How Jon Burgerman Turned Doodling into a Day Job

Casey Lesser
Feb 15, 2018 8:50PM

Portrait of Jon Burgerman. Photo by Bas Berkhout. Courtesy of the artist.

Jon Burgerman, Rhyme Crime. Courtesy of the artist.

Doodling—the free-wheeling approach to drawing favored by kids and artists alike—may at first seem like a mindless or futile activity, but research in recent years has proven that it aids concentration and creativity. It’s no surprise that the great 20th-century French artist Jean Dubuffet conceived his most famous series of paintings and sculptures, “L’Hourloupe,” while talking on the phone and doodling with a ballpoint pen. Today, over five decades later, a wave of artists continues to employ doodling as a viable method to fuel creativity—and even, in the case of a few, a full-fledged creative career.

Prominent among such “doodle artists” is the British, Brooklyn-based artist Jon Burgerman. It’s possible you’ve seen his work via Instagram (he often draws funny faces on photos of food or adds dancing hot dogs to New York street scenes; last year, his Instagram Stories were featured at the Tate Modern in London) or in the pages of a clever children’s book, like the new title Rhyme Crime. Maybe you’ve spied his dancing noodles mural at Xi’an Famous Foods in Chinatown, or the scribble-filled sneakers he designed for Puma. Burgerman has worked with major brands, like Nike, MTV, and Apple, and along the way he’s been spreading the gospel of doodling among children and adults alike, through various books and workshops.

“It was meant to be a bit of a gag,” he said, speaking from his studio at the Invisible Dog Art Center, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. “People would ask me what is it that you make, and in a self-effacing kind of way I would say ‘Oh, it’s just doodles.’ In a funny way, it stuck over the last 20 years or so, and now I have people emailing me and saying, ‘I make doodle work just like you!’”

Mural by Jon Burgerman in Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the artist.


Like many, Burgerman’s artistic inclinations trace back to childhood, growing up in Birmingham, England. “It was impossible to walk past a window with condensation or a muddy car and not draw something with my index finger,” he recalled, adding that he would fill the margins of test papers with doodles at the end of an exam, in lieu of checking his work (“I got in trouble quite a bit, innocently drawing on stuff”).

He reasons he’s been working in vaguely the same vein since art school at Nottingham Trent University. He was painting and drawing, but for his final degree show, inspired by museum gift shops, he built a makeshift boutique filled with lo-fi, handmade trinkets. “I didn’t realize then that I would go on and license my works and make products like these for real,” Burgerman said.

The artist has since fully embraced his commercial side; today, you can buy everything from ceramic mugs and notebooks, to iPad sleeves, wallpaper, and temporary tattoos sporting his playful creations.

A new area of focus has been children’s books, an industry he tapped into through a recommendation from friend and fellow artist Oliver Jeffers (a leading artist in children’s book publishing). Burgerman’s first picture book, Splat!, was published last June. His second children’s book, Rhyme Crime—which follows a clever, rhyming crook—will publish in the United States this April.

Jon Burgerman, Rhyme Crime. Courtesy of the artist.

Jon Burgerman, Rhyme Crime. Courtesy of the artist.

“I may start out saying I’m going to paint this or draw this, but I’m never quite sure how it's going to work out.”

Part of the goal is simple, honest enjoyment. “I’m making stuff that satisfies my need to be creative, and also makes me smile or laugh,” he explained. Indeed, he noted that he’s in his “happiest state” when he’s able to make things, whether that’s with a pen, his iPhone, or Instagram’s drawing tools. It’s a satisfaction he aims to share with others.

“It feels like you’re summoning this sort of super power, to know that you can manipulate the world around you to create something,” he mused. It’s this kind of empowered thinking that inspired his 2017 books, It’s Great to Create and Daily Doodle, both of which encourage individuals to make drawing a part of their everyday lives, and his Doodle School, a series of drop-in workshops he held in New York that engaged adults in wacky, Burgerman-style art projects.

Pages from Jon Burgerman’s Daily Doodle. Courtesy of the artist.

“A lot of people say ‘I’m not good at art, so I shouldn’t really do it,’ but who's to say what’s good and bad?” he offered. “I try and show in all my work how it’s been made, and hopefully that triggers something in your brain, so you say ‘Hey, I could do that.’”

Burgerman’s Doodle School likewise puts the emphasis on having fun and being creative, rather than making artworks that might end up in a gallery. The lessons revolve around exercises with simple materials, markers, and paper. There’s no training necessary and the focus is on spontaneity.  

“As soon as you take away that pressure people go for it,” Burgerman explained. “We all grew up with clay and some scribbling, it’s innate in us, but at a certain age that’s taken away from us. It’s not considered grown-up, in a way.”

He’s witnessed many adults quickly become swept up in a childlike wonderment. “It’s very infectious. I’m very keen to share that with people,” he reflected. “We should have these pockets of joy all the time.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Associate Director of Content.
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