James Gulliver Hancock is a multi-talented illustrator from Sydney, Australia.
His work varies from book cover illustrations to animation, sculpture and packaging design, and his style, while playful and whimsical, does a great job in documenting the small details in the artist’s colorful world. (One proof of that is actually having started a project where he draws all the buildings in New York!).
He has so far worked with clients like Coca-Cola, Ford Motors and The New York Times, and he admits in his bio that he’s ”feeling sick when he’s not drawing”.
He is actually so passionate about his work, that on one of his travels, while “rolling in a typhoon in the sea between Japan and Russia, he wondered how he’d save his sketchbook when the ship sank”. That pretty much sums it up 🙂 He is married to Australian singer Lenka (and did some kick-ass illustration work in a couple of her music videos) and is currently spending his time traveling between his two homes, Brooklyn, New York and Sydney, Australia.
I always felt it wasn’t right for me, going to an office on someone elses hours and working on other people’s projects, so I eventually started my own studio and began finding my own clients
Tell me a bit about the beginning of your career as an artist. How did you start? Have you always known, at some level, that’s what you wanted to do?
I have always drawn, and continue to do so every day. I draw everything around me all the time. So I guess it was obvious for me to study drawing and work towards a creative career. So I started very young and was lucky that I always knew what I wanted to do.
What was your first job as an artist?
My first jobs were for friends, I would do illustrations for friends bands and other little projects in high school and university. My first job out of University was at an interactive design company. It was the beginning of the internet boom and I jumped right in. But somehow I always felt like it wasn’t right for me, going to an office on someone elses hours and working on other people’s projects. So eventually I started my own studio and began finding my own clients.
You have a very complex, yet easy-to-spot style. How did you come up with it?
It mostly just evolved from drawing all the time, I think to some degree you can’t avoid how you draw, and you get confident in how you like to do things as you evolve. Also finding inspiration from other people around me, from children’s books I love and other things like that, and also peers when I studied and around me in shared studio spaces.
Most of your illustrations seem to be a clutter of randomly placed objects and patterns, mixed with various colouring styles. It may seem easy, for the untrained eye. What is hiding behind that, what is your process, how do you achieve this mix?
It’s typically not a random array of things, more a collection of things relevant to the situation or the brief. I like to make little worlds that encompass all the things within that space. It’s a fun obsessive process that sees me pull references from all sorts of places. I usually brainstorm and sketch ideas really really roughly, and then as the world starts to build more concrete things get pulled into the world.
I love old print making styles, silkscreen promotional posters from the 1950’s etc, where the ink bleeds and fades
You also manage to give that vintage feel to your illustrations, using certain types of colors. How do you pick your colors, is there a particular reference point you use, how do you obtain this “retro” coloring mix?
I love old print making styles, silkscreen promotional posters from the 1950’s etc, where the ink bleeds and fades. I love those nostalgic whimsical old pastel colours, they just feel so full of a personality that I can associate with. Are your illustrations done digitally, or traditionally? Or both? How do you work? I usually use both, doing all of the linework in the real work with a variety of pens and pencils. I usually then scan these drawings into photoshop and adjust them however I like to get the composition perfect. I then use ink washes and a tablet to get the colour going behind that linework.
Lenka and I collaborate a lot and we love having fun with what we do
You worked on several animations, among which two music videos – for Lenka’s “Trouble is a friend” and “Everything at once”. For these videos, did you do the animation as well, or you just provided the illustration, how did it happen?
Lenka and I do the animation together when it is simple stop motion or such. For the more complicated ones like the fully animated ‘Everything at once’ video where lenka is moving around a whole world of drawings I do the drawings and we work with another company that helps animate it.
Did you use digital illustrations, or on paper?
