Interview: Jon Burgerman tells us how to train your creative brain

Artist Jon Burgerman lets us in on the secrets to creativity, which include ditching your routine, turning off your computer and wearing colourful socks.

We caught up with Jon right after his brilliantly funny and inspiring talk at the Reasons to be Creative event in Brighton to find out how he manages to create so much art and so many characters, how he stays inspired and how to train your creative brain.

AA: Your portfolio of work is huge! Do you have to draw all day in order to create so much art?

JB: "I work very quickly so when I do work I make a lot in short space of time. But some days I don't do any drawing because I don't get the chance.

"The problem with travel and emailing and meetings and everything is that a lot of my day is organising and prepping and researching and other stuff. So I'm not always sat with a pen in my hand unfortunately. But I still manage to crank it out.

"The good thing about drawing is you can do it anywhere. So, if I'm on a train and I've got an idea or I just feel like I want to do a drawing – because drawing, you just feel like you to draw – then you can do it. So I do work on aeroplanes and trains. Anywhere."

Jon's illustration of the Brighton Pavillion. Via Instagram.

AA: You're making so much art, some of it just for fun, but would you advise artists to always be thinking about how their work can be used commercially?

JB: "Yes and no. Draw a lot, see what happens.

"Think of it like an instrument: not every song on the piano that you practice has to be the best song. You're not always worried about people hearing it, but it's about making it, learning what you're good at and what you want to improve on trying out your ideas.

"That's what happens when you draw. When you're drawing you're thinking, you're honing your dexterity of holding the pen, all these kind of things. Lots of things are going on all at once in your head, in your mind, in your hand. So this is good to try to hone and experiment.

"But whether it's about money or not… Is it good to be concerned about money all the time? Work when you've got work and do the work when you've got commissions and things and then, when you haven't, make what you want to make, what you wish you were getting paid for and treat it with the same energy and respect that you would for your commercial stuff."

AA: During your talk at Reasons to be Creative, you mentioned that you like to put yourself in situations that make you feel less like yourself. How do you do that?

JB: "I had a slide in my talk that said: "I don't want to be me, I want to be me."

"I thought it was a bit of a weird thing to say so I lost confidence and took it out. But now I'm telling you…

"So I'm not saying I want to be someone else – I want to be you, I want to be him, I want to be David Beckham or Gareth Bale or someone else – but I want to be a better version of me. I want to change how I am a little but I don't want to be anyone else. But I want to be able to do stuff that I can't already do or be better at stuff I can already do.

"I guess you can change your environment, move to a new place or go and work in a new studio, or go and sit somewhere different to work.

"Dress smartly for work, dress not smartly for work. You know, shake up your routine. Routine is the killer, I think, because of what happens when you slip into a routine. Some routines are useful but generally, creatively you get lazy and you're not really making challenging decisions anymore you're just going: "I know what to do."

"Your brain wants to do that, your brain enjoys familiarity so you have to sort of push yourself. That's why it's very good going on holiday because you're like: 'I'm in a new place. Where are we going to go today? What are we going to eat? That smells great. This food's great. That's horrible. Look at that building.'

"You're alert to so many new things around you. Your brain is fizzing and buzzing and it's exciting, even if the place isn't very nice it's a new experience. So we have to try and inject that into our day-to-day lives I think.

"Even wearing stupid socks could be helpful."

AA: Is that part of why you decided to move to New York?

JB: "The reason I could move is that I could live anywhere. I draw and I travel and drawings you can send anywhere and you can kind of travel anywhere so it's not really that relevant where I live. So I thought it would be interesting in my life to live somewhere else.

"When you go on holiday and you see new stuff. I thought, going to New York, it could be like a very long holiday. A long expensive holiday that never ends, or it doesn't end for a few years.

"I've been there three years. I've renewed my visa, so maybe I'll be there for a few more years. Let's see what happens.

"America, there's a lot of good and bad things about it, like anywhere. But there are a lot of creative, interesting, intelligent people there."

AA: You always seem to be able to think outside the box and do things that no one else has done before, sometimes totally wacky things. How do you do it, and how can other artists start thinking that way?

