Illustration Professor Outlines Work-Based Model of Art Education

“I encourage students not to view art making as a mystical activity. It’s about training your eye to see shapes, forms, and colors that are translatable,” said John Hendrix, Associate Professor and Chair of Undergraduate Design at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Hendrix teaches undergraduate illustration courses at the university, and is also the program chair of the MFA in Illustration & Visual Culture, a two-year residential program that will launch this fall.

Hendrix studied graphic design and illustration at The University of Kansas. He then moved to New York City, where he attended The School of Visual Arts. He graduated from the school’s “Illustration as Visual Essay” program with an MFA and honors in 2003. Before beginning his teaching career at Washington University, he worked at The New York Times as assistant art director of the op-ed page. He also taught illustration at Parsons School of Design.

In an interview with the Teaching Center, Hendrix emphasized the experience of trial and error in art. He also discussed how he guides his students through an iterative, work-based model of design.

What inspired you to become an illustrator?

Drawing has been so fundamental to my life. I did comics in high school and I thought that was the only job if you wanted to draw narrative pictures. Then I got to college and faculty members unpacked the world of illustration for me. From that moment on, I was committed to illustration. It was finding people I admired and wanting to work like them. Since then, it’s been a singular pursuit.

How did you start teaching illustration?

The very first class I taught was at Parsons School of Design. I worked at The New York Times for three years as an art director. My boss there left to chair the Illustration Department at Parsons. He said, we have a class called Teaching Design to Illustrators, and asked me to teach there for a semester. It was an adventure. I just tried not to embarrass myself. Then my old boss said, I know these people at Wash U and they’re looking for someone to teach. I wonder if you’d be a good fit for that?

I was thoroughly unqualified. I learned to teach from colleagues at Wash U. It’s been a good fit ever since.

How does your background as a working artist inform your work in the classroom?

I teach out of expertise in my field. A lot of that is about idea generation. I feel sometimes like I’m more of a therapist than an art teacher. Art is often about being unhappy because you have to learn through doing things that don’t live up to your vision. A lot of times, I teach students from my own experience of trial and error.

Talent is a completely destructive narrative to young artists. Yes, you have abilities, but most of what makes drawing good is the hard work of executing it. I teach out of an iterative, work-based model and I think all design fields share that discipline.

What are some ways that you engage students in your undergraduate illustration class?

A sketchbook is something that I really embrace. I taught a class for years called the Illustrator Sketchbook. It showed how having a portable sketchbook changes the way you draw. It allows you to be more immediate. That’s one part of things, and then rigorous exploration is another part, or not being afraid to try new things. A lot of students don’t want to work in traditional media, they want to work in the digital space, but you need both to thrive.

How did you have the idea for the MFA in Illustration and Visual Culture?

 I need to credit my colleague, Douglas Dowd, a longstanding faculty member at the Sam Fox School. We always said we needed to build a base of study from the D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library, which has collections of tear sheets, periodicals, and other historical documents. A lot of people come at illustration from the lens of being the maker. We wanted a program that’s about being a studio artist and caring about the history of visual culture.

What will the MFA in Illustration and Visual Culture program entail?

Like all things, knowledge is beneficial even if it doesn’t appear to be completely applicable. With this graduate program, we include some very practical knowledge that will help your work and life. What does it take to make a work that endures? What makes an illustration more relevant or interesting 100 years later? It’s about thinking of illustration as a cultural force and not just a content-based project. If we look back 50 years ago, illustration tells a story of our culture. We’re trying to train illustrators to be makers of visual cultures, students of visual culture, and ultimately, shapers of visual culture.

What do you hope students take away from your classes?

When I taught digital design, which has sophomores or sometimes freshmen, I had students from engineering or computer science that would take the class. I loved those students because they came at it without a paradigm of what art was.

I encourage students not to view art making as a mystical activity. It doesn’t require bloodletting or talent. It’s about training your eye to see shapes, forms, and colors that are translatable. Drawing is about editing from your eyes to the paper. It’s not about getting your hand to do the thing; it’s your brain telling your hand what to do.

What advice would you have for aspiring art professors?

As a teacher, you cannot give students everything they need. You don’t want to feel like you’re the person who stands between them and success. There’s a responsibility we take on ourselves that’s too high. When I talk to young teachers, I tell them that they have to teach to their specialty and interest. Let your passion convince people that this is valuable.

I consider myself less as someone imparting information and more as someone who is a credible role model for the field. I try to lead through inspiration more than a boot camp mentality. There are different modes that serve teaching and many are valid, but most of my teaching comes out a love for the material and a love for young people. My work gets better when I’m around my students. They remind me of why I got into this in the first place.

Interview has been condensed and edited.