Illustrator Profile - Juliette Borda: "Don't follow trends--create them"

By Robert Newman   Thursday July 23, 2015

Juliette Borda creates beautiful painted illustrations that combine childlike gracefulness with powerful intelligence and wit. “Did I mention I love color?” she asks rhetorically— and her illustrations are rich with color that is used to great effect. In addition to extensive magazine and publication work, Borda illustrates book jackets, makes fine art, does color consulting for interiors, and produces product design.

Borda’s work is bright and stylish, with a smart, wry sensibility. Her images often deal with fashion, style, and issues relating to “mind/body” (as she describes them on her website). There’s a great sense of playfulness in her work, combined with a smart graphic sensibility. Borda lives in Brooklyn with her family, and has been working as an illustrator for 20 years.

I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in various places in Pennsylvania. I live with the artist Brian Cronin and our family and dog in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. I have two kids—one’s 13 and the other is one. I have no middle children. Middle kids can get lost in the shuffle so that’s one less thing to worry about!

I’ve lived in NYC for 16 years or so. I had a studio in the Meatpacking District, when it was still a meatpacking district. At the time it was very much like dusty corners of Brooklyn, with uncrowded sidewalks and empty storefronts, an old Spanish cafe, a pie shop...they were just hoisting up the new artisinally-aged sign for the restaurant Pastis. Now with the High Line and the very glam West 14th Street boutiques, it’s a different planet. After a few years I headed to Park Slope, Brooklyn, and then Prospect Heights. We just moved to the lovely, green neighborhood of Bed Stuy. It had become impossible to find parking in our old neighborhood as more and more condo buildings went up! 

There are and have been various whittlers, woodworkers, and amateur painters on both sides of my family. There is also a history of wine merchants in my family, though I just buy it.

My very first job was when I was 14. I worked at an office furniture wholesaler. Sorting thru yellowed slides of plastic picnic tables was slightly agonizing, but the upside was I thought working in an Art Department was somewhat cool. This experience may have contributed to why I studied fine art, not any other kind of “art,” such as commercial.

Simply having a space of my own does the trick these days. I use a long dining table, which I really like because I can have various projects in piles. I have some photos of my Grandma in my studio, some bird-themed Christmas tree ornaments, pictures of my kids, nice notes to me from Brian and my son, some favorite paintings, and art supplies, but really just having solitude is what gets me going. A good view out a window is invaluable, as well. I lived on Bond Street in Manhattan some years ago and could see up Lafayette Street for many blocks. So many little narratives unfolded below. Now I live across the street from a park with a playground, and I love the light, trees, and urban sounds (most of them). It feels a little like France here, and a little like Massachusetts, but then a loud car radio goes by and reminds me where I really am.

Gouache on paper. I usually clean things up in Photoshop but I don’t create the image digitally. The process of mixing paint is, for me, meditative, therapeutic, and joyous.

My career took off immediately, doing regular work for Rolling Stone, GQ, Time, Elle Décor and others. But none of that happened until I began painting. Prior to that I worked in a drawing style; but I’m glad my intuition led me to painting in color early in my career because I do consider this breakthrough to be my first big break. Mixing colors and coordinating palettes or creating new color combinations continues to be exciting to me, because within a box of paints, there are endless possibilities to convey all kinds of moods or attitudes. Did I mention I love color?

Over my career I have discovered many artists whose work spoke to me loudly at the time for one reason or another. Camille Bombois, Jonas Wood, Guy Yanai, Alex Katz, and Ridley Howard are some of these. 

I admire Brian Cronin. I see his process up close, and he is pure ideas and output. There are no obstacles—mental or physical—between his imagination and his painting surface. He has flashes of wild ideas, and makes them work.

 I would say that living the life of an artist and illustrator has contributed to a case of ADD which I don’t think I suffered from when I was younger. You’re off the grid, really. The kind of structure an office job creates gives one’s day a form and rhythm which is harder to achieve as a freelancer. I know I can step out for coffee whenever I want I do.

Also, it’s challenging being the one person responsible for not only making the work, but keeping the studio in order in all ways. The frenzy of this is perhaps a cause or a symptom of the ADD. I’ve got a compulsion to have things clean and organized before I can get work done. I feel I do my best work once the house is clean and everything in the studio is in its place (and if I’ve flossed, that’s ideal.) It’s the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the artist/illustrator.

Room interiors, Alvin Lustig, music, talking with friends. Mike Leigh, Alexander Payne, and Woody Allen movies for their focus on the psychologies of characters. These directors create characters that transform only microscopically, which I find very exciting, perhaps because I enjoy minimalism. For reasons completely inexplicable, the movie Trees Lounge still inspires me immensely. Something about outcasts and underdog characters re-centers me and reminds me of my artistic purpose. Also the theme of “place” comes up again for me... the backdrops in movies such as Mike Leigh’s are so darn ugly, but this really inspires me. It’s strange, because I also love flowers, color, historical New England homes, and beautiful objects. I find humor in hideous architecture or amateur landscaping. It’s like, you mean somebody thought it was a good idea to put a window there like that? And I get really hooked by it. I like the dissonance of this ugliness. It’s shocking, but in an innocent way.

I've been doing some Blue Q bags, which have been really fun. It’s been a successful partnership.

I enjoy when a gallery sees illustration work of mine which was well art directed and has the kind of integrity I hope for with every assignment... and then they choose to show that work plus new un-commissioned work. This happened to me recently and I realized it was in fact my dream assignment. I’m able to home grow a body of work from a seed that came from a strong idea to begin with.

I’ve been working with Cathy Gilmore-Barnes at The New York Times lately. She’s been amazing to work with, as she loves my concepts and then gives me space to allow the image to unfold. I can't recall her interfering with a concept or painting's integrity. Alex Knowlton is another art director who comes to mind as respecting and valuing illustrators’ work.

I don’t look at current illustrators much. I find more inspiration looking at the work of fine artists, or looking at places and spaces. With a lot of illustration I see, there are many recycled motifs, gimmicks, and tired techniques. Or at least that is how I perceive it. There are many of course whose work doesn’t fit into a category, and these are the illustrators I admire. Sophia Martineck, Jessie Hartland, Laurie Rosenwald, Marc Boutavant, and Calef Brown are some of them. A sense of humor and play is way more compelling to me than work that takes itself so seriously. With every year that passes, the less and less I like conventions.

I love doing book jackets. My initial thumbnails are sort of bad ideas which I continue to refine, simplify, and re-work; until I reach a strong image. I did a cover for a book called Building a Home with My Husband, which I liked just because I like to paint houses—though no one has called me a housepainter yet.

Yes, moving into fine art has been a dream. It’s a different way of working—not kicking off a project with a briefing and then a response, but instead, just clearing your head and sitting down to get to work, then making decisions as you work about what form the body of work will take. There is no set course, which is exciting, but also very difficult.

I use direct digital mailers, but I think social media actually has been the best means of promotion. 

Don’t follow trends—create them. Work hard. Wherever you put your energy, this area of your life grows.

See more Juliette Borda illustrations, new work, and updates:
Juliette Borda website
Picture Mechanics page