Monday, May 12, 2014

Interview #18: John Hendrix

Our family loves the books and art of John Hendrix.  His work involves a fun use of lettering which the kids and I all love.  Isaac in particular has enjoyed drawing with pen and ink lately and has been looking closely at John's illustrations for inspiration.  And we enjoy the times John posts online the drawings he makes in church!  We were thrilled when John took some time to Skype with us to talk about his work, and we're happy to share that conversation with you now!  Thanks, John Hendrix!  (portrait by Gracie)

Dad:  Alright, we have all five of the picture books John Hendrix has illustrated here in front of us. 
Gracie (age 13):  His books are incredible.
Isaac (age 15):  I really like his style.  I really enjoy doing inking and watercolor.  I’ve been looking at his artwork and trying out his style. 
Dad:  Which of these books shall we review?
Lily (age 11):  Abe.  Abraham.  I like it the best.
Dad:  You like Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek?
Gracie:  That one is funny.
Lily:  It is a story from a long time ago.  It’s a real thing that happened.  Before Abraham Lincoln became all famous and stuff, when he was a kid he fell into a creek.  And his friend Austin pulled him out.  Because Austin did that, we had a president.  If he hadn’t, we would have a different history.
Isaac:  It’s about Abraham Lincoln crossing a creek.  And that’s it.  And you might think, well that’s not a very creative book.  But the story is cool because it accomplishes two things.  It’s telling a historical story.  But it also tells HOW to tell a historical story. 
Gracie:  I like that.
Isaac:  Like, sometimes you get to make up some of the details.
Gracie:  Yeah, an author doesn’t know every single thing about what happened.  But as long as the detail isn’t crucial to the story, you get to make that up.  When Abe falls into the creek the author says, “Austin pulls him out.  But we don’t know how.  He could have grabbed a branch… or a fishing pole… or pulled on his shirttail…”
Isaac:  “We don’t really know how, but we can just make that part up.”
Gracie:  And it’s cool because the author puts herself and the illustrator into the story as characters too. 
Lily:  John Hendrix showed himself as a character because he put his hand in the illustrations, drawing the illustrations.
Gracie:  He paints his own hand into the picture, painting the picture.
Dad:  What else do you like about his artwork?
Gracie:  His paintings are very detailed.
Lily:  The grass.  Every single piece of grass is drawn.  Every piece.  And even everything in the background is detailed.  Every single leaf on the trees.
Isaac:  And he’s very good at lettering. 
Gracie:  The lettering is pretty epic.
Isaac:  He intertwines the letters with his artwork.  They are put together, mixed together.
Gracie:  The lettering looks like a part of the picture.
Isaac:  There is a lot of variety in them.  Some letters are wavy, some are stiff, some are blocky.
Gracie:  They are all different fonts and colors. And they are all handmade letters.
Isaac:  He’s the master of lettering. 
Dad:  Great!  Any last words about his book?
Lily:  I HAVE WORDS!!!
Gracie:  HA ha ha hahh hah hah!
Isaac:  She’s been trying to get it out this whole time!
Gracie:  She’s been sitting in the corner, and she kept trying to say stuff, but either Isaac or I would talk.
Lily:  Ha ha ha!
Dad:  Give me your words, Lil.
Lily:  My words are:  I likey, likey.

And now for our interview with John Hendrix!

