Oliver Jeffers is an acclaimed artist and illustrator. He was born in Western Australia in 1977, brought up in Belfast and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. From figurative painting and installation to illustration and picture books, Oliver’s work takes many forms. His distinctive oil paintings have been exhibited in multiple cities, including the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Have you always drawn, can you tell us how about when you started?
Yes, I always have drawn and been interested in drawing, but I wasn’t always decent at it.
I suppose I’ve always been a visual thinker though, and found much pleasure in problem solving and story telling through image making. At the beginning my work was uptight and forced because I was trying to make it look like other people’s work who I admired. Something changed the day I just went with the way my hand was telling me I could draw. Suddenly I found my ‘voice’ so to speak, and it all developed from there.
Do you have any drawings from your childhood?
I recently just found out that my dad kept some of my drawings. I thought they’d all been thrown out. I’m in the midst of asking him to produce the evidence.
For your picture books – do the words or pictures come first?
They both mostly happen at the same time, though I definitely consider myself an artist rather than a writer. I know enough talented writers to know not to claim the title for myself. Rather I think of my self as an artist who uses words in their art, and I try to say that I make picture books, instead of writing and illustrating them as I believe it is truer to the process of how they are created. I begin with a concept, often a single idea, and start unfolding it by making notes and making drawings. One of the advantages I feel that I have over picture books that are written and illustrated by separate people is that instead of a finished manuscript existing before the story is visualized, I have the opportunity to have the illustrations inform the text.
Are any of your characters based on yourself?
They kind of all are based on different facets of myself to varying degrees. As fas as I see it, there has to be a little bit of honesty involved in the creation of characters for them to be successful, weather they’re created for murder mystery books, or for picture books. Nothing is more interesting than real life.
Describe your work environment.
I moved to a new studio about 2 years ago. It’s on the second floor of a building with other artists in it. I work with my wife Suzanne who deals with all the business, finance and managerial stuffs, and with Connie a friend we brought over from Ireland, who helps me more creatively with hands on image making stuff. I get the big desk though. I have an area for my painting where it’s a little more spacious and I can splash stuff around, a desk for my illustration making, a computer set-up, a thinking chair (where I end up napping) and a middle island that serves as spill over space for everything and we have meetings around it. Most of my furniture was found on the streets in and around the studio. Its amazing what people throw away.
What have you seen recently that you can recommend?
My brother just reminded me of an animation we watched as kids when the 1984 Olympics were on, called Animalympics. He found a copy and sent it to my for my birthday. Even after all these years it’s still fantastic.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m actually taking a few weeks off at the moment after a very crazy 8 months or so where I’ve recently just finished up several projects, including a few picture books, a few collaborations, and most ambitiously, a monograph of the last decade of my fine art work, called ‘Neither Here Nor There’, published by Gestalten, that comes out in September.
How do you balance commercial and personal work?
I now try to take on as little commercial work as possible so I can tackle self initiated projects more often – though the commercial work still helps pay the bills. Commercial work is offered to me now, rather than my finding and pitching for it, which is nice. I have a pretty immediate reaction to a commission offer. If I find it interesting and can visualize my approach right away, then I’ll take it on. If I don’t, I won’t.
Can you describe the difference to the way you approach illustration to painting?
They are pretty different practically, but not so different conceptually. Conceptually, both disciplines are born of ideas, questions, and stories that I feel compelled to visually execute – both because I feel obligated to share, and that I enjoy the process of making. I like how it feels – creating something that feels just right – whether that’s a tiny piece of a larger part or an entire whole. I feel like I have been given a voice and it wouldn’t be right to not use it. I also use both avenues as an attempt to satisfy my curiosity, to make sense of my world. So conceptually they are no different – I have an idea that I feel compelled to create into existence- whether its form comes in the shape of a question, or a story, or a single image, or many images, or even moving images, or a picture book or a painting, is neither here nor there – the idea is king. Practically speaking, it’s a matter of exploiting different mediums. Large scale oil paintings require a different approach and set of preparations than small watercolours or photoshop files do. These things merely require experimentation, practice and discipline.
Tell us about your view of digital versus print, in relation to your work now and in the future.
Well, I see this question two ways. Digital verses print in terms of a medium, and in terms of a platform. The first one is easy. As a medium, the computer is a handy tool, but it’s still a medium, just like oil paint, collage, a camera, and a pencil are. As a platform, I’m still figuring out how I feel about this. In general, I think digital publishing in the short term will replace disposable printing – things like cheap paperback novels, magazines and newspapers. Although there are undoubted advantages of seeing artwork displayed on a backlit screen versus the never ending list of compromises essential in colour printing, I don’t think the picture book will be replaced by an electronic device. People enjoy the physicality of books too much to dispose of them entirely. I think interesting things are happening in digital publishing, but that ultimately this platform will sit beside actual books, rather than replace them, in the same way that computer games sit alongside films. TV did not kill radio.
Do you have any advice for young illustrators?
Experiment and practice. Be disciplined and determined.
What/who are the main influences on your work?
I’m not even sure where to begin with this. Planet Earth is a pretty big influence on my work. If I start naming names, I’ll be here a while. My eyes are open and my brain is a sponge.