Ana Juan - Illustrator Profile: "Work hard to get your own voice. This voice will make you unique"

By Robert Newman   Thursday March 9, 2017

Ana Juan is a Madrid-based illustrator whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, in books and on book covers, posters, and much more. Juan has illustrated 23 covers of The New Yorker over the past 20 years, including Solidarite, her memorable response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Juan creates her illustrations with acrylic, charcoal, and colored pencils, all brilliantly conceived and executed with a sense of grace and quiet power.

I was born in Valencia, Spain. In the beginning of the 80s I moved to Madrid where I started to work as an illustrator, publishing my first illustrations in newspapers and magazines.

I am the youngest in a family of three sisters. When I was born my sisters were young ladies, so I grew up surrounded by adults and drawing was a good shelter for building my world. Today I can say drawing is my home, a safe place where I am watching and interpreting the world.

Some of my relatives had affinities for art, music, and creative cooking. but I was the only one stubborn enough to go ahead in the art world. My mother was an intelligent woman and she pushed me to develop my art skills. Every day after school time I visited the Public Art School—until at 16 I passed the exam to enter the Fine Art School. The old Fine Art School, in Valencia, was an old convent—a ruin, but a magic ruin. It was the coldest place in earth where nothing had changed for centuries. We used the gothic chapel for drawing classical sculptures and the cloister for exhibitions. Today the old convent has become a museum, but I feel privileged to have had the luck to live this experience.

I spent five years in this place, but I quickly realized that ART wasn’t my field. I loved drawing but I had not much interest for painting or an art career. Illustration at that time was not contemplated in the Art School program so after my study time I moved to Madrid to learn publishing. In the 90s I lived in Paris for a couple of years and after a time in Tokyo I came back to Madrid, where I am located now.

I have my studio at home—a big room inside an old apartment with the charm of the 19th Century, in the town of Madrid. It’s near a very popular square where everyone who is visiting the city has to spend awhile for drinking and eating. For better or worse, I never feel alone here.

But what I love in my studio is the north light it has. When you are living in a sunny city like Madrid that is quite important—I am not able to wear sunglasses while working.

As time passes, my art tools are getting reduced— I use acrylic on paper, colored pencils, charcoal. Once the art is ready it gets digitized and retouched in Photoshop, as needed. I have the odious habit of working in large sizes that are a problem when it comes to scanning. But a problem always has a solution.

My entire life has been a big break. I think one job brings another one and that this can bring you to another place. But for me there was one point—in this case a book—where how it was made and and what happened after was truly a big turning point.

In 2002 a Spanish publishing house, Editions de Ponent, asked me to do a book—Snowhite. It had to be illustrated in black and white. I agreed for two reasons: First, I had struggled to work in black and white in my style and couldn’t find a good solution. Second, I was ready to do a book, but hadn’t been able to find a story to tell.

After a trip to Paris, and a visit to some museums and some walks, I realized the solution to my illustration problems: I would work as I did in my student time, mostly with charcoal, pencils, blending stumps…

So I illustrated Snowhite based on the Grimm´s Tale “Snow White”—a story for adults far from the sweet versions we all know. The story was born and done with my old student tools. The solution to years of troubles was so close…

This book opened a door for me. Since then I have worked in black and white a lot,  and developed a successful style. And I have done other books, such as Demeter, Circus, Carmilla, and Lacrimosa.

My biggest influence is my own sense of being frightened by life…this is involved in everything I am doing and paradoxically makes me courageous.

I can´t choose one! I love the fantasy world of Neil Gaiman; in fashion the inventiveness of Mariano Fortuny and the vision of the future of Coco Chanel; the conspicuous world of Gorey; the sentiment of Käthe Kollwitz; the dark lyricism of Nathaniel Hawthorne; the intimate world of Balthus; the magic of Nara...

My inspiration is in any place—my eyes have to be ready to catch the moment, the color, the form...

When you look for inspiration you have to look far from your own field (in my case, the illustration world). Better to look at movies, listen to music, read poetry or just walk on the streets than to look for inspiration in the work of other illustrators.

My biggest challenge is avoiding the feeling of comfort, to not fall into self-complacency and to keep the tension I need to make successful illustrations.

