Illustrator Jenna Kass discusses her creative inspirations and the story of her artwork so far.

What is your artistic background?

I grew up reading fantasy novels, and almost as a side-effect fell in love with the art on their covers: Kinuko Y. Craft, Leo and Diane Dillon, John Howe, and Alan Lee, just to name a few. Between that and stumbling into the early years of online art communities like Elfwood and DeviantArt, it somehow still came as a shock to me that I wanted to be an artist.

I attended the School of Visual Arts in NYC and graduated with a BFA in Illustration in 2012. After graduating, I attended the Illustration Master Class (founded and run by Rebecca Guay) for the next four summers, after which I enrolled in a semester of SmartSchool under Rebecca. The IMC and SmartSchool were instrumental in showing me how many paths were open to me coming from an illustration degree, and in helping me connect to my artistic voice.

"There is a very poisonous idea that if you’re not going 100% all the time, if you are not creating perfect work or succeeding right away, you are a failure"

­­­Who or what are your big inspirations?

The who in this question is hard. There are of course big umbrella inspirations, like the Pre-Raphaelites and the Surrealists and the nineteenth-century fairytale illustrators. There are, however, also the specific individuals who stopped me in my tracks or pushed me forward further than I thought possible. There are too many of those artists, past and present, to name.

That being said, Rebecca Guay stands as a monolithic point of inspiration both artistic and personal, and I count myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from her directly. Her work is emotive and forceful and heartbreakingly lovely, and it is presented with a confidence which sweeps me right off my feet.

Rebecca once told me not to create “pretty” work, unthreatening and easily consumed, but to dig in, find the marrow of the idea, and create “beautiful” work. That marrow is the what of my inspiration: the heart of a narrative, the vital pulse.

What themes, techniques, and materials do you like to explore in your artwork?

I am drawn again and again to moments of silence. Whether I’m taking the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne and illustrating her still moment of apotheosis amidst the violence of Apollo’s attempted rape, or delving into my own imagery with an exploration of what is left of a person after an internal storm, I find a fascinating tension in the moment rather than the action.

This goes hand in hand with my subject matter often being women from myth, legend, and fairytale. I have found the choice of moments vital in making backgrounded or acted-upon characters feel like whole, complex versions of themselves, and this extends to women who were ostensibly the main character of their stories. There’s a wealth of emotion and humanity to be found in their choices and actions, and it is my goal to explore this through my art.

I used to be exclusively an oil painter, but in the last year I found that my drawings could achieve a sensitivity for these subjects above and beyond my paintings. I work with 0.5 mm mechanical pencils of various hardnesses, using fine, parallel hatch-marks to build depth and subtle texture, and then pushing back and forth with powdered graphite and a kneaded eraser to establish value.

­­­What is one valuable piece of advice that you’d offer to aspiring artists?

Be kind to yourself.

There is a very poisonous idea that if you’re not going 100% all the time, if you are not creating perfect work or succeeding right away, you are a failure. I certainly fell into this trap throughout college and only in the last couple of years have I been able to step back from that mindset. I still feel echoes from it, and I have to be very careful with my pacing and instinct for self-loathing.

Hard work is the cornerstone of any success, but there’s a difference between working hard and driving yourself into the ground.

­­What do you like to do when you’re not making art?

I have a full-time day job, so there’s only so much time spent neither working or making art. In that time I read, and I love walking through New York City… but the single thing I do the most when I’m not making art is watch wrestling – and yes, that’s as in “Macho Man” Randy Savage. I could talk about the storytelling and body language and excitement, but there’s really no excuse.

Born and raised in New York, Jenna Kass has her roots in illustration. Working primarily in pencil, she draws from personal iconography and myths, legends, and fairytales, focusing on women’s narratives and works. Visit her website to see more.