Creative Lives — From Nottingham to New York: Meet artist, illustrator and professional doodler Jon Burgerman
Life as seen through the lens of Jon Burgerman is a fantastically frenzied affair. If you’re one of his 83,000 Instagram followers, you’ll already be acquainted with the professional doodler’s growing universe of characters – everything from pink levitating hot dogs to googly-eyed garbage cans. Ever experimenting with new mediums, his work possesses a wacky logic and restlessness that is particularly infectious. Sketchbooks, walls and skateparks, jewellery, clothes and wrapping paper are just some of the surfaces that play host to his stream of cartoony consciousness. In the past year he’s published four books, had his Instagram stories exhibited at the Tate Modern and was recently profiled by the New York Times. We met to talk first jobs, early inspirations, and why he decided to move 3,388 miles away from his hometown of Nottingham to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Artist, Illustrator, Doodler
New York City (originally from Birmingham, UK)
BA Fine Art, Nottingham Trent University (1998–2001)
Samsung, Disney, Sesame Street, Pepsi, CocaCola, Nike, Sony, Sky, BBC, Puma, Nintendo, MTV, Levis, Miss Sixty, AOL, Rip Curl
How would you describe what you do?
I would say I’m an artist trying to be creative in lots of different ways, sharing it with people so that they might feel inclined to be creative in different ways, too. I draw and make stuff for a bunch of people, including myself. Occasionally I get commissioned or make work for brands. That could be tech companies or sports apparel or entertainment. When I’m not doing that I might be putting on an exhibition or displaying work in a space or on a wall. And when I’m not doing that, I’m making my own things, which is an overlap of all of that.
What does a typical working day look like?
I wake up before walking to the G train. My commute takes about half an hour and then I’m in my studio in Cobble Hill (the building is called the Invisible Dog) by around 9.30am or 10am. But I’ll have already spent half an hour or so on my laptop at home replying to emails, so the working day will have already kicked off. I’ll inevitably spend another hour answering emails. I try not to do this, but it’s kind of like the washing up – I can’t get on with stuff with it hanging over me. So I have to clear it out. Then I’ll have as much uninterrupted time as possible to make stuff. I’m generally in the studio five days a week, but if I don’t need to, then I won’t be. I might work until 7pm in the evening before coming home at around 8pm to have dinner or go out. It’s nice.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
It depends how you want to define work. In terms of generating ideas or coming up with stuff, almost all of that happens outside of the studio, in my head or in my sketchbook. I always carry a sketchbook and a pen with me. That’s all you need. A lot of ideas come on the subway, when I’m walking down the street, or in a cafe having lunch – not when I’m sat trying to have an idea. Once you have that idea you can polish it up, extract it, divide it. It can become anything. Processing that idea takes place in the studio.
When I first moved to New York about six or seven years ago, I didn’t have a studio. A friend of mine said he didn’t want a studio because it would always feel like you’re going to work. I think it’s important to go to work, but it’s also important to feel like you’re not going to work. I go to the studio to do computer-y work, but sometimes I won’t go at all. I might paint or draw or do little stop-motion things at home, which feels different to being in that working environment. I actually want to make a T-shirt that says: ‘Real artists do it on their kitchen table.’
Some of Jon’s Instagram Stories
How does your project-based work usually come about?
A lot of it just comes out of the blue via email. I’ve had illustration agents over the years and sometimes work will come through them, but I’ve been really lucky in that people still contact me directly.
The best way of publicising your work is to make it really good. Easier said than done, but if you make interesting and unusual work, people will want to look at it again and show their friends. Then the work does all that promotion stuff for you. It especially helps if you’re a little anxious and shy.
Thinking commercially, brands don’t want to regurgitate what’s already out there because then their product or message will look the same as something else. People are constantly looking for a new take. Some people hit upon a formula, and they run with it. You see that in all types of design, art and illustration. Business-wise, it’s a very good idea; if you want people to know who you are, just do the same thing over and over for years, because it takes that long for people to fully catch on. But I can’t live like that, so I do it through other means. For me, making the work is the fun bit. Doing commercial work isn’t my goal. If I do juicy advertising jobs, I see it as a means of not having to do a juicy advertising job for like, 12 more months.
