"As I create and listen, I will lead": talking shop with illustrator Jake Ross

“As I create and listen, I will lead”: talking shop with illustrator Jake Ross

With mates ranging from Kraken Rum to Angus Stone, in a short time Jake Ross has pivoted from the navy to being one of Australia’s finest new illustrators.

You might have seen the work of Jake Ross around town, these days it’s splattered on everything from bikinis to album covers. Or 23-metre skate ramps owned by Angus Stone. He was even nice enough to sling us an original piece for this interview inspired by the word ‘Happy’ – you’re looking at it up top.

His style, something he’s personally agonised over, is bright and fun, depicting groovy skeletons or Aussie wildlife in situations he dreams up while out on his surfboard. Staying true to himself has been important since day dot, and a warm personality shines through in everything he touches.

We recently caught up with Jake to find out about his illustration, how he snapped from a career in the navy to creative work, projects he’s been engaged in with VB or Kraken Black Spiced Rum, and heaps more.

HAPPY: You were in the navy before? That’s a pretty wild career change, what triggered the transition?

JAKE: Yeah, such a wild transition. It honestly rocked me, a military man, to a surfer/artist dude, as happy as that transition sounds, and pain free, it was extremely hard to deal with. There was a lot of doubt and quite a few tough days where I just thought I should be doing more, ‘how did I deserve this life?’ kind of thinking. The career change itself happened due to fate, or destiny if you will. I needed a slap in the face to say, ‘hey Jake, you’re a creative, you are not meant to be in the military’. I snapped two vertebrates and tore my disc on war training, this was my very harsh blessing in disguise.

From that day forward I would just draw, draw, and draw. My first inkling of ‘hey this could be a career’ was when sitting on an island while Dani was off doing her yoga teacher training. I would visit this local café every day for a whole month, eventually attracting quite a crowd on some of the larger sketches I was doing, before the owner himself hit me up asking to rebrand the place for him using my custom illustrations. From that instant, I leaped with two feet and have never looked back.

HAPPY: How would you say your style has developed since then?

JAKE: Finding my style has been a bit of a rollercoaster. I was roughing at the start for a while, just very fast sketches in grey – strictly no colour. I thought colour was a distraction to the main concept. Eventually I found myself quite heavily influenced by artists like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol so started experimenting with colour.

To a degree I found myself painting and illustrating objects that I thought looked cool. There was no great attraction to the piece so I wanted to go deeper and paint just for me, by me. If people happened to like it too, well that was an absolute bonus. From the early days to now I’ve played with digital and traditional mediums. My style now relies on colour to marry the story and the emotions I’m feeling within the experience I am illustrating. The black outlines that juxtapose the colour is a more serious aspect of what I’m describing.

Your style is probably the more frustrating thing to refine as an artist, it takes time, time and practice. You have to truly know yourself before you can name your style.

Jake Ross interview

HAPPY: What’s your creative space like? How does it influence your work?

JAKE: Haha well, I have two main creative spaces I practise within. Either the ocean, out on my surfboard, or in my raw wooden studio. Both play a significant role within my work.

The ocean is where I gather all my thoughts. The importance of a creative doing something that captivates the mind like surfing, where you are doing nothing but thinking within the moment, has a profound impact on your creativity. It’s like you’ve cleared all the bullshit between your ears, and the creative child is screaming an idea. It’s beautiful.

And my wooden studio is full of inspiring art books; Keith Haring, Kaws, Christian Warlich, and so many more, with my canvases hanging all around a nice open, sunny room.

I think one of the easiest and most important ways to find motivation for anything you love, is to dress for your work. If you can look in the mirror and be proud of what you are wearing, you will be sure to have a productive day. That’s something I personally consider too. I have more of a military mind when it comes down to the nitty gritty detail. All my grey leads are sharpened and in order, all my brushes shampooed and grouped, all my paints are wiped down and stored within colour, the less I have to think about the finer things, the more my mind and soul is open to accepting creative thoughts.

Jake Ross interview

HAPPY: Are there any ‘real world’ instances (clothes, shops, skateboards) where you see your work that make you particularly proud?

JAKE: Ah, there isn’t a better feeling than seeing your art in the real world! Walking past shop windows or seeing people in the street wearing your stuff, it’s an unreal sensation.

