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Working with Pictures: James Gulliver Hancock

Read Thursday, 23 Jul 2015

James Gulliver Hancock is a Sydney-based illustrator, well-known for All the Buildings in New York, a project where he attempts to … draw all the buildings in New York City. Soon he’ll be following it up with a sequel – All the Buildings in London. We talk to James about old ratty napkin drawings, cuddling a Wild Thing, and turning work into play.


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What was the first piece of illustration you had published?

I think the first piece that really felt like an illustration job was the album cover I did for Australian singer songwriter Josh Pyke. I received his lyrics and worked from that to develop a world of illustrations that we consequently translated into packaging, videos and merch items. It really was a turning point that felt like I could really make a living from doing drawing. I felt like I really liked working in a collaborative environment with clients and coming up with my way of making things to a brief. 

What’s the best part of your job?

That it’s not a job! I would be doing what I do regardless. I’m very lucky that I can make a living and get rewarded for doing what I do obsessively all the time. That’s not to say that it’s not hard work: I work pretty much from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep ( which I love ), but in order to make such a personal career work I think you have to have that personal drive and passion and obsession with what you do because you don’t have a boss or a punch card telling you when and what to do to be productive. You have to be able to be creative in all aspects of your miniature business. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

I honestly can’t think of one!

What’s been the most significant moment in your illustration career so far?

There have definitely been a few jobs and experiences along the way that marked a turning point. Joining with my agent in Australia – The Jacky Winter Group – definitely felt like I was able to make this illustration career thing work. Then doing a publishing job for Herman Miller was really important, as it felt like I was getting to do very creative work for a company that I loved for many years. And recently my movement to New York and the publishing of my book All the Buildings of New York really opened up my work to the world. This and subsequent publications have really been amazing in getting my work out to people and being known for a certain thing that I do. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about illustration?

When I first moved to New York I shared a studio with some amazing peers and really learnt a lot about being professional and showing up to work every day – not that I had a problem with that, being a work-a-holic. And also learning about self initiated projects and having something that you can utilise to make you make work and get it out there. Worst advice I can’t think of? I hate it when people say, ‘Don’t work too hard’; my response is, ‘It’s not work’!

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

It’s lovely getting to chat to people about work and even chatting about it to clients can be eye opening. It’s funny how people interpret what you do and what they see in it. It’s especially interesting when a client sees a direction that you mightn’t have seen and asks you to explore it more. That’s one of the things I love about the ‘job’ aspect of illustration, that the clients are – for the most part – challenging your practice and pushing you in different directions. 

If you weren’t illustrating, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Drawing on every available surface and handing them out to strangers. I do this now when I’m at restaurants and things and my friends always seem to take them home. I’ve been at friends houses and recognised old ratty napkin drawings of mine that they’ve fallen in love with and framed up. I love that! The other things I love are my family … and my bicycle.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be an illustrator?

Work all the time, obsessively, and show it to people all the time: you never know who people are or who they know! I’ve gotten jobs from the most strange connections – maybe your neighbour is the art director for the New York Times … who knows?

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I do both, I mostly buy graphic books for my three-year-old both online and in shops. Novels I don’t read so much, but when I do I get them on my Kindle. I always read the New Yorker and Cabinet magazine too. I’m a bit obsessed with kids books, though. Classics like Where the Wild Things Are and Busy Town were so fundamental to my development as a child that I want to give that to my son too. I feel like the illustrated kids’ book world is so ripe right now, there are so many amazing books coming out I can hardly stop buying them. I just bought a bunch and am worried about what it’s going to do to my suitcase. 

If you could meet any character from a picture book, who would it be and why?

Wouldn’t everyone want to give one of the Wild Things a cuddle? I feel like my son has a bit of the headstrong mischievousness that Max has so maybe I’m hanging out with him everyday! Would be fun to shake the BFG’s hand, too!

What’s the picture book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

All of the Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake books were very influential, but also any kind of technical explanatory kids’ book like the cutaways of Steven Biesty I would pore over too! I think that sums my working methods up quite well, and equal amount of respect for messy wobbly chaos and technical detail. 

What are you working on right now?

I’ve got a lot of things coming up including a follow up to the New York book – All the Buildings in London, due out in 2016 – as well as a very dense and detailed adult colouring book due out around the same time and based around my world travels.

James Gulliver Hancock’s obsession with re-imagining his world has seen him work for major publishers including the New York Times and Simon & Schuster. He has undertaken artist residencies all over Europe and most recently has been living in New York where he has taken the city by storm with his personal project, All The Buildings In New YorkCurrently he works out of two studios: one in The Pencil Factory in Brooklyn, New York, and the other from his homeland studio by the beach in Sydney, Australia. You can find James’ latest work on Instagram: @gulliverhancock

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.