As a boy growing up in Sarasota, Jamiel Law spent hours tracing images from his favorite TV show, the popular anime series Dragon Ball Z, and then carefully coloring them in. Those images came at a cost: A friend from school charged him 25 to 50 cents for each computer printout. It was a substantial investment for an elementary school student, but one that has clearly paid off, if you consider the sharp upward trajectory of Law’s career.
Today, at just 25 years old, Law is a highly sought-after illustrator specializing in editorial and narrative work for clients like The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, HarperCollins, NBC News and Netflix. His minimal but potent illustrations are often paired with editorial topics that address compelling contemporary issues and world events. He approaches these topics with thoughtfulness and restraint—resulting in nuanced and affecting images that capture the complexities and spirit of the subject matter.
Law credits supportive parents and mentors for his quick ascent.
“My parents did everything in their power to place me in the right environment, surround me with creative people and provide me with the resources I needed,” he says. “They told me I could be whatever I wanted to be.”
When he was 8, he visited Sarasota’s beloved art supply store Art & Frame, where he learned about classes led by Michael White, a Ringling College of Art and Design graduate who has worked for a variety of clients from Marvel and DC Comics to Amoco and Tropicana. “He showed us how drawing basic shapes related to the objects and people that we wanted to draw,” Law says. “He’s a professional artist, so he’d bring examples of his work to show us and explained what skills we would need to make it a career.”
White says he immediately took notice of Law’s positive attitude, assertive personality and desire to be successful.
“When it came to the work of learning and growing, he always excelled and humbled himself to ask for help when he needed it,” says White, who taught at Ringling College for 28 years and now offers private lessons. “I was always certain he’d be successful.”
Law went on to attend Ringling himself and quickly added a slew of other successful artists and instructors to his growing roster of mentors.
“The way they shared their knowledge and information had a huge impact on me, and it still does to this day,” Law says. “Just the level of exposure and direction that they provided at that time in my life when I was honestly lost and trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Law also met his future wife, Jenny, at Ringling, and the couple was married in 2019, shortly before they graduated. The newlyweds relocated to New York City, where Jenny had an internship lined up. Law began reaching out to art directors in a variety of fields, hoping to pick up work. At the time, graphite drawings made up the bulk of his portfolio.
“One of my greatest struggles was finding my voice,” Law says. “It was as if I was constantly chasing something. I remember a project that took place near the end of my degree that involved creating a piece where I could use whatever medium I wanted. I ended up going in a completely different direction, choosing to paint in gouache on a subject matter that hit closer to home.” The resulting piece, Don’t Breathe, featured a limited color palette and thought-provoking positive and negative spaces, and it offered a powerful statement “about the psychological notion of police presence in the African American community in the USA,” he says.
The piece consistently resonated with the art directors he met with, because it was unlike anything else he had done, so he decided to scrap the rest of his portfolio and create new work. The experience marked a pivotal change in his style and career.
“It was only after I realized that I was in my own lane that I could thrive and really play to my sensibilities in order to create work with content that resonated with me,” he says. A mere month after graduation, he received his first professional assignment from The New York Times.
“It was incredible,” he says. “I remember checking my email and I think I almost died because it was just unbelievable. It was such a dream of mine and for them to reach out with an assignment for me, it was surreal.”
Matt Dorfman is the art director for The New York Times Book Review. He had agreed to review Law’s work and was impressed by Law’s standout gouache piece. He gave Law his first break.
“In his portfolio was a personal piece, arranged toward the end of his image sequencing, that had immediacy, narrative clarity, a genuine respect for negative space and a lasting emotional coda that paid off for anyone who cared to stare at the image for longer than 10 seconds,” Dorfman says. “Additionally, his stylistic approach had a gestural immediacy that wasn’t overworked, which is both very difficult to pull off well and also a rare quality to see in the work of anyone who’s just starting out.”
That first assignment was quickly followed by one from The New Yorker and many others, including a project working with a team of collaborators on an episode of Netflix’s We the People, a musical anthology series about civics that was executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and featured Janelle Monáe’s song “Stronger.”
Law has also begun illustrating children’s books and was handpicked to illustrate the forthcoming Jimmy’s Rhythm and Blues by author Michelle Meadows. The picture book for young readers is a biography of the writer James Baldwin that will be released by HarperCollins in 2024.
HarperCollins senior editor Luana Horry and art supervisor Dana Fritts say they were drawn to Law’s work because of his use of light and color, as well as the emotion and passion he conveys through his work. “His work just pulls you in,” they write in an email. “We were really drawn to a specific piece of a boy getting his hair cut at the barbershop. That young boy had a story and we wanted to know it. So when this manuscript came along, one about a young boy growing up in the heart of the city who would grow up to become a revolutionary and legendary writer, we knew right away we wanted to approach Jamiel.”
Law says the most compelling aspect of any project is how he connects to the story. “It comes from a place of wanting to understand, communicate and magnify the writer’s message, while also expressing my point of view on the subject,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to be true and authentic in that way, just like it is every other artist’s responsibility to be true and authentic in their work.”
Part of finding his voice involved finding his way home. Though they flourished in New York, he and Jenny decided to move back to Sarasota, where they both continue to pursue their passions. They recently welcomed a daughter, Aila, to their family.
“Jenny was raised with her parents, grandparents, cousins...everyone in close proximity, blocks away from one another,” Law says. “So that element of being close with family really influenced our decision. After moving back, our connections are even stronger with our families. That made it the right decision. I’m really grateful because now we’re in a position where we can buy a home, start a family and our daughter can be close to her grandparents and her cousins. That’s really meaningful.”