The work of illustrator Jay Fleck is bold, beautiful and bursting with imaginings of faraway lands and fantasy playgrounds. His graphics are universal and full of heart: inspired by the literature of his childhood and the supportive internet communities of today. Jay Fleck talks to us about his designs, his process, and his own youngsters.
Much of your work is inspired by literature. What are your favorite children's books?
Jay Fleck: My favorite books when I was a young child were the standards - Where the Wild Things Are, The Berenstain Bears series, Miss Nelson is Missing and others. When I got older I was into fantasy classics such as The Phantom Tollbooth, Bridge to Terabithia and The Hobbit. Now when I look for books for my children I'm more drawn to the style and art. When I go to the bookstore I'm surprised by how many new books there are for young children that are both imaginative and beautiful. I saw Wave by Suzy Lee on the shelf and was blown away by her gorgeous book.
Soundtrack to a Peaceful Night
Encounter Under a Blue Moon
What elements of a story are you most drawn to? What are your favorite creatures and archetypes to illustrate?
I'd say a good portion of my art draws on my childhood imagination. So I suppose in that sense it comes from the perspective of a child playing. Maybe wandering through the forest, having adventures with imaginary creatures like robots, giant elephants or an octopus. In a way I'm almost trying to impress my childhood self. Maybe someday I'll be able to travel to the past and meet myself and say "Hey look at this cool picture I drew of a giraffe riding a shark!" At the very least I'll have something that my kids can say "my dad drew this!"
Reach for Me
The Big One
Are there other artists, or styles of design that you especially admire?
There are a ton of artists that I admire and whose work I follow, from fellow Threadless artists Lim Heng Swee, Budi Satria Kwan, and Andy Wilhite to the greats such as Mary Blair and Saul Bass. I like a style that is modern yet timeless. That's something I aspire to in my work.
Songs for a Rainy Day
Into the Setting Sun
How did you start to gain recognition? Do you remember the first design you ever sold?
I started a small t-shirt website and a few designs were picked up by blogs and got a modest amount of attention. A Da Vinci inspired robot design was my first real success, if you could call it that. That was probably five years ago and it's only been the past couple of years where I've been getting more recognition.
Your work is popular on Threadless and Society6. How much has the internet influenced your career, not only in terms of access to customers, but access to ideas?
Threadless was hugely influential. I had done little to no illustration prior to finding Threadless - my only artistic outlet being some photography and experimentation in Photoshop. I found Threadless and would visit the site regularly until it finally got to the point where I thought "I can do this." So I started submitting to Threadless and then went on from there to (briefly) launch my own t-shirt website, and eventually back to Threadless and to Society 6 among other things. I can't imagine I'd being doing much in the way of art if not for the internet. It's basically what got me started and a constant source of inspiration as well as a way for people to find my work.
What's your design process like? How often do you try to sit down and work on a new piece?
I'm constantly brainstorming and looking for inspiration. I might see something while I'm out shopping - maybe a color scheme, shapes or some image that I photograph or try to remember and then use as the basis for a new piece of work. More often I'm poking around the internet and come across something sparks an idea and go from there. Every single day I'm either coming up with ideas or working away on something.
Sasquatch and Me
How long have you been illustrating, and how did you develop your style?
I drew a lot as a child and then very little as I got older until I reached my mid-twenties. I became interested in photography and then stumbled across Threadless.com and started submitting artwork. Since then I've been illustrating regularly - it's a pretty big part of my life. Because I've only been illustrating since relatively recently, my style is largely influenced by current trends and I have little traditional art background. I like clean vector work - smooth shapes and lines with touches of texture and color that make it look classic.
Eye to Eye
Crows on the Playground
Inspired by "The Birds"
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows
Inspired by the song "Space Oddity" (Major Tom)- a doomed astronaut reflecting on his family.
Do you have any dream collaborators, in terms of authors, illustrators, and other creators?
I really haven't collaborated much but I'd love to work with an author on a children's book. I'm also into music and movies, so maybe an album cover for a favorite band, or a movie poster or promotional art. I've been into Studio Ghibli lately so doing something for them would be very cool.
Beyond the Sea
There was Fire in its Eyes
What do you do when you're not designing?
I have a nine-to-five job and two young children so most of my time is consumed with work or the kids. I try to get outside as much as possible and of course fit in time to work on art.
Do you get excited every time you see someone wearing or using something with one of your designs on it? Do you get the urge to introduce yourself?
Yes, it's hugely flattering that someone is willing to spend money on my work. It's the ultimate compliment. I haven't come across someone wearing one of my designs but would probably force myself to say something even though I don't generally talk to strangers. I'd probably ask what compelled them to buy it.
What's your favorite part of your job?
When I'm designing something I can do absolutely anything I want and have complete creative freedom, as I mostly either submit it to Threadless or post to Society 6. I've done very little commissioned work. I think in a way I'm avoiding that as I'm worried about working under someone else's constraints. It's much more fun not having someone tell me what to do.
Tea Party with Mr. Cuddles