Thursday, March 7, 2013

Artists Who're Better'n Me #1: John Hendrix

-By Adam Rex




Look at that. Don't you wish your sketchbook looked like that? Those are drawings John Hendrix did in church.

John is an editorial illustrator, but he also writes and illustrates some stunning picture books, which is how I heard about him. Recently I asked him some questions about his work:

Adam Rex: I love your "Drawings in Church" series–these lush, gorgeous sketchbooks of drawings done during Sunday services. They make me want to join the clergy–because they give me the rare feeling that I should be a more spiritual person, but mostly because your skills make me want to give up on the whole illustration thing.

And it's my understanding that you're not drawing in church to escape from the sermon, right?

John Hendrix: Yes, I am actually a real believer and take my faith seriously... the drawing just helps me think and enjoy what is being said during the sermon. I get distracted if I'm not drawing. But, as you may know, there be some crazy shit in the Bible, and how can you not draw some of it!? No, really, my pastor is a big fan of my drawings. Putting together a book of them now.

AR: Do you find you have to explain yourself to the other parishioners, or do they get it?

JH: Oh, it's really not a weird thing if you know my church. It's a Presbyterian church, but its full of artists and writers and aging hippies and basically a bunch of other under-employed non-elites. It's a good place. Sometimes the real problem is people sitting behind me intentionally to get a look at what I'm doing. One guy even suggested that they make a broadcast to stream it online or on a screen in front of the church during the sermon. That will not happen.


AR: When you're working on a job, do you thumbnail and shoot photos? I ask because I assume you don't employ either when you make your church drawings, and those seem to always have confident compositions and figures.

JH: It depends on what I'm working on- but for my books, I've shot reference in the past. Especially for one that involves complex figure positions, foreshortened, etc. But I'd say most of my work is done from sourced reference and my head. Sometimes reference can actually hurt me, I've found. I'm a much better editor when I don't have ALL the information to start with. Thanks, though! I'm glad the sketchbook stuff seems confident- as much of it is from the hip and I usually mess something up, then I stop caring about it, then it gets good.

AR: Oh, that's interesting–do you mean that making some drawing error loosens you up for experimentation?

JH: Yeah, I'm always so tight when I start out, fear of making a bad line somewhere. Then I do, I feel like I've killed the page, then I relax.

Reminds me of figure drawing in art school, when you've got this bad-ass hand drawn on the page and you're like "Don't fuck up the arm! Don't fuck up the arm!"


AR: So what about your love story with typography? How did you guys meet, was it love at first sight, etc.

JH: I met type when I was in college. I actually studied two degree tracks, in both design and illustration. But, I realize now what I loved about design was using type-as-image. That is, using broad gestures in graphic two dimensional forms, that just happened to involve type as its subject. I was assigned to do a project on Bradbury Thompson, the mid-century designer- and he changed my work forever. My sense of composition and edge-relationships come not from illustration but from design thinking. My use of type as graphic objects that interact with images and forms come right from Thompson.

From Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero

All of my type projects are really illustrations, just replacing drawn forms with large graphic type. So, it really is now totally natural for me to think equally about images and type in the same way. I often get questions from folks about my process for type design and if I do that before or after I draw an image... but of course, it happens all at once. I don't consider it different activities. In fact, I think that design and illustration are closer now to each other than they have ever been before. You can see examples of Design-strators out there everywhere.

From A Boy Called Dickens

But, of course, you have a love of type too. I was reading my son Frankenstein makes a Sandwich last night (his pick) - and we were laughing together at it and didn't remember how much hand type you did for it since I last read it. Such a great book. At night, when I say my prayers, I ask that somehow that time-turns back and I write that book instead. A genius idea perfectly executed.


AR: I have a shortlist of books I'm going to steal via time travel, too–I'm flattered to be on yours.

Well, I can't end a post about how great you are with a comment about how great you think I am, so: What's in the hopper right now? And I love your occasional comic, Adventures of the Holy Ghost. Any chance we'll ever see a long-form comic from you?


JH: Well, the direction my work has turned in the last few years is towards authoring content. I've done just about everything there is to do in the editorial/advertising field of illustration. And, to be sure, I still love doing editorial assignments for great publications, and it does involve a kind of authorship (see this post point 2 - ) but I've longed to make things that are more mine than others peoples. Glad you enjoy the ghost comic! It totally surprised me. I was drawing in church and did a short comic, and it was so fun. I just couldn't stop doing them! It had been ages since I had drawn a regular comic and I think I just missed what the a short visual sequence like comics can do. I have no aspirations for it, other than to remind me that I love drawing and laughing at my own drawings sometimes

What is funny about drawing comics is that in high school, all I ever did was draw comics and my dream was to be a comic book artist... like this spread from high-school below.