I always work on paper to begin with, making up a language of visuals that then get scanned in and developed and collaged to make the final images on the computer. What was the process? Did you add the artwork after the shooting and editing was done, frame by frame? Or did you do storyboards of every detail, before shooting? The more complicated polished ones are usually storyboarded and drawn for specific shots which are shot on green screen. The simple stop motion ones are shot frame by frame and we usually just start with a basic concept and move around that idea, generating the world of visuals and animating them in one go. They are both very playful and fun – what message did you have in mind when you came up with the concepts? Lenka and I collaborate a lot and we love having fun with what we do, her music is typically playful and fun so it suits the mood that we have the same vibe in our creation of the videos.
I don’t really have trouble being consistently creative. I usually have a backlog of ideas I can draw from
Your work involves a lot of being creative. How do you keep it fresh, where does your inspiration come from?
I don’t really have trouble being consistently creative. I usually have a backlog of ideas I can draw from. If I’m ever stuck on a particular project, just getting out of the studio and going for a walk or a drive or a ride somewhere usually makes new ideas. If I’m inventing a project for myself ( i.e. there’s no brief from a client) I like to pull ideas from reading literature from other professional worlds like science and philosophy.
You have lived in many cities around the world. What is your favorite?
I don’t have a favorite city. I do love cities in general though. I have a connection to many places around the world now, having lived in lots of places. So it’s lovely now to arrive in a variety of places and feel more at home. I think the more I have drawn in a place the more I feel at home.
Drawing All The Buildings In New York: I have drawn around a few thousand buildings in NY, but there are about 900,000!
Tell me a bit about this personal project you started, All The Buildings in New York. How did the idea come to you? Is it just for fun, do you have a plan with it?
In the beginning I started the project as a diary for myself to keep note of all the interesting things I saw around me day to day. It was a way of paying attention to my surroundings more than a typical new arrival to the city would. Eventually it got a lot of exposure and people really liked it so it became more public.
How many buildings do you have so far?
I think around a few thousand, but there are about 900,000 in the city!
Do you think this could become a global movement? Would you encourage other artists around the world to start drawing the buildings in their cities?
I think it’s best to invent your own project and draw what inspires you. To take on another persons project often means you’ll run out of steam early, it’s best when you have a personal connection to something, that’s when it really becomes something special.
I think it’s best to invent your own project and draw what inspires you. To take on another persons project often means you’ll run out of steam early
You work with a lot of big clients. What is the most difficult (or challenging) thing to handle, in your position, when working with big brands?
It’s great working with clients, I actually quite like the back and forth on aspects of projects and being pushed into different directions with my work.
What do you think it takes for artists to be considered potential collaborators for big companies (on advertising campaigns and so on)? What do you need to have proved, as a professional, in order to get to work for brands like Ford, Coca-Cola or Warner Music?
I think if you have that personal connection to your work that I mentioned before, clients will see that drive and passion and want to connect with that.
An online shop can be a great way to start a miniature business too, but don’t rely on it for all your income, as it can fluctuate wildly
Aside from your commissioned artwork, you also have an online shop where you sell your print products. What does that involve, for you, in terms of logistics; how difficult is it, running an online shop, as a freelance artist?
Lots of people find it really hard with this aspect, but I quite like it as a different part of my day. It’s hard to do drawing ALL day, so I like to break it up with doing things like organizing the shop and sending out prints. I do have assistants that help a bit with this stuff too, so it’s actually quite a nice social part to my business. It’s social within the studio but the interaction with the purchasers is quite interesting also, seeing where people are ordering from and talking to them about their purchase can be great.
What does a freelance artist need to do, in your opinion, to make sure his online shop is successful (and by that I am reffering to a good source of income, first of all)? Could anyone do it?
Again, I think having that personal relationship to your products is important. Don’t just make a mug because you think people will buy a mug, make things because you are personally attached to them. I think an online shop can be a great way to start a miniature business too, but don’t rely on it for all your income as it can fluctuate wildly. You need to have a good combination of creativity, marketing, and organizational skills to do it well.
What would you advise young artists to do (or not do), in order evolve and to get the best out of their creative self, in the long run?
Be yourself, and embrace your quirks, then get all that down somehow and show it to as many people as possible.