The first comic I did was in seventh grade –The Six Million Dollar Turtle. I printed it on a Xerox machine and tried to sell it to my friends. That’s always the way my brain works, is that I just like to have something that was codified, even at that age. I just loved the idea of producing little books that you could go out and sell and have this library of things. I don’t really know where that came from, I think I was just interested in authorship. And it just happened that drawing was what I loved, so if I have ideas or stories, then drawing is going to be the vehicle to get those ideas out there. It never really occurred to me that maybe I should examine if that idea is any good.
I kept making this comic until my senior year of high school, so by then I had kind of figured out a way of drawing that very much was reflective of the comics that I was reading at the time, like The Tick and some Spider-Man that I really loved. So I was really trying to ape the inking styles of people in that era that I enjoyed.
What’s crazy is that I did not even take art classes in junior high. I think because at that point, they gave you a project and everyone did it basically the same way and it just drove me crazy. Finally when I got to high school and we started to care about the craft of drawing then I realized, I’m going to sit down and learn how to make shadows and replicate the world I see in charcoal, then that was interesting. It still wasn’t about ideas yet. The art was mostly about the forms of things.
The things that I did in high school that were the most satisfying to me were self-directed projects. I liked pleasing the teacher, but the stuff that was always really relevant to me was my personal work. I remember spending all night making a board game out of the book To Kill a Mockingbird, for a project. The teacher, to her own fault, said that you can write a report or you can propose to do some sort of project. I was into really complicated board games, so I wanted to make a board game where you can actually play the book, where you go into the Radley mansion and try to walk around, and Scout has to avoid running into Boo, and you have to get in and get out before the sun comes up. It was very complicated, but I spent all night drawing particular cards. I remember my dad coming in at 2:00 in the morning, like don’t you think that you’ve probably got enough cards? Don’t you think you’re probably good for this project? And I’m like dad, you don’t understand, this is not about the project, it’s about the game, and the game will not play unless you have this many options.
The real art education I got was this book from the comic store – it was How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way – and it was just a bunch of superheroes, but it was – you know, the hand was made up of these cylinders and cubes, so if you learn to draw these cubes in a certain way you could draw a hand. So the idea of that craft of drawing being connected to the content which I really liked – that was basically all I needed to go down the path.
The real art education I got was this book from the comic store – it was How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. The idea of that craft of drawing being connected to the content which I really liked – that was basically all I needed to go down the path.
When I applied for art school, my portfolio had the still lifes and the portraits. I met with a professor and I had one little thing in the back of my portfolio that was part of my comic book, and he flipped through the book and was like sure, great work, but the one in the back seems to be the one you’re more interested in. I think this is probably what you should be doing.
I studied visual communications in college. I was actually kind of bummed, because I wanted to study comics. The truth is that I had loved illustration my whole life, I just didn’t know that’s what it was called. I read picture books my whole life, and counted many of them as incredibly influential – the illustrations from the Narnia books or The Hobbit – I loved illustrated stories, it just never occurred to me that illustration was that vehicle. I finally met a teacher in college – his name was Barry Fitzgerald, and he was a capital-I Illustrator. He gave me a Society of Illustrators annual, and it was like, oh, this! These! These are my people! It all clarified. And I honestly never wanted to do comics after that.
The truth is that I had loved illustration my whole life, I just didn’t know that’s what it was called.
Once I left comics, I was so afraid of making stuff that felt like comics that I almost completely left all of my natural instincts for several years. I wanted to be Chris Van Allsburg, I wanted to make these rich mythological paintings with mystery and light and story and I kind of dropped all the work I had put into learning to make lines. I was just afraid of being seen as merely a cartoonist. And I wanted to have a bigger title than that, in a way, or to be seen in a bigger light. I stopped drawing in a sketchbook in undergrad partially because I had all these assignments, but partially because I thought I need to grow up and do paintings now. What’s crazy is it took until graduate school to really understand that I’m a draw-er, and the stuff I draw, which I had been doing forever and which always looked basically the same – that was the stuff. That was the key.
I get most of my ideas from the act of drawing. I can’t sit down and say, and now the ideas will start. What’s better is to just start drawing something, even if it’s almost completely random. Those things that you make, the physical process of putting marks, they’ll generate more ideas. Staring at a blank page doesn’t help anyone. This is so obvious that it almost escapes our notice, but when you are enjoying things that you’re drawing, your drawings get better. And so if you can just start with things you like drawing, and it’s as simple as making a list of things that you like to draw: trolls, and tea parties, and armor... If you start there, at the very minimum you’ll be like, well, I just enjoy drawing that, and at the best, you’ll come up with something more than that.
Art portfolios and programs in high schools have always been about fine art making, and it tends to prioritize things that have less content in them. I think there is a weird bias there, almost there’s a set of right answers students feel like they need to get. The book that I made, Drawing is Magic, it’s the book I wished I had when I was in high school. It says it’s about drawing but it’s actually disguised idea-making. Drawing is a portal for certain people to help explore ideas. That to me is the thing that’s really missing from high school art education, is the idea of design thinking.
John Hendrix loves to draw.
His work has appeared in numerous publications, such as Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, and Time Magazine. He has also drawn book jackets for the likes of Roaring Brook, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Greenwillow Books, Knopf, Penguin, Abrams Books and St. Martin’s Press. John’s drawings have won numerous awards, including the Society of Illustrator’s Silver Medal in 2006 and 2008, the 2009 3x3 Gold Medal in sequential illustration and the SILA Silver Best of Show Award. His images have appeared in the annual award publications American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Society for Publication Design, Communication Arts, AIGA 50 Books 50 Covers Show and Print’s Regional Design Annual.
His first picture book “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek,” was named and ALA Notable book of 2008 and won the Comstock Award for read aloud books. John’s book, “John Brown: His Fight for Freedom” the first he has both written and illustrated, won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal and was named one of the “Best Books of 2009” by Publisher’s Weekly. His 2012 book, “A Boy Called Dickens” was described as "touching and believable” by The New York Times.
Born in the gritty midwestern suburbs of St. Louis, John attended The University of Kansas to study graphic design and illustration. He graduated with a degree in Rock Chalk and Visual Communication in 1999. After working for a few years as a designer, John moved from Kansas to New York City. John attended The School of Visual Arts MFA “Illustration as Visual Essay” program and graduated in 2003 with some honors and some debt. During his time living and working in New York, John taught at Parsons School of Design and worked at The New York Times as Assistant Art Director of the Op-Ed page for several years. John lives in the St. Louis neighborhood of University City, with his beautiful bride Andrea, son Jack and daughter Annie.