Illustrator Profile - Gerard DuBois: "The most important things are working with passion and having fun"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 27, 2015

Gérard DuBois is a smart, elegant artist whose painted illustrations have appeared in countless magazines both in the US and around the world, including a weekly column in the Sunday New York Times. Dubois has illustrated close to 20 books for children and adults, and is a favorite among art directors for his ability to tackle complex issues with simple power and grace. The Montreal-based illustrator (and former graphic designer) also recently created a set of posters for the National Theatre in Lyon, and as as-yet-to-debut series of postage stamps. DuBois works in a variety of styles, including a striking collection of collages, and his work is consistently a remarkable blend of beauty, passion, and intelligence.

I was born and raised in France, near Paris.

Nobody was an artist in the family. I lived in the suburbs and was quiet, never went to shows or museums.  No friends were into art at all, and until later I had no clue about design or illustration.

At that time parents were worried when you got into art and drawing. “You like to draw? You should be an architect,” was the most common remark I heard. The big step for me was to get out of the suburbs to study design in Paris. I got there only ’cause I wanted to draw.

This new environment was a completely different perspective to me, at every level, not just for art. I learned a lot there, at least as much in café with friends, discussing, as I did in courses. I studied for five years in two different schools. I had fun the first three years and wanted to leave the last two.

I came by myself to Canada just after my graphic studies, back in 1989, to do a 16-month contract as a graphic designer for the French Ministry of Cooperation in the Maritimes provinces. Soon after I flew to Montreal, where I started work as an illustrator. My first contract was in April 1991—I was 23. I never thought it would last. I always had in mind I would soon need to get a regular job in a design firm or something like that. I still have this feeling somehow in the back of my head.

I did some freelance projects as an art director, between illustrations, but I’ve been lucky since I’ve started to be able to make a living out of illustration only. So you could say that I almost stepped out of school and did the only thing I’ve always wanted to do—draw. I feel really lucky about it, and so I try to enjoy it, even when I feel bad or so sorry for my limited skills.

I still live in Montreal with my wife and two boys.

For six years now, I’ve been teaching at the University of Quebec in Montreal, a course per session, and I have great fun doing it. It’s a great experience. I was not sure at first I would be able to teach anything at all—I’m far more intuitive than technical, and I never had illustration courses, nor any watercolor, acrylic, etc.. I’ve learned by myself, like many I suppose, but it made me nervous at first to come in front of a class trying to put words on something I was doing only by intuition. I really enjoy seeing those talented young students making their mark, year after year.

I work from home, in a small, nice old cozy room, on the side of the house. It is nothing special—not that well decorated, no amazing furniture—but it is my place, with many books, a lot of music, memories and frames of friends or artists I admire everywhere on the walls, and all the little things and objects I need to work.

I’ve never shared a space with someone, even when it meant my studio had to be a little table in the middle of the kitchen. I’ve stayed with my student habits, when I was doing airbrush all evening one step from my bed, chain smoking, living and working in the same tiny room…

I usually do rough sketches on paper with a fountain pen, but lately I’ve been working more and more on computer, with Photoshop. At the moment the sketch is approved, I print it out and transfer it on paper, paint it with acrylic—a pretty classic process.

I do add things or mix layers in Photoshop for efficiency purpose. But I only do things I would be able to paint by hand. It is not simpler, only different, so it gets me to think and come up with different ideas. My work has always evolved through the jobs I was doing. I never had the time to stop and think: “OK, I will try something else,” so it had to change along the way, while working on a project.

My big break was to move to Canada from France. In the 80s the trend in French illustration was the school of ligne claire, à la Hergé—pretty narrative, with no concept. People like Roland Topor or André François were the exception, and I knew I was absolutely not fitting in. Then I got to Montreal and found out about editorial illustration.  But in my career itself, I don’t think I ever had a big break. If I had to pick one thing, I would say awards got me more visibility. I was working every day, with great clients and art directors, but not the kind with big exposure, so my images were pretty confidential, until awards exposed them to a wider audience.

There have been many, at every stage of my learning, and I consider I’m still learning. For sure, I’ve always been more into arts, like painting and sculpture than illustration, design or photography. Literature has also been a great motivation for me. Words got me to draw—I remember starting a book project just after reading James Baldwin’s book Giovanni’s Room. But the two first big visual influences I can remember of when I was a young student were Norman Rockwell and Aristide Maillol.

