Girly Man
Illustrator Erik Jones is Changing Comics,
One Pretty Girl at a Time
by Rosswell Saunders
RVA Magazine, Summer 2010, No.2

Before there were gentlemen’s magazines, men had another way to satisfy their wondering peepers — pin-up art. We’ve all seen it, illustrations of scantily clad and semi-nude girls in suggestive poses in calendars and magazines from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. For years, pin-up art was a staple component of the male condition. But golden ages never last forever and it wasn’t long before pin-up art faced serious competition for the eyes of its audience.
As social norms became more lax in the latter half of the 20th Century, the popularity of pin-up art began to wane. The suggestive, stylized depictions of pin-up gave way to the more openly lurid images of the modern porno mag. The golden age of the pin-up was over. Nevertheless, some elements of the style managed to persist, thanks in large part to alternative media such as comic books. Then suddenly, just like it had decades before, the culture shifted again. The growth of the internet exposed a new generation to pin-up and paved the way for the art form to establish its place in digital alt-culture.
Enter illustrator Erik Jones. Jones has been completely captivated by pin-up art for most of his life. He’s even gone so far as to build a career around it, channeling his ethereal, often haunting work through the genre’s two biggest media, comic books and the internet. Erik’s latest work, along with the work of fellow illustrator Jason Levesque, is featured in the new exhibition Pretty Girls, on display at ArtGallery in Norfolk, VA from July 10-August 21.

RS  High school guidance counselors aren’t exactly pushing students to make art their profession. What led you to become an illustrator?

EJ  Actually, mine kinda did. I was in music for a while, actually a long time, and I always drew. In fact, I went to an art middle school and art high school and I did music and art at both. After high school I was in a band for a while and it wasn’t going anywhere. I was dating a girl in Sarasota at the time [who] convinced me to go to [Ringling College of Art and Design]. So I went to art school and now I’m backed up in so much debt that I actually have to use my degree.

[Note: little known fact, the guy who first said, “payback’s a bitch” was referring to his student loans.]

But I’m in the industry now and I’m loving it, you know? I’m actually doing shows and I’m getting work so it seems to be working out so far.

RS  You’ve established yourself as a pretty successful comic book cover illustrator. How did you find your way into comics? Did you find comics or did comics find you?

EJ  Well I graduated in 2007. Right after school, I got represented by a comic book rep in New York, and he was getting me some comic work. I have yet to have a normal job since I graduated so [comics] is my primary job… well, actually, it’s my only job.

RS  So your first break was hooking up with a rep?

EJ  Yeah. The way I went about it was I went to a bunch of comics shows and just kinda caught the eye of some editors and stuff, but I was doing everything myself and it just seemed like having someone look out for me was the best way to go. About four or five different reps wanted me, so I just kinda chose the best one.

RS  So basically you worked the cons [short for conventions] until you were able to make the contacts you needed.

EJ  Yeah. If anyone wants to get into the comics industry, that’s the way to do it. It really is. Go there, meet these people face-to-face, and get to know the fans and everything there. If you have the talent, it’s hard not to get noticed at those things.

RS  So you were interested in comics right from the start.

EJ  Actually, no. I don’t even read comics. [laughs] I never have. I just like straightforward, painterly type art put together in a very comic style, so my work lends itself to comics. I don’t do sequential at all or anything like that. I just do the covers.

[For the uninitiated, sequential art is the industry term for the way comics tells stories through the juxtaposition of related panels/images. If you’re interested in how this works, see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. For an even more scholarly analysis, check out Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art.]

RS  You don’t do any sequential, so no plans to draw your own book?

EJ  No, no… well, I guess I do, but the cover work is so great. [Sequential art] is not something I know. I mean it would be fun to do, but one “panel” for a certain amount of money as opposed to say 400 panels, there’s nothing comparable, you know?

RS  I completely understand. It used to be that comics illustrators penciled these books their whole careers trying to work their way up to the cover work. Obviously, your experience has been different. Does that mean that system is no longer in place?

EJ  I mean, it is and it isn’t. When I first got started, back when I was doing the cons, I would go up to editors of companies and ask, “How can I get cover work?” and it was pretty much the same thing every time. “Oh your stuff looks great, but it’s really competitive and you need to put in your dues.” And so on. So I think the cover artist is kind of a new thing, as far as comic books go. But like I said, I don’t know a lot about comics, so I could be totally wrong. That just seems to be what’s going on.

RS  Could you describe your process for creating a cover illustration?

EJ  Most of my cover work — well maybe not most of it, more like 60-75% — is digital work. Anything that goes to print I like to do digitally because I’ve got someone on the other side telling me to change colors or change backgrounds, so if it were actually physically painted, it would be a lot harder to change.

So the first thing I do is get reference. I get a model, and I shoot the model, and then I draw from the photograph. Then I scan in my drawing. After that, I just start rendering it in Photoshop.

If I’m doing it traditionally, like gallery work or something like that, I basically use the same initial process except, instead of rendering it in Photoshop, I do a color study on the computer. Then I print out the color study, a small version, and I put that next to my painting and that’s what I go off of.