JB: "I like playing with perspective a little bit, and I think this is a little bit playful. We immediately understand how it works and anyone can do it. Once you start doing these little things then you start to see other things in another way. One thing leads to another. No one makes a big leap all in one go. It's a little train of thought.

"Have a pen, take some chalk. Think: "What does this look like what could it be?"

Jon's Garden of Earthly Sunny Delights 3 from his A Failure of Judgement exhibition.

"It's simple stuff. Being creative is like an exercise, so do it, keep doing it, you're training, you're building that kind of muscle. You get better at it and you see things in a different way.

"Not doing something means you're never going to do it. Work isn't magically going to appear. You have to sometimes go through a period of crappy stuff to get to the good stuff.

AA: Do you ever feel like you're going through a period of crappy stuff?

JB: "I feel like that all the time. It's a human thing isn't it? We have self-doubt, we're not sure, look what that guy made. It's natural, completely natural. There isn’t anyone that doesn’t feel like that, even if they're at the top of their game. The best athlete or actor or the highest paid whatever. It's natural, let's not dwell on it too much.

"And sometimes it's good to turn off the computer and turn off the distraction and so you're untethered and you can just float around in your thoughts and make things yourself.

"Looking at other art is good but go to a museum, go to a gallery go to a library, go walk around, walk around your city, go to places you've not been to. You'll see stuff, you'll start to notice things.

"Make a little visual, digital scrapbook of stuff. Collect stuff."

AA: Can you tell us a little more about your gallery exhibition?

JB: "It's some of my new work and some of those works. It's sort of about consumer culture. That what we want is not necessarily what we really want but it's what we're conditioned to want. That's a bit of a failure of judgement.

"But the title could be a pun on me as well. Like, all these works were a failure of my judgement. It can work in a couple of ways, which I quite like.

"It's a collection of new drawings. There's a canvas piece in there as well but primarily the work's on paper.

The queue outside the Ink'd gallery for Jon's exhibition waiting for the man himself to arrive. What they didn't realise is that Jon was standing at the back of the queue drinking a cup of tea...

AA: Do you do exhibitions a lot?

JB: "I've had a bunch this summer but I have none planned. Maybe one in London later in the year. But sometimes they're opportunistic. If I wasn't coming here to Brighton for this festival, I don't know if I would have done the exhibition.

"The same happened in Asia on my trip around Asia. I was already going there and then more things started to happen on the trip or just before I left. Like: "Oh, I heard you were coming here, could you do a talk or come to this university to do this thing" so you have to be kind of flexible to do it."

AA: Do you enjoy doing talks and exhibitions, or would you rather be drawing more?

JB: "It's good because you have to get your work out there.  You show your friends and you show your work colleagues and that's good. Then you put it online and strangers look at it. Then you do an exhibition and people just walk down the street and they comment on it. They don't know that I'm the guy that made it and I'm just sat on the step having a cup of tea. That's invaluable. It's very difficult to get very genuine feedback and response from your work, so we should cherish that opportunity.

"It's the same with the talks. I guess people won't come up to me and tell me that was awful but there will be comments online and I'll hear stuff and we'll see what people think."

AA: What are you up to next?

JB: "I'm going to Nottingham for a film screening. I did some artwork for a documentary called The Great Hip Hop Hoax. It's a new film and there's animated bits in it and I did the artwork for the animated bits.

"It's about two rappers from Scotland who couldn't get a record deal because they rapped in native Scottish accents, so they went away and invented characters they could be who are American. They performed and got a record deal and got loads of money thrown at them and they got really excited but they had to maintain the lie. And it all started to fall apart because you can't maintain a lie forever. It's a true story so it's brilliant.

"There's sections of the film for the artwork so I did all the art for it. I didn't animate it but I did all the drawings."

The Great Hip Hop Hoax is being screened in select cinemas this month, and Jon's A Failure of Judgement is open at Brighton's Ink'd Gallery until 6 October. 

The Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton brought together the likes of Stefan Sagmeister, Jon Burgerman, Geri Coady, Erik Spiekermann, Naomi Atkinson, Fabio Sasso, Mr Bingo and more to discuss topics dear to most creatives' hearts: from finding happiness and creative success and failure, to how to motivate yourself and change what you do for the better. It even got attendees singing in unison.

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