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Featured Artist: Talking Dreamlike Landscapes with James Fenner

"...a lot of what inspires me are those landscapes and the solitude that comes with them."

James Fenner (RB name JMFenner) is a Portland-based illustrator currently attending Pacific Northwest College of Art. Originally from Michigan, Fenner uses the influences of the both the lakes of his home state and the natural environments from his current surroundings to create lush, dreamlike images of drifting young men and women who float, journey, and get lost within brilliantly realized surreal landscapes.

I met up with the gifted artist during ICON8 to chat about his past, influences, process, future and more.

Artist James Fenner

How long have you been drawing? 

I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid. My whole family are artists. My mom does artwork, my aunt does artwork, and so does my uncle, so I kind of grew up around that and they were really supportive of me doing that so it’s just kind of been a natural progression. They’ve been really helpful and they were always supporting anything I did art-wise. In first grade I would do this weekly comic for the class, which was really cool and present it – it doesn’t make any sense now.

Do you still have it?

Yeah, I have all that stuff. She made sure never to throw any sketches away, which is kind of awful. Coming out here was another big step. I think I improved a lot, going to school.

"Dumb, Little Secrets" by JMFenner

How has school helped you improve?

Coming to school, I think it broadened my experience. The places I was looking for inspiration. Before coming here and before high school, I was really interested in anime and manga stuff, and I was drawing a lot of not great things. And when I came to school here, eventually, I started to get more interested in design and shapes and not just focusing so much on the human figure and drawing pretty images, it’s more about images that have meaning. So now it’s just focusing on mood and atmosphere and exploring, I think I didn’t do a lot of that.

Where do the moods come from? 

It’s a lot of nostalgia. Since I grew up on lakes in Michigan, it’s a lot of thinking back about my times in lakes or in the forests around lakes, just little moments I miss a lot. And a lot of trips with my family when I was young. And sometimes it’ll come from putting on music in the background, I like to do that and it’ll help emphasize the mood and help drive a piece forward. A lot of times, out here, it’s nice because we have the mountains in Oregon and I get inspired by all the landscapes and scenery here, as opposed to Michigan, which is just flat.

What kind of music? 

I like a lot of stuff I can just zone out to. If I just want to work, I usually put on hip hop stuff or instrumentals, stuff that’s just low-key that I can just zone out to and just work and let it decide it self. If I’m trying to think of a different feeling that I want, if I want it to be a happy piece or a sad piece, I’ll usually create a playlist of artists that I have work of that I like. For a while I used Bjork for a lot, and Chrystal Castles, the kind of stuff that’ll help drive an emotional feel.

"Translations" by JMFenner

How did you develop this style? 

It’s definitely a mixture of a bunch of different artists that I like. One of the things that I was taught was by Lee White, who’s an illustrator and one of my instructors at Art Institute here. He’s fantastic and one of the things he made us do was create a dream portfolio where we just essentially create a folder of images that we wish to create and we want to be able to call our own and then we just look at them like a collection and then narrow down what we’re doing that’s different from the images as a whole. So it’s like, “I want the lines that this person has,” “I want to have these kinds of colors,” and it’s usually they’ll have something in common that is missing. So a lot of my linework derived from Sterling Hundley, he’s been a big inspiration. I’ve been looking at Sachin Teng, and Edward Kinsella, and Adam Tan too – his atmosphere is great. I try to update my dream portfolio every couple of weeks just to keep it current and see the things that I’m missing out on. So it’s just been about taking from them what I want, because, I guess to me, what an art style means is just a collective of all your other favorite artists, and so when you’re trying to create your own style, it should be something that you love, it’s supposed to be catered towards you, and if you’re not doing that, you’re not having fun, I don’t think. So that’s been my mantra: I’m doing this to perpetuate a message that I’m trying to get across a feeling, and it’s just a lot of being selfish. But it’s been fun, and that’s how I approach it.

Do you ever think about the story of your pieces? 

Sometimes. Although, a lot of times, the story comes as I’m creating a piece. Sometimes, I’ll go in with one already there. Like, for example, “The Spirits of Lake” piece – it’s kind of based on my experiences in Michigan when I was growing up and I would go into lakes at night or during the day and just close my eyes, it was weird because you can feel stuff around you like fish moving around, and it was about dreams that I had about being back there in that place and monsters in the water and weird spirits coming out and creeping up on you. And then I drew — there’s a circular piece in the middle around the character, and it’s supposed to be like a dream catcher, and it’s symbolizing that it’s a separation between the dream world and the real world. I kind of just take it as I go, I guess. I kind of just make up the stories as I go along, unless I have written things out. Those ones come out a little less emotional, they don’t have the impact I want them to because they’re not as in the moment and I don’t feel it in the moment. The way I work lends itself to that because I tend to work really fast and if I do a piece I do it all in one sitting, so I end up usually taking an hour for the drawing and an hour for painting, and then I’m done. I think it helps.

