Italian illustrator Jonathan Calugi has an unusual approach to commissioned work. He draws two points on a page and makes them connect in any way possible, sometimes scribbling nonsense, sometimes drawing something representative, and sometimes a bit of both.
His jazzy, childlike doodles are reminiscent of Picasso’s dancing women as well as the similarly enthusiastic scribbles of Netherland’s Jordy van den Nieuwendijk. Calugi’s lively energy and whimsy is in high demand—you might have seen his work untangling across Nike boxes, on advertising for Barclay’s, Airbnb, and Uniqlo, or in the pages of Wired and the New York Times Book Review.
I caught up with Calugi to hear more about his love of the single line, and to learn how the simple restriction of one tool on Illustrator can open up a whole world of possibilities.
Why work predominately with single lines?
I’m obsessed with the idea of connection—connecting people with a story when they look at an illustration, and connecting points on a page.
I also try to do the best with less. I use the computer to limit myself like a cage, and then select the basic line tool on Illustrator. When you’re in a cage, you have to find your way out.
Two points and a line. Finding new ways to connect them, that’s the challenge.
Is there something about the restriction of a line that’s ultimately freeing?
When I start a sketch I begin by trying to follow an idea in my mind. I put down two points on a page, sketch the general shape in a loose way, and then lose control before connecting up the two points. Losing control and scribbling is important because I really believe that creativity can come from making a lot of mistakes.
My process is: “Try to make as many errors as possible.”
Who are your favorite artists that work with line?
Absolutely Picasso. Also Marino Marini, who is from my hometown of Pistoia, Italy.
Then there are jazz artists as well—the idea of improvised lines of free jazz and how it deconstructs everything, listening to that made me think about how to be free with my own work.
Have you always drawn like this, or has your style evolved since you first started?
What happened was like a dream, because I didn’t study graphic design or illustration. I got some mail in 2008 asking me to do some drawings. I had bad, bad English at the time, so I didn’t understand what things like ADC Young Guns or Print magazine were, but I got selected to be in their group of talented people. My life changed a lot then, with big clients approaching me.
I realized quickly that people on the internet aren’t interested in your future; they’re interested in your past. So people always wanted me to do the same work I’d become known for, which was patterns. It was incredible to do so many patterns, but after some years I felt like I was in a cage. I’m not just a pattern!
I wanted something different, but at the same time, I wanted it to still be my style. Single line drawing was a way out of the cage—I could still do patterns, but also figures and portraits. I was lucky because people really liked it.
What was the first line drawing that you ever did?
The first single line drawing I did was a couple in love in three panels. I started with the figure of a man and a woman, and in the end there was no border between them—the bodies became one line, like in love.
And what was the last line drawing?
I have a funny secret about this particular piece, which was for Nike. Often, people assume a lot of work goes into this type of artwork, but I actually did everything in eight or nine hours. The art director had a great idea about communicating a story in two ways: through the words, but also through the illustration in each letter. I worked like a collage artist for this one—I drew loads of elements and then connect them all with a line, giving the reader the opportunity to read the story in whichever direction they like.
This year I’ve had two personal shows, one in Germany at Ninasagt and the other in Brisbane, Australia at Kotraband gallery. For this show I wanted to explore the power of the scribble around the idea of how the word ‘love’ is so common, but how everyone has a similar—but also different—idea about what love is, which was visualized in all the different doodles.