John Holcroft Q&A

John Holcroft hails from England and developed a love of all things related to illustration after graduating with a graphic design degree. Adept at reinventing himself, he has changed his style and technique along with the technology advancements over the years. Today he draws inspiration from old advertisement and packaging from the 50s to achieve the effect you see in his imagery.

Read on in our interview with John to hear more about his work and what makes him tick. Check out his portfolio here.
John Holcroft Q&A, Love Trap Conceptual Illustration
Thanks for chatting with us, John, and letting us hear more about your work. So let’s start off with the one thing everyone want to know first. How do you start your day? A jolt of coffee? A soothing cup of tea? Or a mad dash to that can of soda?
I’m British; it has to be a mug of Yorkshire tea. It’s the only thing that really gets my cogs moving in the morning.
Speaking of starting your day, describe what your typical day looks like?
I live in Yorkshire with my wife and 2 daughters, so the day starts with trying to awake my daughters using either blackmail or bribery to get them downstairs. My wife has left early for her job as a teacher at a primary school, so the early morning mayhem usually continues until I run my girls to school. Once back home I grab the dog’s leash and take him for his walk by the lake our house overlooks. Finally the next 6 hours of serene tranquility is mine.

My schedule for the day is always dictated by any work I currently have. If I’m not busy with other assignments, most of my studio time is spent doing self-promo and admin. I work completely digitally and just need my Mac, so I have a small studio on the 3rd floor of my home where I spend my day.

In the afternoon, I pick up my daughters from school and the wheels of creation grind to a halt. If it’s my turn, I cook dinner and have it ready when my wife arrives home. This becomes the best part of the day, when all the family gets round the table and catches up. My daughters are sometimes even nice to each other. On occasion, I have deadlines to meet and I might go back up to the study to do some more work. The day is always rounded off with a crash on the couch in front of the telly for the final hour to wind down.

Do you have any humorous stories involving your work?
I did a job for an investment magazine 10 years ago. The concept was of a man next to a power point board with the words “Pensions”, “Investments”, “Shares”, “Savings” cascading down the board. It was later when the art editor phoned and pointed out what the leading letters prominently spelled out down the board. It was very unprofessional of me but I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. I quickly changed the configuration.
Did you ever have a commission that turned into a negative experience, and how did you handle it?
A couple of years ago I got contacted by a European book publisher. It was a very small, niche, publisher that specialized in self help children’s books. They had done books on children dealing with bereavement, bullying etc.

I was commissioned to illustrate a 42-page book about how children cope with depression of a parent. I got excited about the challenge, it wasn’t the kind of job I normally do but I went for it. I was well into the assignment before they understood that I use photos of models and photo references from Google, although I alter features and, well, just about everything so nobody is remotely recognizable. They said they wanted to find someone to illustrate the book who didn’t use photo reference. Perhaps they found someone who didn’t admit to using photo reference? Who knows – it was a disaster for me.

But honestly, often the most rewarding part of this job is all the terrific art directors and designers, from anywhere in the world that I get to work with.

Can you describe for our readers where you get your creative inspiration?
My hunt for creative inspiration never stops. I think over the years I have trained my brain to think of interesting concepts even when I’m not consciously aware of it. Much of my inspiration comes from other illustrators’ work I’ve seen in the past. I’m also inspired watching people in the street, TV, and listening to song lyrics and current affairs.
I really love the Theatre Poster project you worked on for Williamstown Theatre. Can you give us a little insight into how you approached that project and what methods you used to achieve the final result?
Lindgren & Smith was commissioned by a design company for one of their illustrators to work on four posters for the upcoming Williamstown Theatre Festival. The 4 plays were American Hero, Hapgood, Johnny Baseball and Bloodplay.

This project was one of the most enjoyable commissions I have ever done. I think American Hero was my personal favorite.The play was about a struggling sandwich shop where the workers’ jobs were in jeopardy. With me being English and knowing nothing about American culture, I knew I had some homework to do. I researched whatever I could about the play and even why it was called ‘American Hero’. I later learned that a hero was indeed a kind of sandwich.

When working the concept for the poster I got out my sketchpad and worked on many different ideas based on sandwiches, workers rights and redundancies. Among my many thumbnail roughs were sandwiches in the shape of coffins, bombs, hourglasses and dollar signs. I had the spike that is used to impale receipts on, but replaced the receipts with sandwiches.

All of these obviously weren’t working and I had to steer to job into a different direction. I decided to go for the workers’ rights angle. A fist punching the air was symbolic of workers’ rights, so I got to work. After going back and forth with visuals, I created the final idea that was to be used for the poster, a fist holding the sandwich up, punching the air as if to say “we shall not be moved”. It was important that I give the fist an identity, so it needed the hygiene glove. The main character in the play was a woman with fancy manicured nails, so they were factored in, too. The sandwich had to look a little distressed but tasty at the same time. The other 3 posters were done in much the same way.

John Holcroft Q&A, Williamstown Theatre Festival American Hero
What’s your preference? Traditional media or digital?
When I started out in 1996 I used to paint in acrylics on canvas board. As you can imagine this took ages to execute and I needed a couple of days to get the work to the publishers. At the time, I had to borrow someone else’s fax machine which was a nightmare.

In 2000 I started working digitally with a drawing tablet (which I still use to this day). My style keeps evolving, and happily enough my current style is proving to be the most successful.So to answer your question, for me, digital is the best. It’s quicker, more dynamic and easy to deliver. Making any needed revisions is usually a simple fix. Most people who view my work can’t believe it’s digital and want to know how I create the screen print effect. I just tell them “a little Photoshop wizardry”.

John Holcroft Q&A, Money Tractor
If you have an entire day of free time, what would we catch you doing?
If I had a full day I think I would just do what I felt like at the time. It might be taking a walk to the coffee shop and having cappuccino by the lake, or it might be watching a film.
Book or nook?
Both. I like reading books (although I haven’t had the time in recent years) but I have also embraced technology and sometimes use a Kindle. I prefer paper books on holiday but like the idea of storing hundred of books on a device the size of a single book.
Rock or Opera?
The only rock I will listen to are the Stones. I don’t get Opera.
In a parallel universe, what would you be doing instead of illustrating?
I’d probably be a chef or a musician even though I don’t play an instrument.
Proudest moment?
Taking the birth of my daughters out the equation, I would say graduating in 1992. I studied Graphic Design and I remember being very pleased with myself in my final exhibition. Nowadays I look back and cringe when I remember the stupid suit my mother talked me into wearing.
Anyone you would like to give a shout out to who has had an impact on where you are either personally or professionally?
I have always loved the work of David Cutter. I first saw his work on the Beautiful South album covers. He has inspired me immensely along with Ian Pollock, Gary Taxali, Rachel Goslin and Elley Walton, among many others.
John Holcroft Q&A, Matchbox Illustration
And lastly, what is the one single best piece of advice you can give for an up and coming illustrator or designer?
Students contacting me for advice ask this a lot. I would say to consider this path carefully. Most illustrators don’t make a living with commissions alone and may never. I used to stock supermarket shelves at night and do my art during the day. It is also a very fickle industry and no one is safe. You need to identify your market and keep updating your work all the time. There are no full time jobs in illustration so you don’t have security.

I went into this because I wasn’t very good at anything else, but if you can do something that will give you security, I would follow that path. You could always illustrate in your spare time. Designers are a different ballgame. You have the best of both worlds, either freelance or employment.

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