“The best way of publicising your work is to make really good work that people will want to look at again and show their friends.”
How collaborative is your work?
I collaborate with different practitioners on projects that run for a short period of time. I worked with Jessica Dance recently, who took some of my characters and turned them into sculptures, just for fun. I do that with the Felt Mistress (Louise Evans) and a bunch of other people. Those things keep you fresh and allow you to see your work in a different light. For bigger projects, I might have to employ someone to do animation, but generally I’m working on my own.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I used to love email. It was (and still is) a wonderful means of communication. But now it’s just overrun with inane questions and organising stuff. It’s admin. The most enjoyable is the start of a project. You have all this expectation and anticipation of how wonderful and amazing it could be. You go to bed at night dreaming of this exciting new thing you’re going to be doing. That for me is really exhilarating, and that energy is addictive.
I feel really privileged to be in a situation where I can pick and choose with my lifestyle; if I don’t want to work tomorrow, I don’t have to (unless there’s a deadline). The flip side of that is I’m always playing catch-up. If I get sick there’s no one pick up the slack, and if I go away for a few days, it creates a backlog. It’s not for everyone, but I love it and couldn’t imagine working in any other way.
Life is work, and work is life. I don’t think there’s a distinction. Although you’re always thinking of stuff, I think it’s important to have points where you’re officially not working to get out of the studio and away from the screen. Having a great work-life balance is doable but you have to be disciplined. You have to remember to go back to work. Having a lot of life is wonderful, but ultimately, things are going to come to an abrupt end when you have to pay your rent. The two things feed each other. Hopefully your work is led by the things that interest you in life.
Collaboration with Jessica Dance
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve made four books on creativity and doodling. It’s exciting to start a project knowing it will be in someone’s hands, and that they will read the words that I’m writing. Although I’ve touched on it in my career, I haven’t properly engaged with the medium of storytelling. It took me a while to get my head around how to write for picture books that need a beginning, middle and end but it’s been massively exciting and I’ve learnt a lot.
What skills are essential to your job?
The most important thing is having good, fun ideas. But apart from that: listening, communicating, being organised, being disciplined, and having a sense of humour. Secondary to that are artistic skills and being able to use technology.
“I often think that I create pieces of a puzzle; eventually I know that they will click somewhere.”
Are you currently working on any side projects?
A rule of mine is not to have any one thing take prominence over something else, but I’m always working on a bunch of different things. For the last couple of years I’ve been making little Play-Doh characters. I just liked making them, but I knew there would be a home for them somewhere. Initially I wanted to photograph them, blow them up and print them really large. They’ve now become wallpaper.
I often think that I create pieces of a puzzle; eventually I know that they will click somewhere. It might take five minutes or five years to find, but I have faith that there’s a place for these things even though I’m unaware of exactly where that might be.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Hands and brains and pens and paper. And maybe the phone. I think I’m reclaiming the mobile phone as a creative tool rather than a distraction. I shoot videos on Instagram and edit them on my iPhone. iMovie is amazing on there and you can play around with GarageBand. And it’s a lot easier than filming it, exporting it and putting it on other software. I love the fact that I can do all of that while on the Subway, even when there’s no WIFI.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a footballer, a Ghostbuster, or an artist. I think I also wanted to be an animator because it seemed to be the way you could live your life doing cartoons.
What took you to New York?
I was living in Nottingham, but travelling for work. It was exciting: new people, new places, new food. But then I’d have to go back home. It was always sad to leave. Nothing against Nottingham or the UK, but I started to feel a bit like Frodo; I’d seen other places, I couldn’t go back to the Shire. I think it altered something within me, and I just needed more. I needed to keep following those lights. It was a very long leap from Nottingham, over the Atlantic. Big change, new challenges. It kind of distracted me from myself. I’m not necessarily adventurous by nature, so it was a big effort.
