Illustrator Profile - Josh Cochran: "Focus intently on one thing, every single day"

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 15, 2016

Josh Cochran is a Brooklyn-based illustrator who says his work ranges “from dense and conceptual drawings to large-scale murals and installations.” Cochran’s illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, GQ and Lucky Peach, in advertising work for Nike and Google, and on Ben Kweller’s Go Fly A Kite album packaging (among many music-related assignments). His first children’s book, Inside Out: New York, was published in 2014. Cochran works in a variety of materials, both analog and digital, and has a diverse, constantly evolving set of styles. He says, “being a good illustrator means you’re practicing and maintaining your technical skills all the time.”

I live in Brooklyn and have a studio in Greenpoint. I’ve been working as an illustrator for 11 years—well, according to my Linkedin profile.

I grew up in Taiwan and California. My work varies a bit, from dense and conceptual drawings to large-scale murals and installations. I usually work for a range of clients in advertising and editorial including the US Open, Google, Nike and The New York Times

My mom has always been creative. She trained as a graphic designer and worked in packaging for a while. She also had a job as a newspaper layout designer before the era of doing all of that on computers. My grandma also was super creative. She loved making giant watercolor paintings of peonies.

My parents both worked as missionaries for most of my childhood so I went to an international school in Taiwan. I think because of this unique situation, a lot of my artistic influences are pretty varied. I was never allowed to keep American superhero comics, due to the drawings of reflective, tight spandex, but instead was exposed to European comics such as Tintin, Asterix and Obelix. When I moved back to the States after the fifth grade, I definitely discovered American comics such as Image Comics and Rob Leifeld.

One of my first jobs was delivering newspapers on my bike. I was probably under-aged when I took this on. My dad might’ve signed me up to have the paper-route so we could get around those annoying child labor laws. My all-time favorite job was working as a bellboy (shout out to the Fullerton Marriott!). I learned so much on that job. Namely, how to talk to people you don’t know in order to get more tips. I really enjoyed the freedom of the job. I could run around the entire hotel grounds and hang out with different staff members. Also, it paid extremely well for a high schooler.

I went to the University of Southern California and studied Fine Art and Animation for three years. Afterwards, I studied illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I had a great teacher at USC who suggested the intense training at Art Center, which I really needed at the time. I also worked as an intern on a John Woo movie, Windtalkers. I did a lot of menial tasks in the art department at MGM and luckily made friends with the art director who also took a look at my portfolio and encouraged me to apply to art school. At Art Center I learned a lot of important technical skills and also really grew as an artist. I don’t think art school really works out that well for everyone, but I definitely needed the time to develop my skills and figure out what I wanted to do for a career.

I work in a studio with three other illustrators, Jim Datz, Dan Salmieri and Dasha Tolstikova. Emiliano Ponzi also works out of our space every so often when he’s visiting from Milan. Everyone works a little different and has pretty varied career paths so it’s been very inspiring to be in a room with super talented people. The building has so many different studios with all sorts of creative people, and many, many illustrators so I often feel like just being in this space makes me feel rather creative and inspired. Recently, we moved things around in the studio so we now have an area where we can relax with a couch and coffee table. I really feel that arranging your space to feel comfortable and also stocked with art supplies and scotch really helps get into the flow of things.

For most illustration, I use a mix of graphite and digital. Occasionally I use ink and paint to create textures. I used to make a lot of silkscreen prints but I've sort of phased that out. My murals are all done with house paint.

My first job was with Steven Heller, who was the art director at The New York Times Book Review. I went to visit him when I first got out of school with my portfolio. He didn’t really say too much but called me up for an assignment the next day. Luckily I must’ve made an impression on him and ended up working on a lot more assignments for him while he was still the AD at the Book Review. I learned a lot that first year working for The Times and my work and technique changed quite a bit. The best bit of advice I can give is just to have a good attitude and remember to be professional in all situations.

Some big influences include: David Hockney, Hergé, Allison Schulnik, Charles Schultz, Saul Steinberg, Leanne Shapton, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Wong Kar Wai and Maira Kalman.

Seymour Chwast is probably one of my all-time favorites. His career has been truly inspirational. I love how he’s managed to constantly switch things up and keep making work interesting for himself. Even at the age of 84 he’s still making great art. I’m also incredibly inspired by Jing Wei who is one of the hardest working artists I know.

I actually try not to look at one source for creative inspiration. I feel like this can be a little lazy for me and it’s nice to discover things to feel inspired by spontaneously. Whenever I travel, I usually feel very inspired and draw a lot more for myself. I’m very interested in patterns and graphic work, and my drawings tend to reflect this.

Staying focused and being able to prioritize my time. I get into this mode in the studio where I will just work on one thing obsessively and neglect other studio tasks like writing emails, invoicing—things that are essential to running your own business. It’s been difficult to balance my time and not work to the point of feeling burnt out. Often, it’s been challenging to make new work when clients basically just want you to recreate past successes. I’ve been trying to make small incremental changes to my work and process in a direction that’s more fulfilling.

Last year I painted a mural for the Boy Scouts over the course of five days in West Virginia. This mural is one of the largest and most intricate pieces I’ve attempted. On the plane flight I had to check into luggage large rolls of paper that were to be used to transfer the drawing on the wall. Of course the airline lost the package and delivered it last minute on the morning I was supposed to start. It was pretty stressful, but thankfully everything came together. I also had a lot of great help from illustrator Courtney Menard who has assisted me on various murals in the past.

Something for the MTA would be my dream assignment. I love seeing the artwork and posters in the subways. They also stay up for a long time, which is a huge bonus.

SooJin Buzelli is one of my favorite art directors to work with. She has consistently hired me for the entire length of my career. It’s pretty rare to work with a client for that long. I try to have fun with her assignments and they definitely push me creatively in ways I don’t normally experience with other projects. It has been really great to work closely together over the years.

I work in advertising illustration, murals and installations. Some cool projects I’ve made in the past include a towel for Tictail, a mural for the US Open and a collaborative live action video for Etsy with Jing Wei.

I have tried to do more work that I find challenging and interesting for myself. I ultimately get bored doing the same things and I just start looking for other projects and different ways to approach making work. For me, being a good illustrator means you're practicing and maintaining your technical skills all the time. I try to stay curious and interested in all aspects of my career.

I try to focus mainly on social media, my rep and meeting people. I enter the juried competitions of American Illustration, Society of Illustrators and the ADC Young Guns. I like being in the mix here in the New York illustration scene. It’s great to have a social network that includes people you work with on a day-to-day basis. I would say it’s essential in having some amount of success with illustration.

If you’re just starting out, I think the best thing to do is to be persistent. Get used to people telling you “no” and be willing to take criticism. I think getting your career started is a lot about gaining momentum. If you can find a way to make work regularly and promote yourself consistently, you will get recognition. A lot of students and new illustrators starting out don’t have the stamina or patience for this. Working as a professional illustrator requires a lot of focus; I think it’s so important to try to learn how to focus intently on one thing, every single day.

See more Josh Cochran illustrations, new work and updates:
Josh Cochran website
Instagram: @joshcochran