Illustrator Profile - Jonathon Rosen: "I'm a Medievalist 20th Century guy living in the 21st Century."

By Robert Newman   Thursday September 24, 2015

Jonathon Rosen an illustrator, artist, animator, graphic designer, and bookmaker who creates smart, provocative, engaging imagery with highly original style and accomplished technique. He makes comics, editorial illustrations, drawings, art projects, animation, exhibits, books and book covers, and much more, and his work appears in a wide array of publications, galleries, performance spaces, and other venues. Rosen also teaches illustration, cartooning, and visual narrative at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

“Drawing is number one. I love pen and ink,” says Rosen. That's obvious when you look at his illustrations, which are masterful examples of both detail and creative imagination.

Rosen describes his work as “an ongoing experiment in boundary blurring in both media and context.” His latest project is the book Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, which he co-wrote and designed. The book is a beautiful, psychedelic hand-colored collection of images from early silent films. There’s a book party and illustrated lecture by Rosen celebrating its release on October 5 at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn.


LA, California. I was born and raised there. My paternal grandfather invented (but did not patent) the now ubiquitous motion picture camera dolly and track system. He was a key grip on many classic Hollywood movies from the 30s to 60s, including Hitchcock’s Rope. No doubt some of that is in my DNA.

My mom is a Photoshop-montage artist who got her MFA at age 60 and armed with a prior bachelor’s degree in psychology, started her psychiatric practice in her early 80s. My dad was an avid sailboat racer, mountain climber and accomplished mechanical engineer. When I was a young kid he worked for Mattel Toys on projects such as Chatty Cathy and brought home toys like the Astronaut Major Matt Mason space station.

I grew up on a solid diet of 60s cartoons including Bullwinkle, Hoppity Hooper, The Jetsons, the Fleischer Brother’s Popeye, Felix the Cat, and Red Raven Records, which came with a magic mirror carousel spindle (praxinoscope-like) device to watch the animation loops printed on the record labels. I was into DC comics like Batman and Superman, but put them down at age nine when I discovered Zap Comix. I was also heavily influenced by the Art and Technology show at the LA County Museum of Art (1971) and TV shows at the time such as The Prisoner and Dr. Syn, alias The Scarecrow.

After attending an alternative public high school called Area H Alternative School, I studied analog electronic music, printmaking and analog color separation at Otis Art institute and several local colleges. Simultaneously, at 18 I began a seven-year stint in several fine art printmaking ateliers, helping produce and curate limited edition artist prints, including working with Jean-Michel Basquiat (circa ’83-’84) on his screen printed editions and paintings. The printmaking experience was absolutely crucial for me as far as my art process and discipline. Other jobs I’ve had include being a guard at the New York Metropolitan Museum, a sculptor’s assistant, working in analog color separation and photo finishing labs, and a year-long job in the mid-80s as a gallery assistant/technician at the Gagosian Gallery, in West LA.

Since 1987 I’ve been a full-time freelance artist. I make static and moving images. My work revolves around but is not limited to unusual extrapolations of the bio-mechanical, scientific and carnivalesque aesthetic. Since the early 1980s I have been interested in the ever-merging of humans and machines and the imminent arrival of pervasive machine consciousness.

My work is an ongoing experiment in boundary blurring in both media and context. The boundaries between my personal and published work are extremely permeable and there is a constant back and forth migration, recycling, and repurposing of components and compositions. Likewise, there is also migration between my static and moving image work.

After living in Park Slope, Brooklyn for 23 years with a separate studio, I am now situated 5.6 miles north of the Bronx in Crestwood, NY.


I work both in the attic and basement of our 115-year-old house and I love the brevity of the commute to my studio (a few steps) and to New York City (about 30 minutes to Midtown via Metro North). I like being around my books, music and my wife Dianna’s extensive intensive garden. The Cloisters Museum, the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound are all within an average 20-minute drive. Harlem is 20 minutes away by train and the stunning Bronx River bike path is a mere two blocks away—a multi-mile slice of nature located within the Bronx River Reservation, an 807-acre linear park created as an adjunct to the construction of the Bronx River Parkway.


Drawing is number one. I love pen and ink. I keep sketchbooks and keep most of my loose sketches archived in folders and notebook binders. My more complex compositions are generated through the use of tracing paper layers—the drawing as archeological dig. I use a photocopier machine extensively, often collaging together drawings and adding tracing paper layers on top. I use the computer for coloring unless I have a leisurely deadline in which case I will either color by hand on paper or do a full-on acrylic-on-wood painting. If something is photo-based there can be many manipulations on the photo layer (generally to make it as realistic as possible) before printing out and subverting by adding drawing and texture layers. Besides pushing a rational concept, chance operations and unconscious suggestion factor strongly in my process. I’m open to free association and creative accidents and make extensive use thereof.


The idea of the bio-mechanical body was triggered for me in the early 80s—the first time I saw someone on the street wired up to a Walkman. This created a whole cascade of images for me of something that’s a now wholly-integrated art/cultural vernacular tendency, but back then, it wasn’t. Drawings like mine were seen as an aberration, mental or otherwise. Now it’s the new normal.

I have been very, very fortunate to have had many opportunities to get my work out there and be seen. When I moved to New York in 1985 I had very few published things in my portfolio. Wes Anderson, an art director at The Village Voice (no relation to the film director) published a number of projects which I pitched for the paper's V page, a kind of lab for artist and writer’s projects, and he also gave me a number of very important early commissions.

