Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you want to do with your life, and even after you figure it out, you might change your mind. For James Gulliver Hancock this has never been the case. He has wanted to be an illustrator for as long as he can remember. Luckily for him, he now gets to draw everyday.
Growing up in Balmain, it was when James did high school work experience at iconic Australian fashion label Mambo that his eyes opened up to the world of commercial illustration. He went onto study Visual Communication at UTS in Sydney. Later, he met his wife, musician Lenka, and the pair moved to New York City and Los Angeles.
Whilst in NYC, James started a side project that would soon spur a major turning point in his career. Whilst acquainting himself with his new neighbourhood of Brooklyn, James started to illustrate buildings in the area. Eventually, his ‘All the Buildings’ series led to a book deal with US publisher Rizzoli, and later Australian publisher Hardie Grant. Soon, other versions of the project were commissioned, including a Sydney and London edition of the book. This August will see the launch of the project’s latest incarnation – All the Buildings in Melbourne.
James works out of his home studio in Clovelly, Sydney. Here, he juggles work, personal projects and international timezones with family life, and the daily demands of two young kids. In between drawings and deadlines, sleeps and school pick-ups, James is ever observant, always noticing, filtering and documenting the world around him.
All the Buildings in Melbourne by James Gulliver Hancock is available from 1st August, priced at $29.99.
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming an illustrator, and to doing what you’re doing today?
I was born in Balmain in Sydney, Australia. I studied Visual Communications at the University of Technology, which I found really amazing, as it was very open ended. We got to experiment with a lot of different mediums, everything from paper engineering to animation to photography to illustration to multimedia. I really benefited from having a wide range of skills when I was starting out, I felt like I could take on any creative job that came my way.
Before university, two very early experiences influenced my development as an illustrator. Very early in pre-school I remember wanting only to draw, and not do the other activities, so I decided to draw the most complicated drawing I could think of so it would take all day. The other experience was doing work experience at Mambo in Sydney, I knew one of the guys that was a founding member through a family connection, and he basically just sent me to the silkscreen factory. I remember just being let loose and loving it, loving the block colours, the ink, the physicality of making things every day… and the ability to put drawings on almost anything. I was hooked.
My Mum is from the UK so we always spent lots of time going back to England in the school holidays. Consequently, travel has always been a big part of my life and creative work. Once I was old enough to travel by myself I felt compelled to fill in the gaps, so I travelled from Sydney to London overland, taking everything from motorbikes to trains to the bus. It was an amazing trip, but I think what it really did for me was solidify my personal obsession with making drawings of the world around me. I filled sketchbooks with obsessive drawings of bicycles in Berlin, pagodas in Japan, churches in Russia. Through the repetition of drawing similar objects I felt I was able to tease out a deeper understanding of places. This led to my project All the Buildings in New York. My wife and I moved to America for her career soon after we met, and I quickly applied my way of understanding the world through drawing to our adopted cities of LA and New York.
The drawings for New York eventually became a blog, and then the book. I was lucky enough for the book to be picked up through a great publisher in the US (Rizzoli) and it was really well received (it’s been reprinted 8 times now!). This really kick started my career as an illustrator. New York is an amazing place for this enthusiasm for new work, for encouraging new talent, I found a great group of peers there and felt like that period was almost like a masterclass in professional illustration. My time in New York was really when I started to define myself as an illustrator.
How would you describe your work?
My work is based on the endless enjoyment I get from drawing. I don’t really use any fancy materials, just whatever pen or pencil is at hand. As long as I’m drawing, I’m happy. I think that comes out in my work, I love to document the things around me, but with a whimsical personal twist to it all. You’ll see in my building drawings that pattern and collage creeps in, as well as multiple views and naïve perspective choices.
I also like to leave signs of the playful mess on the page, which creates a fun exploratory sort of experience for people I hope. My personal and client work often involves playing with scale and simple colours that reference vintage silkscreen posters, but also children’s book illustrators like Richard Scarry. I also like to do projects that explains things, so you’ll see a lot of playful maps and diagrams in my work.
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?
I basically start everything with drawing. When I start a project I just start drawing all sorts of unintelligible squiggles that gradually crystallise into forms and ideas. It’s funny how a massive 20 metre corporate office mural might start with a few circles and a squiggle.
I love letting the creativity flow almost like something organic, growing to fill the page. I never tire of seeing things evolve from the blank page.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
My days are usually all pretty different (I have a 4 year old and a 4 month old!) but typically I like to be up before the kids at 5.30am and do emails with clients in the UK and America. I then do try and get some work done before breakfast, a sketch for a client or something to get the idea of what I’ll be working on that day. Getting the kids organised over breakfast usually takes a couple of hours, including a focused Lego session. I then jump back on the computer and do more emails with Australian clients.
I then work through the priorities of projects, I have a really old school note pad of prioritised projects with headings like ‘Do it now! ‘ and ‘Maybe tomorrow’ and ‘If I have a spare moment’. So I’ll work pretty solidly until lunch time usually, maybe putting the baby to sleep in between.
We are very lucky to both work from home, I get to be very involved in the daily life of the kids, my studio is a part of the house and my son often hangs out and draws with me. My wife and I typically make something for lunch together, and get some slow cooking going for dinner. Then I work fairly solidly until school pickup time.
