Jen Bartel creates gorgeous illustrations of women from superheroes to mystical witches. She has worked on the comic Jem and The Holograms and drawn some badass ladies through her Girl Gang series. Jen talks with us about some of the artists and illustrators who have inspired her, how she explores feminism in her work, and her love of dog training. Enjoy!
I loved Jem and The Holograms as a cartoon when I was growing up and it was awesome to see how your work with the Jem comic series kept the flavor of the cartoon while also making it more contemporary. How did you reach this balance when working on the comic?
I have a confession to make. I actually knew basically nothing about Jem when I was initially approached to work on the comic! I think I had just barely missed the craze when I was a kid. Fortunately, Sophie [Campbell] and Kelly [Thompson] had laid out such a clear design language for the book. The entire series was also on Netflix, so I binge watched and studied whatever materials I could find. To be honest though, I didn’t really have to lean into it that much—my work kind of already was a good fit for Jem, because I pull a lot of color palettes and visuals from 80’s media.
Your illustration work includes some amazing re-imaginings of classic superheroes like Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, and Jubilee. What is your process for developing your take on these iconic characters?
Thank you! I always like to imagine them as real women. While I don’t want to lose all of the things that make them super-powered or fantastic, I want them to wear functional clothing that they’d actually be able to move around in. I think any artist who wants to design characters should first imagine what it would feel like to actually BE that character and to have to wear some of the garments that they’re drawn in.
I enjoyed how your art in Chroma and with the Girl Gang characters expands the idea of glamour beyond the typical luxury brand fashion lookbook. These ladies look like they are dressing to please themselves, and I love that. What are your inspirations for the styles that you create?
I love looking at style blogs, but mostly I’m guilty of just doing a lot of online shopping, haha. I’ll add a bunch of really cool looking accessories and clothes to my shopping cart and then instead of checking out I’ll just draw all of the things that I’d LIKE to wear but can’t really pull off. Win/win.
You explore magic, spiritual mystery, and connections with animals — particularly cats — in a number of your illustrations. What about these themes attracts you?
The underlying theme to all of my work is feminism, and I think a big facet of feminism has always been a connection with nature. I did a series last year of witches with their familiars, and it was a way for me to draw something more “pretty” (or maybe I should say elegant?) than some of my other work. I also just really really enjoy drawing animals! When I was a kid I pretty much exclusively drew animals, never people. It’s something I still like to revisit today as much as possible.
What part of your drawing and publishing processes do you enjoy the most? What part of your process do you find most challenging?
I love designing tangible items, which is why I’ve created so much merch in the past year. Developing something in 2D and then seeing it in 3D is such a cool feeling, and I’ll probably never tire of it. As far as drawing goes, I really enjoy the “autopilot” stages—inking and coloring. The hardest part for me is coming up with the idea and actually sketching it out, as it requires much more brain power!
What artists have been important influences for you and your work?
has probably been my biggest inspiration for the longest period of time, not only because his work is absolutely stunning, but because he has the most incredible dedication to his craft. Every time I want to get lazy on a piece and skimp on the details or phone it in, I think about James Jean’s art and snap right out of it. He is incredible. I also really love the work of Marcos Chin
. I was fortunate enough to take a fashion illustration class with him and he taught me the value of kindness and generosity before we even got into the art portion of things. His clean lines and beautiful figures have also definitely impacted how I practice drawing today. I also really love the work of Joy Ang
, who is such a versatile powerhouse of an artist and has worked on a huge range of projects, and is currently working on Adventure Time. She can do everything from photorealistic painted portraits to stylized typography and she excels at everything equally. Truly an inspiration. Fiona Staples
is probably my favorite comic artist, her consistent quality and strong storytelling are what everyone should strive to achieve. Also her ability to draw shoes. She draws the best shoes! I’m going to cut it off here because I’ll go on forever if I don’t stop myself.
What is some of the best advice you have received as an artist?
That it’s better to ask for an extension than to phone it in.
What do you love to geek out about?
So I don’t know if this counts as geeking out, but I am obsessed with dog training. I think if I were to ever quit comics to pursue a different career path, it’d be working with dogs in some capacity because it feels equally rewarding. I’ve got two dogs that just light up my life. I take time to work with them every single day because it’s so fulfilling, and it doesn’t hurt to have well behaved dogs either!
// Images courtesy of Jen Bartel.