Artist, Writers, Thinkers

"I got to draw all day, and it made me happy, so I did it for the rest of my life."
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Jun 10, 2014 | By Austin Bryant

James Gulliver Hancock’s illustrations are in a league of their own. His loose, messy style often merges with the exacting, patient lines of a technical artist. What’s certain is his appreciation for the quirky. Each drawing seems to have its own, unique personality, which is a pretty straightforward way of describing Hancock himself.

In New York City by way of his hometown Sydney, Australia, Hancock is a prolific artist. He’s well known for his standalone project and resulting book All the Buildings in New York, which is the result of his ambitious goal of drawing every single piece of architecture in New York City. Similar in ambition, Hancock had another book released recently, Artists, Writers, Dreamers, Thinkers. In this most recent collection, Hancock dedicates a page to a single figure in history, filling in the space around them with an array of notable facts. I spoke to him about the beginning of his passion for drawing, and what inspires him in his adopted home of New York.

What's your first memory of drawing? 

My very first memory was in pre-school, when we had three activities we were doing that day, puzzles, taking a nap, or drawing. I remember not wanting to do the other activities so much, [and] that I devised the most complicated drawing I could think of at the time so I wouldn’t have to puzzle or sleep. I’ve pretty much been exploiting that the whole of my life! Basically I remember drawing my whole community, with all the houses and all the people in them, then all the grass and the spiders between the houses. I got to draw all day, and it made me happy, so I did it for the rest of my life. I think that obsession has stuck and I continue to draw obsessively all the time. 

When did it officially become your passion, or when did you know that this could be your life's work as opposed to a hobby?

I’ve always drawn, and exploited that creativity in different contexts throughout my life, but it wasn’t until the last 10 years or so that I realised I could be a full time illustrator working for myself for clients around the world. I’d worked for a few creative design studios and really learnt a lot, but ultimately struggled with being on someone else’s watch. I’m lucky to enjoy the business side as much as the actual illustrating side so I work well running my own business. 

Tell us about your overland trip from Sydney to London. How did you decide to embark on that and what kind of planning did it take?

Well I was working at one of the design studios I mentioned before, and needed a reason to get out. I’ve always loved travelling. Maybe that comes from being 1/2 English and visiting relatives as a kid, knowing I had this other side to my heritage. Whatever it was though, I basically always thought what was under us on the flight from Australia to the UK, so one day at work I drew this route across the world and wondered if I could do it overland rather than on a plane. Basically 6 months later I’d quit my job, got on a train at central station in Sydney, Australia and worked my way via, trains, busses, boats and whatever else through Asia, Russia and Europe to the UK. Ironically, when I got there, I wanted to come home, so I flew back pretty soon after!

You have a new book out, Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers. What gave you the idea for this project?

When I first started living in New York I was amazed by the amount of people and personalities I was surrounded with. So I started making these little make believe maps of the people I saw, inventing what they did, what they ate, their favourite food. It was kind of an attempt to make all these people recognisable and friendly. From these original drawings I talked with Chronicle about working this idea up into a book in a similar style using more recognisable people into a fun book of facts. I love this way of representing a complex thing like a person’s life or possessions in a visual way. 

You're also well known for All the Buildings in New York. Does the pursuit of capturing varied architecture come from your high school discovery of technical drawing?

Yes, my drawing style has this combination of an interest in the technical but also the messy, so I’ll be drawing a piece of architecture with all it’s straight lines etc., but with a wonky obviously hand drawn character. I think it gives them personality. All the Buildings In New York started again in New York, when I decided to use drawing as a way to understand the city. I do this a lot; it really calms my existential angst to represent my surroundings to myself by drawing them. New York can be a very overwhelming place, but also strangely familiar from films and pop culture, so by sitting and drawing things I spent more time with them and ultimately, building by building, made the place more my own. 

Splitting your time between Sydney and New York, are there different benefits to creating your artwork in each city?

I love both places! You can never deny the connection to your homeland so Sydney has a very strong place in my heart, but you can’t beat New York for the intensity and passion of the work and culture. It’s funny, when I’m in New York my work is very human focused, that is, things made by humans, but when I’m in Sydney it’s not long until I’m drawing flowers and leaves. 

Be sure to check out Hancock’s website or All the Buildings in New York for links to other drawings and his book projects.

Images ©: James Gulliver Hancock