I was a huge fan of the Tick and SCUD: The Disposable Assassin - so my comics were very 'witty' and self-referential. But, I drifted from comics when I discovered illustration- and have no regrets at all. I'm so slow with pen and ink, I'm not sure how I'd make a living in comics. But, I've often wanted to do a totally fantastical story graphic novel- I've got this story of a kid who finds a mailbox on this weird/ornate tombstone and starts getting letters from dead people. It takes such time to develop ideas like this, as you know- and I'm knee deep in my next picture books.

Next up for me, I've got a kids book that I illustrated, written by Marilyn Singer (with Rotem at Hyperion) that is funny, silly poems about all the US Presidents. It helps kids remember one thing about the presidents, it is called "Rutherford B., Who Was He?" So, just finished that- it will be released this fall. I've just started on the sketches for my next author/illustrator book- one I've written about the Christmas Truce of WWI. Outside of that, I'm trying to pitch some ideas for books that are outside of non-fiction. Some silly ones and more adventurous ideas...I've got a binder of 8 fully formed storybook ideas I've shopped around for the last year, still working on getting someone to pull the trigger on them. I think it is hard for the book world to see you as doing anything different than what you're known for.

I think you should be known for your colossal skeletons.
Also, I'm putting together a small edition published book of my sketchbooks- hope to have it out in December. Working on the funding of that now... but it will either be a grant or a, gasp, kickstarter campaign. I've been close to finding a traditional publisher to do these, but they balk at the religious content. So, I'm just going to do it on my own for now, and I can make it exactly what I'd like it to be.




John lives and teaches in St. Louis, and has worked for too many clients to bother mentioning. In 2012 he was elected President of ICON 7, and he chaired the Society of Illustrators 55th Annual Show. His website is: www.johnhendrix.com.

Alternate Titles for This Post:
The John Hendrix Experience
‘Scuse Me, While I Kiss This Guy

19 comments:

  1. Great work... but may I respectfully suggest that he read through the book of James, or review the Perils of Profanity before the next interview...

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    1. I think there's something in there about not judging, too.

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  2. Really love his work. Thanks Adam. Maybe we can have a God debate here.

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    Replies
    1. Bill Trouble Carman. yup that about sums it up. :) haha

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  3. Wonderful interview Adam! I have been obsessed with sketchbooks lately and his are ones to aspire to! I wish I had a tenth of the typography skills you guys have...

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  4. Great! I love Rex work and yes, Hendrix is a masterpiece at himself... But Adam is not fo far from him. Conceptually and in the making both are amazing.

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  5. It's a rare gift/talent/mistake/skill/whatever you choose to call it, when the drawings you do when relaxing are nearly indistinguishable from your professional work. Great work and great interview.

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  6. Hendrix's comment about getting distracted if he isn't drawing is true of me as well. I used to spend lecture time in college just drawing things rather than taking notes and you know what? I retained a lot more information that way. Professors always thought those of us who were doodling weren't paying attention and would make us stop if they caught us. I never learned much on those days...

    Nowadays, I love to listen to the Unbelievable? podcast, but the only way I can maintain attention is by doing some kind of artwork while I listen. Not that it's boring or anything. It's just my mind wanders so easily if I don't have something else to focus on at the same time. ...If that makes any sense at all.

    Anyone I try to explain this to doesn't seem to understand, however. Eh.

    Anyway, I love Hendrix's work. Illustration and typography together make for really interesting pieces and he does it so well. Every one of his church drawings are fantastic. By comparison, my lecture drawings look like the scribbles of a three-year old picking up crayons for the first time.

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    1. I bet Manchess knows something about how this works. Maybe you're getting your imaginative brain to focus on something non-linguistic, so that your analytical side can focus on the lecture? Like the way a spoken mantra can free you to concentrate on the visual and spiritual? Ionno.

      Anyway, John just posted a new Holy Ghost comic!

      http://adventuresoftheholyghost.tumblr.com/

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    2. You know the Holy Ghost is invisible so how can you even see it in his comic Adam?

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