Illustrator Johan Keslassy: ‘I just keep drawing and let my style evolve naturally’

Johan Keslassy is a self-taught illustrator living in France. After taking part in our 100 Days. 100 Commissions campaign earlier in the year he talks us through his creative process, greatest achievements so far and goals for the future.
Tell us about yourself.

My name is Johan Keslassy, and I am a self-taught freelance illustrator living in France. I grew up in a creative fueled atmosphere—I lived in a house where the walls were covered with my mother’s paintings and spent much of my childhood engrossed in watching cartoons on TV. My favourites were Looney Tunes and Tom And Jerry (the old ones, those made in the 1940’s and 50’s), I wouldn’t have missed them for anything. My love for cartoons all these years later is still very much alive as an adult too.

What made you want to start a career in illustration?

Like all children, I started drawing as soon as I was able to hold a pen. I never stopped drawing, mainly pencil doodles on sketchbooks, but at some point, I started sending my illustrations to one of those online contests where the winning designs get printed on clothing. I kept sending my work for a couple of years and eventually, one of my illustrations was picked and got printed on a GAP Kids T-shirt. That was the first time someone paid me to do a drawing and it made me realise that it may be possible to make money in illustration.

How would you define your style?

This is a tough question. Sometimes I feel like I don’t really have a style, or that my style lacks consistency. I think vector graphics can look a bit cold sometimes, so I’ve been adding some more texture and grain to my illustrations lately and that’s definitely a direction I would like to continue to explore. Anyway, whatever my style is, I try not to think too much about it and just keep drawing and let my style evolve naturally.

Can you tell us about your 100 Days. 100 Commissions piece “Staying at Home”?

“Staying at Home” is a remake of an illustration I did about two years ago. The inspiration came from a photo of a young woman seated on a chair and holding a bird. I think I was also looking for an excuse to draw another home interior.

When I heard about 100 Days. 100 Commissions, I decided I wanted to participate and started looking for something worth submitting. I came across that old illustration of a girl and her cats—I wasn’t completely satisfied with it but I felt it had potential so I changed the furniture in the background, modified the colours and lighting, added some details to the floor and gave the young lady a new face. It took me about a week of work but it was worth it!

‘Stay at home’ by Johan Keslassy. Part of our 100 days. 100 commissions. campaign
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Draw every day.

Talk us through your work process.

Judging by the time I spend staring at my laptop screen or daydreaming, it must be part of the work process, but that aside, I usually start an illustration by doing rough pencil sketches. Once I have found a composition I am happy with, I move to the computer. I work in Affinity Designer, on a mid-range Windows laptop and I draw with a six-button gaming mouse, which makes it quick and easy to switch between the tools I use most. I also like researching—looking for photo references and reading Wikipedia and news articles related to the theme I am working on (plus wasting more time reading random articles). I play with colour throughout the drawing process until I am satisfied.

Where do you find inspiration for your works?

Inspiration can be everywhere: architecture and interior design (mid-century modern in particular), cinema, photography, the news…I was walking on the street the other day and I came across this guy who was wearing a face mask and large headphones over a baseball cap. I thought it was a funny concept to go outside on a hot summer day with your face almost completely covered! It inspired me for one of my Distanced Summer series of illustrations.

What do you hope people take away from your work?

A smile.

What would you say is your greatest achievement to date and why?

Seeing your work in a newspaper is always satisfying and reassuring, especially if it’s a big name. I don’t know how great an achievement it is to do an editorial illustration for the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, but it can certainly improve your self-confidence, especially when the same art director commissions you two or three times.

When did you first start using Affinity Designer and what are your thoughts on it?

I started using Affinity Designer in 2017. Illustrator is great but it’s expensive and I don’t like the monthly subscription system, so I tried working in a free open source program for a while but I wasn’t happy with it. When I moved to Affinity, it felt like a had found a professional tool again. I draw mainly with the vector Pen Tool, but it’s also nice to have pixel brushes without having to switch to a different app. Whatever you think of Affinity, it is great value for money.

Do you have a favourite artwork you’ve created to date?

There is this illustration I called Summer Storm—it’s an old one and looking at it now, it doesn’t look as good as I thought it was, but I really like the composition and how the girl and the dog react in different ways to a gust of wind. I would love to do a new version of it someday.

Summer Storm by Johan Keslassy
Do you have a dream project you’d like to work on?

Gallmeister is a French publisher I would love to work with—I love their atmospheric covers! I’ve been wanting to contact them for a while but keep delaying it because I always feel like my next illustration is going to be better than the last one, and I obviously want to show them my best work. Hopefully, I will be able to break that circle soon and send them an email, preferably before the end of the century.

Where would you like to see your work in ten years?

On a New Yorker cover!


You can view more of Johan Keslassy’s work on Instagram and Behance.