The Q&A: Eric Hanson

By Peggy Roalf   Monday May 8, 2017

Q: What are some of your favorite things about living and working in your hometown?

A: I’ve lived in Minneapolis most of my life. I like looking out my window and seeing trees and grass. Lake Harriet is just down the hill past the park. When our house was built 120 years ago it was a summer cottage on the edge of the countryside. Now we’re right in the city. The 15-minute drive downtown takes me past two other lakes. On a nice day I can go to a café or a park and draw, or sit on my porch. It’s a nice place to live, without the crowds and noise (and house prices) of cities like New York.

Minneapolis has a strong arts tradition. My neighborhood is full of writers and artists. In 2014 I spent a month as an artist in residence at Minneapolis Institute of Art, our oldest and most venerable art museum, looking in their archives for things to draw, being inspired by the [Max] Beckmans and paintings by Degas and Kirchner and Balthus and Larry Rivers. The arts tradition has helped foster a sophisticated creative class. Working with top firms like Fallon, Duffy, Aesthetic Apparatus, Werner, Little+Co and others has made me a much better artist. They also make my art look its best.

This portrait of Louis XIV was one of the drawings I did while I was Artist In Residence at their art and print library.  Sponsored by Coffeehouse Press.

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? 

A: I draw every day, usually with a #2 pencil or a ballpoint pen or a fountain pen on ordinary paper, 8 1/2 x 11 with some tooth in it. I probably draw and discard 20 sheets or more a day, so a sketchbook would have a lot of torn out pages.

I rediscovered the pencil line when I was working on the Role Models cover for John Waters. I did 20 or so drawings. He chose the one he liked and I transferred it to Arches paper and painted the line with my usual brush, and he said he liked the pencil drawing better. So I found the pencil drawing I'd discarded and because it was such an offhand drawing I redrew it more carefully, and he said that he didn’t want that one but wanted the first one, the one I was going to throw away. That's the one we used [below].

Susan Mitchell, the art director at Farrar Straus [and Giroux], showed me how wonderful a #2 pencil line could be made to look, tweaked a little in Photoshop, and John taught me how imperfection was sometimes better than something that was more careful. I spent the first part of my illustration career learning to draw better and the last couple of decades learning how to be less perfect, more spontaneous and less cautious, less deliberate. As you can imagine, being less deliberate requires considerable care and thought.

Q: What is the balance between art you create on paper [or other analog medium] versus in the computer?

A: I do all my drawing on paper, but most of my art these days is finished in Photoshop. The friction between pencil and paper is where the line gets its quality; it determines the shape and the texture. I think on paper, and drawings are thoughts really, ideas.

I use the computer to reorganize and combine drawings into larger images. I did a poster for Steppenwolf Theatre last year, working with Ogilvy's Chicago office. It was title lettering for Twelfth Night, shifted into a bright red, and then all these overlapping faces layered in twos and threes and fours. I think it may have been saying something about the public face vs. the private face, or the way comedy and tragedy alter the personality, or maybe I just thought it looked interesting and Shakespearian. It doesn’t pay to overthink these things.

I use Photoshop for color. I can rehearse the colors before deciding which ones work together. I can delete colors and adjust them. My laptop is useful for editing. Both for removing things and combining things drawn on different sheets of paper. Even when I am working in full color, I am a line artist, and I’ve gone back to the tools I started with, the #2 pencil and the ballpoint pen, the fountain pen. Even when I was doing all my art with a brush and in full color it was still primarily line art. 

For the past few years my largest client has been T-Galleria, DFS’s global chain of department stores, and for them I’ve been using the brush again, creating cityscapes of Venice and Paris and Shanghai, Sydney, San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, etc. These brush drawings are also refined and assembled in Photoshop. Some of them have been blown up very large and printed onto the walls of the stores. If I am ever in Kuala Lumpur I plan to go look at it.

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: Paper. Pencil. Pen is third. Books are important. At least that’s my excuse for owning so many.

Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

A: Experience has taught me to stop sooner. I've learned not to overelaborate, to leave parts of a color illustration uncolored. Even with a line drawing, say it's of a figure standing in a room or on a sidewalk, it's a lot more interesting to leave some of the lines out, not completing the line of the jacket or the lapel, drawing a face inside a curve of the face instead of a complete oval. It makes the image more interesting. It requires the eye to make sense of it, which leaves it open for interpretation. Too much detail or color tends to obscure the concept. The line is the hero, at least for me. If I add colors I limit them. Fewer colors help the colors to stand out. It's also more interesting if the colors don’t stay inside the lines or fill all the spaces.

I did this drawing from an old photograph of people crowding a New York bar. Another sketchbook drawing. Minimal color added in Photoshop.

Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A: I have a lot of books and I spend a lot of time with books. Reading influences my writing and the art I see influences my art. But I didn't go to art school. I was an English and History major in college. If I were reading about a certain period in European or Asian history I would look for books that had paintings and photographs from the time and place. I liked inhabiting other places and other times. How did the artists look at what was going on around them? I learned to draw by looking at how other artists drew and painted, how the content of their pictures was composed, how their subjects placed their feet and folded their arms and turned their heads and wore their clothes. I also learned how a loosely drawn line could be better than a careful one. I especially loved artists who satirized the people and events of their day, artists like Daumier and Gilray and Rowlandson and Grosz.

I did this series of serial spots for the New Yorker on the theme of umbrellas. Art directed by Chris Curry. I have another set of serial spots appearing soon.

