Julia Bernhard started drawing one comic a day to better her skills at drawing people while studying graphic design. After sharing the comics on Instagram, she now entertains more than 55,000 followers.
Coming from small town Germany, Julia found a way of illustrating that came most naturally to her, and it seems, to many, many other young women who take delight in them (myself included).
This is probably because her main female character is so relatable. Julia’s sense of humour is honest, open and realistic (if not a little dark, as she confesses herself). It addresses the highs and lows of what it means to be a young woman, and the humbling, extremely raw moments that we sometimes find ourselves in yet, would never normally share about, especially on Instagram – a platform that feeds off hyperreality. Julia’s characters experience everything from struggling to find motivation to get up in the morning, disapproving grandparents and the joys of confiding in dogs and pizza.
But although topics may seem light on the surface, Julia addresses mental health with no stigma attached, touching on a subject that many don’t know how to touch on. Although she says her central comic character isn’t a direct reflection of her own life – rather a byproduct of the lives of those around her, a bit of herself and artistic expression – she talks openly here about what it means to struggle with mental health.
Miriam Harris: Tell us how you started out as an illustrator.
Julia Bernhard: "I studied graphic design with focus on illustration at the university of applied sciences Mainz in Germany and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2016. I am currently working on my master’s degree in illustration, so I guess I am still right in the middle of starting out. I started working freelance about a year ago, and am really looking forward to making illustration my full-time job."
MH: Did you have any original vision for your comics, or was it purely experimentation?
JB: "I had no real vision or plan. I just wanted to have fun and get some things out of my head.
"When I graduated in 2016 my mind was set on working as an illustrator but I knew I could still improve my skills as far as drawing humans and facial expressions was concerned, so I started drawing little daily cartoons to stay in practice. To me that was a nice way of warming up in the morning while simultaneously figuring out my personal style.
"When I started out I didn’t really think of myself potentially becoming a cartoonist one day. Drawing cartoons comes easily to me. The ideas just pop up in my head like little fireworks. Initially that felt a little like cheating. Only recently I realised that maybe it’s okay to just sit down and have fun at what you are doing and enjoy the privilege of your job being something you love with all your heart."
MH: When was the moment you realised you had built a significant following of the comics?
JB: "I am not entirely sure I have realised the full extent of it by now.
I count people the same way my great-grandpa used to: 1, 2, 3, a lot. 100 followers already felt like quite the significant following to me. After 1,000 my mind was just blown and I decided I to stop trying to wrap my head around of numbers of this size."
"That way I am keeping the pressure low and actively avoid going bonkers over this whole Instagram thing. If one day you see a lady running through the streets screaming "holy shit!" over and over at the top of her lungs, that will probably me when my brain has finally processed how many people 55,000 is. But I've been processing for quite a while, so I guess the risk of that scenario taking place within the next two to four years is rather low."
MH: What has been the response from people so far?
JB: "People have been more than lovely. I get a lot of messages from people telling me that my cartoons helped them through tough times because they made them feel less alone. These messages make me really happy. After people have reached out to me and told me their stories I sometimes even have them in mind when I draw a new cartoon. It’s nice to know that somewhere there is somebody with whom my work resonates.
"Of course sometimes I find something rather funny and somebody else does not share that sentiment. My humour can be pretty dark sometimes and I get if that is not everybody’s cup of tea. Just you try being born and raised in a small town in Germany and not develop a dark sense of humour.
"But these are really exceptions. Mostly people on Instagram are wonderfully supportive and warm. If it weren’t for them I don’t think I would be where I am right now."
MH: Talk us through your creative process. How long does it take to complete each one?
JB: "I have several lists where I write down ideas that pop into my mind. I get most ideas at night before I fall asleep, so I always keep something to write next to my bed.
Whenever I draw new cartoons I go through my flat and all of my bags and purses looking for the little pieces of paper on which I wrote down my ideas. That’s also a nice trick for chaotic ladies like me. It makes you clean up all your bags at least twice a month and you will never lose track of all the lipsticks you own because they never stay in there long enough to fossilise and be forgotten. But don’t rely too much on that technique. Sometimes stuff slips under the radar. Last month I found an old avocado in my favourite handbag. That was extremely nasty.
"After I have found all my lists (or at least most of them), I write down all ideas and narrow them down to six to nine that I still like after reading them again. Most get killed right there. You won’t believe the stuff my brain finds funny and relevant at 2am when I can’t fall asleep.
Then the real work begins. I start by drawing sketches, cleaning them up and tracing them on thick paper. I then ink the comics, colour them, scan all of it and make some slight adjustments in Photoshop.
"I hardly ever draw only one cartoon. I always do a bunch of them in one go, so I can’t really say how long It would take me to draw a single one. But eight of them usually takes me two to three days from sketch to finished JPEG file, depending on my daily form."
MH: Is it fair to say your comics draw on happenings of your own life?
JB: "No, not exclusively. I get inspired by real life. That is true. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be my own. I use conversations I overhear, stories my friends tell me or just random ideas that pop into my mind as a source of inspiration as well.
"I think nobody’s life is funny or interesting enough to run a whole comic series on.
"The good thing about artistic freedom is that I don’t have to passive-aggressively sneak around my friends all the time waiting for them to say or do something hilarious until they go insane from the constant pressure and start throwing peanuts at random passersby. I can just make stuff up. And I make use of that liberty. Much to their relief.
I see my main character as a persona that reflects certain aspects of my character and my way of looking at things (I guess that is what being the author of something means) but she is not supposed to represent me as a real person or my private life. She doesn’t even look much like me."
MH: Are you wearing your heart on your sleeve, so to say, with these illustrations?
JB: "I don’t share anything I don’t feel comfortable with sharing. I would never make my actual private life a topic of my comics, so I don’t feel like I am wearing my heart on my sleeve. My cartoons are just very general observations about what it can mean to be a young person in this society, from my point of view."
MH: Some might describe your comics as slightly melancholic, and you even address depression directly in some of them. Is mental illness something you have struggled with?
JB: "I was dealing with depression in my early twenties.
Most of the people I hold dear have gone through some form of mental struggle. Over the years it became abundantly clear to me, that I am not alone with my problems. And knowing that for a fact helped me a lot. Maybe that is why I have become rather unapologetic about my experiences.
"I hope that by being open about it I can show other people that they are not alone. Most people are struggling not to go bonkers on a daily basis. That’s just how it is. And the less stigma we attach to it, the easier we make it for others to open up about it and get professional help and support from their loved ones."
MH: Do you think it’s important for the creative community to address mental illness?
JB: "I think we as a society should address it.
And most importantly, we should stop talking about mental illness as if it were something that only happens to other people and some sort of personal failure were attached to it.
"Approximately one in five adults in the US – 43.8 million, or 18.5 percent – experiences mental illness in a given year (according to the National Institute of Mental Health in October 2015). I think these numbers are frightening. And it can’t mean that these 18.5 percent are all weak or flawed people.
"Society pressures people into constantly faking a level of perfection that is impossible to maintain in the long run because we are all just humans, and therefore in our essence imperfect. We have been taught to always function and never be vulnerable and then we wonder why most people at some point in their lives become mentally ill. That is something we should address. And not only in the creative community but everywhere."
MH: Where do you see the direction of your comics go in 2018?
JB: "I don’t really want to plan these things. That would spoil the fun for me. I guess I will find out by going wherever they will take me."
MH: What are you working on at the moment?
JB: "I am currently working on my master thesis in illustration. It’s going to be a graphic novel but it’s still in the very early stages. I am really excited to dig my teeth into that project."