Creating Mystery within a Single Image: Interview with Illustrator Jennifer Dionisio

Noir | Jennifer Dionisio self-initiated artwork

 

A distinctive cinematic aesthetic runs through Jennifer Dionisio’s illustrations. Her visual stories, through minimal colour composition and a beautiful command of light and shadow and space, transport you to the heyday of film noir and they convey a tangible sense of mystery, intrigue and fateful encounters. Illustration can carry so many meanings and visual possibilities, and Jennifer Dionisio’s illustrations easily accomplish that. Because they not only invite you to reflection and take you to a different time and mind set, but they work up your interest and curiosity as you are beginning to ask yourself questions about the characters you see, their past, their stories. It is a moody, classic feel that offers some detachment from modern reality and puts the focus on imagination and emotion.

In our interview, Jennifer and I are talking film noir and film noir heroines, stylistic approach and film cover images as artworks in their own right.
 

Left: portrait of Emily Weiss by Jennifer Dionisio, Courier Magazine Issue 18 | Right: Jennifer Dionisio artwork for the
cover of Idler Magazine, issue number 54, featuring Julian Barratt as ‘Mindhorn’ and Essie Davis as ‘Patricia Deville’

 
 

”A great cover can represent
your first memory of a film you enjoyed.”

 
 
There is a distinct cinematic element in your work, with a special emphasis on film noir. Where does this interest in film noir originates?

I was originally drawn to the strong, bold female characters and the look and feel of many classic film noirs. In my personal work I like to create a mystery within a single piece of artwork, and it ends up being very similar to a still from a film.

You recently did a beautiful cover art for The Criterion Collection, for Detour, at its first major restoration so that it can be fully appreciated by hard boiled fans and new audiences alike. Could you walk us through the inspiration and the design process for this particular project?

Eric Skillman, the art director and designer, wanted a composition which reflected the grittiness and shoe-string budget of the production. So I worked to strip back the drawings and use hand drawn textures in pencil and charcoal. Eric created the title treatment to fit within the drawing. The stripe motif is a nod to the original promotional images and the title. It was also great to include a big portrait of Ann Savage. She’s such a fantastic character with one of the best evil crazy stares I have ever seen.

Lizabeth Scott. There is another actress who was made for film noir. Your self-initiated work on her makes me curious: If you could choose one of her noir films to do the cover image for, or better yet, the poster for the film back in the day, which one would it be?

I would love to create a poster for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, because I also really love Barbara Stanwyck.
 

Blu-ray and DVD artwork by Jennifer Dionisio for Criterion Collection’s re-release of
Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 noir “Detour” | Title treatment and graphic design by Eric Skillman

 
 
Besides your Criterion collaboration on Detour, you are a frequent collaborator of Arrow Films and did some beautiful artwork for them on films like Jean Grémillon’s The Love of a Woman (1953) and Frank Borzage’s Magnificent Doll (1946). Do you believe that the wonderful work of the likes of Arrow and Criterion, of restoring these classics and building momentums with the help of talented artists who do the cover art, will also bridge this gap between today’s public and online streaming?

I think so, people want a special experience. If you’re a fan of film, owning a physical object with special artwork is worth having and revisiting. I like to display mine like little art pieces on my book shelf.

Do cover images stand as artworks in their own right? Can we judge a film by its DVD or blu-Ray cover?

I think they can absolutely stand alone as artwork. A great cover will make you want to watch the film. And can also represent your first memory of a film you enjoyed.

Which is the film poster or cover art that has impacted you the most? Do you remember the first time when a film poster made you want to watch a film?

I’m very inspired by the film posters of the Russian Avant-Garde era of the 20s and 30s in particular. As for what poster made me want to watch a film, it would have been something by Drew Struzan, like the first Harry Potter movie.
 

A House They Call | Jennifer Dionisio self-initiated artwork

 
 

”Illustration is such a beautiful and diverse art form,
it can help cut through the visual noise we all experience.”

 
 
Does the design process differ from one film to another? Do you watch the film, does the client come with an idea or a theme from the very beginning, do you seek for inspiration outside the film itself?

Sometime the client comes with a fully formed vision and sometimes they don’t, it depends. Either way, I always watch the film, take notes and makes screenshots. I also research the original promotional material and sometimes other reference research as well.

Have any other film poster designers or illustrators influenced your work and your style of illustration?

Edward Hopper is my biggest style influence. His compositions and use of light and shadow are very inspiring to me. I also look to Gregory Crewdson’s photography for those same reasons. They are both masters at creating mystery within a single image, which is an aspiration of mine.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

Atmospheric, cinematic, vintage inspired.
 

City Noir | Jennifer Dionisio self-initiated portrait of Lizabeth Scott

 
 
You also do editorial illustration and you have collaborated with some great print publications, Idler being one of them. What does an illustration bring new to an editorial in comparison to photography? How much research, how much observation and how much conceptual work does an editorial illustration involve?

Illustration can visualise complex ideas in interesting and accessible ways. Illustration often holds the viewers interest for longer, encouraging them to pause and digest the information. Editorial can be highly conceptual and require a lot of research, but it’s a balancing act because the deadlines are often quite short.

For years now, illustration has experienced a revival in the more traditional sense and print magazines have been using it more and more frequently. Is that because the constant feed of photography surrounding us on a daily basis has made the craving of the unique grow stronger?

It helps the publication or article to stand out. Readers may not be conscious of it, but I believe it signals to them that the content they are consuming has quality and is worth spending time on. Illustration is such a beautiful and diverse art form, it can help cut through the visual noise we all experience.

Your work can be found in print magazines and movie cover art, which translates into a physical connection with the public. How important is it to be present online? Does it help that an artist’s work has become so much more visible in this way?

I think it’s important to be visible online, that’s where most of the art directors and commissioners see your work. Having a large online following also can make you more appealing to certain brands. I don’t really like using social media, but do feel it’s necessary. I keep it up to date when I have new projects to share, but I try not to worry about it too much. I’m not willing to dedicate a lot of time to it and don’t feel it’s helpful to my creativity. So far that hasn’t stopped me from being commissioned, which is great. Artists who are willing and post a lot, can do very well from it.
 

Crossfire | Jennifer Dionisio artwork depicting the film “Crossfire”, 1947, for Issue C of Shelf Heroes Magazine

 
 
How big a part does hand-work and digital, respectively, play in your illustrations?

I like doing both, so maybe it’s around 50/50. My portraits are always hand drawn in pencil while I’ve been drawing more of the other parts of the compositions digitally.

Your editorial illustrations sometimes accompany articles or interviews regarding new releases. I recently worked on an article in which I asked for the opinions of film industry insiders and film festival directors on why movies still need cinemas. Do you hope that your work could also drive people to the movies and not just to want to read about them in the magazines?

Definitely, I think the cinema is amazing and I love going to see new films. I hope that people will feel encouraged to continue going in the future. It really is a special and fun thing to do. Being in lockdown makes that more evident than ever.

What is one of your most memorable experiences from going to the movies?

My first time going to see the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We dressed up, sang and danced. There were actors acting out the scenes in front of the big screen, it was so fun!
 

Website: jenniferdionisio.com | Instagram: @jendionisio

 
 
 
More stories: On and Off Set with Unit Still Photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace / Why Movies Still Need Cinemas: In Conversation with Film Industry Insiders / Art Directing Film Posters: Interview with Akiko Stehrenberger

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