Profile: Adrian Johnson

A brief sabbatical enabled illustrator Adrian Johnson to escape the pressures of deadlines. As he tells Paula Carson, the break led to him rediscovering the joy of working on paper – and to a move into animated projects

Illustrator Adrian Johnson hails from the Wirral, close to the River Mersey. As a child, Johnson could look in one direction and see the Liverpool skyline; if he turned around, he could see north Wales. Now, with offices in east London and a home in Tonbridge, Kent, Johnson still enjoys a balance between rural and urban life. ‘I leave London for rolling hills and countryside,’ he says, smiling. He’s carried this philosophy of balance into his professional life, where he sees versatility as his greatest strength. ‘I’ve done editorial pieces on massacres in Rwanda,’ he recalls, ‘but I also enjoy taking an article and finding something funny in it to illustrate. I’m happy to do politically driven artwork and I’m equally happy illustrating a children’s book. Right now I’m doing a lot of animation, but on the same day I might do an illustration for The Economist. I think I do a good job across the board.’

Johnson’s retro style is inspired by graphic design and animation from the 1950s and 1960s. His heroes are Paul Rand and Saul Bass. Since childhood, he’s been a fan of 1950s UPA cartoons, particularly their ‘limited animation’ technique of reducing background detail to abstract shapes and symbols. ‘It’s because the image is just suggested,’ says Johnson, ‘I always wanted to know what was around the corner.’ Asked to describe his work, Johnson laughs modestly and says, ‘It’s a bit daft really, I aspire to a simple sophistication, but I like to put humour in there as well.’ He admits being irritated when clients call his style ‘cartoony’. ‘It can be child-like, but there’s a darker, grown-up side to my work too.’

Johnson won his first commission through his Kingston University graduation show in 1997. Publisher Bloomsbury asked him to illustrate the children’s book What! Cried Granny, and Johnson’s rendition of the Kate Lum story won him a Red House Children’s Book Award. ‘It all kind of fell into my lap from there. I’ve been very fortunate,’ he says. He’s drawn two more books since – That’s Not Funny! (which he also wrote) and There’s a Wardrobe in my Monster. His clients include Sky, Orange, Vodafone, The Independent on Sunday, New Scientist, The Economist and The Guardian. It can be a surprisingly pressured life/ publications such as The Guardian may ask him to turn jobs around in under an hour, but Johnson takes such deadlines in his stride. ‘Sometimes, in the face of adversity, you produce some good stuff,’ he shrugs.

For nine years Johnson rarely turned down a job, but, feeling increasingly pigeon-holed by his editorial profile, he decided last year to take a short sabbatical. ‘My agent, Central Illustration Agency, suggested I think about what I really wanted to do,’ he explains. ‘It pointed out that working one way was only going to attract similar work.’

Johnson took a month off. ‘I did some soul-searching, cleared out a lot of dead wood,’ he says. ‘At college, I really enjoyed the immediacy of screen-printing and paper collage. Everything was hand-crafted. Then I got an Apple Mac and I was really seduced by it. Over time, my work became more about process, and less about the end product, so I decided to strip it back, to be more immediate and graphic again.’

He worked hard during that month, producing a series of concept-led, iconic illustrations. Johnson put the new work on his website and it wasn’t long before Japanese T-shirt company 2K came knocking. This in turn brought him to the attention of Paul Smith, who included Johnson in the exhibition Happy London at his Space Gallery in Tokyo, Japan. Paul Smith now also sells tote bags bearing Johnson’s designs.

Johnson recently completed a charming ad campaign for soft drinks company Robinsons, working alongside advertising agency BBH. He’s particularly happy with the five animated campaign executions, developed in collaboration with Nexus Productions’ directing duo Smith and Foulkes (the people responsible for the award-winning Honda ‘Grrr’ commercial). He’s collaborating with them again, on a new TV campaign for Mastercard. ‘It’s an exciting progression for me,’ he says. ‘I get a real buzz when I see my work animated. It’s definitely left me wanting more.’

The gamble has paid off. ‘After just a month of stopping and thinking about what I was doing, stripping everything down and getting back to my core principles, the work I craved has pretty much landed in my lap,’ Johnson muses. Now, the Mac is used strictly for colour. ‘I try to keep everything organic and spontaneous. The work is much more concept-driven than it used to be,’ he adds. ‘All the hard work is done on paper – I still go home covered in paint and graphite, and I like that.’

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