I really like to mix up my day with client and personal projects, so my ideal day might include things like: draw a map for a client project, sand back the piece of furniture I’ve made for a friend, bike ride into the city for a meeting, silkscreen a poster for an exhibition, develop a new ceramic product for my online shop, and cook an insanely tasty meal.
What have been one or two favourite recent projects or commissions?
One of the first projects I did with my agent The Jacky Winter Group was for Herman Miller and I was so excited! It was the first time I worked for a big brand that I was a massive fan of. Not only that, but it was the most amazing brief I’d ever had. Basically they gave me these really open ended concepts, like poetic 3-5 word sentences, to make illustrations of. They were doing a book exploring new ways to build adaptable buildings, and I did these very architecturally abstract drawings that played on those ideas they gave me. It was a very influential early project that showed me I could straddle the worlds of personal work I made for myself and fold it into commercial client based work.
Another memorable project was much more recent, and came out of the city books I am doing with Rizzoli. On the back of the colouring book phenomena, Batsford press in the UK got in touch to do a colouring book. Now initially I rolled my eyes, thinking what’s the point of getting on that bandwagon, but at the time I was moving around the world quite a lot and the concept of tying all that inspiration into a new book about travel really felt right. ‘Gulliver’s New Travels‘ ended up being a very nice style definer for me, and has influenced further work I’ve done, including a new children’s book which is out next year via Penguin Random House.
It’s funny when you say yes to some projects you’re dubious about, and they end up being really powerful for your creative output. Also with this colouring book it’s been actually very interesting to see other people colour my work. I spend so many hours of my time colouring in my work, it’s lovely to see some new eyes get into the tiny details of my process.
Your latest book All the Buildings in Melbourne comes out later this month – what can expect to find inside?
It was interesting doing the Melbourne book, as the other cities I have illustrated so far I had a very strong personal connection with, but Melbourne I always remained intrigued by from a distance. It was interesting to apply the same process of observation to a new and unfamiliar city.
These books are all personal experiences of places, visual diaries basically, notes of places I’ve stood in front of or taken a photo of, or stayed in or experienced in some way that I want to remember. I use drawing to re-create the city for myself.
I particularly like architectural juxtapositions, how a quirky little cottage might be next to a gleaming architectural gem. I guess I like that about the world, the strange way in which things find themselves side by side in the most perfect, unexpected way.
Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Elke Kramer. I really admire the way she has built such a strong brand identity by herself, how she’s consistently making new ranges and experimenting with texture and feel.
George Byrne. I knew George way back from Balmain days and I love how we’ve both gone on to have these Los Angeles experiences. I feel like I never really got on with LA, but George’s photos have a way of locking the place together so succinctly that it makes me romanticise my time there.
Mark Whalen. Marks fantastical scenes and tangled people I find really inspiring, the references to old Japanese style prints is something I associate with, and his colours are awesome. I just ordered his book and can’t wait to sit on the couch with it and soak it up.
Can you list for us your key resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
Instagram. You can’t beat watching the tide of other people’s inspiration float by, even if it’s something in the corner of the photo that isn’t the focus, it always seems to send me down a visual rabbit hole.
The world. Going for a walk cannot be beaten, although I usually get on my bike, the meditation of getting out and looking around can change the way you are working on a drawing or how you’re drawing something.
Magazines. Having amazing magazines that people you know made lying around are inspiring, not only for the images they contain, but from the ‘get off your butt and make more’ aspect.
Podcasts. I love ones like Freakanomics and 99%invisible (who actually interviewed me a while ago!) but also really long in depth ones like Hardcore Histories.
Outsider art and folk art have also always been a great inspiration to me. I sometimes do a project with my brother who has down syndrome, where we draw together like we always have done since we were kids. I’m constantly inspired by his freedom of mark making, and how he is completely open to make whatever he likes without the fear of getting it ‘correct’ or communicating something (more here).
What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
I think being published by a major publisher was really gratifying and encouraging. To have this physical object that weighs a certain weight and makes a sound when you drop it on the table means something… at least to my Mum!
What would be your dream creative project?
It’s going to sound cheesy, but pretty much every project that comes in is my dream project. I’m constantly amazed at the briefs that I get coming in from people for projects I am excited to jump into.
What are you looking forward to?
Drawing some more.
Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?
My neighbourhood of Clovelly in the eastern suburbs is gorgeous, after living in Brooklyn, being able to walk to the beach and dive into pristine waters and snorkel with big blue groper fish with my son is mind blowing. And then to be able to be in a global metropolis of the inner city within minutes with great restaurants and great friends is really quite astonishing.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Sydney?
I’ve got two, I recently had a birthday dinner at Firedoor and was blown away by the set menu, the local produce and creativity was really delicious. The other was at Master Dining, this was really fun, the food was so creative and the whole experience felt a bit like a scene from American Psycho.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Making crazy thin crepes in the kitchen on my cast iron skillet which I guard with my life.
Sydney’s best kept secret?
It’s no secret that anything outdoors in Sydney is amazing. Inner city bushwalks are great here, like the mini one near Nielsen park, or the ones on the north side of the harbour near the zoo. I have always wanted to play tennis on the court on cockatoo island.