Somewhere between adorable and disgusting: Joe Jack Chapman’s digital worlds


If you had the power to create your own world, what would it look like? For Joe Jack Chapman, an illustration graduate from the University of Westminster, building new imaginative worlds is at the heart of his practice. He creates characters and environments that exist at the border of the adorable and the disgusting. Religiously drawing on the four pillars of “cute, weird, sexy and gross” to inform his enigmatic digital renders, Joe’s creations ask us to think twice about what is possible on an illustration degree.

He mostly works from his bedroom, he tells us, shifting between his desk and working in bed, simply for the fact that it’s cozy. But from the comfort of this personal space, Joe conjures up unfamiliar and iridescent worlds that are almost tactile due to the quality of the render. By studying natural phenomena, the London-based illustrator skilfully recreates certain aspects of our world and provides a still glimpse into some highly original new realities.

He looks to foetal forms and their textures, sunlight at 5 in the afternoon, the shimmering insides of oyster shells and the lure of escapism to populate his hyperreal artworks. “The world is becoming increasingly hard to navigate,” Joe tells It’s Nice That, “and having the ability to design new realms, and see the graphic and illustrative applications for them is incredibly exciting to me.”

"I got a free pass to make work that was cute and funny and gross and sexy"

Joe Jack Chapman

It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study illustration at the University of Westminster?

Joe Chapman: I chose to study illustration because it gives you that scope to make anything you want without worrying whether the “big bad” world of fine art will take you seriously or not. I got a free pass to make work that was cute and funny and gross and sexy, just because that’s what I wanted to explore and I had the freedom to do so, without someone telling me whether it would be suitable in a gallery setting or not. Illustration is accessible and incredibly freeing like that. The course at Westminster is also versatile and very broad, so it seemed like a natural fit. I was encouraged to follow my thoughts and just make work until I formed my own practice.

INT: Please can you tell us a bit more about your degree show project?

JC: The project started off as a visual response to the folktale of “the golem” – this humanoid creature made from mud that becomes sentient. The whole world is talking about AI in the 21st century and I thought it was funny that one of the earliest documentations of artificial life ironically comes from an ancient fable.

I began digitally modelling characters and the forms became more and more abstract, less human and more foetal. Then, I sculpted environments and worlds around this new form of life that I’d virtually created. In the past year, I’ve become so interested in the concept of world building and this idea that the viewer can infer a narrative from just a lone snapshot of the world. Could I provide enough visual exposition in a few images alone to convince the viewer that this world is real? It’s weird to look back on the project now, because it’s clear that some of my childhood obsessions – games and TV shows like Pokemon and fantasy surrounding it – have filtered into my practice today as an adult.

What was the best bit about university and the worst?

JC: By far the best bit of my university experience was the casual conversations I had with my pals and course mates about our own work. Those 6pm, summer-evening chats with a tin, talking about other illustrators we’ve found and how they’re putting the world to rights. And I’ve come away from those talks being able to talk more confidently about my own practice. The uni environment introduced me to some great illustrators and artists that are now some of my best pals and we all have such a strong interest and adoration for each other’s work. But more importantly, they’ll tell me if what I’m making is shit or not.

The worst bit involved that constant question of “Am I doing enough?” It was always running through my head. Sometimes it can inhibit your creativity because you can slip into this weird way of thinking where you feel you need to consistently churn out work. If you’re just making work for the sake of bulking out your final submission then you’ll never feel a connection to it. It means nothing.

"I love the tools that working digitally provides"

Joe Jack Chapman

INT: As someone who interpreted an illustration degree in a nontraditional way, focusing on digital painting, what has shaped your unique method of creative thinking?

JC: I’m still trying to find that sweet spot between traditional illustration and totally smashing tradition to smithereens. I spend a lot of time not really knowing what I’m doing, which is actually really freeing in a sense. I can be playful and create randomly, without the pressure or expectation of producing some grand or profound image. Besides that, I love the tools that working digitally provides. I can alter the materiality or lighting of any scenario and totally change the tone of the work as a result. Texture plays a huge role in my work and I find that there’s just something so intriguing behind what a virtual form might physically feel like.

INT: What does your ultimate dream project look like?

JC: I’d love to collaborate with someone to see my work taken out of the virtual realm and made physical. I’d also like to create an installation for the set of a music video or just work on something more sensory. Perhaps sculpt my work on a large scale so we can touch it and even create a scent for the characters… maybe?

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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