The Q&A: John Hendrix

By Peggy Roalf   Monday July 15, 2013

In choosing a subject for his MFA Thesis project back in 2002, John Hendrix settled on the idea of disasters. Whimsical disasters, earthquakes, border skirmishes and the like. The work got noticed and straight away, he became the go-to guy for any type of train wreck. It turned out that what he likes to draw most of all is complex and complicated scenarios. This talent lives on in his editorial work, even when the subject is the Yukon River. So I asked John to take the DART Q&A. Here’s what he wrote:

How and when did you first become interested in art and illustration?

I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't drawing. Some of my earliest memories were tracing Garfield comics out of the Sunday paper. Even though I thought of myself as an artist when I was young, I think I've always been an illustrator. As a child, I loved images that told stories, like children's books, illustrated chapter books and comics. But I didn't know that there was a giant world called illustration until much later. 

What was your first commercial assignment?

The very first periodical assignment I got was from Minh Uong at the Village Voice in 2001. It was a train-wreck. After several sketches on a very tight turnaround, Minh had to hand me the concept. But, he was kind and called me again for other things somehow. At that point I was still doing acrylic paintings, and when he saw my sketchbook drawings, he encouraged me to switch to linear inkwork. Good advice! 

What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

This is a hard question, but only because I enjoy so much of it. I love the raw idea creation at the beginning, when the project could be anything! I love seeing the final art come together, and seeing it in print is always very satisfying. But there is a kind of joy that, honestly, doesn't happen in every project, which comes from the pure excitement of making something. I guess I just love making things and seeing them go out and live in the world. 


Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper versus In the computer?

I do keep a sketchbook [sample above]. Though I don't draw every day in my sketchbook, I do find it is an essential part of my creative life. I have a running series of drawings I do while I'm atchurch, which I post two or three times a month. I've started drawing a personal comic called “The Holy Ghost,” which follows the daily life of 1/3 of the Trinity, that comes right out of my sketchbook. The sketchbook offers a place to just to have fun and play. It's essential for me to remember what I love most about drawing and stay connected with a less cerebral approach tomaking images. Most of my work reflects an interest in the handmade. When I feel my work is at it's very best, it is simply pen, paper and an idea. 

What is your favorite time of day for working? How do you spend the first hour of your work day?

I keep normal business hours when I'm in the studio and not teaching during the day, but my favorite time to work is late night. I put on a pot of coffee most days around 9:30-10pm and work till 1 or 2 in the morning. It is a great time to think and not worry that people are going to be emailing you. I don't need much sleep. I have kids, so they don't allow it anyway. Might as well get the work done.

What are you listening to?

While I'm doing thumbnails, writing or concepting, I can only listen to music. But, when I'm inking or coloring or doing final sketches, I listen to tons of podcasts, audiobooks and baseball games. My favorite podcasts right now include, Your Dreams My Nightmares, WTF with Marc Maron, The Best Show on WFMU, How Did This Get Made?, Judge John Hodgman, The TonyKornheiser Show, and so many others. 

Who and what are some of your strongest influences?

Where to start with this? I think my work is really most influenced by a combination of Alan Cober, Jack Unruh, Winsor McCay, David MacCauley, David Suter and Chris Van Allsburg. Right? It is hard to know exactly where all the bits and pieces come from inside our visual voices, but I've been shaped by so many folks, great teachers and colleagues, like Marshall Arisman, David Sandlin, Wesley Bedrosian, Barry Fitzgerald, Steven Guarnaccia, D.B. Dowd; the list goes on and on.


How did you arrive at disasters as such a great subject for your art?

Yeah, I became the whimsical disaster guy after I did my MFA Thesis on the subject of disasters. Several of those images got into the annuals and it was a dream come true to do the assignments that followed. I think I'm drawn to visual chaos for both formal and conceptual reasons. Simply put, I like drawing complexity. 

What was the biggest mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?

I can't think of a single moment or a colossal mistake, but I do look back with a lot of regret at how anxious I was to be successful. So much of doing this for a living involves patience, because good work takes time; a lot of time. You just can't measure what you are doing against anyone else. You have to remember to concentrate on making your best work everyday; you can't rush excellence. 

