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To the Point: An Interview with Joumana Medlej

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What You'll Be Creating

Readers of drawing tutorials here on Tuts+ will be familiar with the artist I had the pleasure of interviewing today: Joumana Medlej, whose human anatomy tutorials cover all of the basics of figure drawing paired with the technical aspects of anatomy. Her body of work, however, is barely touched through those tutorials and fantastically varied. Get an inside look at her background, process, and perspective in the interview below.

Thanks so much for the interview. Let's start at the beginning: What got you into illustration and design?

I got into drawing early on via making comics, which was an early passion, and I drew my way through school quite literally – I used to have a drawing pad on my knees in class while dutifully taking notes on my desk! But this was Beirut in the 90's and there were no opportunities to learn and practice this professionally at the time, so I almost went into sciences instead.

It's at the very last minute, when it was time to send in my university application, that I learned of the existence of graphic design, then a newly available major in the country. This was just a couple of years after the arrival of the internet, as well, so the two together got me into this whole new world of creating for a living. If I had been born two years earlier, I'd have gone down a different path before these opportunities appeared.

Who or what are your main sources of inspiration (either now or overall, over the years)?

I so dread this question! It's so difficult to answer, everything inspires me. Sometimes truly random things, such as a traffic incident that inspired a whole book. Ethnography, animals, cooking, and baking make me want to draw.  


On the calligraphy side, I get a lot of my ideas from Sufi texts, Jungian psychology, [and] even obscure words or the letters themselves. I'm also deeply interested in myths and where they interpenetrate reality, which comes out in my comic. When I practiced martial arts, that was a major source of inspiration, too.

Did you study art or are you self-taught? Has this impacted the style of tutorials you've done for Tuts+ in any way? 

A mixture of both, depending. I majored in graphic design, which equipped me with a host of skills, but I taught myself drawing, illustration, and comics from a young age and that impacts how I teach them, not being myself molded by a given approach.

Similarly, I went on to study calligraphy with a master, but this was old-style apprenticeship: no course, just intensive and varied work, so when it came to teaching it (as I will do on Tuts+ presently), I had to develop my own course structure and it brings together both my calligraphic and typographic backgrounds. And I still study now, when a specialized course comes up (such as working with gold), with specialized tutors.

Mostly my tutorials, which in their original form are charts with minimal text, reflect how I like to organize and present information, and that owes much to a graphic design background (although at the time they tried very hard to squash illustration out of me). I adapt them for Tuts+ to a more text-based approach. 

Your tutorials on Tuts+ are focused on anatomy and figure work. Your tutorials outside of the site are also focused on foundation drawing/basics. What led you to focusing on the building blocks of illustration and design when creating tutorials for others?

This would be due to the fact I began creating them on deviantART, which is a hotbed of aspiring artists, and I found we were all suffering from a lack of resources. There were books to learn to draw people, but they all seemed to be classics that were way too aged or complicated to help me in my time (save for Jack Hamm's, which I would still recommend), and in any case they were only accessible to those who could buy them. There were of course a lot of tutorials for the basics online, but most of them a waste of space, either really mediocre or covering too little to be any use.

Not a lot of people can organize and present info in a straightforward and concise way – a great artist is not necessarily a good teacher, assuming they even have time to teach. And there were entire areas nobody was crazy enough to take up, such as how to draw different human types. I'm not a great artist, but I'm a great researcher and organizer of info, and I'm more than up for monumental enterprises. There was a clear lack and a real demand, which was motivation enough – also I needed these resources for myself, being focused on illustration and comics at the time. 

A lot of your work seems to be focused on culture (either your own or others you enjoy). What brought about that focus? What messages are you keen on sending to viewers and readers in exploring these cultures?

I've traveled a lot, backpacking by myself through parts of the world where western culture has only had minimal impact so far. I'm very interested in traditional cultures, including mine which has sadly been largely suppressed by precocious westernization. They are far richer and deeper than this ultra-conformist society we no all live in.

My focus on culture is largely for my own enjoyment, but I also hope it makes people shift their perception and become conscious that their Western culture is not the norm. It's shocking how many young Westerners, nowadays, think that their way of life is "the norm" and everything else is a deviation – whereas, seen in proper perspective, theirs is an aberration that just doesn't work. 

Your comic series, Malaak, is billed as “Lebanon’s first super hero comic”. For those unfamiliar (myself included) with the series, what is it about and what inspired you to create it?

The first and only! Malaak is set in a Lebanon that's perpetually at war (as it has been since before I was born), and the land's ancient guardians are so out of their depth they send one of their own in the shape of a human child to find out the cause of the war and put an end to it.

She becomes the super-heroine in question, a protector of civilians caught in the conflict,  and the story has all the trappings of a superhero comic, except, as it turns out, there is a mythological background to it and several twists on the genre due to it being rooted in Lebanese culture and history.

What inspired it was the 2006 war , where after sitting helpless under a constant blitz for a month, I needed an outlet for my rage and frustration. That outlet presented itself as a story, and 8 years later I have just one more volume to complete it! You can read it all on malaakonline.com.

 What is your creative process like?

