All New Trends and Ideas are Born in the Cultural Underground - 10 Questions with Noli Novak, Senior Hedcut Illustrator for the Wall Street Journal
Visual artist Noli Novak has illustrated hedcuts since 1987 when she first began her career as a Staff Illustrator at the Wall Street Journal. The term hedcut comes from a newsroom abbreviation for "headline cut." They are hand-drawn, pen and ink illustrations. The technique resembles old style engravings and it gives the Journal its iconic look.
Novak recently celebrated 30 years at the Journal. Between her daily assignments and commissioned jobs, she has amassed a portfolio of work that includes tens-of-thousands of hedcuts that have been featured in international publications, corporate brochures, advertising, product and website illustration, and social media avatars. Her client roster includes Jim Beam, Nike, MTV Networks, and Infiniti, just to name a few.
Originally from Croatia, Novak began her career as an artist in New York City. There she met her now husband, Serigrapher George Cornwell, in 1986 and the two bonded over a shared passion for the visual arts and music. Soon after, they formed the band Gluegun, which featured Novak as vocalist, Cornwell on guitar, Jeff Sćios on bass, and Paddy Mike on drums. The group released their first album, Itch, in 1993 on Snob Hill Records. In 1996, they released the B-sides to Itch as a self-released 7" record.
Novak, Cornwell, and Sćios then went on to form Novak Seen. The band released a self-titled album, Novak Seen, in 1996 on Rebel Rec., a now-defunct German label that concentrated on punk, wave, and underground music. The band played throughout the Northeast region, including New York's iconic CBGB club, the birthplace of NYC's underground music scene. At the pinnacle of their popularity, the band also toured internationally.
Novak and Cornwell left New York City after the attacks on September 11, 2001. From there, they relocated to Cornwell's home city, Jacksonville. Most recently, the duo performed in The Airstrikes, a band featuring Brew owner and copywriter Jack Twachtman on drums and comic book illustrator Clay Doran on bass.
Novak works from her home office in Riverside. However, she and Cornwell co-share a studio at CoRK Arts District. Recently, Novak was invited to be a guest speaker at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She will be a featured artist in MetFridays, an initiative led by The Met to encourage patrons to experience art making, creative conversations, and performances in unexpected ways. On January 19, Novak will lead a workshop on stipple portraits and discuss her career as a hedcut illustrator as part of this program.
10 Questions with Noli Novak
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
My work day starts by crossing the hallway between my bedroom to my studio, which sounds pretty sweet for a full time telecommuter. But, in order to concentrate on my daily deadline and ignore the house life around me, I had to establish very strict routines and rules. For instance, if my studio door is closed, that means I don’t exist and no one is allowed in, except my cat. It took me a while to train my household for this.
Once I’m signed into the WSJ network, I’m sent a photo reference for my daily assignment. I usually proceed by studying a photo and adjusting it in Photoshop. I then print a few different versions of the photo and place one of them on a lightbox. Sometimes I make a light tracing first, but more often, I start inking right away. When I "sign off" from work, I then usually continue working late into the night on freelance commissions.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I have learned that my love and patience for doing tedious things can earn me a living.
How do you define success in what you do?
What defines success in my line of work is positive feedback from my clients. Nothing makes me happier than receiving thank-you's from satisfied customers.
Pen and ink are the tools you use to create your stippled and cross hatched illustrations. If you had to estimate, how many pens do you go through in a calendar year and do you use different pen types for different details or to achieve subtle nuances?
I exclusively use technical pens, more specifically Koh-I-Noor rapidographs. They have a refillable ink reservoir and replaceable pen points that come in a variety of sizes. They definitely offer me the most precision than any other pen on the market, including the micron pens.
I take very good care of my pens and tips by taking them apart and cleaning them regularly. This way, I stretch the life span considerably of every nib I use. But, I still have to break out a new one every 6 months, or so. Mostly, I draw with three pen sizes, which allow me to achieve a variety of different sized dots and shading values when I crosshatch.
You have been invited to be a guest speaker at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 19th. This comes after recently celebrating 30 years as the senior illustrator at the Wall Street Journal. As you reflect on your career as an illustrator, what do these two accomplishments mean to you and how do you view them in context to your career as a whole?
Being an illustrator isn’t as prestigious or glamorous as having a title of a fine artist. Most of the time, we work on other people’s ideas and designs, or we try to read art directors’ minds in hopes of realizing their visions. We most likely don’t draw just for fun and we don’t get to show our work in fancy gallery shows. So for me, being invited to talk at a major institution, like the Met, about my work is a huge deal.