RS  You illustrate almost exclusively women. How did your work get so focused?

EJ  I’ve been obsessed with pin-up art ever since I can remember. Like I said, I’ve never been a comic book person, but I saw Gen 13 and Danger Girl done by an artist named J. Scott Campbell and I became obsessed with those images. I had a bunch of friends that had those comic books and I would look at them while sitting in school in awe that someone was drawing women like that. And the more I researched pin-up, I found a lot more artist that I liked. There wasn’t anyone in [Ringling] at the time that was doing pin-up art, or anyone that I knew at the time that was into that, and I just focused on it.

I’m actually doing more guy covers now. Tonight I actually have to finish one. And it’s fine, but there’s more of a challenge with women, making them beautiful. Drawing a beautiful woman is hard. Drawing a guy is pretty easy. They’re just rugged. Women are beautiful and soft. It’s harder to capture that. And when you do it and you do it right, it’s just an incredible feeling.

RS  It’s interesting that you mention Campbell since, like you, he is best known for his depictions of women. Do you think that your focus on female subjects limits your marketability or does your specialization make you more sought-after?

EJ  I think that really has to do with the artist. I market myself to editors and clients that want pin-up art, so you just have to research your market. I think for sure it limits how many companies I can get jobs with, but the companies I want to get jobs with seem to like my stuff a lot. So I mean, you know, having a niche can be complicated sometimes, but if you do it well, people notice it and if you focus on what clients you want and go after them, you’ll get them. For me, I think having that focus on the female figure and doing that type of work has made myself better rather than just being all over the place. So yes and no.

RS  Very decisive.

EJ  Thanks.

RS  I’ve noticed you’re doing a lot of work right now with Boom! Studios. How did you get hooked up with Mark Waid and company? Was it through the cons?

EJ  That was actually through my comics rep. I love working with Boom! They’re one of the only comic companies that kind of just let me do what I want to do. I get like a loose outline. The editors there just really like me and trust me. It’s a lot of fun to do stuff with them. But, yeah, we’ve got a really good work relationship. They like what I do. I like what they do.

RS  Very cool. The time has now come for me to have my personal nerdy comic book moment and ask you what it’s like to work with a legend like Mark Waid. So?

EJ  [laughs] It’s pretty crazy! Like I said earlier, I was never really into comics, so when I first got the job, I didn’t even know who this guy was. And then the more research I did, I was like, ” Holy crap! This is a pretty big deal!” He’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a trip, man. It’s pretty cool.  And he seems to like me a lot. I talk to him on the phone and he’s ridiculously nice to me and compliments me so much. I’m pretty flattered to get such high comments from such a person.

RS  He’s worked with some of the best so he should know, like Alex Ross on “Kingdom Come.”

EJ  [Ross] is one of the best comic artists ever! The guy’s insane. I mean who the hell puts that much time into panels like that? I can’t even imagine doing a book like that! It’d be ridiculous. They’d have to pay me so much money.

RS  Speaking of getting paid, do you consider yourself a fine artist or a commercial artist and do you think that distinction is relevant anymore?

EJ  Well, my definition of fine art is gallery art. Take James Jean who’s a comic book illustrator. He took his covers and put them in a gallery. Now they’re fine art.

For me, I guess I’d say I’m both. I do work for galleries. I do work for book covers. Fine art is great because it’s all you. Cover work is more about what the client wants. That’s how I would make that distinction.

RS  How long have you been showing in galleries?

EJ  I think 2007. Right after I graduated, I started doing the gallery scene. Nothing major, but galleries here and there. Sort of all over. Not so much the West Coast, but all over the East Coast. Gallery work for me, so far, is not very profitable. It’s more just fun.

RS  How did you become part of your latest show, Pretty Girls?

EJ  Jason [Levesque] contacted me at the last comic show we were doing, about a month and a half ago, and asked me if I wanted to do a gallery show with him. I was expecting sometime at like the end of this year. He called me up right after the show and was like, “Hey are you free now?” And I told him no problem. I have work. It was kind of that simple.

RS  I understand you’re showing nine pieces. Are they all original or are you selling prints?

EJ  They’re all original. I will be selling prints too, though. The gallery also wanted me to bring one in progress, which is perfect because I have one.

RS  Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

EJ  I’ll be  working on several new comics. I can’t really say much about them. They’re similar to The Unknown and Nola kinda stuff where it’s a short body of work with a limited number of issues. It looks like I’ll be working on those. And I’ve got the Tata Gala coming up this year. In fact, as soon as I’m done here, I have to call someone about that. Tata Gala is a show I do every year with the profits going to breast cancer research. This will be its fourth year and it looks like both Juxtapoz and ImagineFX are going to be sponsors for it and running stories about it, so it’s going to be very cool. This year we’re going to do it in Sarasota, which is where I’ve done it for the last three years, and then the best work will go to New York for the Best of the Breasts show. Pretty Girls, July 10-August 21, 2010. ArtGallery, Norfolk, Virginia.