Jackson Joyce's melancholic illustrations inspired by childhood nostalgia


Louisana-born illustration graduate Jackson Joyce claims he spends most of his time stuck in his head. A thinker that illustrates the daydreamer, he captures characters gazing melancholically into the distance. Be it from painting in coffee shops, on aeroplanes or in the studio, Jackson’s illustrations play with proportion and mood; their cool colour tones, soft shadows and sad, dark eyes create strange and foreboding narratives.

Jackson studied at Rhode Island School of Design, where he worked hard but always trusted his intuition. “There’s something about that first instinct that usually ends up creating a good image”, he points out. As a result, his illustrations centre on perfectly captured moments, but utilise an ability to take everyday occurrences and turn them into something sublime.

A man collecting a takeaway drink from a drive-thru, a woman driving her car or a man smoking a cigar is painted so expressively you’re almost transported into the scene. Jackson brilliantly captures the existentialist human condition, and we have all been there daydreaming out into the distance like one of his delicately painted subjects.

It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study illustration?

Jackson Joyce: Initially, I just wanted to be a better painter but all the paths I saw as a painter ended up in a gallery. What eventually attracted me to illustration was the accessibility. There are so many different avenues to get your work out into the world, whether it’s through comics, editorial, or animation. My time studying illustration allowed me to explore those different paths and find out what worked best for me.

INT: What mood do you look to evoke in your illustrations?

JJ: Lately, I’ve been thinking about nostalgia a lot. Nostalgia is a really powerful tool for an artist, it can transport people. So, I’m making a series of paintings about my youth, and the first is an image of two kids climbing a fence. I didn’t actually look like that as a kid, and I don’t know if I climbed any fences, but it’s a feeling I remember. What is ostensibly a scene from my childhood, is really just a screen for the audience to project their childhood. What I really want is to make something personal that triggers that same nostalgia in others.

INT: How does your work explore the human condition?

JJ: In the past I made more active work, with lots of motion and dynamic compositions. Now my work explores the in-between, pensive moments. Lots of looking out windows in glazed silence. I people-watch a lot, on the subway or in restaurants, but I mostly look at the people who seem like they are daydreaming. I guess I’m interested in how people behave when they are inside their head — it’s where I spend most of my time, anyway.

INT: Can you describe a project you’re most proud of and why?

JJ: The project I am most proud of exhibits my flaws as much as my strengths, a 60-page book of comics I wrote. The storylines are not related and I didn’t really find my voice until halfway through its production, which is made pretty obvious, sometimes jarringly so, by the vastly different drawing styles.

It was the largest project I’ve taken on by far as most of my assignments at RISD had one or two week turnarounds for an illustration. I think the scope of the project, truly making a shit-ton of drawings, was essential to me finding my style. So, the product is a little rough around the edges, but it is nice to have an object that embodies that search.

INT: What was the best bit about your time at university? And the worst?

JJ: During my first summer at RISD, I was filled with nervous energy to make as many drawings as I could from life, mostly on aeroplanes, in coffee shops, at a friend’s house. First I was filling a sketchbook every month, then every week. No drawing was sacred, and that really allowed me to loosen up and improve as an artist. I’ve tightened up now, doing full paintings in my sketchbook. But, it was that summer of nonstop sketching where I found my confidence in drawing.

The worst part was that there was never much time to do anything other than my assignments. I definitely learned how to work hard in school. I’m very competitive, and all the students at RISD are driven. No matter what time I left my studio, even if it was 4am, I was never the last one there. So sometimes, I’d stay even later because of it.

INT: Is there a particular person who has shaped your university experience or creative outlook?

JJ: My creative outlook is a synthesis of various peoples’ influence. I took an editorial illustration class with Chris Buzelli who had us line up our pieces each week and rank them from first to last place. I got last more times than I’m willing to admit. While that sounds pretty cutthroat, it really helped me take a step back and say, “You know what, I wouldn’t put my work in a magazine either. How do I change that? How do I make something that I’m excited about?” Now I’m always self-assessing.

Then there is my friend, Sophi, who taught me that you have to have input to have output. She made me realise that if you work all day and all night, it isn’t going to be fun, and it isn’t going to produce good work. So we decided to devote some time out to doing something productive that had nothing to do with our degrees — we cooked. We made long, intricate meals, making everything from scratch. Sometimes it would turn into an event, with lots of friends coming over and pitching in. The culture of workaholism views meals as obstacles. I think when I started respecting the ritual of eating — a practice in supporting mental health as much as physical health— my work started to improve. It wasn’t really about the food, it was just a way to press pause, connect with other people, and refuel some creative energy.

INT: If you could create your dream project, what would it be?

JJ: I don’t know if I have one dream project. I definitely want to collaborate with more people, maybe on an animation or a book. One of my favourite projects in school wasn’t even my own. It was a performance that combined giant puppets with animation. I did the sound, but the experience of working with a team made me realise how rewarding that can be. Too much of illustration is spent alone, bent over a drafting table, staring at a blank piece of Bristol until your forehead bleeds. But then I’d also love to be commissioned to do an adaption of any of my favourite novels, either into an animation or a graphic novel.

Supported by Polaroid

Polaroid Originals is the new brand from Polaroid, dedicated to original format Polaroid analog instant photography. Find out more about their new and vintage cameras, plus film and accessories, on polaroidoriginals.com

The It’s Nice That Graduates 2018 is supported by Lecture in Progress and Polaroid Originals.

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Emma Latham Phillips

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