Interview - John Shakespeare

Interview: John Shakespeare, Illustrator and cartoonist: The Sydney Morning Herald - July 2017


John Shakespeare official website The Sydney Morning Herald - Cartoons: John Shakespeare

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The Media Man crew have long had a deep appreciation and respect for art. Today we further delve into the interesting world of political and news based cartoons and illustrations via the experiences of Australian based John Shakespeare who is well known for his thought provoking illustrations in The Sydney Morning Herald.


How and when did you discover your artistic streak?

I'd always drawn as a child, my dad was a technical drawing teacher at high school in Brisbane, and he always brought home lots of used paper, so there was always drawing materials on hand. I grew up on Mad and Cracked comics in the 70's and was very inspired by the cartoonists they had.

Did you always have an interest in politics, or did that just tie into your position as a cartoonist, who did a lot of work as a political cartoonist?

No, I was never that interested, but it grew on me! The trick to commenting on politics is to realise it's basically a sporting contest, winners and losers. This is what makes it fun, with all the emotions you encounter in a battle, hope, heartbreak, greed,jealousy etc

You originally started as a political cartoonist at Fairfax's 'The Sun' with a very minimal drawing style. How did you evolve to drawing caricatures and illustrations?

I'd been there a year, when the paper folded. I was offered to move to the SMH, but they already had enough cartoonists, so I was told by the art director, John Sandeman, that I could become a graphics artist, or develop my caricatures. I chose the latter, and He gave me two weeks to come in to work and practice. I bought a few books of caricature artists I liked, and studied their techniques. After that time I'd shown some promise , so he let me keep going, and for the next two months I drew for 8 hours a day, trying to develop a style of my own. Then I started getting published in the Herald. I'll be forever grateful to him..would never happen these days!

Did you always believe in the message in your cartoons, or does Fairfax Media powers that be ever ask you to illustrate a particular message that may not necessarily reflect your personal views?

They allow us to think for ourselves, the only problem occurs when I have to illustrate a story with opposing views to mine, so I have to find a way to interpret their message, while keeping my principles in the image.

What do you most love about art?

I love being able to bring to life a thought, to a blank piece of paper.

Do friends or colleagues ever have a go or challenge you about your stronger cartoons and illustrations?

No, not really!

What is your view on the late, great (and sometimes very controversial cartoonist and illustrator, Bill Leak, as both a person and as an artist?

Bill was a great friend, I knew him since I started at Fairfax in the 80's. He was a kind, funny and generous man, but also an unapologetic rascal! He always enjoyed pushing the boundaries and loved offending. To me his work was always the same, but with the explosion of social media in the last decade, suddenly a cartoon that was once only seen in print, could now be spread instantly to a huge audience, and that means instant outrage and publicity. He hated Twitter.

It's well known that the media and art industry is extremely competitive, and you have excelled at both... what's your "secret" to success?

I think being able to compromise and work as a team at Fairfax, realizing that my illustration appearing in the paper means working with an editor and layout designer, often it will be a story I don't feel like illustrating, or a shape I don't want to draw within, but I always aim to act professionally and do the best work I can for the story. It also helps that I have a few different styles, like caricature, illustration and cartooning, so it stays varied and interesting for me.

Would be correct in noticing that our friends at The Sydney Morning Herald are not using as many John Shakespeare cartoons and illustrations these days, as they were back until May this year, and if so, is that just part of cost cutting at Fairfax Media, or anything else you are able to comment on?

Haha, no, I was just on holidays

Any plans for a cartoons or illustration, illustrating cost cutting at Fairfax Media and / or in the news media sector in general, and the overall instability in media, witness Channel Ten?

We have lost a few cartoonists and illustrators sadly, it's never nice. But they are still highly committed to a visual presence, which includes cartoons and illustrations.

When you are not drawing cartoons and illustrations, what do you do to relax?

I don't touch a pencil, that's for sure. After drawing 5 days a week for 30 yrs, it's the last thing I feel like doing. I love reading, although I haven't read a book since Broadband! Browsing online is my favourite thing, especially following the Trump circus.

How has the internet and news media websites been both a good and a bad thing for those who work in both media, journalism and art?

It's been an amazing tool for cartoonists. You can put an image online and get instant feedback from the public, whereas before we were just sitting in a desk on our own and not knowing how the drawing is received by the readers, apart from the occasional letter or two. It's also a great thing for beginner cartoonists and illustrators, being able to self publish to a potential audience of millions. The downside of course it's harder to get the advertising revenue compared to the golden days of newspapers.

What's your motto?

Keep it simple. I love a big bold image with no words if possible. It's why I prefer the 2d 'punch and Judy' view so the message is instantly received, with little visual distraction.

How would you like to be remembered?

Hopefully I made people smile for a second.

Ed: Art, cartoon, news business followers and political pundits are now even better informed on John's amazing talent and contributions to the illustrating and cartooning profession. To keep enjoying John's work stay supporting The Sydney Morning Herald (hard copy or website), and follow his online portfolio via website and social media. Media Man is going to continue to cover the arts, illustration and cartooning world so stay tuned.


Cartoons by John Shakespeare

Cartoons by John Shakespeare

James Packer cartoons by John Shakespeare