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Illustrator & Cartoonist Oslo Davis

Studio Visit

8th July, 2011
Lucy Feagins
Friday 8th July 2011

Cartoon for The Age by Oslo Davis
Illustrations for Melbourne's favourite Indie bookseller Readings, by Oslo Davis

Sneezy people by Oslo Davis

Illustrations for the M Mag in the Sunday Age, by Oslo Davis

Ha ha!  Cartoon for The Age by Oslo Davis

Illustration doesn't really get more MELBOURNE than Oslo Davis*.   Oslo's quirky cartoons and overheard musings grace the pages of The Age every single week, (more than once!), so even if you've never heard his name, if you live in Melbourne, chances are you've probably chuckled at one of Oslo's jokes or observations.  Alternatively, perhaps you've spotted his familiar sketchy characters on a Readings shopping bag, or in Meanjin, or or some other unmistakeably Melbourne-centric independent business?

Having SAID all that, you really SHOULD know Oslo by name because a) how many people are called Oslo? - and b) he has been interviewed a bazillion times by so many people and publications (here, here and many more!).

Oslo's work is so freaking understated, it's amazing how much he is able to communicate with a simple facial expression and one caption.  It seems that what is edited out of an Oslo illo is just as important as what is left in.  It's also interesting to hear that given the chance, Oslo would go back and change almost every single drawing he's ever done!   In today's interview it's really incredible to gain an understanding of just how much thought and revision (and regret!) goes into each seemingly simple cartoon!

When he's not beating himself up about a clumsy caption or the angle of an eyebrow, Oslo is eavesdropping.  In actual fact, his real gift isn't in the drawing at all - it's his unique ability to recognise and tease out the most mundane yet hilarious moments of comedy in everyday life.  Irritating kids, nagging wives, gas-bagging mobile phone users, cricket-obsessed husbands - it all makes for perfect Oslo ammunation.  After all, Davis says 'people come out with some pretty amazing crap.'  SO next time you're on a tram, or in a shopping centre, or at the library, just WATCH OUT, Oslo has ears everywhere.  Don't say anything stupid!

Oslo draws cartoons for Meanjin, The Age, The Big Issue, amongst many many others.  He has published a couple of excellent graphic books.  His work has also appeared in The New York Times!  Oslo has an old website here and a really cool new one here, and he's represented by the Jacky Winter Group. HUGE THANKS for his time with this interview!

(*Although he is technically from Tasmania).

Tell me a little about your background – did you always want to be an illustrator / cartoonist? what path led you to what you’re doing now?

Jesus led me to drawing ... Only joking! In my twenties I wanted to be a cartoonist and so I worked hard at being one. Now I am one. Easy! I haven't studied drawing or art. Maybe I should? Must be expensive ...

As a teenage boy I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Airforce. Somehow things changed over the years and I went to the University of Tasmania to study Shakespearean acting, as you do. I was in a few plays including Twelfth Night and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie in which I played Tom. After realising I was shit at acting I became a high school English teacher, then I worked overseas as an aid worker. Later I became the Cultural Relations Manager at the Australian Embassy in Hanoi. Now I draw cartoons. Go figure!

Where might we have seen your work?

My main gig these days is doing three gag cartoons a week for the back page of The Age, and doing Overheard, a reality cartoon about eavesdropping in M Magazine in the Sunday Age.  Meanjin have been publishing my drawings for the last few years and I've done some work for the New York Times and random magazines overseas. I did a bunch a drawings for Readings Bookshop last year including some for their totes. Not so long ago I was addicted to contributing to magazines and journals. I managed to draw a tonne of very satisfying work for Tango, Is Not Magazine, Sleepers, Going Down Swinging, Torpedo and The Big Issue.

'Overheard' - Oslo's hilarious cartoon about eavesdropping, in the M Magazine every weekend

Oslo's New York Times illustration!

Being a cartoonist is a kind of double-whammy because you need to have a funny idea AND you then need to be able to draw it. That is a lot harder than just illustrating someone else’s idea. How do you come up with and record all your cartoon ideas? Do you ever struggle for ideas? Do you ever think something is hilarious and look at it the next day and go ‘what was I thinking that is not even 1% funny?’

