Illustrator Profile - R. Kikuo Johnson: "You'll never regret making the work you want to make"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 5, 2017

R. Kikuo Johnson is an illustrator, teacher and graphic novelist based in Brooklyn who also spends time in Hawaii and Providence. His bold, graphic, comic-styled illustrations have appeared on multiple covers of The New Yorker, book covers, graphic novels, and The Shark King, a children’s book published by Toon Books. His work appears regularly in a wide array of editorial publications. Johnson also teaches a comics course at RISD.

I primarily work out of my apartment in Brooklyn, but I spend at least a month in Hawaii every year, and another month in Providence where I teach a comics class at my alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design.

I grew up on a mountain in a pretty rural part of Maui, Hawaii. There was a lot of alone-time for exploring the woods, climbing trees, and drawing.

My mom was high school drama teacher. I'd often see her on a creative high sewing costumes and working out set designs. She's awesome; she won a grant from a Fulbright program at one point.

My first job at 15 was picking pineapples. I caught the tail end of that industry; very little commercial pineapple is grown in Hawaii anymore. From the ages of 19-30, I worked as a part-time server for the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain in both Hawaii and NYC. That job kept me afloat as I cut my teeth as a freelancer. Every broke aspiring artist should learn how to carry armfuls of expensive dinners.

I graduated with an illustration degree from the Rhode Island School of Design where I got to study with David Mazzuchelli who was a hero and influence of mine years before I met him.

My professional career began when my first graphic novel, Night Fisher, was published in 2005. My dream was always to draw comics. I never planned to be a full-time editorial illustrator, but my career quickly transitioned in that direction.

I work in my living room. I briefly rented a separate art studio, but I had trouble finding food in the middle of night when I feel the most creative. Now I get a box of groceries from Fresh Direct every three days and keep a steady routine of cook-eat-draw-dishes-repeat.

About two years ago, I switched from ink and paper to a Cintiq and Photoshop. I miss the happy accidents that happen with traditional media, but I find digital tools so much better for working out complicated compositions, color schemes, and difficult perspectival drawing. Of course, Kyle T. Webster's Photoshop brushes are the best.

My first big break was when I cold-called Fantagraphics to publish my first graphic novel. I was over the moon when they replied with a book deal, but it took a year for Night Fisher to go to press. In the interim, I made a goal to get a comic strip published in a mainstream magazine. I drew a short biographical strip about John James Audubon and sent it to every magazine art director whose email address I could find (or guess). After weeks of trying this, I got my second big break: Chris Curry at The New Yorker called. Chris said she couldn't do anything with the comic I sent, but she had a copy of Night Fisher on her desk, liked it, and wanted to commission a two-page feature illustration. That was my second pro gig ever published.

Stylistically, I owe more to Alex Toth than to anyone else. The bold design and color of Mary Blair's Disney work keeps me grounded when I feel noodley. I only recently realized how much Bill Peet's children books continue to influence me; they were my favorites as a kid, and I still marvel at how he's able to create such a rich, melancholic sense of environment with just the right detail. I love Chester Brown's honesty, directness, and conciseness.

So many. Lately I've been thinking a lot about artists whose work changes in old age after their legacy has been cemented. I've never cared for Alex Katz's giant portrait paintings, but I find some of his recent small landscapes fascinating. Leaves in a puddle. Flowers in a field. They feel trivial but masterful and sincere. A lot of my favorite artwork borders on schlock, but somehow comes out the other side.

No one source. I stumble upon things on the web, in galleries, or in comic shops, get obsessed, and then go down the rabbit hole.

Discipline. Friends, bar stools, and my ukulele are constant temptations. My personal work suffers most.

Without a doubt, it was my second published New Yorker cover titled, "Commencement." The essence of my job as an illustrator is designing, decorating, and/or augmenting content which was created by someone else; typically a writer or an editor builds the concept, and I come in at the end to help out. The New Yorker cover is a little different: it offers illustrators and cartoonists a rare opportunity to create a stand-alone narrative, gag, or visual idea from seed to flower. I've never felt so much ownership over one of my commissions nor have I ever felt like I was allowed to express my own opinion so freely. I was thrilled when the Washington Post gave the piece such a close and flattering analysis.

I'd love someone to pay me a million dollars to draw the short graphic novel I've written which no one will care about. Dream big.

Françoise Mouly. In 2010, she asked if I'd be interested doing a kids comic for her Toon Books line. A kids' book wasn't really on my bucket list at the time, but I leapt at the chance to work with her. As I expected, walking through the editing process with her was like a grad school course in comics. I learned so much about structure while we worked on The Shark King. Now I try to copy her approach with my students as much as I can. As of writing this, I've had three New Yorker covers published, and Françoise and I have worked on a few others together. It's an education every single time, and my work is so much better for it.

My buddy Paolo Rivera. The guy's a savant draftsman. I lived with him for eight years, so I'm invested in watching his evolution. Mickey Duzyj, Jillian Tamaki, and Patrick Leger—all do comics-influenced editorial work that I love and follow.

I recently designed some wrapping paper for, a skateboard for Zoo York, a social media ad campaign for Nike, and packaging graphics for Apokoteker Tepe. I did some animation design recently, but none of the animations have been released just yet, so I can't share too much. I also teach a comics course at RISD. It's an incredibly inconvenient commute, but the students are brilliant, and I like to vampire their creativity.

I always say yes to projects that are unlike anything I've ever done before. Not only does it hone new skills, I think it expands my future options. I never aspired to be an animator, for example, but I was surprised how satisfying I found that work, especially the background design.

I'm terrible at this. When I was younger, I was kind of proud that I made it this far with virtually no self-promotion beyond a website, but now I just see that as lazy and passive. I am overdue for a website/social media overhaul. 

At 21, I was an aspiring but unpublished graphic novelist halfway done with my first book. I showed my unfinished manuscript to an old pro at a convention. He flipped through my project and saw doubt in my eyes. He told me, "stick with it--you will never regret making this book exactly the way you want to make it.” Not only was that the best artistic advice I had ever received, it was also the best professional advice. If you just draw your drawings and paint your paintings, recognition and professional security aren't guaranteed to follow, but you'll never regret making the work you want to make. There aren't any success stories in this field that don't involve this step somewhere along the line.

See more R. Kikuo Johnson illustrations, new work and updates:
R. Kikuo Johnson website


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