The DART Interview: Jonathan Twingley

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday August 15, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the brush?

Jonathan Twingley: Probably the pencil. An Ebony pencil, in fact, because my Dad seemed to stock those in his studio. My Dad was a high school art instructor and kept a studio in the basement of every house our family ever lived in. Me and my Dad were drawing together on the floor of his studio before I figured out how the English language worked. He’d earned a Master’s degree in printmakingscreen printing, specificallya couple of years before I was born and he’d often let me make free-wheeling tempera paintings on the backs of test-proofs he was pulling down in the basement. So I guess the brush came first, too.

PR: What is the medium you most gravitate to in your work?

Jt: Is LINE a medium? Because that’s what I gravitate most to, when it comes to making a mark on a blank surface: A Line on a page, with all its variations and peculiarities, describing something that we see before us, or something that shows up when we close our eyes.

Drawing has always been foundational, almost primal (ask the guys living in the cave at Lascaux). I’ve spent a lot of time painting, too, but the Line is always elbowing its way to the front of the line(!). An ink line on a page, whether it’s pictorial or marking the lines of a letter in an alphabet, has always been after the same thing: Communication. Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Creators: A History Of Heroes of the Imagination, writes: “The Egyptians referred to the craftsmen who carved hieroglyphics into stone as ‘figure writers.’” I suppose I’m more or less that: A Figure Writer.

PR: I noticed that you have recently returned to model drawing as a regular thing—what prompted this and what does it do for your art practice?

Jt: Last November my wife and I moved to Jersey City. It turned out that the guy who owns the outfit that moved our belongings from New York City across the river is also behind an amazing arts center in Jersey City called Mana Contemporary. Browsing Mana’s website after we settled in I saw that there was a weekly model drawing session under the auspices of the Jersey City Drawing Club. I hadn’t drawn from the model in an academic setting like that for a long time—it was great fun and made me hungry for more so this past winter I also began attending weekly alumni drawing sessions at the School of Visual Arts (where I earned an MFA in 1998 from Marshall Arisman’s Illustration as Visual Essay program).

PR: The pocket-size sketchbook seems like one of your passions. Could you tell the readers why keeping a sketchbook is important to you?

Jt: Pocket-sized sketchbooks are part of my arsenal, to be sure, but not a particular focus. My “sketchbook” practice has, over the years, expanded and pollinated pretty much everything that I do. And it’s not so much the “sketchbook” as thing/object but rather Sketchbook as Idea. For example, I have many “sketchbooks” going at the moment—including folios of loose pages filled with images exploring a specific theme or formal experiment. I’ve often seen sketchbooks as the visual artist’s version of a musician’s practice time—a place to doodle/noodle/trouble-shoot/experiment/etc. In recent years, I don’t approach the work I make in sketchbooks as weigh stations along a route towards something else, but rather as destinations in and of themselves.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

Jt: In the classroom I’m always telling students not to think so much. Now this requires an explanation because the last thing I’d want is for a student to run home after class and call their mom or dad and say “Guess what?! One of my university instructors told me not to think!” I sometimes make this point when we’re exploring the nature of Ideas and where they come from. In the end, Art is a window through which we consider the world around us, and that world we can’t see with our eyes. It’s important to pour everything we can get our hands on into our heads—literature, music, poetry, popular culture, current events, history—just everything. And then, when it comes time to sit down and make some kind of sense of it all, try for a minute to not think so hard and let that part of the brain that dreams each morning do some of the conceptual heavy lifting.

PR: I see that you have recently self-published a series of “catalogs” of your drawings using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. Could you tell the readers about the process—and what you discovered for yourself about doing this project (right)

Jt: I’m about to begin my twelfth year as a Senior Lecturer in the Illustration Program at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and last year, our new Program Director, Adam Osgood suggested that we try using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing to build/publish our seniors’ promotional portfolios. The KDP platform turned out to be extremely useful for the students to create portable and inexpensive, perfect leave-behinds, for meetings with creative professionals. I loved the possibilities and made it a sort of summer project to produce some of my own work. So I began publishing these “catalogs” of work and making them available at within the individual portfolio sections to encourage people to stop by my site from time to time. The process also incentivized me to become friends with InDesign and to finally migrate over to Photoshop CC.

