the weird reflections of light, shadow and exaggerated forms in her creations. To achieve as such, Julia commences work on an iPad Pro and Procreate, which is where she begins her sketching. After which she transfers everything to Photoshop, where she’ll proceed with selections, masking areas and airbrushing. “I spend quite a long time tweaking little details, adding countless adjustment layers and texture overlays or experimenting with weird Photoshop filters,” she says. “I can be quite obsessive about learning different techniques and improving different aspects of my work, and Photoshop definitely encourages this type of neurosis.”
Recently, Julia has enjoyed working with a local brewery in Chicago, named Hopewell. Tasked to create illustrations for its new line of hard seltzer – a sparkling alcohol water – she worked alongside Blank Studio to bring a floating scene of objects to life. The elements needed to mirror each of the drink’s flavours, both visually and conceptually, amounting to a fun and joyful project to take on. In other news, she was commissioned to illustrate a Doritos space opera scene for NYT Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation column. The outcome turned out to be as fun as it sounds: “I really enjoyed painting the minute little details of that Doritos texture. Who knew there were specks of green and red on there?”
It’s never too late to try something new in your life, and Julia’s daring move to leave her doctorate life abaft and succeed so well in illustration proves just how beneficial it can be. Age, previous profession, or even if you’re feeling stuck; whatever it is, Julia’s story should hopefully give you that nudge you might need to take the plunge. “It’s an exciting time for illustration,” she says on a final note. “Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and cannot do.”
Julia Dufossé: NYT Magazine, Eating Chips. (Copyright © Julia Dufossé, 2020)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.