Illustrator Profile - John Cuneo: "The act of making marks on paper is a rare and singular pleasure"

By Robert Newman   Thursday June 25, 2015

John Cuneo loves to draw. Go to his website homepage and you'll see a heading that says “John Cuneo Drawings” (as well as a monkey with pens and coffee at a drawing table...). He’s a masterful illustrator, artist, humorist, and visual storyteller whose work has appeared in just about every major magazine, and most of the smaller ones, too. Cuneo’s ink and watercolor drawings are brilliant explosions of line and color with a chaotic edge, filled with smart and funny attitude. You’ve got to love an illustrator who has not one but two sections of his website devoted to work that is by his own description “offensive,” “vulgar,” and “lacking merit” (and frequently NSFW).

Cuneo explains that he creates his work “digitally,” by which he means with his hands and fingers (digits). For many years his funny, sexy, and seriously twisted illustrations appeared in the monthly Esquire Sex column, and a book collection of his personal work, nEuROTIC, has been published by Fantagraphics. Cuneo is also as passionate about other people’s illustration as he is his own. Just look at the amazing stream-of-consciousness ode to his favorite illustrators in the interview below. And Cuneo's Drawger page is a delight of sketches, killed assignments, and showcases of illustration work, by both him and his pals.

Cuneo is also an inveterate public sketcher. “Sketchbooks are the essential link to the primal act of what I do,” he explains, and he spends many hours drawing at bars, cafes, and restaurants. On a recent visit to my niece Lena’s Harlem apartment I noticed a Cuneo sketch on a placemat hanging on her wall. Her boyfriend Christopher ended up sitting next to Cuneo one night at the bar at Maison Harlem, and after many drinks and much conversation was awarded the evening’s sketches as a parting gift.

I am primarily an editorial illustrator; that’s how it’s worked out I guess. I live in Woodstock, NY with my wife Jan, and we have a son, Jack, who’s in in college but has a room here is case things take an ugly turn at UNH.

I’ve been at this for a long time, having started freelancing at 22.  I’m 58 now and too exhausted to do the math.

I grew up in New Jersey as the oldest of three brothers. Those guys are very mechanically gifted and continue to this day as professionals in that capacity. I cannot change a tire, on a bike. My dad was a blue collar man, working and managing a plant nursery and my mom was a housewife. Not much at all in the way of art in our home and certainty no trips to museums in the city.

I’m told I drew from a very young age, like many kids do. I played a lot of basketball and had friends, but was good with being solitary. Shooting baskets in our backyard and compulsive drawing in the extra bedroom is how I recall spending much of my youth.
Oddly enough, there was no distraction from girlfriends.   

Having so little access to Art with a capitol A, all my early influences came from illustration and comics in books, magazines, and newspapers. We got The New York Times at home on Sundays, and when I worked for my father on weekends, the Daily News was delivered at the nursery. A caricaturist named Bruce Stark always had a color page in the News and there was a big spread of syndicated strips on Sundays. Of course there was Hirschfeld, and other great stuff in the Op Ed section of the Times on the weekends.

Anything drawn and published in any mag or newspaper that crossed my narrow path would be scrutinized with the myopic tenacity of the truly obsessed. Someone had given my folks a book of Jules Feiffer cartoons (which I never saw anyone else ever open), and we had a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with the astounding John Tenniel drawings, and there was Garth Williams Stuart Little, and E.H. Shepard’s sublime Wind in the Willows stuff. All those great little line drawings surrounded by type on a page—that’s what I assumed people who drew did when they grew up.

One night, after a Knicks game in the city with my dad, I found a soggy copy of Mad magazine on the street. I left it under a radiator to dry overnight and that next morning I was even more ferociously resolute in my naive ambition for a career as a lower case (a)rtist. Back then, I think Mad had a higher profile and more of a cultural impact than it may possess today, and I know for certain that several successful pen and ink guys around my age had a similar come-to-Jesus moment after a Mad encounter in their youth. I sometimes wonder what my stuff would look like today if, instead, I’d picked up a soggy copy of, say, The Complete Goya Etchings. I’ve had an ongoing dialogue in my head for decades about my lack of formal art education and the insecurity that provokes.

Can I mention Adelaide Johnson? She was an older woman, older than my parents at least, single, and she lived in a small apartment development about a half an hour from our house. For about three straight months, my father dropped me off at her place one night a week after work, and I would sit next to her at her at the kitchen table and draw for 90 minutes. I think I was 14. I would show her the kind of illustrations I liked and she would encourage me to try and make a drawing that was similar. She gently weaned me off colored pencils, insisting that I embrace the terrifying permanence of pen and ink like the illustrators and cartoonists I admired. And she had something nice to say about absolutely everything I did. Somehow, somewhere buried in a horribly tight-fisted and hopeless Jack Davis imitation, she would find a line, or a mark or a feature to celebrate. She’d pick out some sad little detail, point to it and nudge me and breathlessly exclaim how I’d “really captured something special there.” It’s too late now to find out how my parents found Miss Johnson, or what they paid this kind woman (not near enough) or even where she lived, but those dozen evenings of unconditional encouragement in her tiny kitchen were magical. Riding home in the dark next to my father, I would happily tap my fingers on drawing pad in my lap and  recall each ridiculous compliment over and over.

