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Published on December 3rd, 2012 | by Julie Davis


Interview: Retro Style with Jen Oaks

Jen Oaks

“I tend to just draw on what I like or what inspires me,” illustrator Jen Oaks said, “which sometimes fits in to what is popular at the moment.”

That moment would definitely seem to be now. Oaks’ work falls smack dab in the center of several hot trends in graphic arts, from the prevailing preference for simple illustrations with a hand-drawn style to ’90s pop culture references such as Twin Peaks and the Bee-Girl from Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video. Crafts and handmade design is another area where Oaks was ahead of the curve; she’s had her own Etsy store since 2006. Her most well-known works are probably her calendars featuring curvy pinups drawn in a retro-vintage style.

“I get annoyed when people say ‘now these are real women!'” Oaks told interviewer Laura Beck in 2011 for an SF Weekly blog post about the calendars, “because, jeez, we are all real women. It’s easy for some folks to get political about a fat girl calendar, but that was honestly not my intent. I just wanted to create something hot and cute with women who are shaped like me, and I didn’t see a whole lot of offerings in this genre.”

A lifelong artist, Oaks remembers one of her earliest artistic endeavors at the age of four. “I drew a lace-edged valentine that got my teacher and parents all excited,” Oaks said. “I remember drawing scenes from Disney movies as a kid, and lots of horses/unicorns of course!”

In middle school, she’d moved up to making fashion drawings and comics about her friends and classes. “By high school I was making lots of moody art about boys and Kurt Cobain and the Beatles,” she said, laughing.

Jen Oaks pinup

She started an education in art, studying advertising and graphic design, and then abandoned art for nearly six years before deciding to return to her first love, illustration. She and her husband moved from Oklahoma City to San Francisco so that Oaks could attend graduate school at the Academy of Art University.

Art Animal was pleased to be able to speak with Oaks about her influences, style and Etsy.

Art Animal: Your art seems very influenced by retro imagery: ’70s turntables, vintage children’s illustrations, ’40s-style pin-ups, etc. What is it that appeals to you about previous eras?
Jen Oaks: Some of it is my own nostalgia for the surroundings and things I fondly remember from early childhood: ugly cut-pile carpet, my parents’ turntable and 8-tracks, school lunch trays, old TV shows and commercials, etc.

AA: What is the origin of your interest in pin-ups? Can you describe your approach to the pin-up style?
JO: I drew my first pinup for my friends’ very funny and awesome Fat Zine. It got a great response from people and someone remarked that I should do a whole series. I had already completed a calendar for my Master’s thesis and had the itch to do another one. The pin-ups seemed like a perfect fit so I recruited some friends to model for me. I built drawings loosely from their poses, padding things here and there, and changing faces and clothes. I wanted to fill a void that I saw in the pin-up art genre, and I wanted to showcase bigger women and keep the classic themed pin-up motif that I love so much.

AA: Does the “retro” theme of your work also extend to your lifestyle (vintage clothes, furniture, music)?
JO: When I still lived in Oklahoma I used to hit up thrift stores and estate sales pretty frequently. Estate sales in that part of the country are pretty amazing. A lot of times you’ll go into someone’s house and see rooms that haven’t changed since the ’60s or ’70s. Once my husband and I found this church yearbook from the late ’70s with portraits of congregation members. It’s just pages and pages of middle class people with bizarre hairdos decked out in these ridiculous Sunday outfits. It’s just incredible.

Jen Oaks pinup

AA: Your work features such lovely bright colors! Can you describe your approach to color?
JO: Thank you! One of my first classes in grad school was Color Theory. Everything I learned there kind of floated aimlessly in my brain until the end of my third year when something fell into place and suddenly I started to understand. Now I usually try to start out with a solid color scheme and make sure I use some complimentary colors. I like things to look fresh and harmonious, and I’ve been experimenting with limited palettes. I often adjust colors a lot in Photoshop until it feels just right.

AA: Can you describe your process? Do you draw by hand, work digitally, or a combination of both?
JO: First I make a sketch, either in pencil or in Photoshop if I want to work quickly and move or resize elements. Then I print in blue and tighten the drawing in pencil. Then I scan again, print the tight drawing in blue, and ink everything in black using a Pentel brush pen and Rapidograph pens. I then scan and color everything in Photoshop, adding texture from scanned bits of paper and watercolor swatches.

