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Oslo Davis

Gather & Fold's focus on Melbourne was never supposed to be definitive, but it was certainly lacking without Oslo Davis. Originally from Tasmania, once Oslo moved to Melbourne he steadily drew his way around The City of Melbourne, Readings, NGV, The Age and Golden Plains. His illustrated series 'Overheard' made us smile knowingly and cringe self-consciously, his idiosyncratic drawn line synonymous with a well-observed quip, his watercolours thoughtful and sentimental depictions of family, daily living, strangers, odd moments and Melbourne.

The designer and illustrator George Hardie has said, when describing what he does for a living, 'I notice things and I get things noticed'. Keen observation is a great skill for an illustrator, but particularly with Overheard, it is the heart.

I've always tried to base Overheard in reality. The premise of Overheard is that it records real Melbournians saying funny or dumb or clever things. My job is to catch these quotes and draw the scenes where they occur. I hope people identify the locations in Overheard, as well as the trendy label on a lady's bag, the ubiquitous winter pea coats, the latte, the souped-up Honda or the crappy pot plants at the garage sale. I also hope readers of Overheard pick up the language a particular person uses; snobby, boganese, cutting, ditzy.

I would think so - Overheard is always spot-on, it captures the idea of people who can appear so abstract in everyday life. You express their sincerity.

Thanks. That's what I hope. People love to see their world and people they know in Overheard. There's something affirming about it.

You have said that you can draw, but 'not draw draw'. How has your style evolved, that you have developed without training, over time?

When I said I can't 'draw draw' I was trying to say that I don't have any technical drawing skills; I never studied art and I always feel my work looks like it's by someone who's making it up as he goes along. Which I am! Nor do I have those slick, traditional cartooning skills that almost all the daily cartoon strip cartoonists have. My main goal is to try to draw a funny or clever idea. That's it. Sometimes the idea is so funny or clever it won't matter how wonky the drawing is. Other times a mediocre joke or idea will need a stylish drawing to lift it up, to justify its existence. The great comic and editorial artists who I admire can do both - great jokes and stylish drawings - in equal, exemplary measures (bastards!).

They are easily digestible - is there an accessibility to what you draw?

I don't know. I guess that's for other people to decide. Some are, but this is only based on likes and comments on Facebook. But I know that other cartoons completely stump people. Through to the keeper, as they say.

Having not come from a drawing background, how did you enter into the drawing profession? When working for yourself, there is a specific type of discipline required, especially when ideas aren't forthcoming...

I have been drawing since my early twenties but that was just in sketchbooks. Then for the next ten years, while I travelled overseas (India, Vietnam and Japan), I drew more complex works, and started self-publishing my own books and pamphlets. One was called hungrygeese and the one after that was called Raised Eyebrows. Both were full of silly drawn observations, done in a kind of sketchbook/diary style because that's what they were: cleaned up jokes and drawings from my sketchbooks. I then started to send these pamphlets to editors of magazines and newspapers (whether they liked it or not!). Some of them liked them enough to commission me to do more work for them. I did a lot of work for free, especially for literary journals. I did this to get my name known and to build up my professional skills, but mostly to see if people liked my jokes. I started contributing to The Age about six years ago, doing occasional cartoons and magazine covers. Writer friends of mine and I would pitch ideas to editors who liked us - I found that editors were more likely to run cartoons if there was some text to accompany it. Overheard started about four years ago and my gag cartoons have been on the back page of The Age for the last two and a half years. Both gigs started because editors wanted me on the page they were looking after.

In a technical sense, how do you plan an illustration or cartoon? Especially when you need to produce some so quickly, like for The Age?

Idea first, most of the time, then a sketch on some A4 paper just to get the layout right, then some time is spent getting the language or quote right, then I draw it up on nice paper, colour it and scan it into Photoshop before it's emailed. Easy! The hard part is coming up with killer ideas day in day out. As you can tell from my woefully uneven body of work to-date, I'm not unfamiliar with those atrocious, brain-busting, no idea days in the studio.

Do you go outside, into public areas, with the purpose of observing?

For Overheard I do leave my cave to gather quotes and take photos but mostly I hear stuff incidentally. I have even walked about with the sound turned down on my headphones. With gag cartoons and other drawings the magic (!) all happens in my studio. (I have a thinking chair, which doesn't work.)

Can any connection be drawn between your training in Shakespearean acting and your ability to portray facial expressions so succinctly?

Well actually, I took some drama classes at uni as part of my teaching degree and part of that we did some Shakespeare, but it wasn't a focus. But there is some connection between the physical expressiveness of an artist in real life and the work they do on paper. Look at any cartoonist when he draws and you will see that he pulls a few faces.

What is your intended 'tone of voice' for your cartoons? What are you saying about people, about Melbourne? There is a genuine fondness, even when they are throwing off...

I think every cartoonist has an attitude to life from which all his or her work stems from. For me it's a general feeling that all people are crazy, life is suffering and we won't get out of this alive. The only thing we can do is to not take ourselves too seriously.

And the text? How did you develop the hand drawn text - rather than using digital type?

I have ugly handwriting so I attempt a loose approximation of typefaces I like. New Yorker cartoons use a standard italic Times New Roman for their captions, which works well in creating a consistency across their magazine. But I prefer that my text has a little more personality, without taking over too much.

What came of your Creative Fellowship at the State Library?

It's a deliciously rare thing for an artist to be given freedom and time to work. I was given three months to work in the State Library in 2010 - to engage with the collection and to draw. There was no prescribed agenda or agreed outcome but I set about drawing the Library and the people who used it. I didn't plan it at the time but eventually the sum of my drawings became a self-published book titled Libraryland! It felt like I was back drawing like I did before I had four or five deadlines a week. I was a lot looser, less critical and more whimsical, and I think Libraryland! reflects this.

Most of your work seems to centre around Melbourne city and its inhabitants. You are also very involved in Melbourne - with Three Thousand, the City of Melbourne, the NGV, the Immigration Museum, The Age... What is it about this city?

Melbourne is an inspiration, there's no doubt about that. Cities in general offer an artist a lot of stuff to think about. Right now, Melbourne has a good sense of the global zeitgeist. Immigration has meant we are plugged into what's going on in the world and there is a feeling now that if you are in Melbourne and you are a professional in any field, you are working at an international standard. AND YET it's a city of bigots and bogans! Whataplace!



Oslo on Twitter

Images and photography property of Oslo Davis.