Born and raised in China, illustrator and animator Jun Cen is now currently based in New York. He received his MFA degree from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2013 and his work has been selected into Society of Illustrators, American Illustration and Society of Illustrators Los Angeles.
Interview by Ysabelle Cheung.
You studied in Guangzhou and then Maryland. Those two places couldn’t be more different – how did both these areas dictate what you do now? What did you learn from both?
Guangzhou is the city where I was born and grew up. This city was (and still is) very well known for its acceptance of exotic cultures when other cities in China were relatively less open to this. My childhood memories are all about Japanese manga and animation. As a teenager, I was in love with western alternative music thanks to the CDs secretly imported from the west to China as “junk”. These were important influences that has affected what I am doing now. Baltimore, Maryland is a city that has character. The city is not a stereotypical glamorous American city, one that would be portrayed in a TV show or movie. However, I really like the fact that it is historical and the art scene there is less commercial. It was also the place where the poet Edgar Allan Poe died and wrote important work. I like to mention this. It gives a dark feel to the city. A lot of my work has a dark feel to it too.
Tell us about your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished piece.
I usually come up with good ideas when I am blanking out. A lot of ideas come out when I’m taking the subway. For the production part, I first create a few different sketches. Sometimes I do it by pencil and sometimes I do it by computer. I usually print the sketch out the same size as my final piece and finish the piece by using a light box. I don’t watch TV or listen to anything with talking when I am working. But good music is necessary to me.
What particularly appeals to you about working in graphite?
Pencils are simple, basic and friendly. When I am working in graphite, I feel that I am less fabricating a piece of work, and instead, just enjoying the experience of making marks on a piece of paper.
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
I tend to create an atmosphere in my work. And the characters (if a piece has characters) naturally react to the atmosphere I create.
Do you have a favourite pencil? Wood? Mechanical?
I prefer wood. Mitsubishi is my favorite brand.
What size do you tend to work at? Do you have a preferred scale?
For pencil work, An A4 size or a letter size (US) are good for me. They are manageable and easy to scan. I work at larger scale when I do gouache or acrylic paintings.
What is your favourite subject-matter?
My favorite subject matter might be the intertwining of concealing and revealing – how human consciousness and subconsciousness work. I have this desire to reveal something by hiding something. This sounds abstract. But ambiguity is what I love to play with.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the piece you drew for Issue 4?
This piece was influenced by a modern Chinese poetry The Song by a Taiwanese poet Ya Xian. He used a lot of surrealistic metaphors in his work.
How did you consider the theme Death and Resurrection?
After hearing a lot of personal paranormal stories from a friend of mine, I have been thinking about how little we know about the world we are living. Many old cultures believe in resurrection. My own culture is one of them. But to me, as I haven’t experienced death in this life and don’t really remember my past life either, death and resurrection are purely part of poetic imagination. I imagine the gap between two life circles is like liquid. It is a place where one achieves completion, where the past, present and future emerge. The piece I created is a scene before this persons enters his next life.
I see a slight difference in your commissioned/professional and personal work. Your personal work has a more raw edge to it and seems more fluid in lines and texture, whereas your professional work is sparser and has a kind of melancholic feel to it. How did you develop these two styles?
This is an interesting question. Having a stable style is not the most important goal in my practice as an illustrator. I believe that an artist should not cease experimenting and challenging himself or herself. I always try to experiment with mediums and techniques. Maybe in the future, you might see some of the techniques I used for my previous personal work in my professional work. And the other way round as well. I just enjoy making art in different ways.
You also create animation. In your opinion, what is the difference between creating an image that is moving and one that is not?
Interestingly when I create a still image, I always imagine the motion of it. But when we come to the difference between them, I would say making an animation is more of the montage of a series of images no matter if they move or not. Because the montage itself is the main movement of a film. When I am working on a drawing, I also think about the movement. Composition does create movement as well. But it would be the movement within the image itself only.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
Probably my first animation, Mutual Tunnels, so far. It’s not a perfect piece, but the experience really opened up a new world to me. I felt very fulfilled and learnt a lot.
What are you early memories of drawing like?
The memories are very vague. I remember I was drawing fireworks.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I am working on a new animated music video for a New York based band. I am also thinking about putting up some zines.
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
I post on my Tumblr blog.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
Jun Cen’s work appears in Issue 4 of Tiny Pencil: Death and Resurrection! Available to pre-order here.
This interview was brought to you by The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts. Follow us on twitter @TheTinyPencil, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram for the latest news on all of our new anthology artzines.