Illustration Profile - John Hendrix: "Illustrators should consider themselves Design-istrators"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 26, 2015

John Hendrix is a remarkable illustrator who fuses his experience as an art director with a brilliant storyteller's talents and a fluid, detailed drawing style. John's illustrations, maps, and typography have been seen in the pages and on the covers of countless magazines and publications, including Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and Mother Jones, and he has a rich collection of children's books that he has both written and illustrated.

John worked for a number of years as a designer and art director, and his work reflects a holistic approach to imagery and design, as well as a keen appreciation of hand-drawn and created typography. He got his first big break illustrating maps (something he continues to create with impressive style and detail), and many of his book cover illustrations include hand-crafted headlines, including the striking cover of The Sittin' Up, which is featured in American Illustration 33. (Readers may also remember John's wonderful cover illustration work for American Illustration 28.)

Looking at John's work, I kept thinking how familiar it seemed. Then I realized that my kids have been reading his books for years! He began illustrating chidren's books in 2007, and is now writing books as well. John's most recent book, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, a powerful and sympathetic look at the 1850s freedom fighter, is essential for any young person's library.

Some of John's most memorable work is done in his sketchbook. He has been doing an ongoing series of drawings during the sermons at his St. Louis-area church, a number of which are featured in American Illustration 33. They are complex, with simple colors (most often red and black), and drawn with superlative style and detail. The subject matter takes off on the pastor's message of the day, and is a mix of imagery both worldly and spiritual and obviously from deep in John's soul. This is great art, and you can see it collected on his website.

John has an exciting upcoming book Drawing Is Magic, that will be published in March 2015. It's a combination book/sketchbook that he describes as "about falling in love with drawing in a brand new way." He's created a smart, interactive Tumblr page to encourage students and illustrators to participate in this project.

Right out of undergrad at the University of Kansas, I worked as a designer at a corporate PR agency for about a year. Then I worked at a boutique design firm for another year before I moved to New York City for graduate school at SVA. After I got my MFA, I worked at The New York Timesas an assistant art director on the Op-Ed page for three years.

I’m married to a wonderful woman, Andrea, who I met in high school at the age of 15. I have two kids, Jack, 9 and Annie, 6… and we have two cats: Kit-Kat and Luna. I teach illustration at Washington University in St. Louis. I’m in my tenth year of teaching college students.

I’m a big advocate of the “three spaces” idea. I’ve heard it is good to make stuff in three places generally, at work, at home and at a third space. I have a great office at Washington University where I teach, and a home studio, and for me the third space is my favorite coffee shop. But most of my time is spent in my home studio space. It is a well-lit cavern in my basement, which for a dungeon is actually wonderful…except for the fact that it’s 50 degrees in the winter when I first get there! I really enjoy going down into it each morning. It is full of ephemera, my collections, inspirational clutter, books I love, original art from my friends, and being there makes me glad to be an artist and illustrator.

I create pen and ink drawing first (mostly microns, radiograph, uni-ball-micro) on board, then I color them with fluid acrylic washes. After that I send them into Photoshop surgery for minor edits and color adjustments. But I aspire for them to look as much like drawings on paper as possible.

I’ve had a few jobs that changed my career, like a giant pull out map for Sports Illustrated that I got from a blind portfolio drop back in 2004. That gave me work for many years after that. But, clearly, the biggest break of my career was my internship for The New York Times in 2003, which turned into an art director position. After interning with Steven Guarnaccia on the Op-Ed page, I was hired to work there for 20 hours a week. It changed everything about my New York experience. I met so many amazing designers and news people, I hired my heroes to work on the page, and it taught me how to think fast. It was like illustration boot camp! Not only was it a steady paycheck, but it was a foothold into a world I had always wanted to be a part of since age 19.

In terms of books for children, I just love Lizbeth Zwerger. Her Wizard of Oz is up there for favorite picture book images ever. And the visually ambitious work of Shaun Tan and Adam Rex, as well as the stories of Maira Kalman and Brian Selznick. I think my entire visual aesthetic comes from early childhood memories of Martin Hanford (Where’s Waldo?) and the books of David Macauley.

For other illustrators in my list of influences, I count Winsor McCay, Moebius, Boris Artzybasheff, David Suter, Gustaf Tenggren,  Barry Blitt, Arthur Rackham, Jack Unruh, Kadir Nelson, NC Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Joseph Cornell, Dean Cornwell, Robert Lawson, Gary Kelley, Robert Weaver, Al Parker, John Cuneo.

I really admire the career of illustrator Jack Unruh. The guy is a Hall of Famer in his 70s and he is still making great work that he really cares about. He is a kind and funny man who hasn’t worried about style, just making drawings. I admire that simple passion.

You would think the answer would be “staying motivated” or something like that, but getting excited for drawing has never been a problem for me. My biggest issue with working alone is knowing how to evaluate my ideas. Even a question like, “what project should I take on next?” is very difficult for me to decide without an editor or another critical friend in the room. My wife, Andrea, has become my true editor; she is so good at evaluating my projects and helping me decide what I should explore next.

I am working with Chad Beckerman at Abrams Books for Young Readers right now. He is one of my favorites to work with, mostly because I think we really get each other’s ideas, and trust one another with big decisions. Chad gave me my very first job in the kids book industry, when he was a junior art director and I was a greenhorn rookie illustrator, and now we are working on major picture books together. It is so cool to have a relationship in the industry that continues to grow over the years.

