Illustrator Jer Dee listens to dance music while creating colorful art

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Illustrator Jer Dee talks about his affinity for color and life as a freelancer. Photo by JL JAVIER

In art school, students are taught to begin their work with a value study. Value studies are sketches done in black-and-white, with shapes shaded light or dark. Usually, this monochromatic blueprint guides an artist's final work. Only after this vital step is color splashed on a canvas.

But illustrator Jer Dee takes a detour from this artistic process, instead opting to plan his illustrations in reverse.

“I go straight to color right away, and if something's not right, then I adjust it,” says Dee. “Never ako nahihirapan to apply color in my artwork.”

Needless to say, Dee is unafraid to play with hues. His tonal confidence results in digital art that never lacks in the color department. Forgoing realism for inspiration, Dee makes whimsical characters that ride on green horses, swim in orange rivers, and come face-to-face with blue dragons.

The digital illustrator makes a habit of posting these energetic works on his social media page. With squares upon squares of illustrations, his Instagram feed has begun to resemble a kaleidoscope. Even more, it has morphed into a portfolio, reeling in both art appreciators and prospective clients.

One of the clients who paid a visit to Dee’s feed is athletics giant Nike. After finding his work on Instagram, the brand reached out to the digital illustrator via email. The Nike By You x Jer Dee collection was released this November. Seven designs make up the collection, which can be used to customize products at Nike Park. Inspired by various eras of dance music, it brings to light Dee’s affinity for the musical genre. It’s actually the sound he prefers making his art to, no matter the assignment.

The Nike By You x Jer Dee collection can be viewed in Nike Park Fort. Photo courtesy of JER DEE

When did you get into illustrating? Did you always work digitally or did you start with a pen and paper?

I started with a pen and paper, but I started working digitally at the start of college. I’ve been in the industry for quite a while, mga 10 years na ata or 11, but I have been jumping around other industries.

I had experience in publishing, production, and retail, until I finally came into my own as a freelance illustrator at the start of the pandemic. May balak sana ako mag start ng design studio in early 2020, but then again, the pandemic happened. It was wiser for me to not launch a company and just be about my own as a freelance illustrator.

A section of Dee's studio, where he works as a freelance illustrator. Photo by JL JAVIER

You mentioned you decided to become a freelance illustrator as soon as the pandemic hit. What circumstances led to that decision?

Well, it was accumulated din. I didn't expect the pandemic to happen for so long. By the end of 2019, I already had plans to go about on my own. Tinuloy ko sya until mid-February, and then suddenly, by [early March], it was announced that we were going to go on lockdown.

Pero yeah, my initial plan was to open up a studio on my own. As in, nag plan pa ako ng brand book ko, pero hindi ko tinuloy. I got into more production sidelines before I went into full-fledged illustration by this year.

It was a bit hard for me nung 2020. There was so much uncertainty, and dami ko rin pinagdaanan personally. Na hirapan ko na i-sustain sya. Thankfully, it came around by the start of 2021, and then tuloy-tuloy na sya until this November. And I hope ma tuloy pa 'yung career ko moving forward.

“Overbearing” by Jer Dee. This illustration was part of the works shown in Tempest, Dee’s exhibit at Futur:st. Photo courtesy of JER DEE

What are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field? And how do you personally overcome them?

For me, I think the biggest challenge is always the pricing, because there are always inconsistencies in pricing across all projects.

I don't have a pattern. I price myself differently when facing clients who have a smaller following, I price myself differently working with an ad agency, and I price myself differently when working with production. Parang, there is that massive inconsistency. It’s not just for me, because when I talk to other illustrators, it's always that one issue. Pricing talaga is the biggest challenge.

I noticed that your body of work is quite consistent. You've managed to make illustrations that are instantly identifiable as yours. So how did you find your style?

Thank you! Thank you so much. That feels so good to hear.

For the longest time, I've dabbled in vector art. And there's a trend right now: people are shitting on these flat style illustrations, like the ones that you see on Facebook. But for the longest time, that was my style. Kasi 'yun 'yung alam ko eh. 'Yun rin ang pinanggalingan ko from production.

Up until now, I still do that style, especially when I work with production, or like ad agencies, because that's usually like an easy requirement. 'Yun 'yung hinahanap ng companies. It's easily doable, but it's easily still identifiable.

When I was trying to find my own art style, it was a bit of a struggle for quite a while. It came to a point in mid-2020, where I wasn't really connecting to any of my artworks. “Ano ba toh? Bakit ganito nalang 'yung nagagawa ko?” Parang ganun. I had that hurdle.

And then, [Samantha Nicole] of Futur:st [reached out to ask me] to do a solo show at the start of 2021. That was the start of me developing my own art style. It came about na parang, yun nga, the frustration of "How do I make my art style not look generic? Or not look like someone else is [making it]?"

Illustrator Jer Dee's tonal confidence results in digital art that never lacks in the color department. In photo: Dee facing a wall of his own artworks at his studio. Photo by JL JAVIER

[Finding my style] started when I came back to sketching — I usually sketch on paper. Aside from doing digital artwork, I love sketching in my sketchbook, but I really don't publish it online because I'm shit at traditional art. And usually, when I sketch in a sketchbook, I use the pen that bleeds. For the longest time, I had this frustration that my digital art is not aligned with my traditional art. I tried to find a happy medium of adapting my traditional sketching to my vector art. It was a lot of experimenting, and it was a lot of failing. And then eventually, may nag click when I was doing it in [Adobe] Illustrator. I really wanted to get the vibe of like, it was drawn by ink but [the viewer knows] that it is entirely digital.

Apart from that, I tried to broaden the subjects of illustration. Around 2017 to 2019 (that was the start of my illustration career), what I was mainly illustrating was queer stuff. Makikita mo talaga when you see my artworks until 2019. It's very drag, it's very colorful, and it's very gay.