AA: Tell us a bit about your comics work. What draws you to comics as a medium? What kind of comics did you read as a child, or do you like to read now?
JO: I have to admit that I don’t read as many comics as I should! I read all of Love and Rockets and it definitely had a huge influence on me. But mostly I’m drawn to autobiographical diary style comics, like those of Kate Beaton and Geoff Vasile. Diary comics like James Kochalka’s American Elf can be hilarious, thought-provoking and profound. I admire any artist who can put that out there. So the majority of the comics I make are silly, autobiographical stories or spots about things like road trips, cars I used to own, or uniformed jobs of my youth. Two years ago my husband wrote and I illustrated a longer comic about an adventure our two cats go on together. They’re thrown out of a plane at the end of Book 1. We have yet to start Book 2.

Jen Oaks bee girl

AA: You exhibit your work at a lot of craft fairs. How would you describe the craft fair community, both creators and customers?
JO: I do both craft fairs and comics conventions here in the Bay Area. They are so delightfully different! The crowd at craft fairs seem to shop for more gift or fashion and jewelry items and aren’t as drawn to a name or brand. The crowd at comic cons is there to shop too, but they’re also there to seek out new artists to follow or to check out artists whose work they already know and love. Both crowds are fun and stimulating.

My fellow craft exhibitors are incredibly talented, hardworking and savvy about business. Being among them has taught me so much. My fellow comic convention exhibitors are talented and hardworking and so passionate! They inspire me to constantly make new work and improve myself.

AA: Let’s talk a little about your Etsy shop. What’s been your experience with Etsy? Do you think the existence of shopping forums such as Etsy make it easier for artists to reach new audiences, or increase competition among artists for a particular audience?
JO: Etsy has been a wild and educational ride since I opened my shop in 2006. There were a few times that I got blogged and certain items became wildly popular for a while. I think Etsy and other shopping forums definitely help artists reach new audiences! 80 percent of my shop traffic comes from within the site.

Etsy is a great way for artists to promote and sell their own stuff but the real challenge is drawing in new fans and keeping the ones you already have. A lot of people on there do very well selling one style or genre of artwork to one specific group of people. Both my Twin Peaks buttons and the pin-up calendar were pretty successful, and while they appealed to different audiences I think they’re both great representations of my artistic voice. It’s easy to get lost amongst all of the amazing stuff that is sold on the site, so never locking myself into a specific genre or audience keeps me competitive.

Jen Oaks mohawk

AA: What are your ultimate goals as an artist? What would be your dream work? Or are you already doing exactly what you’ve always wanted to do?
JO: The whole Etsy and craft fair thing kind of started as a side project while I was working full-time. After I was laid off, it took over as a means of income and it’s loads of fun! But it has always been my intent to freelance professionally. I’ve only very recently started promoting myself to publishers, agents, ad agencies and magazines. I very much want to do books, packaging, home goods, ads…You name it. Hopefully soon my client list will start expanding.

AA: What are you working on these days? Any upcoming shows, publications or new work that you’re excited about?
JO: Right now I’m madly prepping for a solid month of craft shows and holiday sales, while still sending out promo packs to get freelance work. A list of my upcoming events can be found here: A couple of weeks ago, a film I animated finally went live! An economic group had me create art for their film, “I, Pencil”. I made layered art and the film’s editor made it move in After Effects. He and I had never done animation before and we learned a ton. It was intense! The film can be viewed at

AA: What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps as an artist?
JO: Practice. Stop comparing yourself to others. Draw and create like you know how.

See more of Oaks’ illustrations at or at her Etsy store.

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About the Author

Writer, editor, photographer and sometime cartoonist Julie Davis became addicted to comics and Japanese animation at a young age and hasn't yet grown out of them (and probably never will). Former editor in chief of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly, an English-language magazine about Japanese animation, she co-authored the book Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces and contributed to The Complete Anime Guide and Manga: The Complete Guide. A native of Michigan, she now lives in San Francisco and teaches classes on comics writing and history at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University and creates graphic designs for the Cartoon Art Museum.

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