Exclusive Interview with Jennifer Bruce, 1st Prize Winner of the iCanvas Digital Art Award, 2022 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize
Jennifer Bruce has turned allegorical portraiture on its head. Subverting our expectations, the subjects of her recent portraits are faceless, but no less intimate for it. Rather than distancing us from their plight, these characters are now all the more relatable – because it could be you or I trapped in the frame. We are used to seeing allegories painted in oil, and on first look you could be forgiven for believing that’s what you’re looking at. With these incredibly detailed works, Bruce has truly elevated the medium of digital art.
After falling in love with oil painting at college, Bruce moved into the dark arts of the digital world. She studied Illustration (with a minor in Concept Art) at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and after getting started with digital painting, she never looked back. Alongside her personal works, she has created a variety of book covers for fantasy authors – showing the versatility and imaginative power of her unique style that blends the best of both worlds.
It’s no surprise that her striking piece ‘A Particular Blindness’ won 1st Prize in the iCanvas Digital Art Award category of the 2022 Beautiful Bizarre Art Awards. It’s a subject so many of us can relate to: a woman holds her injured heart close, not realising that by keeping it so protected she is preventing her own healing.
People are reluctant to seek therapy because of social stigmas, fear of admitting “weakness” or of stirring up emotional pain.
“A Particular Blindness” has a powerful and relatable allegorical meaning behind it. You’ve said previously that it represents “the struggle to ask for help when it feels safer to hide away.” Can you talk more about the story behind this piece and what inspired you?
I got the idea for this piece from an article about the general reluctance to seek therapy, even when obviously needed. I think humanity as a whole would be so much better off if everyone had a therapist! I think some people think you should only seek therapy if you have obvious psychosis or experience extreme trauma, when in fact therapy can be helpful for almost any situation that has a negative effect on your mental or emotional state, no matter how small or trivial-seeming. People are reluctant to seek therapy because of social stigmas, fear of admitting “weakness” or of stirring up emotional pain. Therefore, I think people try to protect themselves from these fears by hiding their emotions and avoiding therapy; which actually locks them away from real healing.
I say all of this as someone who has been through a lot of therapy as a mostly “normal” person, and as someone whose personal faith encourages me to seek out the roots of my struggles and find healing, rather than trying to gloss over them. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to comment on something like this without personal experience!
Why did you enter the Beautiful Bizarre Magazine Art Prize?
I entered in the hopes of gaining exposure and recognition. Freelance art is not an easy career to get off the ground, so every bit helps!
How did you get started as an illustrator, and was it something you wanted to do from a young age?
Like many artists, I was drawing from a young age – mostly black and white drawings with pencil. I was almost completely self-taught until I started looking at colleges, but I didn’t have the self-confidence to pursue art as a career at that point. Several years into my college experience, after floundering in my decision on a major, I finally took a few art classes at my community college. I tried graphic design, which ended up feeling too sterile and restricting. A fine art major seemed like a great way to become a “starving artist”, and I wanted more narrative direction in my work. I looked around at colleges and discovered the illustration degree at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, near where I live. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that this could be a job – the perfect blend of marketable skills and fine arts talents!
I finally finished a degree at CCS for both illustration and a concept art minor, and started trying to market myself to potential clients. It’s been a long road since then, and I haven’t really avoided the “starving artist” trope, but I’m so glad I took the risk.
I really strive to include lots of detail and texture in my work, and I want my illustrations to have a traditional feel to them.
You have such a unique art style with digital paintings – so detailed they look like they could have been created through traditional means. Can you talk about your creative process, and the tools you use?
Thank you for that comment! I really strive to include lots of detail and texture in my work, and I want my illustrations to have a traditional feel to them. Although I work primarily in digital media, I do have a background from art school in traditional media. In college I fell in love with oil painting (talk about ASMR, it’s like painting with butter!), but once I really dug into digital painting (it’s a totally different feel at first), I never looked back. I’m trying to reintroduce more traditional media into my portfolio, because I still love it. I will probably always attempt to hit “Crtl+Z” to undo a pencil stroke in my physical sketchbook, and have to laugh at myself!
