A Shared Moment of Insight
From an essay on Jon Krause by Matt Lennert:
Many years ago, while touring the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing building with my wife, the word “Krause” spilled from my lips in an almost reflexive manner as I spotted a poster 50 feet away. My wife looked at me askance, wondering why I had said “frilly” in German—but in fact, I had instantly identified the blow-up of a Johns Hopkins Nursing magazine cover as Jon Krause’s work. I had then worked with him perhaps only a couple of times, but the recognition was instantaneous. Since that day in Baltimore, I have added at least another two dozen of Jon’s illustrations to my portfolio. And I’m just as excited to see his work in Communication Arts or other annuals where I know it in a second.
A classic Krausian illustration contains certain archetypal elements—a single character with an elongated figure and neck, a face that hides any tell of extreme emotion, a feeling of pathos bordering on loneliness and solitude, an unpredictable and entirely original color palette that combines somber tones with a bit of bright electricity, and always, always, the twist: that sense of visual surprise that toys with our sense of verisimilitude. Umbrellas are tunnels, oceans are rugs, skies are water, pillars are bows, or a prop plane pulls behind it a beam of light emanating from a lighthouse. The twist is the counterweight to what could be sad, depressing work. It lightens. It delights. It brings, not an LOL, but an insider’s sense of getting it—a shared moment of insight that defeats time and conveys the exact tone, story, or sentiment necessary.
Artists, as we are all told, are special people. They see the world differently; they feel more deeply than their fellow man.
But commercial illustration is especially unique because, aside from requiring the artist to see and feel differently, it challenges the artist to interpret, refine, and ultimately distill. The very best illustrators in the world all share this skill: the ability to strip away the unnecessary, the superfluous, the noise in the system, to find the nugget of meaning that instantly speaks volumes about the words to follow. They have to show a movie in one frame—and to complicate matters, the movie might be about an esoteric topic, or it might potentially be boring. In such cases, the illustrator has to turn the tide and create the desire for knowledge. Jon Krause is so consistent in this regard that he makes it look effortless. Whenever you see something beautiful and meaningful and it looks like you could have created it with some light effort, you are staring at genius.
There is a wonderful irony to working with and knowing Jon. His personality—it doesn’t match his work. Based on the tenor of his imagery, one might expect a Sprockets-esque character dressed head to toe in black, a humorless Nordic personality of precision, a morose and difficult artist that inflicts passive-aggressive insults and suffering upon us stupid art directors in exchange for his award-winning work. But Jon is perhaps the most American artist working in professional illustration today. He’s a proud middle-class son of the fine city of Philadelphia, and he loves its sports, its food, its place in history. He’s funny, charming, extroverted, and one of the least difficult artists to work with that I know. He could easily be mistaken for a steelworker if one didn’t know what deep artistic talents lay within his cranium.
Because of that upbringing, I believe that Jon self-identifies as a craftsman, a first-class painter with years of practice—someone who knows his medium, his tools, and his motif. All true. But don’t let that humility fool you. The images that follow in these pages prove beyond a doubt that his is a master’s intelligence, and that illustration is the language that he has chosen to expresses that intelligence. That’s why he is successful. That’s why his clients return again and again. And that’s why, even at this apex of success, he has a lifetime of work in front of him still to do and the passion to sustain it.
Morgan Freeman’s voice, Eddie Van Halen’s riffs, Robert Frank’s photographs, Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings—there are certain artists of such original and memorable style that it takes less than a second to recognize their gift. Jon Krause is far too humble to add himself to that list, but as an art director who has plied the craft for twenty years, I can say with certainty that he belongs right up there with them.