Moving to New York was scary, but cleansing. Those two things are connected, right? It’s great how diverse it is; you get all these weird match-ups. That’s why I jump from one thing to another because it serves the idea that this and that don’t normally exist together. It could be culturally; it could be with food or music or art or technology.
How, if at all, is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied economics, maths, and art at A-Level. I feel they’ve all been very useful. I mean that’s the magic of education; you sort of absorb it into you. But I think the most important thing is curiosity and maintaining that desire to keep learning. The world I entered post-art school – and the rules I had to play by – are very different to the one we’re in now. It’s really important to keep refreshing how we work. There are people of my generation who I remember meeting early on in my creative career journey who have stopped doing what they did, because they felt trapped by not knowing how Instagram works, for example. It’s a bit of a shame, but I can understand why it’s overwhelming. I’m sure that will happen to me as I get older. I’ll get more grumpy and stuff.
I didn’t study illustration or design, but I dip into those disciplines now. It’s all about having the freedom to make things. Even if you’re working commercially, you have to be able to make your own stuff and have your own ideas.
What were your first jobs?
When I was a student, I worked as an artworker for a company that produced luxury boxes and bags for retail. I would be the guy slapping the logo on the front for a fancy diamond shop. I used QuarkXpress. We’d burn a CD and send it to the factory in China. One day, we had an ISDN line put in so we could send the files digitally. I’d never used a Mac before let alone Quark, so I learned a lot of technical skills. No one else in the office knew how to do what I was meant to do, so they couldn’t tell that I was screwing up massively. There were lots of embarrassing typos: misspelled addresses on thousands of bags, stuff like that. But it taught me to have a real eye for detail. When you’re proofing your work (which you must, must do) tell yourself there is an error, and don’t stop until you find it. Nine times out of ten, you’ll find a bunch of them. It’s like Where’s Wally.
I still had that job after I graduated, but I worked as a freelancer until I was commissioned by Levi’s. It was my first ever commercial job. I was living in Nottingham, making stickers, hand-cutting them, and then going down to London and sticking them in places. I didn’t have enough money to make loads, so I was strategic about where I put them. They ended up being published in the first-ever street art book about sticker art. Someone from BBH obviously bought this book, saw my work and then most importantly, went online; they could type my name in and find me. They paid me a bunch of money to do what I was already doing. I sold out a little, but I lived off that money for a year, if not more.
“It was a very long leap from Nottingham, over the Atlantic; I was like Frodo – I’d seen other places, I couldn’t go back to the Shire.”
What in particular, helped you the most at the start of your career?
Not moving to London straight away. I graduated, stayed in Nottingham and continued to live like a grubby student. I lived poor. I was very thrifty, so when I earned money, I kept it and lived off it. It gave me time to work stuff out. I didn’t know I was going to work commercially in that way. I just kind of fell into it. I was lucky that my artwork was graphic and bold, and that people could see a commercial application for it, which I couldn’t see.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but the learning really starts when you leave university. That’s when you really have to think about what it is you’re doing and how you’re going to do it. And you find that. It comes to some people quicker than others. But the important thing is to feel like it’s okay to make stuff and for it to fail. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of your career.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I started doing a lot of record sleeves and EPs, but my first proper commission was an album cover for Charles Webster (well-revered in the house music circle). I was still working my job then, and there was a design company on the floor below. One day, they came upstairs and said, "We’re doing a sound cover. No one’s liking the ideas. Do you want to have a go?” It was the dream. I did it at night, came back and they approved the idea, it got photographed, and then it was done. It was sent by the next week. Then a month later, it was in HMV on a twelve-inch record sleeve, and mainstream media covered it. I wasn’t a designer or an illustrator or anything, but it didn’t matter. I just made an image that fit the brief that everyone was happy with. It was a brilliant start, I was very lucky.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve learned practical things like business skills, negotiation skills, financial planning and all that boring stuff no one teaches you. Why does no one teach you that? It’s so important. Why do all students graduate with debt? It’s a sink or swim situation. You have to look after yourself. It puts young people at a massive disadvantage because they get taken advantage of by big companies.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Staying motivated and being disciplined. You have ups and downs. You have crisis of confidence. That’s normal. Am I doing the right thing? Am I still enjoying doing this?
