James Gulliver Hancock’s obsession with re-imaging his world has led to work for clients including Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, Herman Miller, Businessweek, the New York Times and Simon & Schuster. Hancock grew up in Sydney, Australia, and studied visual communication at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has traveled extensively, including an overland journey from Sydney to London via Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Russia and Europe, and has worked on projects in the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Austria, Germany, France and Australia. He has held 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 York. Currently he works out of two studios: at the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn, New York, and from his homeland studio by the beach in Sydney, Australia.
Drawing on the Walls
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style? The non-fiction books I read as a child. I loved the sort of illustration that explained things, or guided you through engineering and science concepts. I also loved technical cutaway illustrations of cars and other vehicles, especially when there was an element of whimsy, like the work of Stephen Biesty. That, coupled with a love of making a mess and drawing on the walls, is what formed my style and my way of working.
What is the strangest assignment you’ve ever received? For a recent sidewalk-chalk assignment, I had to pretend to be a five-year-old. Drawing like someone else was a very odd way of working out of context. It’s almost like acting.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? Making something. I get depressed if a day goes by without creating something, even if it’s just baking. I thought I wanted to be an engineer after high school, and I have always had an interest in the way things work, how different elements can be pulled together make something new; a harmonious system. Illustration can seem so simple in relation to something like engineering, but there is the same pulling together of elements. I feel like I’ve managed to marry the two parts of my personality, the creative/expressive and the controlled/engineered.
What is your biggest challenge as an illustrator? Being consistent. I would love to reinvent the wheel for every drawing, but there just isn’t time. It’s sad sometimes when a great project comes in and there are all these experiments with style that you’d like to do, but it’s best to execute it in the style you’re known for, both for the sake of time and to keep the client happy. I miss the experimentation of university assignments, but as I grow older I’ve come to admire illustrators who have a strong trajectory in their careers, and you can really see their style develop and evolve over time.
How have your extensive travels influenced your work? I’ve picked up countless international clients by placing myself in different cities around the world, and been influenced by the careers and visions of foreign artists I’ve worked with. Travel also takes away your crutches. I’ve done a lot of great work sitting in an airport lounge, or at one of those crappy desks in a hotel room. Getting stuff done with limited resources is exciting. I once did an editorial piece with a Sharpie and a napkin; the linework was so awesome!
How do you balance your personal/fine art work and exhibition calendar with your commercial work? I didn’t ever have much trouble balancing personal and client work, it was always a matter of one filling the gaps in the other. Now, they are all blurring together. Exhibitions are almost commissioned and personal projects get gathered up into client work almost before they are finished. I love this.
Which illustrators do you most admire and why? My time sharing a studio with Leif Parsons and Jessica Hische at the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn was really formative. Seeing the way they worked, both creatively and in terms of business—Leif’s ability to play with concepts and visuals, and Jessica’s ability to promote, network and stay on top of things, and still be a lovely person—was inspiring.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? It’s very important to be self-motivated, to fill the gaps between client projects. The work you do for yourself shows clients what you can do, and that you have the motivation to do it, and it generates content for people to talk about and pass along. It’s hard to get your work in front of the right people. It wasn’t until I moved to New York and met other illustrators that I started to realize that important art directors were real people who you could form relationships with, so you’re not just one of hundreds of artists, but someone with a story and a face. There is a certain risk for an art director to start a relationship with someone new—it’s like dating. You never know if they’re going to be a psycho or something, and sometimes it’s easier to just use the people you already know are sane and capable. Becoming one of those sane and capable people is key, and face-to-face networking really helps that.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I’m pretty happy with how my trajectory has gone so far. I guess it would have been nice to have a devoted illustration mentor who gave me wise direction when I was starting out, but it seems mentors are few and far-between these days, and I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway!