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Feature Friday: Jen Tracy

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

I’m not very well versed in watercolor painting but something about Jen Tracy’s work really jumped out at me when I first saw it. Yet another find from the Philadelphia craft market scene, I came across Tracy’s work and I was immediately enamore. Her color application certainly had that classic watercolor feel but it was applied with a cleanliness that I hadn’t seen before in the medium. When I think of watercolor, I think loose and gestural and while Tracy’s work has hints of this, it’s surprisingly clean and graphic. In her work color is applied extremely deliberately and it works in two phases, the bottom layers add tone and gentle detail to the image while the top layers add shadow and depth. This all lends to her imagery which is largely comprised of single images, almost sticker-like, and this is what gives her work that graphic feel. Her bold outlines give her work that rigid feel synonymous with graphic styles but her use of watercolor allows the image to also be loose and gentle at the same time.

There’s a really interesting contrast between medium and style in Tracy’s work and she plays it up marvelously. I was thrilled to get to have a chat with Tracy to hear about what led her to watercolor, how her style developed, and the processes behind each work. She gave a really insightful interview and a look into a medium that isn’t overly popular in today’s art but has a lot of merit. Enjoy!

1. I always start with background, so what got you into art? Any schooling? Big inspirations? What helped to shape you into the artist that you are today?

Many things from my childhood got me into art. I am a fan of classical animation. Hand drawn masterpieces like Sleeping Beauty and The Last Unicorn pushed me to want to be an animator when I was young. I also found inspiration in Super Nintendo RPG instruction booklets. Yoshitaka Amano's work for Final Fantasy was pivotal. I believe his work is what first drew me to the free flowing pigments of watercolor and ink.

Yes, I went to art school. I have a BFA in painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a minor in Art History and a focus in Non Western Art.

2. I feel like we're not seeing many watercolor artists around anymore, so what drew you towards this medium initially? How has your use of the medium developed and progressed through your art career?

You are absolutely right. Most galleries won't consider representing water based artists. This has been a hurdle.

I was initially drawn to watercolor out of necessity. I have a degree in painting, but all of my classes were in oil based media except one mandatory elective. Like many graduates, I lived in a small apartment with low ventilation and little storage. Despite my love for large scale oil paintings, I had no where to store them. It is also dangerous to paint with oils without proper ventilation. So, I began to shift to less toxic water based materials.

Discovering plein air painting was a game changer. The mobility of watercolor painting loosened my style. Working on the go opened me up to the potential of watercolor as my primary medium, not just out of necessity, but out of passion.

3. You've got a bold, hardlined and whimsical style so how did your imagery and illustration style develop? Were there any specific imagery inspirations?

Thank you. This is a tough question to answer as I am not sure anyone means to have their style. It naturally developed over time. I fear claiming a deliberate intention could push young artists to force a style. That's not how it works. I didn't realize I had a style until others started mentioning it.

As for specific imagery, artists that have influenced me over the years include Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, Eyvind Earle, Kentaro Miura, Mary Blair, Yoshitaka Amano, and so many others.

4. How do you feel the contrast between hard lines and soft colors adds to your work? Are you limited at all by your medium?

I like the contrast ink brings to my work. The hard, black lines of my painting define the sometimes too messy color puddles I create with watercolor. At the moment, my clients are primarily online buyers. My imagery needs to be striking on screen and off. The majority of illustrators working today use computers to create their work. It is my hope that the crisp, clear lines of my paintings communicate on screen as competently as digital art.

Am I limited by my medium? Probably? Galleries seem to want oil paintings or more experimental studio art. Most illustration clients want the flexibility of digital artists. But, luckily, I find my people. I am sure if I was still an oil painter I would find canvas has its limits as well. For example, a chunky oil painting is not easy to scan and show online. Watercolor and ink suit my voice at the moment. Maybe one day I will become a digital painter. Who knows? I am happy doing this for now.

5. How do you approach your illustrations differently when you're doing a graphic vs. a full scene (singular image vs. full bleed images)? Are your illustrations fully planned or do they come organically?

I make thumbnails for full scene illustrations. I fill sketchbooks with doodles until a composition feels right before I start on my final piece. A graphic usually comes a little easier. One or two sketches are all it takes for me to be confident about a singular image's look. With watercolor, everything is planned. There are no mistakes, once it is on the paper it is there. There is no room for winging it. I work in many layers which helps build the vibrant colors I desire.

6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find you? Any shows/events coming up? Anywhere people can find you and anything you'd like to share, fire away!

I am best known for my cover work for The No Sleep Podcast. I have been a part of their team since season 7. It's been a spooky, spooky joy. I am also on Etsy: You can find me on instagram, twitter, tumblr, patreon, and ko-fi as @jenthetracy. I will be at Monster Mania in Cherry Hill, NJ March 13-15. I have a series of hand painted iMessage stickers available in the AppStore, just search "Jen Tracy." I am always open to new artistic opportunities, so if my style speaks to your vision, please reach out.


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