It always starts on paper. I have a slew of various sketchbooks and I always carry at least one with me. Ideas get scribbled, then sketched out more fully, and I go from there. If it's illustration, I typically scan the sketch in, make further modifications I need (such as resizing or repositioning), then print it out, and ink it on tracing paper. Then it can be scanned again for coloring.

Sometimes I simply pencil and ink on paper without the intermediate steps – that's the case for my recipes, for instance. If it's calligraphy, I construct my sketch on Adobe Illustrator to make sure the geometry actually works, and to test scale and colours. When I'm satisfied, I construct it on paper and proceed to paint and gild. I don't print my designs and then transfer them!

The precision I demand requires proper geometric construction from scratch. It also means I design my pieces in such a way that I can construct them with a straight edge and a compass, so every element is placed in precise relationship with other elements.

What programs and tools do you use in creating your work? Anything you're especially fond of that you'd like to recommend to readers?

A ball-point pen on paper is the beginning of all my work. An A5 [5.8" x 8.3"] sketchbook is my ideal size for this kind of thing, small enough to fit into my handbag but not so small it cramps my sketching. When you're at the idea or first visuals stage, you don't want anything to be distracting or in the way. You don't want to worry about misusing good paper, about pencils smudging, a stylus writing too slow, etc. You don't want to have to be sitting up at your computer desk, either. I do all my thinking work well away from my work space, either in coffeeshops or on the Tube. The informality helps the ideas come out. 


When I'm in my work space, it's time for actual labour; materials, and the proper attitude now become very important. For digital work, I rely almost entirely on the Adobe trinity: Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign (CS3 – I refused to upgrade further!). I almost didn't think of mentioning it because it's so indispensable to me, but I use a graphic tablet (Wacom Intuos, they last forever) – anyone serious about art and working digitally needs to get that first. It's also better for the hand in general than intensive use of a mouse. My trusty scanner is a Canon LIDE, which is is very inexpensive, very slender and can be stored on its side – handy when you have little room or keep moving house.

For real work, I use so many materials, but my best friends are tools I bought in '97 (!) when starting university: a professional-grade mechanical pencil, a good ruler, a cutting edge, and a very good compass. For inking, I use Faber Castell Ecco Pigment pens and brush pens I picked up in Japan.

It's hard to recommend anything in a void because it depends so much on what exactly you want to do. There's no need to amass resources, very often it's just this one or two things that are spot-on and can help you leap, while the rest is likely to sit and gather dust. For drawing people, for instance, other than my own book which goes into human diversity like nobody else, Jack Hamm's Drawing the Head and Figure is so incredibly helpful; you could rely on just that and a lot of sketching from life. For making comics, I learned from French publications decades ago, but the DC Comics Guides are a very neat and practical little series. For hardware and software, a tablet is indispensable for digital art, as mentioned above, but there is a lot of free software that is very powerful and spares you the expense of Adobe stuff (from which I will bail someday). Yet the only tools you need to develop ideas and practice and improve on your skills are the basic pencil and paper. Don't get entangled in technology.

Are you a freelancer, contract worker, or in-house employee? Is illustration/design your full-time gig?

I'm self-employed as an artist and occasionally do freelance work and various commissions. I'm a full-time artist but my focus is on calligraphy, and illustration is only a small part of what I do now – I mostly do it for pleasure and for my own products, more rarely for clients. 

What's your typical work day like? How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work?

I don't actually have a typical work day, it all depends on whether I have a deadline or am following my own inspiration. If I'm in a busy production period, I wake up, do my yoga and meditation, then get to work with a cup of tea. A couple of hours later I pause for breakfast and get back to work till lunchtime, where I take a longer break to cook lunch. I get most of the work done in the morning because in the afternoon I usually start to flag, so I leave work that requires less focus for that time of day, and I may do it while listening to an audiobook or other entertainment. I never work overtime for clients, but I may stay up late working on something of my own, if I'm really excited about it. I have a daylight lamp that allows me to paint late into the night if I feel the drive.

Here's my dual workspace in all its messy glory. Wherever I go, I need one desk for computer work (right) and one for painting, cutting and such (left). Efforts to keep either uncluttered are always futile. In-between you can glimpse my garden – I often have visitors while I work, squirrels or birds looking for a nibble!

What words of advice do you have for emerging artists who wish to engage in illustration, design, and story-telling as you have?

Don't try to be anyone else. Don't try to be original at all costs, either. Ideas that come spontaneously and unlooked-for are usually the best: follow them. Don't become the slave of a specific style or tool. And if you can go to art school, do so, it'll get your foot in the door – otherwise you have to realize there's a lot of competition out there and it's hard to get noticed. Never delude yourself into thinking being an artist means you don't have to be practical – watch your finances, take breaks, eat well, balance work that inspired you and work that pays the bills, don't under-or oversell yourself, don't work overtime. Have a life, always. And be humble. Being an artist is a gift.

"My Spiffy Spice Shelf, Mac and PC Icon set.

Thanks so much, Joumana, for sharing your work, inspiration, and process with us. You can check out more of her work at the following links and in tutorials to come:

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