I’d still say that my biggest accomplishment is working for the Journal for 30 years. Having a staff position is unheard of, let alone 30 long years of holding it.
Do you feel technology has encroached on your work as a hedcut illustrator? If yes, what are some ways that you differentiate yourself from others in your field, especially those who try to digitally recreate what you do?
I welcome technology in every aspect of my art-making and I try to utilize it as much as possible. Everybody thinks that tablets and drawing apps will automate my job, but that is impossible. As a matter of fact, my colleagues and I have been experimenting with digital drawing at the WSJ since the late 80’s, when the first graphic applications started showing up on desktops.
Tablets, styli, and digital programs are still just tools. You can learn how to use them, but they can’t transform you into a good artist. For hedcuts specifically, I can render them on my iPad, but I prefer to draw on paper. I always offer the originals to my clients who are elated to receive an original work of art.
By day you are an illustrator for the Wall Street Journal. However, throughout your career you've also performed in bands. Before moving to Jacksonville, your band had success in the New York scene and was even signed to a European label. Are your peers at the Journal surprised when they find out that you moonlight as a vocalist in a rock band? Looking back on your career as a musician, what is one moment on stage that particularly stands out to you amongst the rest?
I have been playing in bands as long as I have been working at the Journal. Having a double life, one in corporate America and the other in the bowels of NYC’s music underground …. is my normal.
I was lucky to always have support from my coworkers and bosses when taking time off for a tour, or showing up late to work after rocking out until the early morning hours the night before. It is still important for me to keep a foothold in both worlds because they each offer a relief from the other. But, having experienced a fair amount of success with music in the late 90’s, I’m content in focusing more on my art career now.
I love playing in a band. The adrenaline rush of performing for an audience is magical and I’ll always crave that high.
One stand out moment on stage happened when my band toured Europe with Fishbone. I was very skeptical about how our music would be received by their audiences. So, when we got out onstage for our first gig in Berlin, I was scared to death. But, as soon as we started playing, the crowd started moshing and we ended up having a blast of a performance. The best part was getting asked to play encores after the set was over, not just by the audience, but by Fishbone themselves who came out on stage with us. Unforgettable.
Can you describe the feeling you get when you see your work either published in print or on the label of a product in stores?
I still get excited looking at my work in print, especially in magazines. That type of print on glossy stock makes my drawings look really smooth.
However, the moments I will cherish the most happened when I just started working for the Journal. On my daily commute to work downtown, I’d watch people in the subway read the morning Journal looking straight at my drawings. First time that happened I almost couldn’t contain myself. I wanted to burst out telling everybody on the train "I did that!" Luckily, I contained myself.
Is there one feature of physical characteristic that you find especially challenging to capture in illustration? Additionally, of the thousands of hedcut portraits you've illustrated, what individual posed the biggest challenge when capturing their likeness, and why?
My drawings are renderings from photographs, usually only one photograph. Everything I know about this person is in that one photo. It’s essential that I reference it very closely. But, if for instance I have to work from a badly lit photo, it can easily result in a not so great illustration. This is why I spend a lot of time adjusting photos digitally before I even start the drawing process. It’s a different challenge with each reference picture, and for each person a little retouching and editing is essential.
In terms of the most challenging part of the face to capture, I’d say that would be the jawline. It’s tricky because not everybody’s jawline is defined and you need to know how to “read” it in order to outline the person’s face correctly. Misplacing it just a bit can completely change the look of the person. Still, when it comes to likeness, I’d say that it’s all in the eyes. I always render that area with my finest pen for max precision.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
From my music and art experience in NYC, I’d say that establishing a “scene” is one of the most important things, and giving that scene a place is even more important. This is why I’m extremely happy to be a part of CoRK Arts District. I’m comfortable saying that I probably wouldn’t reside in Jacksonville right now if it wasn’t for CoRK. Seeing it expand and grow into a recognized art district is exactly how I envisioned it years ago when Dolf James invited my husband George Cornwell and me to rent a studio there. What is most beautiful about CoRK is that if offers young artists an outlet to collaborate and express themselves outside of the educational institutions. All new trends and ideas are born in the cultural underground, so I’m very pleased to be a part of it and watch it grow.
We'd like to thank Noli Novak for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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