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Working with Pictures: Oslo Davis

Read Friday, 10 Jul 2015

In the lead-up to the launch of a new award for illustrators – the Ullin Prize for Children’s Illustration – the Wheeler Centre is profiling some of the best in the business. Oslo Davis is an illustrator, cartoonist, occasional writer and sometimes broadcaster whose work you’ve certainly seen in the Age, Readings Monthly and Art Australia. He chats to us about faking festival posters, Godzilla’s battle with cronuts, and his favourite New Yorker cartoonists.

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What was the first piece of illustration you had published?

In the mid-1990s I lived in Adelaide for a year. The Fringe Festival there ran an open competition inviting people to come up with the festival poster. A friend and I thought it would be a lark to create a poster featuring an illustration of the Sydney Opera House in a snow dome and then announce it as the winner. We drew and designed the poster and sent it out to the media with a genuine-looking media release full of fake quotes. A few newspapers picked it up, including the Australian who ran the poster alongside an article that asked ‘what on earth was Adelaide thinking?!’.

What’s the best part of your job?

There aren’t many jobs that pay you to be absurd. I’m lucky that I’m allowed to go to work, sit down and think up silly drawings. Like Godzilla eating a cronut. Or a baby telling a politician to back off. Or a couple of horses canoodling in bed. Similarly, I love the fact that I have a lot of free reign when it comes to how I draw the jokes. Every project or cartoon is a fun little problem solving activity where I can pencil sketch, paint, photograph or write the funniest thing I can think up.     

What’s the worst part of your job?

The most painful, worst part of my job is when the event horizon of a deadline comes to me faster than a good idea. Or at least an adequate idea. But, as they say, pressure makes diamonds. (Or mush.)

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

It’s significant enough for me to just come up with a great joke or a very good simple drawing. Many of my big projects are big enough to have lots of little negative elements that ruin everything for me. So a great little drawing, witty sketch or a cheeky little doodled joke will often hit the mark and be lean enough to not have room for anything I regret;  there’s no fly in the ointment because the ointment is too small! I did a little drawing of Barbecue Shapes shaped literally like barbecues which was significant, I think.

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

Don’t be afraid to keep elements of mystery in your work; don’t explain things too much. Mystery will give your work longevity. (And will make you seem like a mysterious artist. Or a wanker.)

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

I’m surprised when people like the mediocre or lazy stuff I’ve done. Really?! You like that? And I am equally perplexed when people fail to the see the sheer genius in other things I’ve done. To be honest, there’s only a few people whose opinion I care about; as long as an editor keeps asking me back for work, and some significant others in my life like it, I’ve stopped trying to care about what people might think of my work. And it’s a well known fact that one bad review requires about 940 good reviews for it not to affect you.

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

Writing, probably. Something creative that involves very little human contact. I’d like to get better at funny writing, like what David Sedaris and Jack Handey and Anthony Lane and Patricia Marx and Paul Rudnick do. In fact, instead of drawing the cartoon I sometimes wish I could just send in a written description of it. ‘There is a dog in a chair, smoking a pipe, …’ Would be much quicker and easier. 

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

Great ideas will make your illustrations stand out from the pack. There are so many samey drawings being done these days. Illustrators today seem to be better than ever at the craft of drawing, but unless the drawing has a twist, an original idea, a bite or something new to say then it just becomes decoration, a pretty picture (which of course is enough if that’s all you want it to be).

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

Both. I spend way too much time in bookshops browsing without buying anything, just looking at the cover designs.

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

The unnamed narrator of Jacky Handey’s book The Stench of Honolulu. He’s a funny idiot who’s always being done over by his ‘friend’ Don. Jack Handey is famous for his Deep Thoughts, and at many times during the novel the narrator offers his own profound opinions, like ‘The ruins were impressive. But like so many civilisations, they forgot the rule that might have saved them: Don’t let vines grow all over you.’

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

Many have, but if I were to single out one, it would have to be the cartoons of Michael Maslin, a New Yorker cartoonist. Maslin’s work is sweet, absurd and witty. Nothing too fancy, never mean but always suitably giggly. 

What are you working on now?

The next edition of Raised Eyebrows newspaper is coming out this month and it features a collection of almost 100 of my recent cartoons. Also, I did the all the drawings from the book The Wisdom of Prince Philip (Hardie Grant) which came out a couple of months ago and is in all good bookstores and online now. 

Oslo Davis is an illustrator, cartoonist, occasional writer and sometimes broadcaster. Oslo draws two cartoons a week for the Age newspaper, as well as a weekly cartoon called Overheard in the Sunday Age. Oslo draws regularly for Art Guide Australia and Readings Monthly. His website is

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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.