Digital Arts catches up with one of the UK’s most prolific and best-known character artists to talk squirrels and success.
Jon Burgerman is a man in demand. When Digital Arts interviewed him, he had just returned from creating a doodle for Blue Peter, which he coloured in on air with the presenters, receiving a coveted Blue Peter badge at the end of the show.
The following week, he was opening his latest solo exhibition in London, appropriately titled Because I Can’t Sit Still. The show marked the launch of his new book, Pens Are My Friends. Aside from exhibiting in Germany, Japan, the UK and the US this year alone, his characters have adorned everything from laptop cases to wallpaper. It’s exhausting just reading the list: we asked him how he does it.
DA: How did you first get into character design?
JB: I’ve always made little characters – they’re just part and parcel of the stuff I like drawing. As a kid, the first things you draw are yourself and your family and your friends – they’re the origins of all character designs, you’re just drawing what’s around you. It’s how we started doing cave paintings in the Stone Age, and it just went from there.
DA: When did you realize your career had taken off?
JB: When I got the Blue Peter badge! You never really feel like you’ve ‘made it’. When I did my first ever commission, which was an album cover, I was convinced that the next week I’d be inundated with phone calls and that would be the end of having to have a part-time job. That didn’t happen, so I did some more work, and I thought yeah, the phone’s going to ring, and then that never happened, and then the years slipped by and you get busier and busier and do more work, and you forget that hang up of whether you’ve made it. You have to keep working all the time. Maybe for some artists and designers they do one job and it’s mega, but for me it was a very slow build.
DA: Do your characters have their own stories?
JB: Some of them do, and some of them don’t. The thing is, when you draw them they’re not necessarily characters, they’re a drawing on a page. And then the more I use a character in a project or redraw it, then it gains a personality, it gains a history and becomes a character. Just because it’s a drawing of a creature and it has a face, doesn’t mean in my mind that it’s a character, it’s just a drawing.
DA: Do your characters reflect your emotional state?
JB: I guess so, in a little way. But just because I draw a sad character, that doesn’t mean I’m feeling sad. Maybe I’ve felt sadness in the past and I’m drawing upon that. If you view the body of work and all the characters in a certain way then maybe that’s a reflection of my personality, but on a day-to-day project level, maybe not.
DA: Are you a daydreamer?
JB: Yeah, I guess so. I’m easily distracted, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it means that I’m willing to do projects and push myself in terms of taking on more than I can handle.
DA: What distracts you?
JB: Oh, you know. Shiny things, looking at trees, squirrels. Squirrels are amazing. You can get distracted by stuff that feeds back into your work and development and research. Very rarely do I have to knuckle down and properly research something, but there’s always other stuff you could call a distraction – looking at other Web sites, going to galleries, cinemas, watching strange animations on YouTube – it’s all a distraction, but it’s also informing me. Sometimes you berate yourself for not doing some project that you don’t really want to be doing because you’ve been watching cartoons all day, but I’m in a really lucky position where it‘s handy to know what’s going on and what else is out there.
DA: Do you feel part of a character design community?
JB: Well, it’s strange – no one ever really talked about character design until Pictoplasma brought out a book on it, and then they had the conferences. Now it’s considered a separate discipline, alongside illustration and graphic design.
But I don’t feel like I’m in a sort of character design club by any means – you don’t have to be a ‘character designer’ to think about characters and design one. Also, just because a piece of art has a face in it, or a hand or a body, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s got a name and it’s a character. I do quite a lot of work like that, where it might have a face in it but it’s not character-based.
DA: So what makes a character, in your mind?
JB: It’s got to have some sort of reason to live, really. It doesn’t have to have eyes or a face to become a character, but it needs some sort of personality – it needs to have a reason for being. It could be human, but even the Pixar lamp is a character of sorts.
DA: Do you ever feel pigeonholed?
JB: Not really, because my output’s quite varied. Also, you can apply characters to so much stuff. If I was only designing characters for comic strips I’d get a bit tired of that, but I do characters, and my work has appeared on T-shirts, wallpaper, toys, books, mugs and stuff. If anything, [character design] opens more doors. If I were a graphic artist or anyone who didn’t do characters, then I wouldn’t get asked to do a lot of the more commercial things and animations.
DA: How do your commercial collaborations happen?
JB: I don’t try and invite people to work with me, I don’t covet it. Generally people email me through my Web site or give me a call. Generally work breeds work: people see my stuff already out there and then they’ll get in touch.
DA: How much of your time does the business side of being Jon Burgerman take up?
JB: I’d say there’s more time spent on that than on the drawing. If I didn’t work as quickly as I work, I’d be in real, serious trouble, because there just aren’t enough hours. But that’s the thing: if you want to work with various companies or people then you have to go and meet them from time to time.
If you want to do a deal with someone you have to break down every little bit of what they’re asking you to do and make sure the contracts are there and make sure you’re not giving away something without realizing it. That’s all part of working with new people and doing new things.
DA: Do you feel visible in the design community?
JB: When I go down to London and meet people, I meet people who I read about and see online and then I feel part of the scene. But when I come home [to Nottingham] I’m anonymous.
DA: Are you influenced much by design trends?
JB: I don’t feel part of that at all, although my work has changed over the years. But it’s not like I go, oh right, paper craft is really in, I’ll get into that. I guess it has an influence, and hopefully my work will evolve, but there’s no point in chasing things.
DA: What’s your favourite piece of your own work?
JB: I don’t have a favourite piece – I’m not really a ‘pat on the back’ kind of guy. I’ll sometimes look back at something that’s a few years old and think, maybe that wasn’t as terrible as I thought. I’m pleased with the book and the toys, which have come out as I imagined them, but like most artists, I look at other people’s work and wish my work was like theirs.
You’ve got to have a little bit of confidence in your work, but I never finish thinking, ‘I’ve done pretty good there’. I think it’s probably unhealthy to be too pleased with yourself.
DA: Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
JB: In general, work hard and be lucky – you have to have a degree of luck, because it’s not always the most talented people who succeed. Technical proficiency isn’t enough: you have to be good at communicating with people, be organized, and you have to be hardworking.
You have to be focused and yet be distracted at the same time, and you have to have a bit of an entrepreneurial slant about you – you’ve got to be able to create your own opportunities, because you have to go out sometimes and make things happen yourself. And don’t copy things that are popular now, because by the time you’re successful with it, the style will have moved on and you’ll be peddling something that’s old.
If you’re inspired by something then that’s good, but you’ve got to take it another way. Too many students send me their work and you can see the four people they really like. It’s already too late to do work like that, because those four people already exist.
The Heroes of Burgertown figurines are the result of a collaboration with Kid Robot. Standing three inches tall, each character has a name and some key traits. Jon Burgerman says: “Heroes of Burgertown was trying to simplify this abstract world where my characters live. Both the sketches and in the illustrated colourful characters exist in some sort of strange world, where sketches and toys and stickers and paintings are all intermingled – a bit like the Toon World in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
Pens Are My Friends, is Jon Burgerman’s new monograph. Despite his relatively high profile in the design community, he says he doesn’t feel famous: “I live in Nottingham, so in my day-to-day life I’m pretty anonymous, there aren’t that many other illustrators that I know of in Nottingham. So it’s strange when you get emails from all around the world saying, ‘we like your work and we want you to work with us’.”
Burgerman’s projects have included a laptop case, T-shirts, and iPhone cases (above) as well as limited-edition prints and even a tattoo design (below), all in his distinctive style. He says that keeping his own style is essential to him: “I couldn’t just follow trends because I wouldn’t enjoy the process. The way I draw suits what I do. I couldn’t forcibly change that.”