Johanna Westerman was a pleasure to talk to. The reason why I was inspired to interview her was because I loved the feedback she gave me during an illustration critique. I liked her take on good narrative illustration. You can tell she really loves and respects the industry and her peers. She is a generous and eager teacher as well. I enjoyed my time with her.
She is excited to be interviewed and I am grateful for this. We sit in the beginning illustration room and we begin. She is relaxed and friendly and it’s like talking to a friend. I don’t know why but my eyes were drawn to her blue flower and white printed scarf. We begin.
- What do you do?
JW: I am a professor at Orange Coast College. I teach figure composition. I am also a children’s book illustrator for the past 30 years. I attended Scripps College, in Claremont. I have less than a semester left until I get my Masters in Illustration.
- Where did you study and was your idea of college or art school everything you expected?
JW: No, because when I was in undergraduate school it was very liberal. I had hippy beach bum type artists [for professors] that were very liberal in their approach. Not a lot of structure. The structure, I learned in graduate school, all the techniques. I always knew how to do stuff, but how do you learn composition techniques. Very free range; do what you want in undergrad, it was very liberal. At Scripps, very much drawing and painting, no perspective class, no real technique based classes. There were no computers back then, this was the 80s. Typography was setting letter by hand, for example.
- Where did you get most of your knowledge? School or work?
JW: Working in the field was important for illustration. I learned as I went. My technical skill came in grad school. Those were just polishing up the skills I had. I already had them but I understood the why behind the how.
- What gets you out of a creative low? What, who, where inspires you?
JW: (Chuckles) That’s my problem. And schoolwork, my assignments take over; I have to get them done. And assignments are not the same as doing your own work. Sometimes I’ll do something else, something totally unrelated to art. I’ll look at books and try to get re-inspired, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen. And you have to be done and know that it will come back. Maybe not that day… Realize that it might not come back that same day, but the inspiration will come back. Sometimes it’s gone for a while and you have to find a way to bring it back but know that the idea is not gone, it’s just dormant for a little bit.
- What is the most challenging aspect of being a freelancer?
JW: Self-promotion. No one promotes you. You have to do it yourself. Marketing is so important. As an artist, you need to always find new ways to show your work. Never stop working. And resting on your laurels is not an option. The years go by and you realize that really amazing thing you did last year suddenly becomes that really amazing thing you did 5 years ago. All the while other artists are just cranking out work and whizzing right past you. You need to be able to keep up and keep working. Staying in the game, basically.
- What other love or hobby do you have that fuels your art?
JW: I had a love for gardening in the past, but now I am a busy mom. Being an artist and being a parent is a fine line to walk. It’s about modifying your normal life. There are only so many hours in the day for everyone. You can’t fit everything in. If you try, you’ll end up burning out and getting sick. For instance, if your kid goes to the emergency room, you have to stop everything that you’re doing and tend to your child. It’s out of your control. It’s a very fine line to cross, being an artist and being a parent. I read somewhere that if you want to have a career you shouldn’t have more than two kids. I don’t believe that, I’m just saying that while you have young children, everything will have to wait. You can’t put a hundred per cent of yourself in your career. It’s not possible. That’s the thing about doing freelance. You can take what you want on… you’re in control. Sometimes the kids come home from school and you want to work on your illustrations for 2 more hours but you can’t. You have to put your work on hold and get back to it later. It’s a whole different kind of discipline.
- Why do you do what you do? Why do you keep making art?
JW: I like to draw, I like to get lost in the details. But I’m not one of those people who have this emotional artistic, you know, the myth of trying to get it out there… that’s not who I am. I do it because I like to do it and I know what I’m good at. I like to go through all the process of getting to the finished piece, even though it takes a very long time to get to the finish. Sometimes I’ll put it off and put it off, but the really fun part doesn’t come until the end. It’s almost like a curse being an artist because while at times you’re not happy with what you’ve done you can experience pleasure in the process of it…Art is like learning a whole new language…
- Who is your favorite artist/ least favorite artist?
JW: I would say one of my favorite artists of all time is Durer (Albrecht). Amazing. I’m stunned every time I see that work. I’m jealous that he was so young…the skill…he’s way up there. As for illustrators, I love Aurthur Rackam. He was an early 1900s illustrator, 1920s? Beautiful work.
Also, Edmund Dulack is one of my favorites.
As for contemporary artists, I really love Nicola Baily. He is an English artist.
As for least favorite artist, I’d have to say Botero (Fernando). I don’t like those figures he draws!
I don’t like when people who fall for the gimmick of art marketing. I really disapprove of people who market frauds basically. The publishing world has become an industry of all the independent booksellers being swallowed up by Amazon and big consumers. You have editors that know very little about books but are working there because they have a very strong marketing background. Twenty or thirty years ago, the publishing world was different. Editors had passion for books and good art. They chose books based on good art, (and a good story). Good book art is not dummied down for people. It was a respectable career in the past, now a lot of it is just about cranking out books and (the bottom line)… money money money…
- What’s good illustration to you?
JW: Something that isn’t so literal. That you’re just taking words and you’re doing a picture to copy that. Good (illustrative narrative) is capturing the viewer’s attention in an additional way from the text. It separates the text. It includes elements of the text but it gives an unexpected interpretation. The words will tell the story while your work will embellish the words. See if you could hide a second story within your illustration. Is there some little element in your illustration you could carry out throughout? Is there another storyline that isn’t there that you could sell [to your viewer]? Hiding deliberate details within the story brings you into the illustration.
And of course, if it’s well drawn. If you can’t draw, don’t try to hide that in a children’s book, thinking that the kids don’t care. Bring in a standard for your kid’s reading experience.
10. What did you like reading to your children when they were growing up?
JW: We did all the classic stories and I like to make sure they read the book before the movie for instance. I’m very traditional that way.