My great help is my husband, illustrator Matz Mainka. He´s my toughest critic. I admire how quickly he can recognize when I am not giving enough to an illustration.  We both work in different universes, but years ago we discovered that it was possible to create something together. So, with Matz as an author and I as the illustrator we gave form to a beloved project, The North Sea Trilogy books: Hermanas, La Isla, and Promesas—tales of love and death.

The past year I had the luck to live one of the most passionate adventures in my life. Unit Experimental—a research team from The Fine Arts University in Valencia— asked me to do an “innovative” exhibition. As usual, I accepted immediately without thinking. Their proposal was to do an exhibition about the creative process of two of my illustrated books: Another Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Snowhite, for which I am the author and illustrator.

The exhibition was to incorporate virtual reality and augmented reality, so working with this great team I developed characters for animations. The team created an app, “Ana Juan, dibujando el otro lado” and also videos and other images to use with oculus glasses. The most amazing thing for me was the creation of a video game Erthaland relating the troubles of the little “Snowhite." The video game only developed the first chapter, but we are still working to get three more. The adventure continues! I was always pretty sure that my style would not be the right one to be animated, but after seeing the first tests of this animation I am very excited with the results.

I am not dreaming about assignments—I like to get surprises as I go along.

For 20 years, I have worked with Françoise Mouly, the cover art director of The New Yorker. She took my hand when I was an inexperienced illustrator and give me a place in this world. This long journey has been a gift.

I admire her ability to see beyond a fast rough sketch to see a good idea for a cover.

Together, we have published 23 covers for The New Yorker, and behind those covers are tons of sketches and several unpublished covers. It´s always a bit sad when a cover doesn’t get published, but those are the rules of the game so you have to recover quickly and try again.

The best sample I have about Francoise’s fine sensibility is The New Yorker cover “Solidarité” about the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. We had just a few hours to do the cover I sent a sketch and then did the final and two versions in different colors.  Francoise got the idea of mixing both finals to get a more dramatic version—and it worked!

Edel Rodriguez: His work is wild , powerful, rough and with a social consciousness. I loved his brilliants covers about the candidate Trump for Time magazine.
Anita Kunz: I like how she can unite an old master’s style with social criticism without losing magic and lyricism.
Wolf Elbruch: A master, one of my favorite children’s book illustrators who appeals to all ages. He is poetic, funny, rough…his book “The Duck and the Death” is a masterpiece.
Lorenzo Mattoti: For his wonderful sense of color, his rough and expressive black and white and more…

For me, it is very important to have my own projects aside from my illustration work.

I am curious and I always want to investigate other kind of techniques and forms of expression. This side work nourishes my work as an illustrator and distances me from my own comfort. It is a risk that does not always succeed, I think I have failed more than I have succeeded, but is a good exercise. The only problem, as usual, is the time.

In spite of everything, I have created small collections of resin jewelry, little sculptures on wood, resin, illustrated tableware, umbrellas...

We should always be trying to reinvent our careers, to find alternatives. We do not have to be slaves of the industry and should find alternative ways to keep our independence. One way I’ve kept control of my career is through self-publishing. I started a tiny publishing house with a friend to realize private little dreams, called No Time, Limited Editions. There we produced the book Snowhite’s Secret Box and other little projects.

I never had an agent; it’s not usual in Spain for illustrators to have one. Years ago my promotion was quite simple: I published work, and the published work attracted other jobs. Of course now I have my site—which is quite practical as a window to my work—and I am using social media such as Facebook and recently Instagram to promote my work.

I am on the road quite often for book signings, and that´s very satisfying. I am grateful to meet the people, fans, readers and to get feedback on my work. I get another perspective and it lets me know what I am working for.

In addition to assignments, have your own work—have self-projects and work, work hard to get your own voice. This voice will make you unique.

Mark Twain had the best advice you can get as illustrator or just for everyone´s life: “In 20 years you will be more disappointed with the things you did not do than the ones you did. So untie moorings and navigate away from known ports. Take advantage of the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Find out.”

See more Ana Juan illustrations, new work and updates:
Ana Juan website 
Instagram: @anajuan_illustrator