Jennifer Bruce is a Michigan-based illustrator who mixes traditional media with digital, combining figures with graphics, texture, and pattern.
She graduated from the College for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit with a Bachelor’s in Illustration (and a minor in Concept Art), with honors and currently resides near Detroit with her husband Steven and their pets Misa (adorable cat) and Suki (tiny cat-shaped gremlin). (And previously Benji (murderous rabbit, “Bun” to his friends/enemies”, now in bunny heaven.)
When she’s not bringing ideas, feelings, and characters to life for her clients or for herself, she enjoys bingeing sci-fi movies, ballroom dancing or working out with her husband, and trying to keep a multitude of houseplants alive (at a roughly 50% kill rate).
Interview by Jon Messer
What is Illustration?
I would define Illustration as artwork that tells a narrative story, or represents a specific idea. I think it differs from fine art in that specificity. I think that most Illustration is within the category of Fine Art, but not all Fine Art is Illustration, because it can sometimes lack the communication of a certain idea, and is instead more open to interpretation.
What drew you to become an illustrator in the first place?
For me, Illustration was the middle ground between Fine Art and Graphic Design – creative but also business-oriented, and would still allow me to make money (ha!). I had dabbled in Graphic Design but didn’t find it fulfilling. For some reason, at that point in my life I hadn’t thought about who makes the illustrations on books and for editorial articles and such – until I discovered the Illustration major at the College for Creative Studies. It immediately drew my interest and I never looked back.
What illustrators influenced you most as a young artist? And today?
It’s difficult to determine who influenced me when I was young – I’m sure that all of the illustrations in and on the books I read growing up had something to do with it. However, when I was young I was primarily interested in drawing horses, because I had the not-uncommon girlhood obsession with them (who am I kidding, I still do). I filled pages and pages with rendered pencil drawings of horses as I taught myself to draw.
Today – I have a whole Instagram follow list of artists that I want to emulate. I also have a wall in my apartment that is filled with prints from artists that I admire. Among them are Scott Fischer, Julie Bell, John Hendrix, Donato Giancola, and Tran Nguyen.
Was there an important event or shift in your thinking that boosted your career as a professional?
There were a couple, I think. I once had a relatively scathing portfolio review, a couple of years after I graduated, that really upset me. I decided to use it as a motivation to keep going – a sort of “take that!” response to the reviewer, and keep getting better at my art. Although my work has improved since then, I think I’m still too chicken to try a portfolio review again with that person!
Contests have actually been a big part of my growth and exposure as an artist. I placed in the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers & Illustrators of the Future contest, which meant I got to go to LA and learn with other artists for a week and attend an awards gala. That was my first big “win” – but I think my favorite award thus far has been the Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize – iCanvas Digital Art Award in 2022, in which I won first place for digital art with my piece “A Particular Blindness”. That was a huge surprise, incredibly gratifying, and gave me a lot of exposure.
Do you only accept commissions that inspire you?
I haven’t as a rule thus far, but there are certain situations in which I would like to implement that rule in the future. I’ve worked with several independently published authors, and I usually just take whatever job comes along and create the cover according to their vision. However, writers are not always attuned to what a book cover should look like, and I think I need to start putting my foot down more when it comes to art direction. I have a few book cover illustrations that haven’t made it into my portfolio because I eventually gave in to the writer’s suggestions and – frankly – stopped trying once I got frustrated with how it was turning out.
What do you do to stay inspired?
If I’m able to after I finish a project that pushed me towards burn out – I’ll put down my iPad for a while and do something completely different. That’s how I end up spending all my free time for a week playing Jedi: Fallen Order or something similar.
However, when I’m looking to get inspired for a certain project or to get new ideas, I have found a process that works really well for me. Unfortunately it doesn’t work as well when I’m under the gun, timewise, but it’s still helpful. If I’m creating a book cover, I start with trying to understand the story, central concepts, and character motivation as well as I can, and then sometimes I’ll do research on the subject to make sure I understand the visuals associated with it. Then comes the fun part: I’ll start scouring my Spotify playlists for music that fits the mood of the story. I’m basically trying to find a soundtrack for the illustration, as if I was turning the book into a movie in my head. I then just let my mind wander while listening to the music, and I’m usually able to find emotional and visual connections that make the image spring to life in my head. From there, it’s on to sketches and finding reference, and finally, painting!
What goals are you currently working towards?
Right now I’m working on making my illustration businoess my main career. I, like many other artists, work part-time in an office to pay the bills. My next goal is to sign with an agent, and to start working with publishing companies.
Which is more important; content or technique?
The impossible question! However, I have to say that technique is more important. Although a pretty piece of art isn’t really an illustration without meaningful content, good content can be completely missed or destroyed by bad technique.
What do you see as the big challenges for illustrators in the future?
In a very competitive field, I think we are about to face more competition. The accessibility of technology has always allowed less skilled artists or stock image companies to take jobs from career artists, and with AI I think there will be even less jobs available. I’m hoping that art-buyers will continue to see the worth of human-made art and of the name-recognition that some artists have, otherwise I’m worried that we’ll start seeing a lot of cheap looking book covers.
What kind of training or education should illustrators receive?
Anything and everything they can! I was self-taught until college, and while I feel I did pretty well by copying other images to learn realism, my work created before and after college is like night and day as far as quality. I studied as an Illustration major under several amazing art professors, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I intend to keep learning from other artists – in classes and by studying their work – so that I improve and don’t get stagnant. No matter how much you know there’s always someone who can help you improve.
Do you think art fundamentals are still relevant in the new age of AI?
YES. For traditional illustrators, we will have to be skilled in order to compete with AI. Even if an art director chooses to use an AI created illustration, the rules of art fundamentals still apply. AIs learn from and respond to their operators – if the user has little knowledge of fundamentals, they will be asking the AI for the wrong things, and the resulting illustration will be poor quality.
What advice do you wish you had gotten as a young illustrator?
Simplify. Concentrate on the foundations of an illustration, use broad and purposeful strokes, and THEN you can go in for the fun “noodling” on the details. I’m pretty sure that process had been drilled into me in college, but I’m always so focused on the end result and having fun with the little details that I rush the beginning stages. Maybe if I had been able to hear that advice from ME, I would have listened!
Do you have anything you’d like to say or share with other illustrators and students?
I can’t say that I have much experience in the industry, but what I have seen so far tells me that anyone who is working towards being a professional illustrator is going to have to work HARD. I knew that in college, as I found out that there aren’t many real “jobs” in illustration (at least not for what I wanted to focus on), and that I would have to go the freelance route. I knew that would take a while to make it a paying career, but I couldn’t fathom that it would take as long as it has. I’ve watched many others from my class at CCS take art-adjacent jobs instead of pursuing Illustration work. I didn’t want that for myself, so I struck out on my own, which was only possible because I was married and not the only one bringing in money.
It takes perseverance. I would never ever tell someone NOT to pursue this career if they really want to, because I love Illustration and want people to enjoy a career they’re passionate about. I might have given up, myself, if I knew what I know now. But I just want future illustrators to be aware, especially in this new age of AI – it’s going to be hard, you might think that you aren’t getting anywhere, you might not have money for a while, and you should probably have a backup skill/work experience. But if you want it – don’t give up. MAKE it work, because you can if you try.
All artwork ©2023 Jennifer Bruce, not for re-use without permission of the artist.