I'd go back and change almost every single drawing I've ever done if I had the chance. Change a comma in a caption, an eyebrow on a child's questioning face, or the way a shadow falls across a lady's wig. Maybe just rip the wig right off! Less than ten drawings, I estimate, out of the thousands I've done over the years, would remain untouched. I'm deeply dissatisfied with much of my work.

I can draw, but I can't draw draw, if you know what I mean. I can hold a pen and move it about a page, put it that way, but that's about it. Still, doing drawings is infinitely easier than coming up with ideas. The ideas part is tricky. And when I say 'tricky' I mean 'liable to crucify you'. I wouldn't be a gag cartoonist if I haven't stared into the pit of hell and seen my own decrepit, creatively-ravaged soul.

Having said that, drawing can still be a big bowl of fun, and coming up with ideas is a fun game of cat and mouse: basically drawing's all crockery and animals!

What has been a favourite cartoon you’ve made in recent years?

Earlier this year someone suggested I draw a cartoon for the Age about a little-known American singer-songwriter called Justin Bieber (I had to Google him). Without too much mucking about I came up with this one:

Justin Bieber grows a beard!

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Oh, you know, the usual: wake, eat, muck about, read, surf the net, shower, draw, make some calls, write some emails. Repeat, with the order shuffled around a bit. It's a good day if I don't have to communicate using my voice.

Oslo's workspace at home in Footscray

Which other designers, artists or creative people are you inspired by?

Lots. Both the late Saul Stienberg and Charles Addams. Barry Blitt and Bruce Eric Kaplan are great. As is Ben Katchor and Roz Chast. And William Steig and Istvan Banyai and Glen Baxter and George Booth and Jean-Jacques Sempe and Christoph Niemann. In Australia I like Bruce Petty and Michael Leunig and Mandy Ord, amongst others. Outside of the drawing world I like photographers Nobuyoshi Araki, Mitch Epstein and William Eggleston, and writers Jack Handey, Kurt Vonnegut and Flann O'Brien, to name just three.

What would be your dream creative project?

In many way my back page cartoon in the Age is as good as it gets: relative freedom and a chance to experiment. Not to mention a good chance to inflict the world with my humour.

But coming up with ideas for jokes that thousands of people see, and judge me on, every day, has meant my nerves are shot to buggery. So the best projects are when there's no deadline, no client or editor, no audience, no rules. (I'd be a graffiti artist if it wasn't for the unreasonable working hours and the cargo shorts.) I did a Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria last year and for three months I just drew. Drew people, the chairs, walls, books, computers - you name it. Filled up a bunch of sketchbooks, I did. There's a high possibility that later this year I will exhibit it all at Perimeter Books in Thornbury.

Drawings from the State Library of Victoria

What are you looking forward to ?

A holiday. Also a secret project I'm working on for the Melbourne Writers Festival in August. I can't give away too much except to say I'm editing a collection of cartoons featuring some of my heros and heroines. Stay tuned ...

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

This is boring but I really like walking around all the tall buildings in the CBD. I grew up in a small town in Tasmania so Melbourne's skyscrapers and canyons impress me. I take a lot of photos of people for Overheard and to use as source images for drawings. I like to see the worker bees in suits and think how weird it is that people still wear neck ties and high heels and cufflinks and spend millions or dollars on haircuts and makeup.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

West Art Supplies in Barkley Street Footscray. They are surprisingly well stocked for a Mom and Pop enterprise. I also import boxes of stationary from Japan, including my watercolours and nice brush-type pens.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Dosa Hut in West Footscray has a goat biryani that can be good, if they don't add too much chilli, which they often do, so I wouldn't recommended it.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Taking my gorgeous five y.o. daughter to jazz ballet class in Seddon, then up to Tottenham station to pull some cones. (Another joke - sorry mum!)

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

There's a cafe in the Atrium in Fed Square that has copies of the New York Times you can steal ...

The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email