Illustrators at work – interview with John Holcroft

October 21st, 2013

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with illustrators, it is my pleasure to welcome the talented John Holcroft. Over the last 15 years John has worked with clients such as BBC, Reader’s Digest, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist,  Conde Nast and many others, capturing ideas and stories with a vigorous, vibrant and expressive visual style. Today I am thrilled to have an opportunity to ask him a few questions about the art and craft of illustration in the digital era.

Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the field.

John: I left college at a time when the UK economy was in recession. I could only get temporary jobs doing anything I could. At the time of my graduation the technology in the design industry was going through lots of change.

As time went by my portfolio of hand rendered type and graphics seemed more and more obsolete and I started to worry about what my future would hold. Illustration was my one strong point and it seemed only natural to pursue this as a career seeing as I didn’t need any kind on technology. At the time I was painting in acrylic on board and it was time consuming and restrictive but it was a start.

Kirill: In your bio blurb over at Behance you say that you’ve reinvented your style about 5 or 6 times. Is this part of finding and refining your own voice, and pushing yourself to explore new directions?

John: Nothing stays still in this constant changing industry. It is fickle and one minute you can be hot next you are yesterdays news. As an illustrator you learn this the hard way which is why any artist worth their salt will adapt and evolve their style to suit the market. I changed my style from time to time either because it wasn’t right, it had run it’s course or because it was too bloody awful and didn’t work. They say an illustrator is only as good as their last job. In my case jobs were so far and few between, no one would remember me anyway. So in answer to your question it did encourage me to explore new avenues with different mediums.

Kirill: On a related note, what has shaped and influenced you over the years?

John: At first my work was more pictorial and figurative like it it now. This I suppose was influenced by Edward Hopper and David Cutter. I later tried to experiment with colour and technique and my style became very off the wall.

I loved the work on Ian Pollock, David Hughs and Rachel Gosling. This inspired me to reinvent my style to become something that in hindsight wasn’t really me. I had work for a while but I could never have really competed with what was already around. After yet another failed attempt at a style change, I threw in the proverbial towel. It was around 2008 that I admitted defeat and looked for work. This was short lived because not long after I had to have an operation on my back and I was out of action for months. It was this incapacity that gave me the change to develop my current winning style.

Kirill: How do you approach the process of creating an editorial illustration? Do you work off of an article pitch, or are you brought in after the article has been fully fleshed out?

John: It depends on the client. Most of the time I just get the copy to read and sometimes the art editor might make some suggestions. If I’m lucky I might have a very ingenious art editor who has already come up with the concepts and I just use that as a starting point. I do prefer to work on the creative process alone unless I know the art editor and have worked with them before. Occasionally my ideas are mutilated by clients and the’ve added pointless and daft elements to the image just to satisfy the editor.

Kirill: As you are expected to distill the idea behind the article – or the main area of the specific issue – into a single cover illustration, do you prefer tackling it from the solitude of your office, or do brainstorming with your art director or other client contact people?

John: Both, depends on the art editor.

Kirill: In the last few years the publishing industry is pushing their content onto a variety of digital mobile platforms. As people now browse and consume content on a variety of smaller screens, do you find yourself scaling down the complexity of your illustrations so that the finer details don’t get lost?

John: Not at all. My work is kept simple anyway and I don’t like to add too smaller detail.

Kirill: You’ve been doing digital illustrations since 2001. Do you still start with pen-and-paper doing quick sketches and then moving to the digital tools? Are you satisfied with the current crop of software and hardware tools? If not, what could use some improvement?

John: I do everything on my wacom tablet. I still use a sketch pad occasionally though. For years I have used Corel Painter do do my work until I bought version 12 which I had problems with. It kept crashing constantly and I would lose work. I just use Photoshop now.

Kirill: And on a related note, there’s so much being created, distributed and consumed in the digital domain. Is there anything being lost when neither the creator nor the consumer interact with the physical print media?

John: Print is still very much alive. Not including books and all aspects of design ( packaging, ads, corporate) Magazines have always been a springboard for many rookie illustrators. All my clients produce both print and digital media and if it were not for the print we would pay more for the online media.

Kirill: Once the illustration is out of your hands and becomes part of a published product, do you ever wish to go back and tweak it? Has it ever happened that you had what seemed to be an even better idea after the process has been completed?

John: All the time. Just got to make sure it’s right by double checking. The beauty of digital artwork is that you can tweak it. Sometime the client has requested tweaks which is no problem. Once I was doing a piece for Employer’s Benefit magazine. On my illustration was a man next to a powerpoint presentation whiteboard. On it were the words ‘Pensions’, ‘Investments’, ‘Savings’ and ‘Shares’ reading down the page. The client got back to me and asked me to configure it differently because the lead letters spelled PISS.

Kirill: What’s the weirdest client feedback that you’ve received so far, if you don’t mind sharing?

John: Most clients are great. Just like anyone else. Sometime you come across a prima donna. I was doing my usual ringing up for appointments that I used to do every couple of years. Sometimes you don’t get through to the people you need to straight away, either because they’re out or away or not at their desk. There was one particular client I really wanted an appointment with, if I was going to London for a week I wanted to make sure it was fruitful. After ringing this client 4 times, I rang again and asked the receptionist to be put through. I was told to hang on and after a minute the receptionist came back on and told me the art editor in question has asked me never to put you through to her and can you not call again. A simple ‘no’ would have been sufficient.

Kirill: What do you think looking back at your own work from a few years ago?

John: Some of it I like, some I want to die of embarrassment.

Kirill: How important is it to invest time in personal projects?

John: Very important. I still do. It’s the only way I can be sure to have the work I really want. Commissioned work is good, but it’s specific to that job and probably wont appeal to a wider audience.

Kirill: What do you do when you run out of ideas and get stuck?

John: Go away and do something else then come back later. I do try to research any topic I’m working on and sometimes just watching TV can trigger ideas.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

John: Freedom. I can manage my time more flexibly which is crucial having children. I have to be careful not to over expose my work and become a ‘has been’ too early. I love what I do and all I ever want to do is earn a living.

In the past it has been hard when work dries up as many illustrator out there know too well and if work is trickling in I’m happy.

And here I’d like to thank John Holcroft for this great opportunity to get a small glimpse into his world. You can see more of his work over at his Behance portfolio, and selected prints are available for sale at Society6.