Then there was a show at the National Library in Paris my mom got me to see when I was young because she was working there. It was an exhibition of Max Ernst collages. Fabulous—I had no idea images like that existed.  

I honestly admire all the creative people who are able to keep their artistic integrity, with evolution and risks and with coherence, people that are able to bring their own voice, at their level, no matter if they’re huge or highly successful. It is so difficult to keep going with the same desire and motivation, to fight for aesthetic ideas and be successful.

We all have ups and downs, periods with a lot of doubts, and so it is sometimes tough when in that situation, to make good decisions, to not overreact, like crashing or tearing a painting because it’s not going well. Working with someone around wouldn’t change my opinion of myself, but it would definitely help me to overcome those periods more peacefully.

Mostly art books or blogs, graphic novels, children’s books. I try to go to museums as much as possible. Music and literature are definitely an important part of my days, so it always has some impact on my work, even if what I read or listen to is not directly related to the project I’m working on. I also try to look at things that are far from my work—arts, documentaries or stories that will get me elsewhere or will shove my own conceptions of what images should look like, or how music should sound.  I don’t know how to integrate most of it, but I presume it goes through my mind, somehow. And if it does not, at least I have a lot of pleasure discovering it.

There were couple of projects I’ve been really excited about lately—one was a series of stamps. I can’t say more for now, but it was a great experience. I also did a series of 24 posters for the complete season of The National Theatre in Lyon, and there is also my recently started regular column in the Sunday edition of The New York Times. I had one for almost three years in the Times, but it was every two weeks; every week is a bit more stressful, but the art director Aviva Michaelov (and Alexandra Zsigmond who steps in for Aviva) makes it so easy that I enjoy it, no matter the stress.

To illustrate a novel I love—I will spare you the list. Also: paint Lemmy’s bass guitar or Nick Cave’s next book jacket or CD, Kurt Vile’s next mural in Philly, paint a big stage set up, either for a modern ballet or a theatre, or a circus. Mostly whatever would be fun and new to me.

Through the years I’ve had the chance to work on a regular basis with several art directors. SooJin Buzelli has always been fantastic since she hired me for the first time, 14 years ago. The same goes for Jocelyne Fournel at L’Actualité and Louis Gagnon at Paprika Design with whom I’ve been working for more than 24 years. Len Small at Nautilus is also a pleasure to collaborate with—I’ve been working with him since issue #1. I’m illustrated a feature article for the current issue, and as always he’s so kind to discuss the articles, themes, and even write a long resume of the most obscure scientific articles so I can understand and come up with solutions. At the same time he’s always supportive and open to new things and styles.

There are many, many great illustrators I admire. But my heart will go to my good pals Jean François Martin and Alain Pilon. Both have been able to reinvent themselves through the years, going through so many different mediums and techniques. They are both hard workers, always aiming at the best possible result, excessively talented, with a fantastic knowledge of art and design—a constant source of motivation for me. So they would be my pick, for all those reasons, and for their human qualities.

I have done many illustrated books, over the years—close to 20—either for children or adults, and even wrote some myself.  I’ve just finished one and have two more to be done by the end of the summer. It’s a different way to work, and it’s refreshing to go from a fast editorial turnaround and then be on a project with a long deadline.

I’m also working on the synopsis of a personal animation project. This one is a big step for me—it would mean a lot lot lot of work if it ever goes all the way. I also try to have shows of my illustrations every two years or so; I’ve just had one in Paris.

I used to do more personal work—I can’t say they were paintings because I have too much respect for painters—but they were intended afterwards to go in a gallery. I’ve stopped for awhile, mostly because of a lack of time.

As an illustrator I always thought I had to be able to work on any kind of project. I guess it helped me a bit to go through the downs of the market, since I was able to accept different type of assignments, alternate or unconventional ones. So I have not reinvented anything about my career; I do only try to stay alert, curious, and if I’m lucky, relevant, and if I’m even more lucky, in demand.

I’m pretty classic at it, to be honest. Everything I do to promote my work is the regular old thing: postcards, social media, phone sometimes, networking and meeting people in vernissages or events, participating in contests. I also have two reps: Costume 3 Pieces in France, and Marlena Agency in the US. I don’t think there is just one way to go. All of this has been important in promoting my work.

It’s probably a bit naive, but I still believe the most important things in our industry are working with passion and having fun while doing so.

See more Gérard DuBois illustrations, new work, and updates:
Gérard DuBois website