Lily:  Hello???
John Hendrix:  Hello!
Dad:  It’s nice to meet you!
John Hendrix:  It’s nice to meet you as well.
Dad:  Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.  We love your books! 
John Hendrix:  Thanks – that’s so nice.
Dad:  Who has a question for us?
Lily:  Why do you like putting lettering in the middle of your pictures?
Gracie:  It’s so cool.  Like, in the book "Rutherford B. Who Was He" your picture of George Washington has words behind him, words in front of him, a scroll going through his legs with words on it.
John Hendrix:  I love letters.  I love letterforms and typography.  I like drawing words that act like pictures.  Or putting them inside the same space so the characters almost encounter them like a new object.
Dad:  It’s almost like the lettering is another character itself.
John Hendrix:  Illustration, to me, is about words and images working together.  So if you put them into the same space, they do stuff that’s really fun and interesting.  Usually if you put words and images in a book together, people will read the words first.  It’s just the way we’re built as people when we read.  But I like putting words into pictures in such a way that you read them second.  Or third.  Changing the order or the hierarchy with which we view an image is very exciting to me.
Gracie:  When I try to do things with lettering, I have to keep drawing over and over again because it never looks right.  What is your process of making the letters and deciding how they look?
John Hendrix:  Yeah, drawing letters is just like drawing anything else.  They act no different than a teapot on a table – they have structure to them, and you have to practice drawing them just the same.  I would recommend getting a book that shows you a type sample – or a type specimen is what they are called – where it shows you every letter of the alphabet in that typeface.  Then just practice drawing them.  A lot of my letters look like the typeface called Clarendon because I practiced drawing it for years.  I went to school for both design and illustration, so I spent a lot of time looking at letters and tracing them and making my own letterforms.  Now it comes very naturally to me.  But only because I practiced so much.  Not because I had a special talent for letters.
Isaac:  Do you look at books now when you are trying to get inspiration for letters?  Is there something you go to?
John Hendrix:  With the Sarah Edmonds book, I looked at all the broadside posters from the Civil War to get type reference from those really chunky gothic letterforms.  Most every time I start by looking at type really closely and being inspired by what’s out there.  But I’ve also drawn enough type by now that I can invent my own, or I can go to type that I’ve used before. 
Isaac:  Since most of your books are historical, I was wondering what kind of process you go through with your research?  Is it hard?
John Hendrix:  Research and drawing are hard in different ways.  They are also fun in different ways.  The first part of research is when I do the writing -- like when I wrote about John Brown, I had to do a lot of reading about him before I could form my opinions. The next part of research is the REALLY fun part – the visual research – where I needed to find the uniforms and what the rifles looked like and what Harpers Ferry looked like.  Right now I’m writing about the Christmas Truce of WWI.  I make these huge notebooks… let me grab one.  So I make a book like this – here’s one of my character sheets where I can figure out what this soldier looks like.
Isaac:  Woah…  Cool…
John Hendrix:  And here are pages of uniforms and what the troops looked like in the trenches
Isaac:  Cool – very cool.
John Hendrix:  It’s a notebook that I use repeatedly throughout the course of the project.  It makes it a lot easier if I create something like that.
Lily:  Where do you find all those pictures?
John Hendrix:  I actually go to real libraries.  I don’t just search online.  The internet is a great resource of course.  But it's an advantage if you can find great books where the photos have not made it online yet.
Gracie:  So you said you think research is fun?
John Hendrix:  Oh yeah.  Research is really just learning about something.  Honestly, there is a nerdy part of me that loves getting all that detail through the research.  The other day I was drawing a second lieutenant’s uniform and I had to find out what their armbands looked like.  So I found this awesome thing on the internet which showed me all the different cuff sleeves for the different ranks.  My favorite part of making books is probably creating the images – the composing and the drawing.  But when you are drawing a guy, it's also fun to feel like, “Oh yeah, I got that totally right.”
Dad:  Is there a certain point during research where you call it quits though?  You could research every tiny detail, but at some point you have to move on to get the thing done…
John Hendrix:  Yeah, on some level the research is really there for me.  I don’t ever want the details to distract or to become a hindrance to the story.  The story is the most important thing.  People are reading the book for the larger narrative.  But I want to feel satisfied that I’ve done my best to recreate the scene.
Isaac:  Have you ever made a mistake?  Like, you drew something and later realized it was really wrong?
John Hendrix:  This is sort of related…  It’s not a research problem, but it was definitely an issue.   Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek was my first book.  After it came out I was doing a reading, and a kid there said that in one of the images a character had six toes.  And I could not believe it!  But sure enough, in one of the pictures Austin had too many toes.
Lily:  Oh my goodness - I want to see it!
John Hendrix:  Now I’ve ruined the book for you.
Dad:  It’s nice to know there are little toe-counters out in the world.
John Hendrix:  That’s why they have continuity editors that count things like the number of buttons on Austin’s shirt.  We had to go through and make sure I got it the same every time.  Because there are kids out there that will count the buttons.  And the toes.
Lily:  When you were a kid, did you draw the same kinds of things as you do now?  Or did you draw something different.
John Hendrix:  I have a sketchbook I take with me to meetings or bring along when I know I’m going to be listening to someone speak.  And the stuff I draw in my sketchbook for fun is very much like the stuff I drew when I was a kid.  Robots and knights and ray guns and explosions.  Fun, fun things -- I just enjoy the act of drawing them.