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A: I liked Maurice Sendak's Nutshell Library and Garth Williams' Tall Book of Make Believe. I liked how Ernest Shepard's drawings were so lightly dropped into the text. Very few lines. There was air around them. They were detailed but not painstaking. The Garth Williams drawings I liked best were the simpler smaller ones. There's one where Stuart Little is sitting writing a letter, leaning against a pack of gum. I loved M. Sasek's books about foreign cities, and books by Tomi Ungerer and Roger Duvoisin. 

I liked how Ludwig Bemelmans’s drawings looked like he'd drawn them in a hurry. The speed gave spontaneity to the image. Like he was drawing something seen from a speeding train. 

Other than books I also looked at my parents' New Yorkers. I didn't always get the cartoons but I completely got Saul Steinberg, or I thought I did. And Sempé. I've always been a big fan of Ronald Searle. Searle did the very louche drawings I saw in Holiday magazine. He was in the New Yorker too but not as often.

When I was 12 or so I read Oliver Twist in an edition that had all the illustrations by George Cruikshank. The art revealed character by how they hunched their shoulders or crossed their legs or cocked their elbows. The adults surrounding this kid were all very sinister, with fat leering faces, but they were also funny looking. There was a T.H. White book about a little girl who lived in a dilapidated palace that the cook traversed by bicycle. It was illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg, who was also influenced by Cruikshank. A lot of times I read the books because of the illustrations.

Q: What is the best book you’ve recently read?

A: When New York Review Books asked me to illustrate the covers of their new edition of Kingsley Amis novels I had an excuse to re-read Lucky Jim and some of the others. I like revisiting books I've read before. I've also been re-reading Evelyn Waugh's early novels. I especially love Decline and Fall.

To gain some context on current politics I've been rereading Hunter S. Thompson writings about Watergate. When I was in my twenties I modeled my writing for the local weekly after Hunter Thompson's journalism and Dan Jenkins' Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. I discovered Thompson when I was doing small drawings for Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone didn't know that I didn't listen to rock & roll. I've always listened to jazz when I work, usually Bill Evans. Also Bud Powell, George Shearing, Hampton Hawes. Piano is line art, a bit like pencil drawing, not as elaborate or colored as a quartet or a full orchestra. I have a friend who's a jazz pianist and I've done a few album covers for him. I also did a portrait of Erroll Garner recently for the Erroll Garner Foundation.

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: Pencil and paper.

Q: If you could spend an entire day away from work and deadlines, what would you do and where?

A: I’d go over to the park across the street and read a book. I usually take my Masonite drawing board and paper with me when I go out, so I might end up drawing the people playing tennis. It’s interesting, at least to me, that drawing is how I relax, but I do it for a living, and writing is more of a strain and I do it for fun, in my spare time. I wrote A Book Of Ages in spare hours while waiting for art directors’ sketch approval. It took me 20 years.

This palimpsest of bird drawings was done for Harper’s. The story was about mockingbirds and the other species they mimic. Art directed by Stacey Clarkson.

Q: What was the [Thunderbolt] painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art? 

A: It might have been the animated One Hundred and One Dalmatians. I liked how the characters and the places were drawn. Ronald Searle created the look of that movie, although I didn't know it at the time. I liked the loose angularity of the tall villain, and the small villain who was built like a rubber ball, the big noses and big feet and hands and how their build determined how they moved, which was also funny. I also loved the way London was drawn. My idea of London was part Searle, part Cruikshank and part National Geographic photography. I also remember being very impressed by the short animated TV commercials R. O. Blechman did. Very few lines and an assertive imperfection, but that imperfection was perfect in a way. Rocky and Bullwinkle had some of the same vibe.

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: Ludwig Bemelmans sounds like he was an interesting person to know. Maybe it's only me, but there was a time when I had the feeling S. J. Perelman and Saul Steinberg were the same person. It might have been interesting to sit in on a conversation between them, art vs. comic writing. I'd feel very insignificant. It would be interesting to listen to Fran Lebowitz talk. Or Dan Jenkins. Hunter Thompson. Jessica Mitford. Preston Sturges maybe? Waugh was very funny but a bit of a swine. Kingsley Amis––I've read he was as funny as his books, but what if he didn't like how I illustrated his book covers? I think he probably would. His son seemed pleased with them.


I’m always looking for new ways of doing art. This style [above] involves using Photoshop to color inside the lines and then removing the lines. For The Mockingbird. Art directed by Tom Martin Design.

Eric Hanson’s illustrations have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Die Zeit Magazine, Vi Foraeldre, McSweeney's, Rolling Stone, Gastronomica, The New Republic, Bon Appetit, Spy, WigWag and other publications.

Design and advertising clients include Aesthetic Apparatus, Duffy, Pentagram, ARNewYork, Robert Valentine, Fallon, AirConditionedLA, Ronn Campisi, Tolleson, Modern Climate, Sponge-Chicago, NothingSomething, Knack Design, Louise Fili, Philographica, Chiat Day, T-Galleria, Target, Barneys, Nordstrom, Atlantic Records, Neiman Marcus, General Mills, Xerox, Miss Porter’s School, Harvard, UCBerkeley, Vail Ski Resorts, USBancorp, Honda, Graphique de France and others in North America, Europe and Japan.

He has designed product lines for Pottery Barn and illustrated books for Knopf (the Chic Simple series), Chronicle, Random House, Faber & Faber, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York Review Books and Pantheon. 

Eric's writing is published in The Atlantic, McSweeneys (15,17,24), The Paris Review, The Week, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine, The New York Tyrant, National Geographic Traveler, Skiing, Smithsonian, The Mockingbird, Ampersand, Torpedo, The Lifted Brow.


  1. Patrick JB Flynn commented on: May 8, 2017 at 4:52 p.m.
    Great interview, Mr. Hansen. Absolutely a fan of your no. 2.5 pencil line! And your written words.

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