Intestinal Fortitude, a limited edition letterpress book of sketchbook drawings co-published with Pace Editions master printer Ruth Lingen led to a slew of jobs including working on the film Sleepy Hollow. It was an amazing learning experience working directly with film director Tim Burton and production designer Rick Heinrichs on the sketchbook drawings seen in the film.

The great musician/composer Tom Recchion got me started doing live video performances by inviting me to perform with him as part of the performance series for the seminal MOCA, LA exhibition “Visual Music” at the Cal Arts Redcat Theater.


A major influence for me is Medieval art and gothic grotesque, as seen through the lens of comics and surrealism. I’m interested in oddities of all stripes: 19th Century circus and magic posters, optical toys, James Ensor, Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, Brueghel, Bosch, Tadanori Yokoo, Pick A Peck of Puzzles by Arnold Roth…

You can add to that biology and obsolete technology. Sailboat rigging. Russian constructivist design. Medical museums. Fleischer Brothers and Jan Svankmajer animation. Classic LP covers. Phillip K. Dick. Silent and experimental cinema, and well, way too many to list here.


I’m an omnivorous visual glutton with interests both wide-ranging and specific. I have an extensive analog book library which makes for excellent picture fertilizer. The Facebook group Plonsky, fellow artists and the postings by Stephen Ellcock are also ever-fertile territory. My personal work archive often inspires new work. You never know what’s going to set off a spark (or a deluge).


It’s not the solitude, nor the difficulties of the work itself. Being a creative cultural worker in the new economy where so much cultural content is free, the challenge is figuring out how to monetize alternative revenue streams. Besides that, I very much enjoy collaborating with smart collaborators. The great thing about doing commercial art is I can find myself tackling projects and subjects I possibly might never have touched on my own, and that’s a challenge I really enjoy.


Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema (2015) is my most recent book project. This new book is a lavishly- produced, visually hedonistic compendium of images culled and directly scanned from original nitrate hand colored silent films (1896-1915) from the EYE Film Institute, Netherlands.

It's been a labor of love and absolute visual gluttony. Martin Scorsese wrote the foreword.

My co-authors are Tom Gunning, Giovanna Fossati, and Joshua Yumibe with an illustrated Filmography by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.

Our vision was to create a book with solid academic content that would be visually rewarding and accessible for curious non-specialists. I co-designed the book with Laura Lindgren (of Blast Books) and did all image editing and prepress, including a flip book index meter on the outer margin.

My essay is mostly a subjective one describing the experience of viewing and living with this material as an artist, animator and non-historian. The essay makes extensive use of images from projected non-nitrate safety films photographed during the initial screenings. This was then assembled into a narrative photo-comic strip according to unconscious suggestion as a kind of self-forming, self-aggregating organism.


That would probably be an obscenely well-funded multi-episodic film project based on my own concept which I direct, handle pre- and post-production design which then becomes the multi-screen installation center piece of a major museum retrospective. The props for the film will magically transform into art objects in the show via recontextualisation - the exhibition for which will include a heavy monster-sized catalog. (Tell me this is not a dream, Matthew Barney).


Len Small of Nautilus has given me multiple seriously great topics to work with in the last year. Kelly Doe of The New York Times gave a particularly special assignment doing all the illustrations including two videos and the cover for a special edition of the Times Science section on Sleep. Alexandra Zsigmond, Matt Dorfman, Aviva Michaelov, Peter Morance and Catherine Gilmore-Barnes of The New York Times have all been an incredible pleasure to work with, providing me with amazing assignments. Steve Byram was an early champion of my work and with whom I have collaborated on many music industry projects, recently collaborating on duo video performances all over the UK with the avant-garde jazz trio Paraphrase and three concerts at the Columbia University Miller Theater with classical musician Christopher O’Riley.


I’m attracted to creative cultural workers who defy categorization as being either commercial or fine art, or, like Warhol & Helmut Newton, freely admit to being commercial artists. I admire and respect so many artists who are blurring boundaries between high and low: Gary Panter, Elina Merenmies, Paul McCarthy, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Tadanori Yokoo, Richard Foreman, Ryoichi Ikeda, David Lynch, Harry Campbell, Ruth Marten, Henrik Drescher. Too many to mention…

Jean-Luc Godard’s recent 3D film made with home-made 3D cameras Goodbye to Language was a total knock-out.


I’m a Medievalist 20th Century guy living in the 21st Century. As a teacher it’s my job to keep up with my field. My students also introduce me to new things cultural. My SVA MFA/Visual Narrative classes are all online, a seriously pioneering new branch of academia involving capturing, editing and front loading lectures and lots of live video chats. I started doing animation with my first computer (a Mac clone, ahem) in 1997. The motion work has led to performing with musicians and having that work seen in concert venues, galleries and museums. I‘m inspired by learning and using new mediums although I’ll admit I seem to have a propensity for making myself uncomfortable by constantly attempting things I’ve never done before. I’ve been doing more design work lately, which I enjoy on an formal aesthetic level as well as being able to control the entire look and feel of a project from beginning to end.


The promotion happens by mostly by working and having work published. I submit to American Illustration, Motion and American Photography. I write personal emails. I show work and talk to people. The work is a little like a vapor. I never know how or where it’s going to permeate.


Stay curious. Don’t wait for an assignment or for the phone to ring. Push your own ideas out there and be sure you love what you’re doing.

See more Jonathon Rosen illustrations, new work, projects, and updates:

Jonathon Rosen website

Fantastia of Color in Early Cinema book Facebook page

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema review and background