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Meet James Gulliver Hancock, he is an Australian illustrator with a playful and whimsical expression to his work. His work is well-known all over the world, and currently he is working out of two studios: one in The Pencil Factory in Brooklyn, New York, and the other from his homeland studio by the beach in Sydney, Australia. We sat down for a talk with James about being an illustrator, his style of work, the process of drawing and making his book All the buildings in New York, what inspires him and what he is currently working on.
Photo by Ken Hancock
Hello James! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Could you please walk us through the story of how you got into illustration?
James: I’ve always done illustration. I just didn’t know it was illustration. As a kid, I was drawing all the time. I always liked kids’ books and just always had sketchbooks that were filled of drawings of the things around me. I thought I wanted to do graphic design. That’s the obvious …” I can draw. Let’s do some design things.”
It took me a while to find illustration, and getting my agent in Australia was a big help. He opened up a few real jobs for me at the beginning. I’d always done my friends’ bands’ CDs, posters for different things and stuff like that, but it wasn’t until getting my agent that it really became a viable full-time profession.
Since then, it’s just been full-time illustration, and I dropped everything else. Animation, I don’t really do that much of anymore and the same with Design, It’s all about illustration now.
How long have you worked together with your agent?
James: It wasn’t that long ago, maybe eight years ago. He was new when we first met. I guess he’s old now as an agent. He was picking up a lot of my friends, and I just noticed that they were going on board with him. I wrote him an email, and he loved what I did. It was just very natural and perfect, and it’s been great ever since.
How would you describe your style of illustration?
James: I don’t know. It’s always hard describing your own work, putting it into words when it’s a visual thing, but I can only judge what other people say. They usually use words like fun and whimsical, and maybe a bit naïve and playful. I like pastel colors more than primary colors, although I am getting a bit more primary these days.
My New York drawings are usually pretty washed out, almost like old silk screens or watercolors. It’s definitely always meant to be pretty bright and animated and fun. I don’t really do anything very dark. Even if I’m using black and white only, things tend to have a bit of personality. There’s always little fun lines coming off things or funny little characters here and there. If it’s a drawing of an object like a building, it’s got some sort of whimsical personality.
Could you please tell us about the process of making your book All The Buildings In New York from idea till final publication?
James: I moved to New York, coming from Australia, and anywhere outside of New York, and most people have an amazing fascination with the place and want to go there. It’s like a religious experience almost, to see this place that you’ve seen represented on TV and films so many times. It’s almost hard to perceive it when you get there, as an outsider, because it’s so familiar, yet so alien at the same time.
Because I was going to be living there, I wanted to get over that pretty quickly. I just started drawing things around me, which I always do in a new city. New York has a lot of buildings, so I’ve focused on the buildings. I was keeping a little visual diary for myself of buildings that I liked and things that I saw in the neighbourhoods. I was living and going to my studio in Greenpoint and riding around in the city.
It was pretty personal. I saw around me, in the studio I was sharing, people had these diary-style blogs where they would upload images pretty consistently. I think that was a good way to at least make me do it, whether it had an audience or not. Instead of just keeping it in a sketchbook, I would scan them in and treat them a little bit and upload them onto this blog-style diary.
Pretty quickly people found it somehow. I can’t remember. Maybe there was a couple of press people that wrote about it through online stuff, or I might have sent it to a couple of design blogs. Everyone really latched onto again the whimsical idea of attempting to do something ridiculous like draw all the buildings, which is impossible if you think about it. Additionally, I got more and more press, and then publishers began to get in touch and wanted to do a book. It was all pretty uphill from that. It was great.
What inspires you?
James: The majority of my work is taken up with client work at the moment for better or for worse. It’s usually kicked off with a brief. Some are more specific than others. It could range from, “Draw this building for this ad. It has to be this angle. Here’s the photo.” There’s not really any need for any big personal inspiration. I can just get straight to the drawing, which is lovely.
There’s also projects, maybe like a mural I did recently where the brief was quite open. It was for a gym in a hospital, and it was for kids. That was basically the brief, so I could do whatever I wanted. It was very playful. It’s fun characters with different super powers. I just went with stuff that I thought kids would go for and things that I wanted to draw, such as fun little forests and things growing out of different places. It was a matter of pulling in things that had caught my eye in the last month or so, things that I’d seen in other kids’ books or things that I’d seen out in the world.
When it’s projects just for myself, it’s usually a matter of going for walks or riding my bike and getting inspired that way. Today it was quite windy. I noticed the wind. It inspired me to just want to draw a thing about how the wind works, all the patterns that winds can make, and the leaves on the trees, and how it disturbs different parts of the world and makes graphic animations of different things. That got me drawing. You never know what’s going to kick it off.
How do you combine the analogue with the digital in your illustration—do you always begin your drawings with pen and paper or do you use digital tools?
James: 99% of the time it’s drawing with whatever pen or pencil or ink I have at hand, and whatever paper I have at hand too. I’m not too precious about it. I just use physical things to get it on the paper. I have to then use tracing paper to do a final on top of that. Maybe I’ll do a sketch and then use tracing to trace my sketch to make it a bit more neat, for a final for a client. Then it’s a matter of scanning that black and white in. I use a tablet to color things in the background.
Sometimes I’ll add one or two colors using the pen and the tablet. Sometimes I’ll do some ink washes and use those as well to give a bit more of a natural feel. I don’t ever want it to look too digital.
Where do you see books and technology in the future?
James: I think they’re becoming more special now. I feel like maybe not for novels. I much prefer reading novels on the Kindle, the iPad or even iPhone sometimes, but picture books, I can see that publishers are all itching for more ideas.
I’ve only been in publishing for the last couple of years really. Since that buildings book came out and was a success, other publishers have gotten in touch. I’ve seen the need for that part of the publishing industry, where it’s illustrators doing projects with kids’ books or adult kids’ books. They’re really thinking outside the box in that respect, and I think that’s the healthy part. Also, those are the ways to translate it into digital stuff too, but I think there’s still a big place for beautiful, physical illustrated photography.
Finally, what are you working on now?
James: I’ve just done a few building drawings. People often ask me to draw certain buildings. I take a photo, and I draw them up. They usually get them framed. If it’s a client, they’ll put them in the lobby of their building or something like that.
I also just did a mural, hand-painted it at a furniture shop. We did all these patterns and symbols all over the wall. That was fun. It’s always nice to do it by hand with paint because a lot of my murals, the client wants it printed, so they can move it around. If they have to move it, they can move it. It’s not painted. It’s a digital print that’s wallpapered. It was nice to get my hands dirty, so to speak.
Moreover, my wife is a singer. She is called Lenka, and we did a video for her. That was pretty awesome out in the sunshine shooting different things. We’re always coming up with crafty projects. It’s really all over the place.
I’ve also got more books coming this year, and three of them are already set for release within the next few months. One is a kids’ book. The second one is an activity book for adults, and the third one is another building book similar to the New York one. Then there’ll be more that I’ll work on during the year. They’ll probably come out towards the end of the year or in 2016. It is a time-consuming process to create and publish a book.
To learn more about James and experience
his universe and books
go visit: www.jamesgulliverhancock.com