My process has a few layers; I usually start with a black and white or colour sketch. My idea gathering for this stage often consists of looking at other artists’ work, listening to music, and just letting my imagination wander. You’d be surprised at how many of my paintings have roots in some of my favourite pieces of music. After I’m happy with the sketch and composition, I’ll hunt down reference images online or take my own photos. I have probably hundreds of very strange looking photos on my phone of me or my friends in capes made of blankets, holding brooms, curtain rods, or candle holders as props. It’s helpful when I can find an online reference, but if I need the lighting to be a certain way I have to take the photos myself. This can be tricky, because my work is very reference-centric – being semi-realism – so I need to make sure it’s just right.
I then begin my work on the final image. I mainly use Procreate on my iPad Pro 12 with an Apple pencil, with a DokiWear CG Art Glove to reduce random mark making from skin contact on the touchscreen. I’ve used a couple of other digital painting setups, but this is my go-to – partly because I can take it anywhere (although I’m usually in my special comfy armchair!). Then I spend hours painting away, with music or Netflix on in the background. I’ve binged a lot of movies and TV-shows while painting!
I tend to use a rather painterly process, occasionally using application functions like gradients, painting guides, layer duplications, etc. I use a LOT of layers; it’s very useful to be able to move things around as needed. These functions are why I would struggle to go back to an entirely traditional process – I simply can’t put out art at the same speed. However, I do try to add other traditional media inspired elements – such as hatch lines, overlaid paper textures or patterns, and textured brushes. When I’m almost done, I’ll go back in to add some more precise details, and then transfer it to my computer for finishing touches. Since Procreate doesn’t have a lot of photography filters and such, I open the illustrations in Photoshop to correct any brightness or contrast issues. I also like to watch back the process video that Procreate automatically records – it’s so fun to watch an illustration be created from start to finish!
C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s work will always have an influence on my work.
In your career to date you have worked on a range of book cover projects with a particular focus on fantasy – which fantasy books or series have inspired your work over the years?
Ooh that’s a good question. Robin McKinley’s “The Hero’s Crown” has inspired a couple of pieces, as has Donita K. Paul’s Dragonkeeper Series. Last year I discovered Ursula K. LeGuin’s writing, which I hope I’ll get to base a few personal projects on. Of course, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s work will always have an influence on my work. Interestingly enough, though, I think that it’s music (and sometimes really good movies) that have most inspired my work. I have many long playlists of cinematic music, as well as pieces from other genres. The really dramatic pieces can send me deep into my imagination, and I often surface with my best ideas – the ones that I’m really emotionally invested in.
Your personal project ‘Even So’ seems to be another allegorical piece referencing the pandemic, with flowers on a face mask materialising and flying away. Has the pandemic influenced your work, or the way you work at all?
I created this one at the very beginning of the pandemic in response to a call for pandemic-related art from a group I was working with. It actually got picked up by the European branch of Politico for one of their articles. I was trying to portray the idea of hope in the face of adversity – that though we have to make changes to our lives to deal with a new reality, and though we have to face daily tragedies, there is still hope and beauty to be found in the world, and in personal faith.
I think the pandemic mostly affected my work in logistical areas, rather than directly affecting the way that I work or the illustrations themselves. For instance, sending art postcards to the art directors at publishing houses that you wanted to work with was one of the main ways to reach out, but then all of a sudden the art directors were working from home, so emails became much more important. For a large portion of my beginning as a professional artist, I wasn’t able to go to the conventions and meetups that people often get industry contacts from. In the past year or so I’ve been able to engage more with other professionals in person, and I really value that.
What’s next for you – are you able to share details of any upcoming projects?
My next project is for the award-winning author Midori Snyder, and I’m very much looking forward to this one. I recently illustrated the new cover for her novel “Hannah’s Garden”, and she has since hired me to recreate the covers for her Oran Trilogy. I read the books in preparation, and I have been refining a couple of ideas that I am very excited about. Midori has been wonderful to work with, and I think we have similar visual tastes, so it’s going to be a very fun project. I’m also trying out some new strategies for this round of covers, which should be interesting. We’re still in the sketch phase, but I can’t wait to share the illustrations when they’re done! Check back on my social media around February or March, if you’re interested.
What do you feel you have gained from this experience?
I’ve definitely gained from winning this competition, largely from the exposure to your social media. This has done more for my follower count than anything thus far!
Would you recommend it and encourage others to enter? If so, why?
I would encourage others to enter for sure – your team does a great job of making the winners feel excited and celebrated, the exposure is great (in my limited experience), and you get to experience the other amazing works by incredible artists.