The first time I ever saw my stuff in the wild was when I was walking through a town near Byron, a small surf shop was showing all of my collection with Barney Cools, and I had no idea they were even released yet. I remember I called my fiancé straight away, then mum, then I think everyone in my phone book twice haha.
But since then, there have been some rad times. One of the coolest projects was with an underwear brand. Men and women were sharing so many stories of their one night stands, stripping bare and seeing their partners wearing my art and laughing, or screenshotting some of the profiles on Tinder with dudes wearing my art on their privates. It’s so fucking cool and fun!

I would say the most amazing feeling I’ve had on a project was painting the 23m skate ramp for Angus Stone, aka Dope Lemon, seeing people skate that ramp is such an awesome feeling. I suppose all murals when you are tagged in photos with people smiling and posing in front of them is really cool. It’s a feeling hard to describe.

Jake Ross interview

HAPPY: Did you aspire to work with alcohol brands? How did your collabs with The Kraken Black Spiced Rum and VB come about?

JAKE: Yeah, I find alcohol brands tend to offer the most creative freedom. It’s such an honour to work with established companies that are keen to take a leap and trust an artist with their product. Alcohol brands know themselves and what they need so it’s never a case of ‘I want to work with you’ but more so them hitting you up to be aligned with your look.

And that’s how The Kraken Black Spiced Rum came around, they noticed some of my work with previous clients, and really liked my personal style. To them I was the perfect fit as a new brand ambassador aka Lair Lord, someone creative to celebrate the launch of their new products Kraken & Dry and Kraken & Cola. Over the past couple of months, they wanted to hone in on the idea of staying social, connected, enjoying drinks with mates however possible, and that’s something I interpreted using my own style. The perfect blend between a creative brand and a creative dude if I do say so myself haha.

With VB, I’d have to say I was influenced by the business mind of my partner Dani. I was sitting down one afternoon with a green demon in hand, after a surf, and had this thought wondering why VB don’t advertise their slogan within their branding.  Little did I know I would end up pitching my slightly tipsy idea to 15 creatives over speaker, and it just so happened they were meeting to brainstorm the VB and Ritchies’ 150 year anniversary. Using their iconic case as an advertisement – they loved it.

Both were such amazing projects. I always look forward to emails from the alcohol contacts I’ve made, a lot of freedom and trust is built with big campaigns.

HAPPY: Do you have any advice for young artists who want to turn their work into a source of revenue?

JAKE: An amazing quote I live by is “As I create and listen, I will be lead” – Julia Cameron. Meaning all you have to do is create, create, and listen to the opportunities that’ll arise. By just doing that, you’ll see gain. Trust me.

I have endless advice for creatives that really want to leap, like audit yourself every three months, write down who your dream clients are, why you are doing the work you’re doing, what goals you want to achieve creatively, etc. Use your socials as a practise board and personal branding tool. What sketch or painting gained more traction? When I gave a more in-depth description did my audience connect with me more? You just have to keep experimenting.

My one piece of advice that’ll never change is, there is nothing more powerful than a word of mouth brand. So find what you really love, and do that every single day, whether that’s drawing a bone, or painting a mural, do the thing you love every single day. I’m always giving advice, I hope one day it means something to someone haha.

HAPPY: Are there any common misconceptions about brand work that you come across, or you realised weren’t too big a deal when you started on those kinds of projects?

JAKE: I would say the misconception of intimidation is there. You have to believe that the hardest critic is yourself. You are the only person you need to please within your art, and if you’ve been approached by a brand to do art, then you need to be hard on yourself presenting back that work as a piece of you. Usually brands only align themselves to you because they already have a sense of trust, so just please yourself and they’ll no doubt be thrilled. You often learn that doing brand work is just gaining a new friend.

HAPPY: Beyond who you’ve been with recently, who or what would be your ideal collaboration?

JAKE: My absolute ideal collaboration would be someone like Kanye West. A little far-fetched maybe, but that would be completely rad! A little more close to home, I would love to connect with the likes of Patagonia, Brixton, Apple, Marshall Headphones, or even designing shoes with Vans, Converse, or Adidas.

And as an artist, I feel the peak of creative work starts and ends with Nike, so one day I hope to collaborate with those folks.

I’m an outgoing, travel oriented, surf crazy, planet healthy dude, so brands that fit this brief are always ideal collabs to me. I feel the list I’ve shared is full of heavyweights, but I’ll cast my net regardless and hopefully land some big fish.

HAPPY: And a doozy to finish: what’s the single most important piece of creative advice you’ve been given?

JAKE: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “As I create and listen, I will lead”. There is a soul within us all that is deeply creative in some form or another, all you need to do is feed that creativity and the world will listen. If you truly want something, the world will always work in wonderful ways to get you there.


Check out more of Jake’s work on Instagram.