An ironic heart beats beneath the calm, flat surface of Philadelphia illustrator Jon Krause’s art. Whether it’s a nude young woman snapping a selfie, her erogenous zones hidden by cartoonish blank dialogue boxes, or a man perched on a box in an otherwise empty room, the shadows of his former possessions the only reminder of life before the flood, Krause pulls us into the illustration and the story it tells.
The 39-year-old illustrator likes to work old-school. He generally eschews social media and many of the current technological gadgets that most are addicted to, preferring the analog world. It must be working for him because he keeps garnering awards and because he’s still busy after fifteen years in the business. Though he does tend to worry during the occasional downtime, he says, “Those feelings get balanced by the two-week periods when you have so much work that you don’t really leave the studio, see the sun, or socialize on an acceptable or necessary human level.”
He excels at clever takes on financial, medical and educational topics for a wide range of clients, including Deloitte, AbelsonTaylor and Hill Holliday and publications such as TIME, the Atlantic, the New York Times Book Review and Playboy. His work has repeatedly received awards from all of the major illustration annuals.
Despite any limitations of the subject matter in his assignments, he keeps a fresh perspective in his approach. “I’ve probably done [the concept of] nest eggs 200 times,” he says. “The weirdest thing I illustrated was a machine that blasts apart kidney stones. Medical Economics wanted me to paint a huge kidney stone with a birthday candle to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary.”
With his fifteen-year-old beagle, Pickle, Krause resides in the same Philadelphia ZIP code in which he was born, in what he classifies as a standard Philly row house, which contains his studio, a music room and a small gym. “It’s a city that doesn’t change a lot,” Krause says of his birthplace. “Each neighborhood could be its own little town.”
Krause’s father and mother were divorced soon after his birth, and he was raised primarily by his mother and grandmother. Of his early years, he remembers, “My mom worked as a legal assistant, my grandmother died when I was twelve. No brothers, no sisters, a very small family. Being an only child left a lot of time to draw, make things—like Freddy Krueger gloves replicated from soda cans or transformed Lego robots—play music and read.”
For as long as he can remember, he wanted to draw and play music. “Drawing and drumming was all I did as a young kid. Growing up in the 1980s, a lot of the cartoons advertising toy lines of the era were huge inspirations, as well as the packaging art for those toys,” he recalls. “My first self-generated assignment was designing new Transformers and submitting them to Hasbro when I was about eight or nine. Hasbro always sent back a nice thank you–slash-rejection letter, which I appreciated even then.”
He also found inspiration in books. Not so much storybooks, though, as the encyclopedia. “The old Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia was sold at my local Acme, and it came out letter by letter, a volume once every couple of weeks,” he remembers. “My grandmother would buy them when she was shopping and bring them home for me to devour, so my true knowledge base extends up until whatever happened or existed that began with the letters Y or Z through 1988.”
He took both art and drum lessons from around the age of five through the middle of high school. “Eventually I was going to have to choose one of two unlikely paths to support myself, so I eased back on drums and concentrated more on art, which led me to be accepted into the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philly,” he recounts. “The school was great and, for an in-city resident who could live at home and take the bus, affordable.”
He worked during school as a contractor’s assistant and did door-to-door sales, flexible jobs that enabled him to promote his work and shop his portfolio around. He did a lot of self-promotion, copying his paintings by placing them directly on the machine at his local copy shop and making thousands of copies. Along the way, Krause sent some samples to Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and got his first assignment—illustrating missing stop signs.
“Not much has changed for me in the fifteen-plus years I’ve been working. I still have many of the clients that I started with out of school,” Krause relates. “I have noticed some magazines folding, and I miss working with the people I forged relationships with over the years. But I have also been lucky enough to work steadily with many new clients over the years. As far as the actual workload goes, it all seems to even out.
“One thing I really miss: the phone call,” he emphasizes. “I know e-mail is easy and fast, but I always found the back and forth of verbal communication when describing an assignment really helpful, plus you got to know the person you’re working with on a deeper level. And that’s coming from someone who still doesn’t own a cell phone, has never sent a text and doesn’t have accounts on most of the social media platforms!”
Over his career, he has been inspired by many great artists: Giorgio Morandi, Lucien Freud, Francesco Clemente, Gertrude Abercrombie, Jacob Lawrence, Edward Hopper, to name a few. “My illustration teacher at Tyler, Dave Noyes, is the reason I even have a career in this field,” Krause claims. “A great illustrator in his own right, he really taught me a lot, not just about the field, but how to navigate life in general.”
A former Sports Illustrated illustrator, Noyes says, “He was scary talented when I had him as a student. I found that when you’re a teacher and you get so many students, it’s really rare and exciting when you get one who really shows a gift. He had it all,” he adds. “I worried about helping him because I was in the field and he was going to be my competition! The better part of me came out, and I helped.”
Color is a major component in Krause’s work, creating mood and subtext in illustrations depicting difficult topics. He developed his color palette largely by studying painters he admired and reading color theory books, such as The Elements of Color, by Johannes Itten (a prominent member of the Weimar Bauhaus). “Early on, I did far more black-and-white work, but sadly, there isn’t that much call for it now. I try to use a very minimal palette of primary colors in warm and cool selections, but I’ll also sometimes add a pop of almost pure tube color, grayed down a bit by its complement,” he explains.
He works mostly in acrylic on paper or wood. “I would love to paint with oil more, but the need to slap it on a scanner shortly after necessitates a faster dry time in the paint I use,” Krause says.
What is his favorite type of assignment? “Assignments that have absolutely no history of symbolism or metaphor so the art director and I can create our own visual vocabulary,” he asserts. “I love assignments that absolutely could not be photographed. One of Noyes’s quotes was always, ‘If they can photograph it, they will, so I guess that’s why they are calling an illustrator in the first place.’”
Krause has developed a tried-and-true process for editorial illustration. After he receives all of the details for the job, he’s ready to sketch. “I do a lot of thumbnails that the client never sees, just drawing whatever comes to mind that is inspired by the text. I’ll try to focus on keywords and what imagery can be derived from them. I’ll also search for alternate meanings to those keywords to find a spark,” he says. “When I’ve got a working composition and ideas for pictures, I’ll refine the drawings on tracing paper and scan them. If I have three solid ideas, I’ll send three; if it’s fifteen, I’ll send fifteen. The visual possibilities are what drive the number of sketches, not the print size or the money,” he says.
“When an idea is approved, I’ll create a detailed prep drawing that pretty much will be the road map through the painting. Most of the thinking is worked out in the drawing so that the paint, with the general guidelines of the sketch, can do what it wants to do,” Krause explains. As for technique, he adds, “When I paint, I’ll use traditional fat over lean, thin glazing and scumbling, combined with more graphic techniques from printmaking—a lot of rollers, brayers, homemade rubber stamps, frisket and other textures pressed into the paint.”
With all that action happening on a daily basis, he describes his studio environment as pretty messy most of the time. “There’s a lot of paint flying between brushes, rollers and whatever else I use. I cut a lot of frisket as well, so, inevitably, pieces of that get stuck to my feet and dragged around the house,” he admits.
Krause has participated in the occasional fine art show, but he says he prefers illustration and its process to the fine art scene. “There’s tranquility in working by yourself and not having to explain your intentions. Everyone isn’t always going to get what you are trying to say in any given picture, and that’s OK. The goal is first to entice the viewer into reading whatever text I’m illustrating, and then hopefully they can take something away, finish the picture themselves. Essentially, I just want to start the viewer off,” he concludes, although Krause’s illustrations do far more. Beneath that calm surface, there are often disturbing truths. ca