A closer look at the prints on Dee's studio wall. Photo by JL JAVIER

But that wasn't the goal of my solo show. I tried to expand, to look back into the past, and to look within. There's a lot of introspection na nangyari. Parang ako nag pa-therapy without going to a therapist. (Laughs) Also, I took inspiration from ancient Japanese paintings and ancient Chinese paintings, which I hope nakita o natranslate sya sa aking current art.

Dee has a strong affinity for dance music. Pre-pandemic, he part-timed as a DJ. Photo by JL JAVIER

You mentioned your design process a bit earlier — could you elaborate on it? What would be your whole design process? Is it linear or does it go back and forth?

It depends kasi eh. Kunwari, there's a brief, so alam ko na may requirements ako, and then I think like, "Paano ba to?" So I have a requirement, and then I research for inspiration on Flickr, on Pinterest, on Tumblr, ganun.

But on my self-initiated stuff, I learned to focus more on the storytelling. So parang, whatever comes into my mind, 'yun 'yung focus ko.

Kunwari, I had a recent artwork nung mid 2021, and parang wala akong magawa noon. There were no clients coming in, and then I wanted to make artwork na any lang. This was during the summer, so parang, 'yun 'yung first thought ko, “Nakapainit today!” So I wanted to make art displaying or showing that kind of heat. Gusto ko ipalabas na, "How do I cool myself down without going outside?" (Kasi naka-lockdown pa tayo then). Nagisip ako na mag illustrate ako ng something related to pools or related to hot springs. Since mainit, since summer, gusto ko ganun 'yung vibe ko.

I hope that would explain my process, cause it really is very random. Kung ano lang ang naisip ko at that time, and if I'm inspired to illustrate it, gawin ko siya.

Something I noticed is that no matter the prompt, your work is always very colorful. What draws you to color?

For me, I have always been drawn to color before value studies. Kasi usually diba, the process of digital art na tinuturo sa school is that you always have to start by sketching, then black and white, then you put color in it, and then you finalize it.

Mine is the reverse. I go straight to color right away, and if something's not right, then I adjust it. I guess I've always had an affinity to color. Never ako nahihirapan to apply color in my artwork, even when I was in college.

Also, I've always been drawn to the older Asian artworks, which usually emphasize more on the color than the realism aspect, especially when you compare them to Western art.

“Reunion” by Jer Dee. This illustration was part of the works shown in Tempest, Dee’s exhibit at Futur:st. Photo courtesy of JER DEE.

You mentioned art school. What's your educational background? Did you go to art school?

Yeah, I did. I went to [the De-La Salle College of St.] Benilde, where I studied multimedia arts. That was ancient, I think that was 2009 until 2011 or 2012.

Right after that, I went immediately to work. I went to publishing sa Status Magazine as an intern. And then tuloy-tuloy na sya, after Status, I went to production, and then after production, I went to ad agencies. Sobrang, I really jumped around industries. After that, I went to Sunnies Studios. That was my last full time job before I went ahead to do freelancing.

So in your previous jobs, you always did illustration or graphic design?

Yeah, yeah. Even if my scope of work at work doesn't entail illustration, I always do. I always illustrate at the side. 'Yun talaga 'yung specialty ko ever since.

So I saw your work with Nike. And then you mentioned on an Instagram caption that it was inspired by dance music. How did that reflect in your illustrations for the collaboration?

Well, 'yun kasi talaga 'yung brief. (Laughs) The brief was to be in line with their current dance campaign, and they got me because a lot of my artworks convey movement and have this energy. My illustrations are always moving, so kinuha nila ako specifically for that.

For me, that was like a dream. Because, number one, it's Nike, and then number two, I love dance music. I also did part-timing as a DJ rin before, when the pandemic didn't happen [yet]. So malaki talaga 'yung affinity ko for dance music, and it always, always, always had an influence on my work as well. Because when I work, I always listen to some form of dance music — kahit hindi current.

“In Deep Water and Fierce Fire” by Jer Dee. Photo courtesy of JER DEE

Your work is available in Nike Park, if I'm not mistaken. And customers can use it to customize products, is that right?

You can customize your T-shirts and tote bags with it. Ikaw bahala eh. (Laughs) I just thought na you can just put a print here (Points to chest), then pwede palang dito (Points to left shoulder), and then you can put some here (Points to right shoulder), and then you can put it at the back. Ikaw bahala. Parang nagulat ako, 'yun pala ka in-depth 'yung customization process nila.

A sample T-shirt from the Nike By You x Jer Dee Collection in Nike Park Fort. Photo courtesy of JER DEE

Aside from the Nike project, what other projects do you work on? And which types do you like working on the most?

Right now, I'm surprisingly happy with collaborating with different brands. It's different from self-initiated projects because they have briefs, and they have something specific that they want. But lately, I have been noticing that they want to have my touch.

For example, for this work that I did for Busy Bee Cleaning Co, their only brief was to incorporate their brand colors and make something to post on their social media, and then ako bahala gagawa. I have a lot of freedom to do my own artwork, but it’s still in line with the brand's vision. 'Yun 'yung mga favorite projects ko at the moment. 

Aside from that, I also love collaborating with fashion brands talaga so parang, hopefully after Nike, I get to work with more brands. My biggest top-tier goal is [collaborating with] Gucci and Maison Kitsune.

I can actually really see your work on Maison Kitsune!

Nakita ko 'yung Line App [collaboration] with Maison Kitsune, and then parang nung nakita ko I was like “Shet! Gusto ko rin nun!” But aside from that, I would want collaborations with galleries also, like I would want to exhibit some of my stuff more.