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Last week I got a call from Minh Uong for a job for the New York Times about an issue that I’m sure we’re all well aware of: email overload. This piece written by Jenna Wortham did a great job at encapsulating how email has overwhelmed our lives. Appropriately, it’s actually been difficult for me to finish writing this post since I keep having to reply to new email messages! Not that I’m ungrateful for all the correspondence I have been getting lately, but it is hard to figure out an email system that works.

IN the not-so-distant past, the chipper AOL sound of “You’ve got mail!” filled me with giddiness and glee. I would eagerly check my in-box, excited to see what message had arrived. Those days are long gone. Now, when I examine my various e-mail accounts, my main emotion is dread. 

New York Times - Drowning in Emails - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

“It’s not the quantity of e-mails that get us into trouble,” Mr. Lyman says. “It’s the ones that require us to slow down, find the file, compose a great e-mail back. Humans only have a certain level of information processing. We get overloaded.”

 New York Times - Drowning in Emails - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

This piece was inked by hand as you can see in the photo below (please don’t judge my terrible finger nails), afterwhich it was scanned, tweaked and then coloured digitally using scanned-in paint textures.

New York Times - Drowning in Emails - Jacqui Oakley Illustration process

Here are the three linears I sent to Minh. Of course it’s the New York Times so the deadlines are quick. I got a call Wednesday night, then sent linears Thursday, taught at OCAD and then came home to do the final illustration to get it on on Friday before the big snow storm hit NYC. Luckily I had a fun time with this one since the water was so fun to ink and so staying up late working with an audio book to keep me company was good.

Usually publications want your run-of-the-mill basic white male business man in their illustrations and any time I’ve tried to veer from this obnoxious stereotype I get pulled back. I was pleasantly surprised that the art director Minh suggested to make the main character into an African-American woman, namely the article’s beautiful writer Jenna Wortham. It is a tiny little portrait so it was hard to get the facial features just right, but hopefully I’ve captured a little bit of Jenna and she gets a kick out of the scenario I’ve put her in. Maybe it will even provide a little boost to help her overcome the email deluge. Below you can see the tweaks I did before I moved onto the final.

New York Times - Drowning in Emails - Jacqui Oakley Illustration linears

The article does end on a positive note, highlighting all the coming options to help us cope with the flood. It seems our etiquette about email has to catch up the reality of the situation. I’m really excited about programs like Mailbox which will allow us to sort through our emails in a more efficient manner and even set alarms on when to respond to certain ones. Such a simple solution that it’s shocking this hasn’t been implemented yet.

Anyway, I best be getting back to work, and responding to emails. Sigh…

I was so happy to get another call from David Powell, the very talented designer and all around nice chap at InRe, South Texas’ College of Law Alumni Magazine. I know, its a bit of a mouth full, hence the name InRe. I was asked to work with an intense piece written by Naomi Bang about The South Texas Human Trafficking/Immigration Clinic and the harsh cases they deal with.

Houston is a hub for many notable things: transportation, energy, commerce, and human trafficking. The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 17,500 people are illegally brought into the U.S. each year, victims of ruthless traffickers who deal in the sex trade, extortion, and slavery. Unfortunately, Houston—with its international port, diverse population, and proximity to the border—is home to many of those victims who are kept in the shadows. The profit made globally each year on the illegal trafficking of people tops $9-billion, the third most profitable illegal trade in the U.S. following drugs and guns, according to the federal government. The organization provides the legal means to free men, women, and children from their captors, whether they be companies or individuals. The students, working under the supervision of adjunct Professor Naomi Bang, represent clients in federal and state courts, immigration courts, before administrative agencies, and work with myriad of law enforcement agencies.

The first piece I tackled was one depicting female genital mutilation. Illustrators often have to work with editorials where complex ideas are tricky to visualize and to relate to a general audience. This one took the cake but I was up for a challenge and wanted to do justice to such an emotional piece. Now to only figure out a way to show female mutilation in a way that was strong but not too graphic. Here’s the final result:

  O.S., an 18 year old female from Cameroon was placed in deportation proceedings. While facing several challenges with the typical asylum claims of domestic violence, one of the students realized that she was from a country where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was practiced. FGM, also known as female circumcision, is a procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital for non-medical reasons. While O.S. did not come to her initial intake based on the FGM, nor were the students planning to use it in her favor, this sudden realization by the students triggered them to begin asking about whether or not her tribe practiced FGM and whether she had been forced to undergo the procedure. This sparked a new direction to the conversation, where O.S. revealed her fear of having to go through FGM. An asylum application based on this fear was filed and approved in the fall of 2011.