It was the last time I felt really good about my stuff.

I work in a small second floor bedroom in my house. There’s a large window that looks out to the woods where there is nature going on, and the relentless, soul-crushing passage of seasons continues its remorseless cycle.

I work digitally, with my fingers. I’ll use a Uniball roller pen or something else with archival ink or water resistant ink, like a Micron. Even a rapidograph, if I can get it to work. There are still several jars of nibs, crowquills and other dip pens around the studio. They are the ex-girlfriends whose phone numbers are still in my rolodex. I draw on watercolor paper, usually on a light box directly over a rough sketch. I have a watercolor box with a variety of pans which I refill with the same colors, if I can remember the difference between raw umber and raw ocher. I have a small, old scanner and if the drawing is larger than 8 x 11 I send it to clients in pieces where it is magically reconnected. It’s all pretty primitive—I just learned to walk upright this winter. I have recently been consulting a group of patient colleagues about Photoshop, which I think is destined to be very popular.  (I have several friends who have incorporated Photoshop very tastefully and organically into their art—Jeff Decoster, Hadley Hooper and Marc Rosenthal are just a few fine examples.)

There was never any big break or splashy assignment that established me in the field. It’s been one long, tedious stealth maneuver, making a living one quarter page at a time.

The late, dearly missed Joe Kimberling, when he was at Entertainment Weekly, was very supportive. His blunt, matter of fact encouragement was greatly appreciated. There was such a crowd of talented designers and illustrators contributing to the mag, and his endorsement surely had a propitious effect on how my work was evaluated by other art directors. I imagine the thinking went something like: “Well, I guess if Kimberling uses him..”

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve the good fortune to be educated and influenced by many of my friends and colleagues. A truncated list of examples include my forcing Tim Bower to give me a gauche demo during a social visit, watching Steve Brodner draw caricatures on a bar napkin, leafing through piles of early sketches for Ice Age characters in Peter de Seves studio, trading filthy faxes with Gary Taxali, talking about bainbridge board, budgets and bird hunting with Jack Unruh, rummaging drunkenly through Joe Ciardiellos drawers (even sexier than it sounds), lunches and sketchbooks with Barry Blitt, unsolicited critiques and kind advice during visits with Ed-fucking-Sorel for goddsakes, taking turns in Wesley Allsbrooks sketchbook with Dadu Shin and JooHee Yoon at the Buzelli's country place, and soliciting pen nib advice from the masterful Rob Shepperson. I’ve talked drawing with Marc Rosenthal during a tipsy evening at ICON, and with Richard Thompson in NY Central Art Supply, and with Victor Juhasz during an upstate drive, and with Thomas Fuchs during a downtown bar crawl. Istvan Banyai and Elwood Smith have shared their process, the late Simms Taback shared his book dummies and Mark Ulriksen and I almost share a birthday. I got to hang around the studios of John Mattos and Ward Schumaker in San Francisco and Robert Andrew Parker and Barry Blitt here in the Northeast. I’ve even had long, rambling honest-to-God phone conversations with hot-shit art directors like Robert Festino, Martin Colyer, and Marshall McKinney.

These little interactions are less aspirational than inspirational—I mean, I’m never going to be Istvan Banyai. But getting an up-close glimpse of Istvan doing his thing is very helpful to a guy like me. Maybe because it demystifies everything a little bit; makes it less magic, and more earthbound in a way? Anyhow, I’m so lucky and grateful for these random, illuminating encounters.

The list of people whose work I admire is long and getting longer by the week. I’m a fan. If illustrators had the equivalent of baseball cards, I’d collect them all and need a bigger house.

Having said that, I can’t imagine anyone doing more exquisite work these days than Gerard DuBois, whom I’ve never met. I picture him tall and handsome.

Maybe I’d like to make funny little pictures of animals and people for a book of short, humorous poems or clever limericks. And work with a designer who’s familiar with my stuff and encourages me to “avoid anything cuddly.” Oh what the hell…since it’s a fantasy she also requests—no, insists—that the drawings “…look like the stuff in your sketchbooks.”

That ongoing dialogue in my head mentioned above is just one of an unruly crowd of voices demanding attention, and none of them are especially encouraging. It’s a problem.

I joined John Korpics for lunch with friends a few times when he was at Esquire. He enjoyed looking through my sketchbooks and accusing me of various perversities. He also vowed to someday get my stuff in Esquire. I wound doing a strip for the magazine called Damn Good Advice and illustrating the Sex column for many years.

