Jeff Lee Johnson is an American illustrator, who grew up in Minnesota. Thanks to his mother’s guidance and inspiration, who provided him with a supply of materials, and instructions, Jeff embarked on a career as an illustrator and artist. The artist began with commercial illustration before moving on to sci-fi and fantasy themes. Jeff currently splits his time between personal projects and art directing for Fantasy Flight Games. His intricate illustrations bring to light the monsters that hide behind the banality of everyday life.
Can you tell us a little about you?
I am currently Senior Art Director at Fantasy Flight Games in Roseville, Minnesota, where I have been working for a little over five years. Prior to that, I was a freelance illustrator for 17 years, and of course, still am, though I split my time now.
How did your journey into art start? What motivated you to become an illustrator?
I grew up 5 miles from a small town in north-eastern Minnesota. This left me pretty isolated in the summers, and I spent a lot of time alone dreaming of exotic places and amazing events. Thankfully, my mother was a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy literature and our house was full of books and magazines that provided a wonderful escape to far-flung and often exotic lands and times. I also had the great good fortune that she had a more than modest gift for drawing, was patience personified, and provided early instruction and encouragement that really piqued my interest in art. Since it’s really the only thing I have ever had any hope of being excellent at, I have never been inclined to put it aside.
I look closely at everything that comes in front of me. That includes everything from a mud puddle in the backyard to a magnificent vista on a remote hilltop. I suppose all visual artists are tuned in that way. Really dialing into what is in front of my eyes works on me like music does, being capable of sending me on vivid and thoughtful journeys. It’s such a simple gift, to be able to perceive, and it’s basically free, yet provides a dedicated observer with limitless hours filled with meaning, emotion, and mystery. I deeply want to be able to share that experience with others, and I probably make art to remind folks to look a bit closer as they meander through life.
I never dreamed of a career as an illustrator until the internet arrived along with painting software and graphics tablets, which opened the entire world up to artists, who no longer would have to live in a big coastal city to have access to editors and publishers. My superpower is and has always been great timing, and just as I was getting into the field the genres I loved to represent were skyrocketing to the center stage. I could now chart a realistic course for a future as full-time science fiction, fantasy, and horror image creator making a living doing my art, which had been and remains a life-long goal.
What were the biggest challenges at the beginning?
The biggest roadblock out of the gate was having absolutely nothing in my portfolio, and I had to really dive in to create a body of work out of thin air that was both personal and universal in appeal, and looked like it belonged in the mix. I was learning digital painting starting from the novice level, trying to make professional work out of the gate, and I really had to immerse myself in studio practice. Luckily, I am a grinder by nature, and pretty tenacious. Still, that was an often lean first few years, commission-wise, and I said yes to just about anyone, both in order to learn how to fulfill the needs of an assignment on time and professionally and to generate an income stream.
I am not sure I could have made the transition without the support of my wife, who was adamant that I become an illustrator. Luckily the gaming industry was starting to really kick-off, so it wasn’t too hard to find work, though often at low rates, which meant “speed”, which also takes a lot of time to accomplish.
Who influenced you as an artist?
Oh man, I don’t know how to answer that in any useful way. I just loved Rubens, Holbein, Degas, M.C. Escher, and Ingres growing up when I thought being a draftsman was my calling. I was also just gobsmacked by the narrative storytelling of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, James Bama, Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta, Michael Whelan, and all the artists creating the covers of the books and magazines I so loved reading. Mad magazine, comic books, old movies, animation and advertising illustrations always grabbed me and still do. Edward Hopper has been a recent fixation. Of course, it’s my job, both as an art director and an artist, to view and internalize art and imagery daily, so my actual list of influences is always being added to.
What is your philosophy? What’s your creative process?
If I can stop a person in their tracks and make them really look closely at one of my pieces, my day is made. I work to reward many viewings, and my style and approach are geared towards that end. I want anyone who sees my art, no matter who they are, to find something in it they can interact with. I try to put the viewer in the scene somehow, either directly or indirectly, and often limit my means and subject matter to the most universal themes I can manage while staying true to my passions. You will rarely find happiness in my art without sadness, nor beauty without ugliness, or love without hate, and so on. Those simple dualities are a reflection on how we experience life, and my fingers are crossed that this simple grounding helps add some basic relevance to my stuff that enhances its shelf life.
I often have ideas for images in the spur of the moment, and have been very careful of late to record those ideas in notes and will rush to the studio to create a folder of inspirations that cement the idea in my head. These images really inform my content, narrative, color scheme, and mood. I can spend hours combing through every resource I can think of looking for stuff that sparks. It’s pure joy and an embarrassingly pleasant part of my job.
I usually have an outline of an idea that can be presented in a sentence or two at most. I am pretty disciplined in staying in that box, so I can avoid things falling apart, as meandering is toxic if one wants to start and finish projects. Plus, we all only get really creative when we are forced to limit ourselves.
The series I am currently working on is set in the past, so I do a lot of research on the era I am setting each image in. I try to keep an open mind when I dive into an era, as I am often happily surprised by what I uncover, and an image can often go on a fruitful detour if I land on a particularly evocative reference.
I rely chiefly on historical photographs and paintings to inform my settings, since place is vital, as the series is sort of a slightly twisted travelogue that speaks to my obsession with roving the world. Little details with verity can really put one in a picture, so I am very attentive to finding references that firmly establish place and time while supporting the narrative. If I can go to an actual place that is relevant to a project, I try to do so, camera and sketchbook in hand, though I don’t have a time machine, and some places I really wish I could visit no longer exist, at least in the form I would like.
I create my characters out of a combination of my imagination and aspects of real people. I often overlay several faces together, for instance, all in low opacity, and find the face I am looking for like we do when we find dragons in clouds.
Once I have a sense of the cast and setting, I then do a series of rough-ins until I hone a composition that I am confident tells the story I want and creates a fun journey for the viewer. Then I work up a more refined value study to set the bones in place, then a color rough to establish mood, then hours of joyous refining until all the little nuances play well together.
At first glance, your illustrations portray a typical view of the American province. Cosmic horrors and infernal nightmares emerge after more careful observation. The fabric of everyday reality has been torn apart. Once the viewer understands that the illustration hides unsettling details, he thus begins a playful and dynamic process of looking for more bizarre elements. How did you come up with this idea? Was it something planned, or did this style slowly emerge in your paintings?
I was commissioned to paint the first image in the series, Blue Plate Special, by Fantasy Flight Games. The art brief was a basic outline of the hidden horror idea, though I think I took things in a direction my art director was quite happily surprised by. I was pretty pleased with that image, and after a bit of reflection realized I have been doing this sort of thing in my images for some time, which is probably why I was chosen for the project! I have a slightly twisted sense of humor, as anyone who knows me can speak to, and can’t resist tempering even the grandest moments with the darkest of dark reflections. Since I have always admired series illustrations, I knew instantly that this was a theme worth exploring.
What Horrors lurk in the peaceful towns of the American province?
Those we bring with us.
How long does it take to complete a project, from the concept idea to the final design?
That can really vary. I grew used to a 3-4 day turnaround when doing game card art. The Dark Reflection series pieces average about 2 months. Some took much less time, some much more. It depends on the objective, as a more complex scene takes some real noodling to work through.
What is your next project?
I have at least two more images in this series in the works, though I am mulling expanding it to twelve for a calendar. That would require a lot more travel, reference gathering, and life-living, all of which suits me to a “t”. Beyond that, I think I have landed in a very fun field of happy, horrible, funny, and scary things that will provide me with a lifetime of creative projects.
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