Interview: John Pender – Illustrator & Magazine Designer

John and his son - who is a massive fan of the Gorgeous George books!

Creative Brew Interview

Our first interview is with the super talented John Pender. A Glasgow-based magazine designer by day and a children’s book illustrator by night, John has always had a passion for creating artworks that really engage with his audiences.

Read on to find out more about John’s professional journey, the artists who influenced him and why he feels it’s important to continually chase your innate creative spark.

Did you always want to pursue a career in design?

My first passion was always to become a comic book artist, which in many ways led me into my current role as a magazine designer at Think. Through the nature of the beast, design took forefront and illustration and comic book stuff became a kind of side passion project. Now I get to enjoy the best of both worlds, which is pretty cool.

Focusing on your illustrations then, what artists inspired you growing up?

The first artist that I fell in love with – and who I initially modeled my style around – was Andy Kubert, who is actually from a really famous family of comic book artists.

His dad, Joe Kubert, was a legend in the comic book illustration world and helped create famous DC characters like Sgt Rock and Hawkman. Andy is easily as iconic as his dad was, especially with his work on seminal titles including X-Men and Spiderman. Both of them are fantastic artists and I used to attempt to mimic their styles when I was younger.

After watching the much-revered Akira, I became really interested in manga. Then came along a comic book artist called Joe Madureira, who, at the time, bridged the illustration styles of the West and East perfectly. In my opinion he is the absolute pinnacle of what a comic book artist should be.

Tell me about the illustrations you create for the children’s book series Gorgeous George. How did you get involved with this?

The author who writes the books, Stuart Reid, is married to my wife’s cousin. Even though we only ever saw each other once a year at New Year’s parties, we always got on like a house on fire. After a three year stint of living in Dubai, Stuart returned to Scotland and said he wanted to follow his dream of writing children’s books.

After a brief venture with another illustrator that didn’t work out, Stuart approached me in 2013 and asked if I wanted to illustrate his books. When he asked me, Stuart had a show coming up at the Edinburgh Festival in three weeks’ time and although the book was fully complete in terms of text, it had absolutely no illustrations whatsoever. Usually the illustration process for each Gorgeous George book takes a minimum of 8 to 10 weeks. Having been given this super tight 3 week deadline, it was very much a baptism of fire.

Gorgeous George and the Unidentified Unsinkable Underpants
Gorgeous George and the Unidentified Unsinkable Underpants

Prior to beginning the project I hadn’t drawn for a while because I’d focused my free time with my wife and son. So, with a very understanding family and a lot of sleepless nights, for three weeks I worked away on creating the illustrations for Gorgeous George. Stuart was really impressed by what I did and we just took it from there really.

I’ve went back and redrawn the illustrations in the initial book because the contrast in the quality of the work I produce now is so stark because I had to complete them within such a pressurised timeframe. Since then I’ve illustrated 5 books in the Gorgeous George series and I’m currently working on the sixth installment.

Internal illustration from Gorgeous George and the Jumbo Jobby Juicer
Internal illustration from Gorgeous George and the Jumbo Jobby Juicer

Why do you think the Gorgeous George series is so popular with schoolchildren?

Stuart is quite a rare breed of author in that he doesn’t just write the books, he takes them on tour to perform them at schools across the country. The number of schools he visits goes up each year and there’s not a week goes by when he’s not promoting them.

Combine this performative aspect with the subjects that he chooses for each of the book, including the series’ most popular adventure, Gorgeous George and the Zig Zag Zit-faced Zombies, and it’s easy to see why they capture kids’ attention so easily. I mean, who doesn’t love zombies in this day and age?

Gorgeous George and the Zigzag Zit-faced Zombies is a readers' favourite.
Gorgeous George and the Zigzag Zit-faced Zombies is a readers’ favourite.

What does it feel like to know that your work gets such a positive reaction from young readers?

I’ve went to a few signings and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a rock star! [laughs] When you have all these kids laughing at my drawings and the banners I design for the shows, it strokes the ego and gives my work that extra bit of validation.

I’ve always been told that I’m a talented artist but I think artists are never truly content with what they’ve created. However, the reaction from the kids’ makes me think that I must know what I’m doing – especially when adults turn round and say how much they enjoyed reading the books.

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Gorgeous George himself.

Whether they’re students, looking for a career change or wanting to take their hobby to the next level, what advice would you give to people who want to get involved in the illustration world?

Although I love what I do for a living, the last couple of years working on the Gorgeous George series has opened up my mind a little.

When I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, comic books came from America and getting to work on them just seemed like an impossible task. However, thanks to the internet, the world has gotten so much smaller and has opened up so many opportunities. Hugely popular DC and Marvel artists like Frank Quitely live and work in Glasgow and they just send stuff digitally back and forth. They’re producing images for iconic titles like Batman, Superman and Spiderman. If I knew years ago the way the world was going to go technology and accessibility wise, I’d go back in time and have a very stern conversation with myself and get involved more! [laughs]

Gorgeous George and the Zigzag Zit-faced Zombies
Gorgeous George running from some particularly nasty zombies.

As far as getting involved in the illustration world, the same rules apply to anything you’re passionate about in life. If you wake up in the morning and all you want to do is draw, paint, write or sing – whatever it is – then I think that’s what you’re meant to be. You should nourish that passion and hone your skills as much as possible. It’s like the 10,000 hours scenario: if you keep practicing, practicing and practicing, you’ll eventually become a master.

Through Stuart’s books, I’d say I’ve put in about three quarters of that, so I’m getting pretty good! Although this advice might sound generic and corny, it really is true. Follow your passions and keep driving yourself to improve because you can make it your job one day. And really, is a job really job if it’s something you love doing?

Fancy showcasing your talents and sharing your best advice on getting involved in the creative industries? Send us a message and get involved!