I don’t look at a lot of sites for inspiration and I worry sometimes that I should spread a wider net in that regard. I’m embarrassed by just how malleable and easily influenced I can still be when I’m not feeling great about my own drawings, and looking at blogs or books of other peoples work can potentially throw me off course. But when I’m not feeling so damn fragile, I will check in with the folks at Drawger or Oscar Grillo's daily drawing or maybe this children's book blog called 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I’ve also been looking closely at the aforementioned book of Goya’s etchings, Ronald Searle’s remarkable drawings in The Second Coming of Toulouse-Lautrec, and The Art of Richard Thompson. For me, Thompson’s work has the capacity to conjure both inspiration and despair. I take it in small portions, no more than three or four pages at a time so as not to give up hope entirely.

The Anthony (Carlos Danger) Wiener cover was done overnight, a fairly typical turnaround time for a current event cover. A happy confluence of circumstances were in my favor: The magazine needed a dick joke, and Barry Blitt came down with what I can only imagine was a serendipitous attack of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Sketchbooks are the essential link to the primal act of what I do. They are the post-it note on the computer that says “Breath, be in the moment, and enjoy the process.” Tight deadlines, stubborn editors, killed sketches and calcified concepts can obscure the reason I jumped into the illustration trenches in the first place. Sketchbooks are a reminder that the act of making marks on paper is, for me at least, a rare and singular pleasure—the tremulous black line, gently exploring and then bluntly violating a virginal, white moleskine page. (I know, it’s pretty soft core, but Jesus it still gets me off.)

I take a sketchbook everywhere, but I rarely travel, so “everywhere” is mostly downstairs to my couch, or local coffee shops and bars. Unless it’s a reportage type assignment, I don’t usually draw what's around me, I don’t want to stare. I have some social anxiety issues, and in public I find that having a pad or some paper to scribble on goes a long way to ease those symptoms. I live in a small town, and the local establishments are very accommodating, usually putting out a place mat or a blank menu and a pen before taking my drink order.

If there is any “process” at all, I often start with putting down a couple of characters, or heads, maybe animals or some furniture. Next, as a kind of self-imposed assignment, I try to make those disparate elements interact somehow. I like to force some kind of silly visual connection or exchange, to make something happen that turns the page into a picture. The result might be funny, or sad or mysterious—maybe there’s even some stumbled-upon enigmatic quality in there—but usually not. In fact, hardly ever. Usually it’s just some capricious mash up of repetition and self-indulgence. Whatever it is, it’s sure not Art, and that’s okay—I can always turn the page or get another placemat. I came, I saw, I breathed. And I remember that it’s fun to draw. Besides, the bartender thinks it’s cool.

Yes, there is a lot of sexual stuff going on in those sketchbooks. Not good sex. Nobody’s getting off looking at my stuff—it’s not the kind of thing that would inspire anybody to go and have sex themselves. And I don’t think there are a lot of actual sex acts being performed—surely nothing as explicit as the Japanese shunga prints from the 1660s or the erotic French engravings in the 18th Century, but yeah, there’s a good deal of unclothed, middle aged bodies on those pages.

I like sex and I think about it a lot. Maybe that’s just me. I’m also interested in the complicated emotions and the manners and posturing and politics that hover over the act itself. Desire and lust, arousal and ambivalence, the power and the potency. The whole attraction/repulsion thing fascinates me, as do the compromises and accommodations that are constantly being negotiated in order to keep a flame burning in the dark of every bedroom or hidden in the back of a closet, or deep in a conscience. The impossible pursuit of erotic satiation is a cosmic joke that always makes me laugh or cry. Also, I get a kick out of drawing sad little men with erections.

(Not the most rousing sales pitch above—but I guess I should mention that two collections of my personal drawing have been published: nEuRotic (Fantagraphics) and, last year, an eponymously-titled volume published by Goya: LP Series).

I don’t promote myself much beyond posting the occasional thing on my Drawger blog site. For too long I’ve depended on my drawings appearing in high profile publications as a substitute for actual promotion. It’s a very tenuous and naive way to go about things and I worry about it. I’ve consulted a bunch of colleagues about social networking and how it might serve as a platform for promotion, and for the life of me, I’m still not clear on how that works. Also, my concerns about the technical aspects of the different platforms and the potential distraction and lost drawing time continue to fuel my resistance to Twitter, Tumblr and the rest, probably to my detriment. Meanwhile, I enjoy complaining about work slowing down and feeling out of touch. It’s very tedious for my friends. (On the advice of a very influential art director and her equally successful illustrator husband, who both gently suggested I may be just a bit out of the loop, I recently did sign up for Facebook. Fingers crossed. So far I’m enjoying the kittens.)

The sad admissions above should disqualify me forever from offering career advice. That said, I recently had phone conversations with two of my favorite illustrators, Ed Sorel and Joe Ciardiello. Both of them are working on ambitious book projects and they each expressed frustration over just how hard it is to make a good drawing.  And they had almost the exact same follow up observation. This is how Ed colorfully put it: “... and damnit, it just doesn’t get any fucking easier!” 

I think students would do well to resist discouragement and keep in mind the words of those two masters.

See more John Cuneo illustrations, new work, and updates:
John Cuneo website
Drawger blog page
A video of John Cuneo demonstrating how he works for a class at Syracuse University.