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes, in a funny way. I grew up in Birmingham near the city centre. I was in the middle of the UK, a middle child, in the middle of the midlands – stuck in the middle. I watched animation, collected stickers and drew stuff with friends. I used to read the Beano and make my own comics (none of that superhero stuff, more like slingshots and mud-pies.) But I would also design all the merchandise; the posters, the bed spreads. It’s kind of what I do now! I could have been an animator or a comic book person or a designer, but actually it’s a little bit of all those things.
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to live in a giant penthouse with palm trees and the swimming pool. No, I’d like to make more experiential things and explore projects that involve people, and participation.
It would be fun to make a TV animation, or a live action thing. Sometimes it feels I’m on the cusp of creating something with my Instagram stories, like a magazine or a sketch show, a bit like Monty Python. Maybe I’m deluded; someone else might go away and do it much better than me, but if I had the time, I’d want to develop that more.
Could you do this job for ever?
Yeah. My plan is to keep doing this until I’m fully white-haired and wrinkly. I think that’s the coolest. If you’re 72 and you’re still doing it, then you’re really cool and you've beaten the system.
“The important thing is to feel like it’s okay to make stuff and for it to fail. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of your career.”
What do you think is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
When I was starting out, I knew a lot of people through websites like Pixelsurgeon, and Design is Kinky. Some of them set up studios and years later went back to being freelance. Some got jobs at companies and now successfully work as part of a team. I only know one person that left the scene completely and got a proper job, like a real-estate job.
I felt very frustrated in the first 15 years of my career. I’d work on a project for a big company, then I’d come home and it’s done. You’re not gonna work for that company any time soon. They’ll want to work with someone else, and you can’t really work for any of their rivals because you’re already associated with that first company. It’s a bit of a dead end. But I think if you’re doing creative stuff, then it’s probably part of your soul, how you live, breathe, I don’t think you can escape that.
It’s tough when you start. But it’s tough as you get older as well because challenges change, and you change as well; you can’t stay up until 4am working as much. You might start a family and you’ll want some comfort and stability. Freelance life can be tough. Hopefully in 10 years’ time, I’ll still be working on things like books; a real career, a proper-person profession.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into your line of work?
Just have fun. Keep trying lots of different things and see what clicks. And try not to give up too quickly – I’m dreadful at that. If something doesn’t work or you’re not feeling it, leave it. Do some other stuff. Come back to it. Try lots of things. Learn from everything you do. Even things like being in a band might inform how you do something later on. If you want to make stuff, then make stuff in lots of different media, and in lots of different ways. Collaborate. Keep making. Keep going.
What would your advice be to someone wanting to move New York and become an artist and illustrator?
Do it! Doing it while you’re young is the best time to do it, and if it doesn’t work out you can move back. I think it’s the best, most fantastic thing you can do. Everyone should be a foreigner somewhere. The role of the artist is to be a bit of an outsider. You learn so much, it’s amazing. Do it.
Read the rest of Jon’s advice on moving and working abroad here.
Become a Member
Lecture in Progress is now free to access. Become a member and receive a number of additional benefits.
Alongside a wealth of behind-the-scenes advice and insight into the creative industries, join now to get exclusive access to offers and promotions. You’ll benefit from:
- Student offers and promotions
- Two weekly newsletters
- Bookmark content
- Shape the future of Lecture in Progress
By becoming a professional member, you’ll be helping us in our aim to support the next generation of creatives. You’ll also get the chance to shape the future of Lecture in Progress, and benefit from:
- Professional offers and promotions
- The biannual Lecture in Progress newspaper, delivered to your door
- Insight reports into creative education and industry
- Two weekly newsletters
- Bookmark content
- Shape the future of Lecture in Progress