“I want people to look at my characters and at each other as if we are all the same—we have the same flaws, the same habits,” says the young Dutch illustrator Jenna Arts of her gangly limbed and balloon-shaped figures. Her characters tumble around a composition with the endearing manner of Charlie Chaplin; it’s an illustration style that embraces the awkward, and it’s one we’ve seen in the work of a lot of contemporary illustrators over the past few years, Sergio Membrillas, Antti Kalevi, and Dawid Ryski to name a few.
“I like that they are a bit helpless, clumsy, and in a way innocent, so you recognize yourself in them and don’t judge them,” continues Arts, who has been a freelance illustrator for the past three years and works predominately for newspapers and magazines based in The Netherlands. The quality her characters embody is something that many people will be able to relate to—they exemplify that hyper aware sensation you can get when entering a room of people you don’t know. Arts’ figures are like the feeling that you have Micky Mouse hands and are knocking things down all over the place—and that’s exactly what makes them so charming and empathetic.
Arts grew up in a small village in the south east of The Netherlands and studied illustration at AKV St. Joost in Breda. It was when interning at Dutch newspaper NRC that her characters first began to take the shape that they have today though: “I didn’t have the time to be critical because of the time pressure. That’s when my characters developed from big heads and no necks to big bodies with little heads.” She describes the surrounding illustration scene in The Netherlands as especially strong and supportive, and the sheer amount of talented illustrators within the relatively small country means it’s vital to distinguish yourself. Artists like Levi Jacobs, Zeloot, Jordy van den Nieuwenjik, Aart-Jan Venema, and Lennard Kok are of particular note for Arts.
“I don’t draw perfect characters,” she emphasizes, alluding to the sensibility that infuses her work. Although this gangly style is something we see around a lot right now, Arts’ approach is still distinctive in its attention detail and emotion. “I draw characters that are out of proportion, a little bit weird, but beautiful. Like we all are. I want to say ‘It’s okay, don’t worry, we’re all in this together’. I like to observe human life from a bigger perspective, like I’m observing a school of fish.”