The Q&A: Jon Berkeley

By Peggy Roalf   Monday February 5, 2018

Q: Originally from [where?] what are some of your favorite things about living and working in [your current locale]?

A: I'm from Dublin, and I moved to Catalunya, Spain for the sun, but I spend most of my days indoors, working. Still, the weather influences everything in life, and I don't miss the low skies and months of semi-darkness that I grew up with. People are more relaxed in sunny climates. You can plan a barbecue in advance. Spanish culture involves a rolling calendar of fiestas, carnivals and firework displays, interrupted infrequently by work. This is either a lot of fun or mildly frustrating, depending on my schedule.

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

A: Oddly enough I've only recently acquired a sketchbook habit, after more than three decades illustrating. I think I felt it was almost obligatory to be constantly filling sketchbooks, so of course it was the last thing I wanted to do. When I decided too many of my spare moments were soaked up by phone time I began to pick up a sketchbook instead. Now I spend time doodling, then pick up my phone anyway. Growing up is a slow process.

Left to right: The Big Issue; Insight; Bay Street Bull

Like most illustrators I start every job with paper and pencil. Whether the finished art is produced on paper or digitally depends on the individual brief. I was hooked when I first got my hands on a computer, so for a while a lot of my work was digital. Nowadays it's around 20 percent. Getting your hands dirty never gets old.

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

A: I have a blue clutch pencil with a 4B lead in it, which is my starting point on any job. I get slightly testy if I can't find it, which is frequently, as I'm not very tidy. I share the studio with my wife Orna, who's a graphic designer. She's more important than the pencil, when it comes down to it.

Q: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

A: It depends so much on the job. I work in a number of styles, and where the client doesn't have a particular preference I let the brief suggest the approach to use. Some images rely on simplicity and freshness for their impact. I've learned to recognize when to leave these alone. Other illustrations just keep getting better the more time is spent on them. In those cases—to paraphrase Douglas Adams—the whooshing sound of a deadline flying by is the signal that it's time to hit the send button.

Left: Cover for The Economist

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A: My favourite book as a child was T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone. I loved the unorthodox education that Merlin gave to the young Arthur, by turning him into various animals. The book jacket (Armada Lions edition) featured a sculpted puppet of a scatty looking Merlin, complete with owl shit in his hair. It looks like the work of Luck and Flaw, but I can't find a credit for it. The illustration on book and record covers always made at least as much impression on me as the content.

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

A: The best book I've read recently is Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel. It's a WWI German officer's memoir of his experiences on the Western Front. Memoir is too tranquil a word—it's a mesmerising account of the relentless and breathtaking attrition of trench warfare, told by a natural storyteller. It's dark poetry. My other contender for best recent book was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I must be attracted to nihilism.

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

A: Tight deadlines give me few opportunities to work in oils. If somebody's paying me for this hypothetical year I'll go for oil paint. Big canvases. No distractions.

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

A: Five kids, a dog and a fluctuating population of cats have often set the agenda. I love working at home, but scheduling can be a challenge.

Cover for The Economist

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

A: Ooh. So many! My parents took me to the Rosc exhibition of contemporary art in Dublin when I was eight. This was one of a series of avant-garde exhibitions aimed at opening up the rather stuffy academic art scene that prevailed in Ireland at the time. When I started in art school some years later I joined a cinema club that showed movies like Eraserhead, Pink Flamingoes, Ai No Corrida, Todd Browning’s Freaks. These experiences taught me that art didn't have to conform to any limits, and in fact that dynamiting conventions can create far more impact than observing them. The Velvet Underground carried the same message for me.

Q: What was the strangest/most interesting assignment you've taken that has an important impact on your practice, and what changed through the process?

A: I picked up a small job that was passed to me by a fellow illustrator when I lived in Hong Kong in the early '90s. He was too busy to take it on that week. It turned into the most productive relationship I've had with a client—some 75 illustrations a year ever since. They're used on the covers of investment analysis reports for CLSA Asia. There are a few challenges. Many of the initial concepts are supplied by the analysts writing the reports. It's their chance to let their hair down I guess, and the ideas can read as though they've been at the funny mushrooms. Publications manager Simon Harris hammers these ideas into some kind of coherence, then it's my job to fit them into the tall narrow shape the cover design allows and make them work visually. This has been an ongoing and hugely rewarding learning curve, and sometimes doubles as a sandbox for experimenting with new styles and approaches.

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: That's a morbid question. My wife makes a chicken pie that would make you weep, in a good way. I'd wash it down with a large Yellow Spot whiskey. And then another one.

Right: Cover for New Statesman

Jon Berkeley is an Irish illustrator and author. He lived and worked in Dublin, London, Sydney and Hong Kong before settling in Barcelona. Jon has illustrated over 150 covers for The Economist. He has worked for Newsweek, The New Statesman, Time, FT, Washington Post, Smirnoff, Ted Baker, Vodafone, Smirnoff and many more, and has been recognised by Creative Quarterly, the SND, Communication Arts, 3x3, The 4As, ICAD, IGI and the AOI. He is the author and illustrator of Chopsticks (OUP), and wrote the Wednesday Tales trilogy (Harper Collins), which has been published in over a dozen languages. He was an invited illustrator at Portfolio Night 9 in Dublin, a speaker at the XXVIII Jornades Professionals de il.lustració in Barcelona and a guest author at the Hong Kong Young Readers' festival 2015. He is represented worldwide by Debut Art:


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