Pacific Northwest through the eyes of Czech illustrator Jindřich Janíček
Roadside hotels, run-down gas stations and snack stands, second hand bookstores but also vast forests, volcanoes and indie rock music. That is the Pacific Northwest seen through the eyes of Czech illustrator Jindřich Janíček in his latest book called Na západ severozápadní linkou or West by Northwest. The unusual travel journal is based on the memories of his and his wife’s two-week trip to Washington, British Columbia and Oregon and reflects his long-time fascination with North American culture and geography. Indeed the title itself refers to the famous film by Alfred Hitchcock called North by Northwest. When I met with Jindřich Janíček, I first asked him where this fascination originated:
“I think it was mostly the cheap TV shows that I watched after school when I was a kid, such as A-team, Hunter, L.A. Heat or Sentinel, which ran after the Latin American TV shows at midday.
“When I got back from school at around 2pm there were all these crime shows featuring old police cars and stock footage of Los Angeles and California and it was just fascinating.”
“When I got back from school at around 2pm there were all these crime shows featuring old police cars and stock footage of Los Angeles and California and it was just fascinating.
“However, I feel that more recently I need to separate between my fascination with American culture and the politics of the United States. I don’t like the political situation but the fascination with geography still continues and despite all the bad things happening there I would still like to go back.”
You undertook the trip in March 2019 and you worked on the book for the next three years. What did you base your pictures on? Did you make sketches or photos while you were there?
“It’s a bit of everything. When we went there, I brought my sketchbook and pencils, but in the end I didn’t draw anything. Suddenly the need to explore the place was more important than to sit somewhere and draw. I just couldn’t do it.
“I think I only got a couple of sketches from there. Instead, I wrote down everything, usually late at night at the different hotels and motels. I would just write down simple sentences about the weather, about what we saw, where we went and I also noted the conversations we had with different people.
“At that point, I didn’t know I would turn the material into a book. I always imagined I would do some 16 pages or so and self-publish it in a small print run, but it just kept growing and growing.
“So the pictures are based mainly on my memory. Sometimes I also used satellite photos, old pictures and even YouTube videos of different people travelling there.
“For example, I had a die-cast truck when I was little and I spotted the real car parked near the airport in Seattle. However, I only managed to get a blurred picture of it from the train going downtown.
“Two and a half years later, I noticed the same truck in a random YouTube video posted by a guy who was presenting the city’s public transportation. So I really used any material available.”
As you say in the foreword to your book, it wasn’t originally your intention to dedicate a whole book to your trip… Why did you change your mind?
“The project became a sort of relaxing activity that I did after work. The published book was never the end goal. I was just lucky that the publisher picked it up.
“By that point I was nearly half-way done. I just kept adding more pictures and pages — what I missed about the place, what I liked about the place — and it just kept growing.”
Do you have more travelogues of this kind of this sort sitting in your drawer from your previous journeys?
“I have only been in the United States once before for a couple of days in New York. But since everybody has been to New York, there was no need to draw another set of skyscrapers in Manhattan. But this was something completely unexpected and new for me.
“Lots of people live there and it is completely ordinary for them, but for me and my wife it was overwhelming in a positive sense. I still miss the place and I would like to go back.”
“Lots of people live there and it is completely ordinary for them, but for me and my wife it was overwhelming in a positive sense, so I just kept remembering. And even today, I still miss the place. I really love the place and I would like to go back. I don’t know why. It just happened.
“The weather was beautiful, the people were nice, the mountains and volcanoes were just incredible….”
You mention the mountains, but you also recall other places, including roadside hotels, run-down gas stations and the numerous cafes that you visited during your trip, but you pay special attention to bridges. What fascinates you about bridges?
“I am not really sure. I just think they are beautiful. Maybe it has to do with my fascination with the United States. When I was watching Western movies, there was always a wooden bridge that looked like it was about to collapse but somehow managed to hold together.
“Most of the bridges that we saw were just huge and impressive and very unassuming. It was just a random highway bridge that’s there because there is a highway and they need a bridge. So it’s just a proper functioning piece of infrastructure that is fascinating from below.”
Among the things that you had on your bucket list while visiting Vancouver was an NHL match. Are you a hockey fan?
“I am an NHL fan. In fact, NHL is the only league I watch. I don’t know anything about Czech hockey. When you have so many hockey leagues in the world I think it’s only logical to pick the best there is and watch that.
“We just went to Vancouver because the match was played there and it was the closest chance to see an NHL game. It was before Seattle got itself its own NHL team. But it was actually quite boring…”
I just wanted to ask you if it lived up to your expectations….
“Yes! I am glad I crossed it out and I hope I will go again in the future, but maybe to some more meaningful game. It was late in the season and Vancouver was out of the play-off race. But it was still good to see the stadium from inside.”
The book even has an imaginary soundtrack inspired by some of the locations, and by the music you listened to while travelling through the North West. Did you listen to the music while working on the book? Did it help you bring out the memories?
“Back then, we didn’t have a car, so when we rented a car, the possibility to connect your mobile phone with a Bluetooth in the car was something out of the future. We just listened to the music we like, such as Sun Kil Monn and Mark Kozelek in general. But the soundtrack in the book evolved only later, because at the time I didn’t know the songs by Mark Kozelek that took place in Seattle.
“I would say it was part of my discovery process for creating the book. There were so many dead ends that I researched and never used. So many small bands and songwriters that I tried to learn about. Some of them I still listen to this day and some of them I don’t care about.
“But the dead ends were multiple. I also started watching geology lectures by the University of Central Washington about the volcanoes. I thought it would be part of the book but it never ended up there. There are only a few of mentions about volcano activity that I remembered. So I think it’s just another part of learning process about the place that I visited.”
Can you tell us something about your drawings? What kind of technique do you use?
“The book is printed in three spot colours: greyish blue, worn out red and brown yellow but when you print them together the yellow and blue mix into green.
“I chose the colours to create the right feeling reflecting my memories. I remember there was sunshine in the woods and there were so many different tones of green under the trees, but the trees themselves always looked kind of grey.
“The technique is drawing in three different layers, drawing each colour separately in pencil and then just printing them on top of each other so that they combine.
“It is something I learned at school in the silk screen workshop and it is the easiest thing to do. All you need is just two colours and when you print them, you get a third one on top of it.”
You recently won this year’s Grand Design Award for Best Illustrator of the Year for the Book West by Northwest but also for your illustrations of a children’s book by Annet Schaap called Little Lamp. Do you enjoy switching between doing your own work and illustrating other people’s books?
“It depends. Some part of my work is for joy, which is the case of West by North West. The Little Lamp was a job that paid my bills and the enjoyment comes from cooperating with the publisher, which is Baobab.
“I have already done some other books for them before in the past and I always enjoy the process, because they trust me and I can do what I want.
“But you can also have a publisher that is really strict and wants you to do for example a historical novel with epic illustrations spread on two pages, which can get boring very quickly. So it depends on the publishers and on the type of the job.”
What are you working on at the moment?
“I have already mentioned New York before and I am actually about to start my work on a children’s book about New York. I was asked to do it before the pandemic. I was supposed to go there for a study trip and I already had my ticket but then the flight was cancelled.
“As I said before, when I first visited the New York City I didn’t draw anything because I felt I couldn’t come up with anything new. But it has been seven years since I visited the city for the first time.
“Last year I spent a month there and I slowly discovered that there were still some things missing in children’s books, for example how the big city actually works and also the historical and political reasons explaining why the city looks the way it does.
“So now I feel comfortable about finding my own perspective of looking at the city and I should start working on it because the publisher would like.”