What’s your process like? 

Generally, I just sketch in my sketchbook. First I work with mechanical pencil just on computer paper or sketchbook paper. And then I end up just scanning that right after I’m done. And then I color that in Photoshop using various brushes and then I texture it, just to give it a watercolor or more traditional feel. That’s been struggle, I think, because I really like the feel of traditional media but I don’t use traditional media hardly ever. It’s just difficult for me because there’s so much cleanup time and the set up for it takes too much time for me to keep the emotional feel that I want in the piece, so it’s hard for me to plan around that.

"Closure" by JMFenner

How do you decide on where you place color? 

That’s a good question because one of the things that I struggled with even more than just drawing was color, because when I first started drawing, I would just pick colors from where ever and it did not seem cohesive. So what I did to get over that was when I started making the dream portfolios, I would actually build the color based close to artists that I liked and pieces that I liked and then I would begin picking out pieces from those and I could establish a color theme that I wanted to go with. And as it evolved I can now just pick whatever and even now, sometimes, I can look at photographs and say, “that’s such a good color palette, I’ll have to save it for later” and I sample a couple from it that I really need. And that’s been how I use it. When I’m consciously doing it I try to keep in mind the warms and cools and highlights and wherever your attention is going to go. That’s something I’m still working on a lot. I know value is a thing I need to work on a bunch, and that’s the best main thing I’ve been trying to get better about.

So this piece right here, do you have a plan?

No. Usually when I begin pieces, I usually start by just drawing the head in a random position, I’ll draw the circle and I’ll just put the face on it. And as I go along I’ll decide however I want the body to feel. I will have no idea until it decides for itself.

James Fenner sketching

Do you think there’s a theme that you’re working on or working towards? 

Right now, a lot of it is kind of solitude or a dreamlike state and I know that a lot of what inspires me is nostalgia and my past and places that I’ve been or places that I want to go that I dream about. So a lot of what inspires me are those landscapes and the solitude that comes with them. That’s what I really love, is those quiet scenes.

What’s your career goal?

All my personal work is about trying to get something out for me. It’s a lot of self-satisfaction and so when I create pieces, I create them largely for myself to just get them out or to just think through something, and a lot of is working through my own emotions or working through memories that I have that I want to revisit. And it gives me a good to reason to think about those things for an extended period of time and it gives me good inspiration for pretty images. In the future what I want to work towards is doing more editorial work for magazines and book covers and that’s really what I love doing, but it’s hard bridging that gap between the two. Since a lot of personal work is so personal to me and a lot of what I would working toward in professional fields is a little more distant. That’s been the struggle right now, trying to figure out how to get between those two places in a meaningful way. And I think I’ll get towards it, but it’s hard.

What kind of self-promotion are you doing? 

I just try to post everywhere, I don’t try to limit it. I post on all the big sites, mainly, and I try to post as often as I can. I post mainly on Tumblr and DeviantArt and Facebook as my main big places to promote sketches and stuff. And I use Instagram and Twitter for more smaller scale, just doodles. I’ve just been really active on those and I’ve just been trying to keep it current and keep up with and post something once a week, maybe. And that it seems like I’m still doing things and I’m around. It can’t hurt to post those things, it’s just more exposure, people do share it, right? What’s the reason NOT to share it, right?

Any advice to your fellow artists on Redbubble? 

I would say just post. Don’t try to limit yourself to what you do. Don’t try to curate your own work, rather. If someone wants it, they’ll buy it. A lot of it is in your own mind when you begin to post, but when it comes to people actually wanting work or purchasing work, a lot of it is about them and what they take from your work, so what you see is not what they see, a lot of the time, so you shouldn’t really worry about that sort of thing. I just try to post as many as my favorite pieces that I can, and even some that I’m not as fond of that got more attention on websites. I don’t try to eliminate any just because I don’t like them, personally. It can’t hurt to be there.

"The 88" by JMFenner

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Jen Durant

Redbubble Artist Relationship Manager