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

Jt: As I mentioned earlier, my wife Helen and I recently moved to Jersey City after nearly twenty years in the same building in Upper Manhattan. I’m not sure that it’s had any real effect on the work I’m making but in a strange kind of way it’s brought me closer to New York City. The poet Richard Hugo said something like: “To know one town, you have to have two towns.” He’s talking about objectivity, of course, the necessity of stepping back to see something more clearly. We have a beautiful view of lower Manhattan from the roof of our building here in Jersey City. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to appreciate NYC from this side of the river.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone.

Jt: I’ve always had a room in our home that’s served as my studio and that serves me really well. We all kind of wish we had big painting studios like Joan Miro but I’ve always kind of liked Roald Dahl’s set-up, too.

PR: What kind of breaks do you take when working to a deadline? 

Jt: The only kind of Deadline I’ve ever been really concerned about is the one that forms the root of that word. All the others aren’t really a problem and tend to work themselves out just fine.

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

Jt: Sometimes it’s finished before it begins(!). In June Cathy Gontarek, the art director at the Pennsylvania Gazette, e-mailed to ask if I’d be interested in doing a portrait of Walt Whitman for an article on the year-long bicentennial birthday celebrations taking place in and around Philadelphia. A couple of days before Cathy e-mailed, I’d noted the anniversary myself and made a drawing of Whitman. I shared the drawing with her, suggesting we run the sketchbook itself as an object, a sort of basic device that Whitman himself would have understood. 

PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference? 

Jt: It’s funny, because I do draw a ton from photographs but almost exclusively for personal explorations and almost never for commissioned “illustrations” (with the exception of commissioned portraits, of course). I love drawing on location/in the Moment—my recent Life Drawing sessions have certainly confirmed for me how much I do love the dynamics of real-time drawing action. But—and this will seem like sacrilege to the die-hard Urban Sketcher enthusiasts out there—I’m not terribly interested in Drawing on Location as an Endurance Sport. So I’ve made a compromise: I’ve got a state-of-the-art camera built into my mobile phone (you do too). Sometimes I begin a drawing on location, and then I take photos from where I’m standing and later, in the relative comfort of my Roald Dahl-like room, on my big screen desktop iMac, I elaborate on what was begun in the Moment to carry on the conversation.

Or sometimes I’ll simply shoot a series of iPhone shots of a particularly interesting view or situation, drawing the scene with my eyes for a few seconds, as it were. Back in my room, I’ll pull up all of this information on my iMac or iPad and begin to build out a composition, casting which characters, street signs, sidewalks are interesting enough to spend time on—fracturing vantage points and points of view altogether. Using photo reference in this way is sort of like Remote Reportage, drawing on location from a distance. Drawing, it turns out, is a way to go beyond the ubiquity of the mobile phone photograph.

PR: If you could live and work anywhere, where would that be—and why?

Jt: I was born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota but have now lived longer in New York City (and now Jersey City) than I lived in North Dakota. I hadn’t really planned on spending nearly twenty-five years in New York when I arrived to attend graduate school in 1996. But now it’s hard to imagine wanting to live anyplace else.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

Jt: A ten-book book deal—a book a year for the next decade—with a publisher deeply committed to Words and Pictures. I’d be set.

Jonathan Twingley was born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota. He took a Bachelor’s degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1996, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1998. His work has been published by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and the New Republic, among others. His work has been recognized by the New York Society of Illustrators, the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Communication Arts Magazine, The Best of News Design, the Society of Publication Designers and PRINT magazine featured his work in the New Visual Artists Review, a showcase of 20 artists under the age of 30. In 2007 he accepted a position as Senior Lecturer at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. In 2009 Scribner published his debut illustrated novel, The Badlands Saloon. 
Instagram: @jontwingley
Catalogs are available for purchase at within individual portfolio sections, or by searching “Jonathan Twingley” at



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