Bouncing between his brownstone-snuggled Brooklyn and surfside Sydney studios, illustrator James Gulliver Hancock, who’s put his pencil to work for the likes of Coca-Cola, PayPal, eBay and the New York Times, didn’t plan on undertaking the depiction of, give or take, 900,000 buildings. But obsessive is as obsessive does.
“It’s just a constant for me, I do it all the time. It’s just like eating, you know?” And he’s mastered the art of doing both, with many a napkin edge donning his doodles.
“It’s that idea of keeping a journal. I was always into that, in a visual way,” says James. Having journeyed and worked across the US, Europe and Asia, his journals tended to be of the travelling kind.
“I would always log little drawings of inanimate things I saw along the way, and that would evolve into these obsessive projects.” All the scooters in Rome, rain in London, bicycles in Berlin and snow in Montreal amassed, while ‘All the Buildings in New York’ proved quite the nifty ‘in’ with the locals.
“We [he and wife, singer/songwriter LENKA] started living there and I really didn’t want to feel like a tourist anymore. I wanted to make it more familiar, so I just started drawing buildings and kept them in a little book, and put them up on a little blog so it made me do it more often,” he shrugs. The press caught wind of this piling personal project (now over 1000 New York City structures strong) and “it just went bananas. The really nice part was the locals calling me up and wanting me to come to their house and draw their place.”
James pens a pretty picture, coloured with an ice-creamy, cotton-candy-conjuring pastel palette.
“Or for want of a better word, cute colours,” he remarks. I’m drawing actual things but they always tend to be a bit sloppy, and imbued with whimsy and cuteness. They’re not just straight up and down… all the lines are a bit wobbly,” and his fascination with flaws, from cracks to crooked quirks, fully manifests. Which is all well and good for a building.
“My wife has banned me from drawing her face because I love to concentrate on all the wrinkles,” he admits.
“That kind of level of obsession and paying attention to those little details is what I like.”
And he’s liked it for some time, with early memories of engrossing himself in the “cross-sections of a house, the people inside and little spiders between the houses” in a ploy to avoid shifting from the drawing and painting portion of his days at kindergarten. He followed his fingers through a visual communications degree, before signing with Jacky Winter.
“I wasn’t 100 per cent committed to doing illustration at that point, so I feel like [agency founder Jeremy Wortsman] was pretty fundamental in solidifying my career. Before I’d done animation, web design and all this other stuff that I now can’t stand.
“I’m so proud to be part of a community of other artists where you’re in love with their work and they love yours. It’s just all this mutual respect going round and round, it’s great,” he says, enthusing over the “amazing movie posters” of Webuyyourkids, Megan Hess with her flowing “fashion girls” (much like sister, Kerrie Hess, a Collective regular) and Beci Orpin.
With two-year-old son Quinn in tow, the Gulliver Hancock household chases summer from Sydney to the States, allowing James all manner of projects.
“Murals go on for a month or so, and books many more months, so you can sort of jump back and forth. I don’t ever have just one thing and work on that til it’s finished, it’s moving around, and that keeps it fresh.”
His advice to other illustrators? “You’ve just got to keep doing it. Do it every day, obsessively, but also obsessively show it to people.
“A lot of people who want to do illustration can be pretty shy. I know I was. You still want the praise, but you’re not like an actor where you want it coming right at your face. It’s that combination of being obsessive by yourself and doing your thing, but then also being obsessive in getting it out there.” Did he mention he was obsessed? “You’ve got to get out and do other things,” he assures, when asked if it’s ever a burden. “You can go a bit mad just drawing all the time, which I don’t aspire to, but romanticise a bit.” Just a tad, we’re sure…