Q&A: James Gulliver Hancock

Man wearing glasses.
James Gulliver Hancock. Courtesy James Gulliver Hancock.
James Gulliver Hancock discusses his love of drawing and a lifelong fascination with how cities work.

When and why did you first start drawing?

I was always fascinated with explaining things with drawings. I started drawing when I was very little. I’ve got videos of me doing drawings with my brother and sister when we were two, three, four years old, making funny posters and stuff together. Drawing allows me to concentrate on the world around me, and the satisfaction of creating something in a small space by yourself in a small amount of time has always been addictive. So I just kept doing it, over and over again.

What do you love most about illustrating for kids?

I love showing kids how mundane things can look different when you draw them. But kids are always so much better than me at representing what they see … stuff that’s really out of scale and playful. I’m always aspiring to that. I hope I can keep putting that playfulness into my drawings and maintain that freshness.

Why do you find cities and buildings so fascinating?

I grew up in the inner city [in Sydney], exploring derelict factories and finding the edges of waterways, tunnels and pipes. I’ve always been drawn to [the city’s] energy, I suppose. Aesthetically, I really like looking out the window at the layers of buildings. I like that density … it’s like a collage of different things mashed together. By drawing, I get to experience these places in more detail than if you were just walking around taking photos.

Do you have a favourite building in Sydney?

For me, the thing that I’m drawing at the time is the most appealing and fascinating. In New York, I was obsessed with drawing brownstones [row houses in a distinctive dark shade of sandstone], and then in Sydney, maybe a terrace, with all the little details in the handrails and ironwork. Once you start delving into the icons of a place you pick them to bits and you’re obsessed with that for a while. You’re able to get over the clichés by having that drawing focus.

Did you ever think about becoming an architect or an engineer, instead of an illustrator?

If a builder had to use my drawings, there would be a pretty hilarious end product. Everything would be wonky … the safety standards on my drawings are pretty dodgy. I’m not an engineer and I’m not a visual artist, so I found illustration, which is something in between. I don’t want to know everything about how things work. I want to know enough to be able to communicate it visually, play with it, and create drawings that are maybe a little more fanciful than reality. My job is to take something and make it fun for other people.

Is How Cities Work just for kids, or does it also appeal to the young at heart?

I’ve always wanted to make stuff that’s approachable, engaging kids and the general public.

The How Cities Work book is for ages five to 500. Whatever age you happen to be, there’s something interesting in it. I’ve got a surveyor engineer friend and he loves reading it. He sent me a photo the other day of him reading it even after his kids had gone to bed. I love projects where there’s something for everyone.

What’s your favourite part of the How Cities Work exhibition?

The whole exhibition is a dream project. I feel like I’m at uni; this is the sort of stuff we used to fantasise about. But the Busy City interactive wall [an animated display that responds to touch] is one of my favourites. There’s a bit of magic to it, so I’m nervously excited. It’s great to see the book come to life physically, but seeing your drawings move is pretty awesome. It’s a bit game-like, so I think visitors will be fascinated to play with it.

About the Author

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