I also was assigned the cover illustration which accompanied this piece and was intended to sum up the issues of human trafficking in a broader sense. I wanted to first portray a strong emotion, a feeling of being trapped between two worlds. As illegal aliens with no rights in the U.S, the people in these stories are forced into manipulative and dangerous situations. In addition to being legally prevented from moving freely in their adopted country, they may also be escaping some sort of persecution or civil unrest in their home country and are thus reluctant to return. I wanted this image to represent the many different cases that the Clinic sees and the feeling of powerlessness that their clients might feel before finding the legal help they need.

Here’s a bit of my process for the cover, from my linears where I showed various collections of people and then to the acrylic under-painting. I wanted this cover to have a lot of impact and thought using the bars of light would be both striking and further emphasize the overall concept of entrapment and hopelessness.

Human Trafficking - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

Here’s a smaller spot illustration which accompanies the larger pieces on another facet of the article. I wanted to keep a similar palette, mood and again show the overlapping figures.

  During 2011, the Clinic applied for and gained approval on at least 15 Trafficking Visas for Vietnamese workers who were trafficked into the United States after having been promised great wages and a better life in exchange for $5,000-$15,000 each. Once these immigrants arrived in the United States, they were basically imprisoned in dingy apartments, usually at double capacity, and were transported to the store only once a week by a driver who did not speak their language or English. These people were warned not to talk to anyone and lived in fear. Finally, the Vietnamese community stepped in and the Clinic got involved.  The non-immigrant status is exclusively used for those who are, or have been victims of human trafficking. It protects those victims, and allows them to remain in the United States to assist in investigations or prosecution of human trafficking. 

Human Trafficking - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

Here’s some process work for the feature image including my linears and the acrylic under-painting. The first idea was to show a knife cutting the rose and having one petal fall. This idea was changed by the magazine towards the end of the process due to the possible harshness of a knife visual and so David and I came up with the idea of using thorns to show the abuse of the flower and to further emphasize constraint and suffocation. I think the end result worked quite well.

Human Trafficking - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

Female Mutilation - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

Female Mutilation - Jacqui Oakley Illustration

Thanks again to David for allowing me to tackle such an intense article. My portfolio is filled with colourful and happy imagery and it was great to be able to stretch my boundaries visually and conceptually with these illustrations. I hope these pieces do the tragic subject matter justice and I hope this piece shines a light on what some people are going through. It’s shocking to discover that the profit made from human trafficking tops $9 billion, but it’s good to know that organizations like The South Texas Human Trafficking/Immigration Clinic are there helping the situation.

Process: Boar & Fox Masks January 15th, 2013

Even though I paint for a living, I still enjoy doing larger scale or more experimental work for art shows. It’s a good excuse to rediscover one’s enjoyment of making art, which sometimes can be forgotten when it becomes part of a daily routine (I know, shame on me). After exhibits I always learn something that I bring back to my illustration work, whether it’s a slightly new technique or subject matter or it’s purely a re-energizment.

This winter I was lucky to be in two art shows where I took the opportunity to try something a little different from my usual work and create some 3D pieces. I wanted to create pieces that forced me to not rely on my usual skills and would stretch my typical boundaries. I also wanted to do art that was a little more physical and get away from my studio table, so why not cardboard masks, I thought?

Below you’ll find some of my process for these cardboard critters which will be hanging up guarding my other paintings until the end of February at De Facto at Mulberry (193 James St. North, Hamilton, Ontario).  Such a lovely gallery–thanks so much to Oliver and Ella for inviting me to show my work there. Here’s my third mask of the series, “The Boar” and the fourth mask ‘The Fox”.

