Interview with artist Jana Jacob

Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from? When and how did you decide to become an artist?


I was born and raised in the very south of Germany in a small town. My mother is German, and my father is Thai. I grew up with my single mum and later on with my younger sister. We always moved around a lot. I almost don`t remember living in one home longer than two years. Also, even when I was very little, we used to travel a lot around Europe and visited my family in Thailand, so I always felt more like a world citizen. 

I never had this one moment when I decided: I want to be an artist! It just happened. Ever since I was a young child, I was painting a lot, my mum told me she would always bring tons of watercolors everywhere on our travels, and I would sit and paint on my own for hours. And I always loved building and creating things, no matter what material; wood, clay, fabric, wool, paint, anything. 

My path of becoming an artist probably manifested when I started my studies of Fine Arts at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart, Germany. I remember in my first year. We did classic large-scale drawing studies with coal on paper and a studio model. I loved that. Later on I did one year abroad at the École nationale supérieure d'arts de Paris-Cergy in Paris, France. There I focused on video, often used myself as an object. For one series, I asked random people to tell me a secret in front of the camera. In some way, my most recent work refers to that idea of revealing yourself in front of the camera or, more generally, in front of the unknown spectator. During my studies, I also spent a few months in a kind of art commune in San Francisco. We collaborated with art students of the CCA. However, it was only when I settled in Berlin that I finally rediscovered my first love of painting. So here I am.

How would you describe what you create? What are the fundamental messages you want to get across with your work?


Oh, this is hard to put into words. I try to create a very private and personal portrait of a person, in a moment when they are all by themselves and drop their outside-world-masks. I aim to display the moment they let go. But it’s not only about an arbitrary image of this situation. It is also about the mood which I experience with them. I try to capture all of it by choosing the palette of colors, the size of the canvas, and by intensively examining their expression. The outcome doesn`t necessarily transport happiness or beauty but rather a sense of peace.

There is no fundamental message I want to get across. I am more interested in what this kind of depiction evokes within the spectator. The range of reactions was pretty wide so far. Some find it sad or feel that the model looks annoyed, bored, tired, or severe. Many people told me that they had the feeling that the portrayed person seems familiar, as if they knew them for a long time. 


You paint a lot of nudes; what do you hope to communicate with these?


I like the nudity because it is pure, and it unifies us all. We are not distracted by clothes or fashion. The spectator doesn’t put the person in a social box because of their clothing. Also, what I find exciting are all the little details of the body that make each person unique. The traces of life that you get a hint of. 

I portray people in a way that they usually only show to their loved ones. I show them naked in a relaxed posture without posing for a perfect shape. This exposes details that the model may usually try to hide. They make themselves vulnerable in a way, but this courage of revealing themselves and being seen that way demonstrates a lot of strength in my eyes. And I am very grateful that those people trust me this much. That they show this private self to me and allow me to paint this special moment.

What appeals to you about the human figure and about painting from life?


I am very interested in the human psyche, the universe that hides behind the eyes. I am fascinated by how this little universe of emotions, thoughts, habits is visible in the individual expression of the face, the posture, the shape of the body, and the tension of each muscle. But also in the surrounding. I always paint the people in their homes on their sofa. And I love to really display the specific texture of the sofa fabric, the incident light from a window, the texture of the wall behind those people. All this shows a little glimpse of their world, of their home. I labeled this series.

HOME/when there is nothing left to do. Obviously, because I paint the models in their own four walls, but also because the state of mind I am trying to capture only exists in places where we feel at home.


How do you paint the female nude without it being sexualized?


I guess it’s the way I stage and display those women. I don’t want them to make a sexy and most advantageous posture on their sofa, but rather how they would sit when they are all by themselves, most comfortable but naked. I wait until they relax and get into that certain stage of mind and body, and you start seeing that in their facial expression. 

One thing I find interesting and, of course, also a bit sad is that many women painted happened to be a bit uncomfortable with the outcome of the painting. Not with the technique, but it was rather hard for them to look at themselves like this.

I guess it’s because this is not the way women want to be perceived by the outside world. They have more social pressure always to be perfectly beautiful. 

I also have memories of me walking on the street, and random men would approach me and tell me that I should smile. It always made me so angry that women should smile or show a happy face to make others (especially men) feel good. But in a peaceful state of mind, we don’t necessarily look happy. For me, this relaxed facial and body expression shows those women in a very authentic, honest, and therefore strong way.

Can you tell us about your process?


In general, I am choosing the model. They are always people that I know, that I like, who interest me, and that I am related to in some way. I ask them if I can portray them. That is the first step, and nobody has declined so far.

And then I visit that person in their home, equipped with my camera and tripod. We have a little tea and a chat before we start. People are always a little bit nervous, and so am I. Then we start shooting on their sofa. As I mentioned, I ask the person to undress and to sit in a comfortable posture. Most people don’t want their genitals to be seen, so they find a comfortable and natural position without exposing too much. And then I wait until they forget the camera and let go. That’s the moment I am looking for.

I take a number of these pictures and choose one as an outline for my painting. I try to display the expression of this special moment, filtered through my own eyes and perception. It usually takes up to three months for one painting, and I don’t start a new painting until I finish one. I guess I am pretty monogamous with my portraits. I like to really focus and be with each portrayed person at a time. 


What have been the key influences in your work?


I admire the works of Lucian Freud and Egon Schiele. I love how they both painted people very expressively, radically, and in a somehow unforgiving manner. My way of painting is pretty different. I paint with acrylics and not so spaciously. And, of course, they painted live with the model sitting in their studios. Especially from Freud, I know he often painted a person over months. I love how they manage to transport the individual expressions and in Freud's paintings, especially also the atmospheres of the surrounding. To me, their paintings appear very vivid, touching, and also disturbing sometimes. For me, good artworks need to have that effect.

What is the latest project to been working on?


In my recent works, I focus on details of human body parts. Parts that are usually not exclusively shown on paintings like knees or a part of afoot. I choose uncommon perspectives, put them out of context, so it is sometimes even hard to guess which part of the body could be. I like this kind of confusion or sometimes maybe even disturbing associations this can evoke. These are smaller paintings, and I work very differently than I would on portraits. I set myself a short time frame of two to three hours only to force myself to avoid painting too precisely and getting lost in details. I like them to stay rough, such that you can see the single brush strokes. This way, they stay vivid. I like this as an opposite pole to my larger long-term portraits. But I guess each has it’s own quality.


Text by Iren Russo