A few months ago, I got a text from Alina, the design extraordinaire responsible for Homage's branding. "If you're looking for people to interview, you need to check out Jeannie Phan." As usual, she was spot on. Jeannie's illustrations were unlike anything I'd seen before. Her use of texture and colour, combined with her ability to tell complex stories by way of simple illustrations had me in awe, and I reached out to her within an hour of discovering her work. She kindly agreed to let my camera and me invade her space for a bit, and as it turns out, she was everything I'd imagined. Adorable, engaging, and full of the kind of insight and wisdom that can almost trick a person into thinking that what she does is easy.


Describe what brought you to what you're doing now.
I've always done creative work. When I was younger, I dabbled with Photoshop and found digital art was what I was interested in. Then, I went to OCAD University where they reinforced the basics and I started doing more drawing and painting. I feel like that helped my digital work. So, getting here? It’s been pretty linear. I went to school, kind of took a year off, did random jobs, and then I ended up quitting my job to illustrate full-time. I get kind of antsy if I do the same thing for too long, so I took a risk. A calculated risk though, because I did do freelancing part-time beforehand so it wasn’t anything shocking. I knew I was going to do it eventually, I just didn’t know how.

How did you develop your style?
People say that the illustration world is so small that we kind of feed off of each other, so I will say that my style is a mix of a bunch of different artists. It’s just the way we naturally function. We kind of piece together things and it becomes your own when you develop it. For me, I really like detailed textures, but I also like simplified things. As a personal philosophy, I've been trying to simplify but also retain the attentiveness of detailed work.


Your work is so detailed and you're so full of passion! Do you find you ever get emotionally invested in the projects you’re commissioned for? 
I would say I do get emotionally invested in my projects just because everyone wants to do a good job, right? Also, every time I do a job I try to challenge myself with the hope that what I create is not too similar to something I’ve done in the past, or if it is, that it’s done in a new way. 

What’s a project that’s been the most memorable to you?
The project that I think comes to mind is the British Airways project I did. It was an ad project and my first one. So in that sense it was a huge, huge learning experience. It was super stressful but also really rewarding because I realized that you can’t get the rewards of learning without the stress.

  "Succulent Desert Riders"   by Jeannie Phan,   2014   

"Succulent Desert Riders" by Jeannie Phan, 2014 

  "His and Hers"   by Jeannie Phan,   2015

"His and Hers" by Jeannie Phan, 2015


Do you illustrate for fun? Or is it mostly for work?
I draw for a living, and because I draw so often I find that when I do other creative things it's mainly crafting. I also try to write but I’m not terribly great at it. I feel like you need a break. I’m not the type of person that has to draw constantly, but I like to allot certain times to it and do my own thing afterwards.

When you’re not creating, what else do you get up to?
I game a little bit. I gamed a lot when I was younger and I have a little bit of an addictive personality, where I get really into things. I’ll play with friends just because I might as well have a little bit of social interaction even though it’s all digital. And I’m a PC gamer. I have friends who have consoles but I don't want it in here just because I don’t know what I would do with it. I would probably never work.  


You're not from Toronto originally...
That's right. I was born in Winnipeg and I grew up there, and then I moved to Toronto in tenth grade. I think because so much of your development happens during your early 20s and that’s when you really start figuring yourself out, that I kind of feel like I grew up in Toronto. I went to school in Etobicoke, but I also went to OCAD which is in the heart of downtown. In that sense, I don’t actually say that Winnipeg influences my work that much. It makes me appreciate things though, like how convenient city life is. Having connections with people and everything being at your fingertips is something I can appreciate a lot more now.

What are you favourite places to go in Toronto?
I’m a hermit, so I like to stay in the west end. I do like Parkdale. For me, my favourite thing to do is walk along Lakeshore. I like really simple things like that. Being in a city can be overstimulating sometimes so I like to chill out, and when I am out I’m mostly just walking or doing idle chores. I used to go to tons of art shows, but I find that it kind of burnt me out a little bit. Work takes up so much energy so when I’m out I like to calm down a little bit.


Describe your typical day.
I work really sporadically, and I usually work in one hour bursts. I technically work the whole day, from morning to night, but that’s because I like to pace things. If I do have to work in a compressed timeframe, I will do it but I will most likely take a half day afterwards. Morning is usually dedicated to idle stuff like emails, organizing work, thumbnailing sketches and ideas, and then I do the bulk of my drawing at night. I’m more of a night owl. I will stay up as late as two in the morning to work and that’s just normal for me.

So fascinating. I've always wondered how freelancers manage their time, because I find it's really easy to feel unproductive when you don't have the consistent structure of a 9-5 job.
I tried implementing the 9-5 hours and realized it doesn’t work. You have to follow your intuition of how well you work. There’s no point in working that 9-5 if it’s going to be super unproductive, especially when you can spend a simple three hours at night and be just as productive.  I work well when the city is asleep. When it’s daytime, I might as well run my errands. You want to be out when there’s sunlight out. I have a very weird schedule, but I get things done. As long as you get it done that’s all that matters.

When you look ahead what are some of the things you see?
As far as looking ahead, I don’t really look beyond a year. As long as I’m doing better than the year before, even if in small increments, it’s fine. With freelancing, as long as I get either more work or different types of clients or dream clients, that’s an achievement. I usually line up small goals for the future, but they’re pretty vague and not set in stone. And for my personal life, I strive be happier every year. Something as simple as that. It’s all I really care about. It’s tied to a lot of complexities. It’s a simple conclusion but how you get there is really hard.


What’s the best advice you've been given?
Fake it till you make it. I think that’s the best advice for me because it means you become what you project. There’s a risk element to that phrase, and that’s what I like about it. You have to take a little bit of risk, but eventually you get that reward where you’re actually obtaining what you want.

Current emoji of choice?
I’m pretty sure it’s the twinkle one. It just makes things a little more magical. I wish it was the poop one but I don’t have contacts for that. 


Published on August 3, 2015
Interview & photography by Marlee Maclean

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