By Brenda Tran

Eric Hanson is an illustrator and writer based in Minneapolis whose career spans decades. His artwork has graced the pages of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, to name a few. He has designed product lines for Pottery Barn, illustrated books and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic and Smithsonian.

Eric’s work is currently showing at Form + Content Gallery as a part of an exhibition titled “Illustrators’ Studio: the Art of Illustration.” I had the opportunity to chat with Eric about his work and his take on design and illustration in the Twin Cities. His words oozed with wisdom and insight, I thought I should share:

How would you describe your own artwork, in your own words?

I don’t know. It’s hard to verbalize the visual. I don’t like using adjectives to describe it. I do visual metaphors, I do ideas.

What mediums and techniques do you typically use?

I mostly use pencil, and lately the thing I’ve been using is ballpoint pen… I’ve had four or five different points in my career where I’ve had a sudden shift in the medium that I use. It’s often been because they stopped making the medium, the kind of paper that I was using or they stopped making the brushes I had been using for a long time... Now lately I’ve been using ballpoint pen and I use Photoshop to change the weight the line is and sometimes add color.

How do stylistic changes occur throughout your career?

I come up with new techniques when somebody pushes me in a different direction.

Is there a process that you always follow?

Just sitting down with the assignment and drawing until I come up with something. A lot of it too is just thinking about what kind of an image would work, in that design context. What’s the context going to be? What’s the typography? How much white space? I use a lot of white space behind my art so it drops into the type very nicely. It’s not elaborate and it’s not quick, it’s versatile. Sometimes I’ll ask my clients which of the pieces on my website they liked so I know which direction they’re expecting me to go in.

What’s your take on the Twin Cities art scene, specifically with illustration?

It’s a good market. Outside of New York and San Francisco, it’s one of the strongest because we’ve got a lot of ad agencies, design firms here. The design quality is greater here in Minneapolis than it is in Chicago, where it’s more mass market, not as sophisticated of a design and advertising environment. It’s been a good place to work as an illustrator. I’ve been doing this for — what is it, 35 years or something like that? 30 years? A lot of my clients are out of town, but I have a local market that’s always there and that’s nice.

Is it difficult to be a self-employed artist in the Twin Cities?

Yeah... I think 95% of people go to an office and work. They don’t understand. A lot of times they say, “What do you do? Draw pictures?” like I’m playing with tinkertoys or something. It’s not that way. I’m kinda working all the time and because I like it it’s not unpleasant... We’re all motivated to put food in the refrigerator — but a lot of nights, it’s creative motivation. I’m not just motivated to go where the biggest paycheck is coming from but my motivation has always been to find the design and ad and advertising, publishing clients that I most admire.

Do you think effort is enough for someone to succeed in design or illustration?

I don’t think that’s it. I think work ethic is a great thing — I’ve taught at MCAD for instance, briefly. I’m not much of a teacher but I understand the business. I would see people that had great work ethic, but they weren’t great artists. I thought, “They’ll do well, but not necessarily as artists.” They may do well in the field because they work hard and they’re good listeners, they’re good at expressing themselves. There are various ways of figuring out what you do best.

If I look back at what I did in my 20s, I see lots of weaknesses. I would look at my students’ work and I would say, “Gosh, that’s much better than I was when I was in my 20s.” I think the difference was that I had a very curious and discriminating eye for illustration and for design. I was a very slow learner as an artist. I was a good artist, but I look back at some of the stuff I did back earlier and a lot of it was really mediocre. But I got better.

I was always looking for what I thought was best, learning what was a better design than others. I was trying to find the best places to work, the best people to work for, who tended to use illustration and who tended to use it well. It’s sort of a map reading exercise; you kind of orient yourself and navigate your way to where you want to be. I’ve managed that pretty well and I think I have a very practiced eye and a carefully honed aesthetic. Some people have that gift and some don’t.

On design:
Design is a very hard thing to define and it’s hard to define the importance of it. Those are the people I admire—the great designers out there. There are a lot of really good illustrators, but I tend to have my eye on the designers out there because they’re the ones I want to hire me and they’re the ones I want to understand.