The latest in our Rejected Designs series arrives courtesy of New York City-based Jun Cen, an illustrator and animator born in Guangzhou, China. Cen, who has been recognized by The Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, 3×3 Illustration Competition, and others, is memorable for his use of soft color palettes, sullen, atmospheric forms, and compositions that are as allegorical and emotive as a dream. The illustrator has lent his evocative style to imagery for the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Oxford University Press.
Here, Cen tells the story of how an unused book cover design found new life as the illustration for an online article. He discusses how rejected illustrations can potentially be reused in new contexts for other projects, and how his singular approach as an illustrator—which involves conceiving each new commission as an artwork in its own right—allows for an artistic practise where ideas exchange and grow from one project to the next.
“I was commissioned by a Chinese writer whose work is critically acclaimed in China. I had worked with her designer before I was approached for this project; the author was particularly intrigued by a piece of art I did a couple of years ago.
“The book was about a woman and a man who live miserably for more than 20 years under the shadow of an unsolved mystery they share from their childhood. They meet again in their 30s and finally put all the fragmented details of their memories together, and discover what was clouding their lives. The word ‘cocoon’ was the keyword in the brief, which symbolized the struggle for finding the truth hidden in deep memories. ‘Cocoon’ is what inspired all of the sketches I presented to the author.
“The sketch she went for was the strongest that I presented. I was actually quite happy with it because it was both emotional and surreal, which I consider myself quite good at.
“We finalized the piece, but the writer found that she couldn’t get the original drawing of mine she’d seen out of her head—so she rejected my completed illustration. In the end, she asked if I could create something similar, which I did. I understood her perspective: as the person who knows the book the best, she understandably wants full control of all the decision-making. It happens all the time with book cover projects.
“Looking at the completed, rejected design, I thought that it had the potential to fit in with another topic, maybe something about personal struggles, or finding one’s identity. I think the artwork is quite open to interpretation.
“A website that provides news and analysis in autism research approached me. They were looking for an illustration for an article about women with autism trying to hide their struggles behind masks they create for their social lives. As soon as I received the story, I recalled that previous rejected artwork. I felt that the emotion it communicated would work really well for this article, and it symbolizes the idea of masking. I came up with this idea quickly, but I always find one or two more alternative approaches to an assignment. So I included the sketch of the rejected artwork as one of three ideas, and sent them to my art director.
“The previously rejected sketch was chosen. As the article focused on women, I removed the man from the original artwork, refined some of the details, and adjusted the color palette. And in the end, it turned out to be a piece both my client and I were satisfied with.
“Whenever I create a commissioned illustration, I always try to add a personal touch to it. It means that what I make for clients can often stand on its own as an independent artwork. It means that even if something is rejected, I have made a piece of art that I enjoyed working on. And then I can always find a creative way to use it later.”