Gracie:  Okay, so we saw on your website that you draw a lot in church.
John Hendrix:  Uh-huh, Ha ha…
Gracie:  I draw
a ton in church too.  It helps me concentrate. 
But when I was in Sunday School, some of my teachers would get really annoyed because they thought I wasn’t paying attention.  Did anything like that ever happen to you?
Dad:  And really, she was just taking picture-notes of the lessons.
Gracie:  I was taking picture-notes!
John Hendrix:  And they didn’t believe you…
Gracie:  Nope.
John Hendrix:  This is a common problem I’ve had.  Actually a lot of people are visual learners or visual thinkers – I certainly am the same way.  If I’m in a lecture, I listen much better if my hand is active.
Gracie:  I know, me too!
John Hendrix:  Or it helps me remember things better if I make pictures out of what I’m listening to.  And that can come off to others as being distracted or bored.  But you just have to be okay with it.  You may just learn visually and need pictures to help you store and categorize information.  So that’s not a problem.  You just need to be polite about it and say, “Oh, no – I’m really paying attention.  In fact, here, look at this amazing drawing I have of the thing you were just saying.” 
Kids: ha ha ha…
John Hendrix:  But listen, it’s happened to me ever since I was a kid.  In math class I would be drawing just out of sheer survival to stay awake.  But drawing does not look like a very supportive activity during a math class.  Church, though, is a great place to draw.  There is so much raw visual material in the Bible.
Gracie:  Yeah, during our Family Devotions, we draw pictures of the lessons.
Lily:  We can show you our sketchbooks.
John Hendrix:  I’d love to see them.  (The kids start showing pages... You can see some too: here)
Dad:  We started this probably a year and half ago.  I got everybody sketchbooks for family devotion time.  And rather than taking notes, everyone tries to come up with a visual representation to help us remember the passage.  They are fun to keep – and it’s easy to flip back through them and quickly recall the lessons we’ve had.
John Hendrix:  Ha ha, those are awesome – that’s great!  I like doing that too.  I’ll flip back through my sketchbooks and remember things very vividly because there are pictures associated with them, things that I would have forgotten otherwise.  So yeah – that’s awesome.
Isaac:  Does your faith affect your work at all?
John Hendrix:  Sure.  I think if you have any belief system, and it doesn’t affect your work, that’s a problem.  If your beliefs are something you compartmentalize into one place, and they don’t affect anything else, they’re probably not that serious.  So my faith is something that I take with me wherever I go.  The biggest way it affects my work is in interpersonal interactions with people.  The way I behave when I talk with people.  How I present myself when I’m with people in a professional context.  Occasionally it will mean turning down projects that I don’t think are great or that I don’t want my name associated with.  And of course it also impacts the kinds of projects I do choose to work on.  Actually, I sold a book to Abrams which will be out in April 2016… which seems forever away… 
Dad:  Yep.  Slow -- that’s the publishing world...
John Hendrix:  Yeah, it’s good.  But anyway, this book I sold to Abrams is about the miracles of Jesus. 
Isaac:  That’s cool.
John Hendrix:  The book follows Jesus’ life around and we see Him through the things He did.  So even the projects I choose have something to do with faith.
Dad:  We’ll eagerly be waiting for that book too!  Well, I think that’s all the questions the kids had prepared.  Thanks for the conversation.  We like your work a lot!
Isaac:  Yes, Thank-you!
Gracie:  Thank-you!
John Hendrix:  Thanks so much guys! I hope to talk to you again. 
Dad:  Bye-bye.
Lily:  He’s nice.
Gracie:  I like that guy.

crossing the creek, by Isaac

ALACK! by Gracie

on the other side, by Lily

Illustrator: John Hendrix
Author of "Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek": Deborah Hopkinson
Published, 2008: Schwartz & Wade
Like it?  Here it is

You can flip through 7 of John Hendrix's "Drawing in Church" sketchbooks: HERE
You can see some of the Z-Kids' Family Devotions sketchbooks: HERE
You can see some of Z-Dad's Family Devotions sketchbook: HERE