John is a freelance illustrator and designer based in Cornwall. His practice is based on high-tempo, never-say-no creativity with an emphasis on humour and the absurd.
Selected clients include Atlantic Press Books, Emap publishing, Bath Fringe Festival, Strandline Books, The Shri Tulsi Mandir Charitable Foundation, Falmouth University, A-Side design, Bull Rodger design, LMNOP, Origin Coffee, Love Riot and Slut clothing.
John also sells handmade books, zines and screen prints.
Hi there. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
I was born in Bristol and have spent most of my life in the South West apart from a year or so in London. I now live in Cornwall where I work as a freelance illustrator and designer. I recently graduated from Falmouth University with an MA in Authorial Illustration.
So, you work across several mediums – ink, graphite, screen printing. What appeals to you in particular about working in pencil?
A good pencil allows you to create so many different marks, lines and textures. It’s an incredibly versatile tool. I love the freedom of a pencil – you don’t need to be afraid of making mistakes. A pencil drawing can feel so alive! I love smudges, mistakes and traces where things have been rubbed out. I wish more work stopped with the pencil, so many amazing drawings are spoilt by an inking or digital process.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process, from the initial idea to the finished piece?
I normally start by doing some research and gathering appropriate source materials, I have lots of wildlife books, almanacs and encyclopedias. I then start drawing lots of very quick roughs, some of these I will work up into developed drawings. When I have spent ages doing this I normally decide that the very first drawing I did was the best so I go back to that and try to improve it. When I’m happy with the drawing it can be scanned in and separated into layers for printing, cleaned or optimised for the web, depending on what the final outcome is going to be. For my work with Slut clothing and some of my other more graphic projects I tend to work in pen and just fill up A3 pages with my drawings and lettering. Sometimes I will then take one element from these pages and work it up into a bigger drawing.
What size do you tend to work at? Do you have a preferred scale?
Very rarely bigger than A3 these days. Anything larger is a massive hassle to scan.
What are some of your favourite materials to use?
I like Caran D’ache Supracolor pencils, particularly Black 009 , I like the way that when you rub it out it always leaves a trace. I also draw with a pentel ‘touch’ pen because it’s flexible nib allows for a good range of marks.
Could you tell us a bit about your influences?
I am inspired by natural history. I love drawing animals. I have always loved searching for wildlife in gardens, rock pools and forests. My book The Golden Plaice was inspired by animals I have found in the sea. I am also inspired by cinema and popular culture, trashy movies, internet crazes, my old toys, nostalgia, kids books, travelling, partying, people, science, contemporary illustration, ancient art, anything really! I am very interested in the idea of the absurd and how it relates to nonsense literature and humour theory.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
I recently took part in a 24 hour comic event as part of Plymouth International Book Festival. I had always made cartoonish imagery but had never actually made a comic before. I absolutely loved it and I’m very happy with my comic The Leviathan. I used a die to help me decide the structure, characters and plot so it’s pretty random but I had great fun.
Do you have a favourite subject matter?
Animals. Monsters. The absurd.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I have loads of sketchbooks. I lose track of them completely. All different sizes and shapes. Some nearly finished, most started from both ends and full of really quick ideas, notes and drawings in pen, pencil or whatever else was handy.
We really loved your hand-made book “The Golden Plaice”, which had beautifully intricate pop-ups in pencil and colour screen prints. Could you tell us a bit about that project, and what inspired it?
I started The Golden Plaice during the first year of my masters. The sun had just started to shine after a long, cold winter and I wanted to spend a more time on the beach! I started making lots of drawings of any interesting animals or objects I could find. At the same time I was researching into Nonsense literature. I was reading a lot of Edward Lear, Louis Carroll, Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl. I found an old pop-up book I was given as a child – The Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey . It’s a typical Gorey story full of tragic and untimely occurrences, I liked the idea of using a similar plot but starring Cornish sea life which leads a similarly perilous existence!. Another major influence was Samual Fallours who created one of the very first natural history books – Tropical Fishes of the East Indies (1719) – it is estimated that ten percent of his drawings are imaginary. Fallours also told wonderful stories such as keeping a mermaid in his bath and playing fetch with his pet crab. I wanted to make an almost topographic study of my discoveries yet embellish it with character and personality. The name of my book came from a fish and chip shop in Bath, a fittingly bad pun for a book centred around research into nonsense and absurd humour.
I began playing around with paper engineering and worked out a rough story where each page in my book would feature another creature or event that I wanted to draw. I then made working paper models for each page using photocopies of the drawings I had been making. I had to remake some of these pages over 8 times to get a working model I was happy with. The first complete working rough of The Golden Plaice is in black and white and features only pencil drawings.
At this point I left the project for 6 months and worked on other things. When I came back to the book I decided to make 3 colour screen prints from my original drawings. I split each drawing into 3 layers digitally and screen printed everything by hand. I then scanned the prints and worked on them in Photoshop, ‘nesting’ the images into A3 sheets which were printed digitally then cut out and assembled into my final books. The cover is made by hot foil blocking my design onto leather or book binding cloth. Each book takes over a week to print, cut-out and assemble!
You also work with The Atlantic Press – Could you tell us a bit about that?
Atlantic Press are a small publishers associated with the MA: Authorial Practice at Falmouth University. We publish first time works of authorial illustration by emerging and established artists. My role includes designing, illustrating, printing, social networking, book fairs and day to day sales and admin. It’s great experience and I get to promote my own work at the same time. I met Amber at Comica when I was with Atlantic Press and now I’m doing The Tiny Pencil!
Lastly, what are you working on now and what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
My current workload includes some editorial work, some printing and bookbinding for Strandline Books, I’m halfway through making the next edition of The Golden Plaice and I’m helping design the next publication for Atlantic Press. (see the Atlantic Press competition!). I’m also in the process of setting up a screen printing studio in my garage. When this is done I am planning to go crazy printing my own books and comics and working with some other great illustrators right here in Cornwall. I have a couple of collaborations lined up which I’m very excited about. My number one priority however has been completing my picture for the Tiny Pencil – I love having a brief where you’re actually encouraged to be dark and weird! Expect a bit of both..
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