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Weekly updates

New York-based illustrator, John Paul Thurlow, is one hell of a drawer. Best known for his Covers project – a series of grey lead illustrations of popular fashion magazine covers – his attention to detail and accuracy will make you take notice. Lately he has been working on a decapitated portrait of Kim Kardashian and has just completed a portrait of George Harrison to coincide with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles. We get the lowdown from the man himself…

Your well-known for your Covers project, how did the idea for the project come about?

I’d made a cover version of a record cover while at college years ago. I loved the idea but kind of forgot about it for years. It came back to me for this series.

The circumstances of the start of the project were kind of fucked up. I was made redundant. I got very depressed. I went away on an artistic retreat to Japan and lived in a Buddhist temple for a while. I started drawing – drawing the contents of my room. There was a copy of Elle I had for the flight. I drew it. I drew it again and again. I knew I had something, the college idea came back to me, and I haven’t stopped working on the idea since then.

Has illustration always been an area of interest?

I’ve always drawn. I grew up in a house lined with my grandfather’s paintings and my father was a technical artist for Ford Motor Company so I was surrounded by visual art as a kid and my parents have always encouraged my artistic talents.

It’s only relatively recently that my drawings have become popular or commercially viable, and therefore thought of as illustration by some. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m a very good illustrator, as I only accept illustration projects that inspire me. I’d be hopeless as a commercial illustrator.

The amount of detail in your illustrations is extraordinary that at times they look like an exact copy of the original. Does test your patience at times? 

If I get bored of a drawing I just stop, put it away and come back to it when the inspiration takes me. I try to not put pressure on myself. I love to draw. It’s never been a burden; I never rush.

You’ve said you try to inject a sense of who you are as an artist in your illustrations. Could you give some examples of how you do this?

There’s something of me in the choice upfront: I only draw what I love whether that be the subject or the idea. I let the thoughts and feelings that come to me as I work appear in the drawing. This usually comes from either the music I’m listening to (lyrics) or parts of the drawing I’m frustrated with (scribbles) or just a stream of consciousness as I think over and over what I’m doing (words and symbols). I like very much the contrast of the messiness over the realism.

Most of your illustrations are done in grey lead and do not use colour. Why is this?

I work with colour 9-5, so when I come to create my illustrative drawings, not using colour is a welcome change. I believe the restriction helps focus my creativity. I’m in love with my tools, they might sound simple but it turns out a mechanical pencil and a couple of erasers are complex enough.

What do you think people find so appealing about an illustration over a digital image? 

I can only answer that personally. To see the handmade mark – the old-fashioned craft technique still has power because not everyone can do it.

Sometimes there is a suspicion that the software has done most of the work, especially when digital images are so slick they become generic looking.

For me, digital image manipulation software is a tool not an end in itself. I do use Photoshop sometimes usually to collage fragments into a composition and play with levels and export files, but never to draw.

When you started the project did you expect it to become such a success? 

Honestly, no. I had no idea how to share my work, let alone publicise myself. I think the fact that I was publishing work frequently and poured my thoughts and feelings into the drawings appealed to people.

Who are some of your favourite illustrators?

I’ve made a number of good friends who are also illustrators since the Covers series began such as Dashel, HelloSZO, Mr. Frivolous, Denise Nestor, Bree Dentice and Richard Kilroy. I’m a fan of Cedric Rivrain, Jenny Mortsel, Jonathan Bartlett… I could go on.

Right now I’m somewhat obsessed with the drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger and Ingres.

Being known for your illustrations of magazine covers, I imagine you would have quite an extensive magazine collection, is this right?

Yes that is right. I’m an art director by trade and over the years I’ve accrued a huge archive of magazines as a by-product of the job.

If illustration is still something you do on the side, how else do you spend your days?

Right now I work in an advertising agency in New York and specialise in beauty brands.

What are you working on at the moment?

Drawings? I’ve just finished a portrait of George Harrison for an exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles. I’m also trying to finish a decapitated portrait of Kim Kardashian (a reverse Salome so to speak) and a cover of Touch by the Eurythmics.

See more of Thurlow’s work over at his blog

Interview by Christine Miralles