Has social media been a boon for self-promotion? Or do you have methods you’ve always used that still work?

I have an embarrassingly vicious twitter addiction. I stopped sending postcards to art directors, and I use twitter almost exclusively to promote and publicize my new work. But, the fun of twitter is really not as a 'press-release-machine' but as a kind of virtual studio. The fun of interacting with illustrators across the world, with people I know and some I've never met, has been a real joy in my daily studio life. 

Where did your idea for your book, John Brown, originate? What was the most difficult part about getting from idea to finished art?

The ideas for my books come from the kinds of things I like drawing. Something I tell young artists is "write to the visual," meaning don't try to create stories out of words alone, but start with images as much as words. Artists and image-makers should trust their interests and follow them like a treasure map. My interest in John Brown came from a love of the famous paintings of him as much as his incredible story. 

Have you ever had a creative block with a deadline looming? What do you do to get crackin’?

For me, the best thing for idea-block is a deadline. Nothing like genuine fear of failure to get you motivated. I am a big fan of using a kitchen timer for conceptual thumb-nailing. I find that after 30 minutes of idea generation, I start repeating my best ideas over and over. The best strategy is to stop, do another activity and come back to the original ideas with a fresh mind. 

Where do you teach—and what do you like best about teaching?

I teach illustration, hand-drawn typography and design thinking at Washington University in St. Louis. I love teaching. It is wonderful to leave the studio and interact with young folks that love illustration and visual communication. There is something amazing about having a front row seat when you see a student find what they are passionate about. At it's very best, teaching is not about transmitting information, but inspiration. There are plenty of actual skills to teach, but what is far more important to me as a teacher is passion. I've had the pleasure of teaching hundreds of amazing young illustrators and designers in the past eight years and hope to continue doing that for years to come.

What advice would you give to a young illustrator who is just getting noticed?

Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, patience and persistence is essential. I always tell young artists to keep a sketchbook, or at least have a place in your life to make creative things that are your own. You have to practice making your own content, and that doesn't just mean writing stories, but merely dictating subject matter. Also, and this is bad news for some, you have to go out and meet people. Go to the shows, the conferences, the openings, the events. So much of my career was changed by the people I've met in person.


John Hendrix loves to draw. In fact, he would much rather be drawing than writing this self-aggrandizing bio. John’s work has appeared in numerous publications, such as Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, and Time Magazine among many others. He has also drawn book jackets for the likes of Roaring Brook, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Greenwillow Books, Knopf, Penguin, Abrams Books and St. Martin’s Press. His images also appeared in advertising campaigns for ESPN/ABC, AT&T, and Travelocity. John’s drawings have won numerous awards, including the Society of Illustrator’s Silver Medal in 2006 and 2008, the 2009 3x3 Gold Medal in sequential illustration and the SILA Silver Best of Show Award. His images have also appeared in the annual award publications American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Society for Publication Design, Communication Arts, AIGA 50 Books 50 Covers Show and Print’s Regional Design Annual.

In addition to his illustration work, John is teaching illustration and typography in the Communication Design program at Washington University in St. Louis. John served as President of ICON7, The Illustration Conference, a biennial global summit for the illustration community, in 2012. In that same year, John chaired The Society of Illustrators 55th Annual Show. His first picture bookAbe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, was named and ALA Notable book of 2008 and won the Comstock Award for read aloud books. John’s book, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom the first he has both written and illustrated, won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal and was named one of the “Best Books of 2009” by Publisher’s Weekly. His 2012 book, A Boy Called Dickens was described as "touching and believable” by The New York Times.

Born in the gritty midwestern suburbs of St. Louis, John attended The University of Kansas to study graphic design and illustration. He graduated with a degree in Rock Chalk and Visual Communication in 1999. After working for a few years as a designer, John moved from Kansas to New York City, where he attended The School of Visual Arts MFA “Illustration as Visual Essay” program and graduated in 2003 with some honors and some debt. During his time living and working in New York, John taught at Parsons School of Design and worked at The New York Times as Assistant Art Director of the Op-Ed page for several years. John lives in the St. Louis neighborhood of University City, with his beautiful bride Andrea, son Jack and daughter Annie. @hendrixart


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