Crossing Paths with Hannah Abbo aka Jean Claude I January 2018 I Lisbon
During the last couple of years, I met some very interesting people from all kinds of backgrounds. Being inspired by my personal favorite blogs, I always had the idea of devoting them a column on my blog connecting my photography with first journalistic experiences by making interviews. Finally for the purpose of a university project during my Erasmus Semester at Instituto Superior de Comunicação Empresarial in Lisbon, I got the final push to roll up my sleeves and realize this idea. So here it is: the first portrait of my new blog column “Crossing Paths”!
One of those cool coincidences, was meeting Hannah Abbo at the Portuguese language course. Hannah is a self-taught Illustrator from England working under the alias of Jean Claude, who just recently moved to Lisbon. Growing up in Brighton, she soon went to London for a couple of years where she studied History of Art. After seeing one of her posters, a friend & record label owner asked Hannah to create some posters for his live shows. This evolved into a long term cooperation that should last for 6 years and more than 250 posters and marked the starting point for her career as an illustrator.
How did you end up specializing in children’s books?
I always liked inventing and drawing characters, and children’s publishing is one of the most thriving industries for illustrators with so many children’s books coming out every year. I guess if you want to work full-time as an illustrator there aren’t a huge number of routes you can take. You could do advertising and editorial, fashion or children’s publishing. But in the end I think it’s just because I find illustrating children’s books really fun!
How does your creative process usually look like? How do you get to the final childrens book?
Normally I get approached by an art director or editor in a publishing house, who already has a manuscript from a writer which is finished and contracted. Most of the time you then work directly with the art director, who gives you feedback on sketches and final art. You don’t actually get to speak to the author very much, or at all. Sometimes they might drop you a note at the end of the project saying something like ‘hey I liked your illustrations”, but that’s it. I found that kind of weird in the beginning! A lot of publishers also publish books that are written and illustrated by the same person. I’d love to do that one day, but I need to think of an idea first!
So you did childrens books in London and then you went to New York, where you mainly worked as an agent! Did you not do any illustrations at all during that time…?
No, I was always illustrating. What I’d normally do is work full-time and then go home and work on my illustration projects. So I just ended up working a lot for about 6 or 7 years! I really enjoyed being an agent for other illustrators, but I never wanted to give up the creative side of my work either.
As you already said, you worked as an agent yourself, but in the same time you’re being represented by the very agency as well. How did this get along?
When I started working as an illustrator for the agency, we made a fake persona for me – Jean Claude. I think this was only fair to the other illustrators I represented, as I was building relationships with a lot of the art directors as an agent and maybe I would have been unfairly favoured if they knew I was also an illustrator for the company. Having a fake name I worked under also helped separate the two sides of my career. Now, even though I don’t work as an agent any more, I still use the pseudonym as I’ve built up a client base and reputation as Jean Claude!
And I guess generally having an agency behind is a really big advantage and gives a lot freedom, doesn’t it?
Definitely – it takes away a lot of the work of being a freelance illustrator. While self-promotion and portfolio development is still important, you’re not doing it on your own. You also don’t have to chase payment from the clients after a project is over, as the agency does all of that for you. The amount of exposure you get as part of an agency is completely different too. When I was an agent in New York, I would travel at least one or two days a week all across America visiting publishing houses and showing portfolios. The internet is a great tool for self-promotion, but there’s a big difference between somebody seeing your Instagram or website, and meeting an agent in person, seeing your work and having a relationship with that agency. The publisher will trust that they are reliable and will finish the work on time and not disappear halfway through!
So you are an illustrator for childrens books and now you actually have a child yourself, which brought me to the question: Do you think that you see illustrating childrens books from a different point of view now? Is it an inspiration to have a child yourself?
It’s really cool, especially as he’s getting older and more interested in books. It’s fun to see him looking at my illustrations and interacting with them. Probably the older he gets the more inspiring that will be, as at the moment he still doesn’t have any language. I’m sure when he’s older we’ll make up stories and draw together. I’ve been making some drawings for his room and it’s been fun to think about what he likes and try to illustrate for that. At the moment he loves super bright colors and big eyes on characters!
Besides that, where do you get your inspiration from? Or do you simply concentrate on yourself?
I don’t know if there’s one place I get inspiration from. I love drawing animals and plants, so a trip to the botanical gardens or zoo can be very inspiring! However my drawings often also stem from reading a manuscript, or just a random idea that comes to me. Of course, I also look at other illustrators work, but I think that can be dangerous as if you find someone you admire you can start imitating their style.
And did you ever have something like a creative crisis, where you thought about taking a break from illustrating or something like this?
I’ve definitely had times where I wondered if my work is good enough. And I am always torn between working by hand and working digitally. Sometimes I get really sick of working on the computer and I just want to break out and work by hand. But then when I am working by hand I get frustrated because it’s harder to get the right color palette and correct mistakes. I’ve never had a project that has gone really wrong, but I think there’s always a point when you’re coloring up a book that you start hating your sketches, or just want to finish and move on to the next thing. I guess you just have to sort of push through that.