I was surprised that the process for these wasn’t too arduous (aside from the occasional glue gun burn). I didn’t do sketches beforehand but just printed out a few low res photos of the creatures I intended to capture. I wanted to wing it for a change and see (good or bad) what would result. In my usual illustration work I’m so precise in working out sketches beforehand that with this project I wanted to feel a little freer. If these masks turned out to be aberrations, the experiments could be thrown in the garbage with no one the wiser. I had enough paintings to show anyway! Albeit a bit cheesy, I think feeling no pressure really helped open up those creative flows. Who would have thought those motivational speakers were right?

So without further ado, here are some process shots of the boar, where I built up the frame with chunks of corrugated cardboard (the cardboard came thanks to Jamie’s vinyl shopping addiction and their packaging). Then I would cut out random shapes and see where they could fit. I wanted to go for a very elongated shape and keep his mouth open which was a bit tricky to figure out at first. Luckily with additive work like this you can just keep building layers until it looks right.

I told you I wanted to get out of the studio. Here I am on the floor of my living room while Star Trek films play in the background. It was a fun day, and I got to wear track-pants all day which is always an added bonus.

The later stage was with gluing down finer bits of chip board which flex nicely into hair or fur and can add a lot more textural contrast and rhythm to the piece. They also covered up the messier glue parts and hid and refined the chunkier corrugated cardboard parts. I did still want to maintain a fragmented look though, since I think it’s more visually interesting. It’s hard not to overwork these and lose that construction-like quality.

As in my painting work, I wanted to to capture a strong personality in the face which is trickier to do when the eyes are wholes and I can’t paint in an expression. Instead I relied on tweaking the shapes around the eyes and the brows to try and portray an old brooding personality. I hope this comes across.

Here’s the start of the fox piece. As you can see they each started out like strange alien heads. With this one I really wanted to add a different sort of personality than the boar. I wanted to face to be stretched horizontally and to process a certain sort of mischievousness–this is a fox, afterall.

I was surprised to find that working out the facets of the fox’s face came fairly naturally (I’m going to regret saying this down the road when I try and do a trickier face, aren’t I?). Through my paintings I think I’ve trained myself to break down facets and levels of anatomy. This definitely helped with visualizing and building up the 3D planes of the faces. The more refined hair paper pieces felt like the final touches of a painting that I usually add with ink and a fine brush. Funny how similar this project was in some ways to my regular work.

The photos below are from my solo show Bestiary, at De Facto Gallery in Hamilton kindly taken by Seema Narula. I’m trying to reassure Jamie that the fox is really not as dangerous as he looks.

So, hopefully I’ll find time between moving to our new house, illustration work and teaching to do some new masks. I’ll pop up the process for some of the other masks soon too.

I really have felt re-inspired from this process and feel so lucky to have the opportunity to show these pieces. I’m thinking about going a lot larger next time. Any suggestions?


Fire: Process December 4th, 2012

I was recently asked to illustrate ‘fire’ for Maria Keehan at Smithsonian Magazine. What a fantastic job! Since this is an opener on various stories all relating to fire, I had to make these flames complement all the pieces and so not seem too dangerous – pink always helps with this. So here’s some of my process work. Hope you like it.


FIRE - lettering illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Here’s some of my various sketches….

FIRE - lettering illustration sketch by Jacqui Oakley

…and the two that I sent to Maria. The 2nd one was chosen and then the painting fun began.

FIRE - lettering illustration sketch by Jacqui Oakley

Here’s some layers of acrylic paint…

FIRE - lettering illustration process by Jacqui Oakley

and done!

FIRE - lettering illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Here’s the final published piece. Thanks Maria!

FIRE - lettering illustration by Jacqui Oakley


Jamie and I recently had the pleasure to be asked to participate in the EN MASSE mural at Hamilton’s yearly Super Crawl event. This took place from noon to 8pm on Saturday 15th September and spread along one big wall of Dr. Disc on Canon and James Street North. EN MASSE is from Montreal, QB. and brings together emerging artists drawn from the diverse fields of the ‘high’ and ‘low’ brow arts, the latter including graffiti, alternative comics, and illustration. They work on a ongoing series of artistic conversations of a sort; a non-linear dialog connecting many artists through the creation of large-scale collaborative black and white murals. The shape and character of each specific EN MASSE event is defined by those creators who take part in the project, and the energies they individually and collectively bring to the mix. Under the guidance of Fred Caron, Jason Botkin and Rupert Bottenberg their mandate is to increase the visibility of new young artists, both collectively and as individuals, and to foster community-oriented art events and programming, built upon a specific form of collaborative interaction and immersion between the chosen artists.