When I was younger, I pored over illustration annuals… but today I don’t look at as much illustration as I used to, not for any real reason other than I’m drawn to older sources of drawings these days. I discovered the work of the Paper Architects from Russia in the early 20th century and couldn’t believe how contemporary and compelling these drawings were. I really love the collection of work in the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis where I teach. It has a massive collection of ephemera, sketchbooks and illustration from the 19th and 20th century. It is a fount of inspiration right in my own backyard.

I loved the project I did last October for SooJin Buzelli at Asset International. I got to do a cover for her for the first time. It was a story about feuding pension funds (yawn) but she was up for me creating a bonkers cover concept: wolves and knights in a giant melee! It was so much fun, every minute I was working on it I thought “I can't believe this is my job!”

I think I’d love to take a stab at one of these stories. They are so important to me, that I’m sure the dream job would quickly turn into a nightmare of expectations and pressure.
1. Harry Potter
2. Bible Stories
3. Narnia
4. The Hobbit
5. Wizard of Oz
Incidentally, I’m working on one of these right now (secrets redacted.)

I haven’t sent out postcards in years, though I am a real believer in the power of postcards and mailers. They got me all my work in the first five years. I think the best way to get more work is to have work in the field. But I understand that when you are starting out that isn’t how it works. So, I tell my students that you have be a part of the field beyond asking for work. Go to parties, go to shows, go to conferences, buy books of people that you admire, go to drawing nights and make friends. You won’t have much a career without networking. Don’t treat your peers as competition. Take some ownership and support them as your generation of image-makers. When I get a call for a job that I can’t take, I always suggest a friend for the job to the art director. I want to give work to people I admire and want to support when I can’t take it on myself. Have a generosity of spirit for our field, not because it will give you anything, but because you love illustration and illustrators.

I have been drawing in church for my whole life. I still remember making comics in church when I was in 4th-5th grade. As I got older I realized that this drawing I was doing during sermons could be more than just doodling. I made a few drawings back in 2006-7 that I thought were better than any illustrations I had made all year. I couldn’t figure out what had happened to allow me to make these raw and risky images. So, it became a kind of game every week at church.  I just bring a bunch of pens and draw during the sermon, which in my church is about 30-40 minutes. I would respond to the content in the sermon sort of like a cross between on-location drawing and improv comedy. I color them at home during the week when I’m looking for some procrastination. The other parishioners and my pastors love them, and in fact, I get certain folks who want to sit behind me to watch them come together. It is rather unnerving. One even suggested projecting them onto a screen LIVE in front of the church during the service. No thanks.

Over the last five years, I’ve been moving the majority of my work into children’s literature, as both writer and illustrator. I’ve made images for book jackets, chapter books, and written and illustrated picture books. I don’t think I will ever tire of the fun challenge involved in editorial image making, but there is such a singular opportunity in creating your own stories to illustrate. In many ways, I’ve been working up to this my whole life, and I’m in a position now where I’m able to write and illustrate the subjects that matter the most to me, and I’m grateful everyday for that chance. There are of course challenges to working in books. The shrinking market for print books has taken some opportunities away to make risky material, but my editors and art directors at Abrams Books for Young Readers have really trusted my ideas. My first book with them was a kids’ book about John Brown, the firebrand abolitionist who tried to single-handedly end slavery (not exactly, Dr. Seuss!)  But beyond the challenges of telling a complex story to young readers, there is nothing better than meeting kids who have read your book, and have been inspired. My drawings in these books go out into the world and have a life of their own in the hands of young people.

I’m really excited about my newest project, coming out in March, which is very different than any other book I’ve made. It is really a collection of projects and ideas from my 10 years of teaching college students about drawing, illustration and visual voice. It is called Drawing is Magic—an inspirational workbook with ideas about how to find your voice in the pages of a sketchbook. It showcases some pages from my own sketchbook, but mostly is full of exercises and drawing games. The book is really geared for high school and college students, but I hope to get anywhere from 12 year olds to professionals sending me work to post on my Tumblr for the project. Beyond personal inspiration, I think anyone who teaches art can get ideas from the book. [Editor’s note: Drawing Is Magic is available from for pre-order; it publishes on March 24.]  

Typography is such a part of my work that I never even think about “adding” it to my projects after the drawings, it just is part of the ideas from the beginning.  I have found it a great way generate work in all different kinds of markets—most art directors really love it when you ask if you can try to create a spread or book jacket with an integrated type/image solution. I think this also reflects what is going on in the industry today: the traditional silos of design and illustration are breaking down. Now, both inhabit each other’s space with ease, thanks to the digital landscape and the flexibility of our tools. Illustrators should consider themselves both image-makers and designers, something I like to call “Design-istrators.” I always tell my students to engage the type in your assignments, take over as much real-estate as possible!

One word: patience.

Even today, I am continually impatient in both my drawings and my career. It takes time, a lot of time, to create great work. Enjoy it, and don’t try to cut corners. It takes a long time to build a career. There is no magic bullet, it is one job at a time, one party conversation at a time  until you build a reputation and base of art directors who trust you.  I was so sure that age 25 (when I hadn’t had any real success as an illustrator after trying for years) that my career was over before it began. But, I needed more time for my work to mature and struggling was part of that process.

See more John Hendrix illustrations, new work, and updates:
Website and portfolio
Drawing Is Magic