Creative Voices

The Truth in a Face: Jason Seiler

By Kristi Highum

In this video profile, illustrator Jason Seiler explains the process behind his portraits and caricatures.

Jason Seiler’s portrait work includes Kanye West for Rolling Stone, Pope Francis for the cover of Time’s 2013 “Person of the Year” issue, and President Obama for the New York Observer and Utne Reader. He’s particularly fond of doing portraits of musicians—he’s done the White Stripes, Sturgill Simpson, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello (this portrait won a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators in 2010), and many others.

While he frequently works in a caricature style, much of his portraiture might be described as “better than lifelike”—Seiler finds and draws out the things that make his subjects unique. He says, “I just like to capture people and draw them how I want to draw them, in my way. So it’s a little bit exaggerated and there’s a lot of character, but then it’s very realistically painted…. There’s just way more to actually capturing the likeness and the character of the person…. It has to do with their essence.”

His work has a tactile quality. “For me, my favorite paintings are the ones where...from a distance it just looks really tight and beautiful, and then when you get up’s brush strokes. It’s all it is, is brushstrokes,” he says. “I want (my work) to look like a painting; that’s my main goal, especially digitally.”

Jason began honing his artistic talents early on. When he was a child, a fascination with sharks led him to create a hand-drawn book with page after page of shark drawings—and he still frequently chooses animals as his subjects. When he was around ten years old, he began doing portraits of people. He says, “I’ve always had this ability to just draw people and it looks like them.” When he was in high school, his teachers became his caricature subjects—which led to a trip to the principal’s office. But instead of being censured for his work, he was paid his first commission to create more.

In 1996, he moved to Chicago and focused on creating music—playing guitar and singing in punk bands. But after he attended art school, Jason shifted his efforts to portrait illustration, and now he is a very in-demand artist.

He works with a Cintiq tablet and is at home in Photoshop, but he doesn’t want his work to lose its handmade feel. “I work really hard so that it feels traditional,” he says. “It’s a painting, and I look at it that way. I paint the exact same way that I would in oils…. [Painting digitally] is more convenient. I can mix faster, I can change things if I need to, but ultimately it’s all about the artist and the artist’s hand.”

Watch Jason at work and learn about his process. 

October 7, 2014

Video: Kristi Highum

Original artwork: Jason Seiler