Here’s a little video of the end of the night with myself and the very talented Olivier Bonnard. When it got really cold and the hoodies came out, but I swear we didn’t plan matching outfits. I hate hearing my voice on film but here it is….

(Video by artist Steven Frank, who has been known to organize art events in Oshawa such as Durham Art Fest. Steven’s latest project is the Durham West Studio Tour for the Durham West Art Centre.)

I felt so intimidated to participate in the mural since I’ve never done artwork on such a large scale which was outside and in front of tons of people for the festival! I was a wee bit terrified the night before, but EN MASSE were so friendly and welcoming that they made it easy and a lot of fun. EN MASSE is a bigger collective but that day we were lucky to work alongside Peru Dyer, Fred Caron, Olivier Bonnard, Kirsten McCrea, and Jason Botkin (all of who are brilliant creatives, so check out their personal sites too) and the Hamilton artists included Manny Trinh, Becky Katz, Kearon Roy Taylor and my husband Jamie Lawson. A special thanks to Ola Wlusek, the AGH and the Supercrawl Curatorial Committee for putting it all together! I hope they come back next year. There are lots of buildings in downtown Hamilton that could use a coat of paint and some added life. So, here are some process shots of the day….


Below, here’s Fred working on his giant robot head and Jamie planning what his next move is. (Photos by Seema Narula who has a great Hamilton blog you should really check out, and Ola Wlusek).

En Masse Project - Hamilton

EN MASSE - Hamilton Super Crawl Mural

I started with the Garuda bird man and then went onto the monkey and some chrysanthemums. It was great getting to do art alongside Jamie and work off of each others designs.


Above is Jamie adding the necessary squid man to my chrysanthemums and above him is one of my favourite parts of the mural, Olivier‘s dog man. Love all the texture and grey gradients he added in the fur.

So great to see everyone’s personal style coming through. As the mural progresses you had to not only focus on your own piece but on the whole wall; to see how the different elements interact and try and compliment them and fill in areas that needed an added something. One of the amazing things about this experience was to see the mural go from nothing to such a delightful mass of different styles, shapes and filled with humour…


Peru‘s owl hovering ominously over Manny‘s shanty town.


Above, is my Garuda bird decorated by Jamie’s abstract patterns and obviously enjoying a nice drink of Kirsten‘s Miracle Tonic next to Fred’s giant robot head. Recently I’ve kind of been obsessed with the Garuda legend after reading China Miéville’s brilliant Perdido Street Station so it was nice to fit that in there. As I side note, I’d highly recommend that book for lovers of grittier science fiction.

Love these fire patterns by Jamie too (seen in the pic below) and what’s not to like about Fred’s Felix-style cat man and his massive fish.


Jason’s octopus man on the far left started off the piece beautifully with his arm stretching across the canvas, tying the piece together – just look at that lovely detail in that face. Jason and Fred were brilliant at filling in the gaps and making sure the piece had a nice rhythm and continuity. It was great staying until the end and seeing how all the space filled up and how the piece became one.

Below, is a great architectural piece by Peru and I love how Kirsten‘s raises from the top. Looking on is my little monkey who I had such a fun time with and it was a blast seeing little kids get a kick out of him. Actually one of the most fun elements of this day was the interaction between the artists and the people passing by, especially the kids. It was hilarious hearing which parts they likes the best and why. EN MASSE are so good at having a welcoming atmosphere around them while they work.


Working on this was a true collaboration and there were so many moments were we worked off each other’s designs. It forced me to ‘let go’ and not pre-plan too much and trust that I could come up with something that worked with everyone else’s pieces. I can’t tell you what a huge lesson and what an inspiration this has been for me by opening me up to new possibilities and letting go of some insecurities and having the motivation to do new and different projects. Come back to Hamilton soon EN MASSE.