Thursday, July 6, 2017

Interview With an Illustrator

Joanna is like a crow. She sees something shiny and she instantly wants it – or more like draws it.
And it’s not diamonds or emeralds that sends her her heart aflutter. Things made of metal weighing up to 3,000 lbs and sporting a diamond-like finish are what grabs her attention and has her swooping back around for a better look - or picture. As an illustrator for most of her life, Joanna Szasz Vandervlugt has found her niche in drawing anything with wheels – cars, motorcycles, bicycles, the list goes on - things women are not typically known for drawing. No matter the shape, size, age and import, with a wave of her pencil, marker, and brush, Joanna can bring out the sparkle in any mode of transportation.

And not only does she do commissioned portraits of people and vehicles from clients around the world, but her work has been made into greeting cards which not only does she sell for charity, but are featured in stores around the country.

Lisa: Thank you so much for joining me here, Joanna! Tell us a bit about yourself…When did you start illustrating? What got you started? Did you go to school – take classes have a degree? How many years doing cars and motorcycles?

I drew as a child and in my teens I created charcoal portraits. As soon as I went to college, I stopped. I blame my Economics class. I then met my husband, got married, and had children. Twenty years later I tried drawing again, but I was disappointed at my result. I figured I had lost “the eye.” I crumpled up my sketch and never talked about it. Ten years later (at age 48), I started drawing again at the encouragement of my best friend. I remember how pleased she was when I told her I bought a bigger sketch book. After about 6 to 8 months, the drawing skills came back, and so did “the eye”. I’ve been drawing and illustrating for 3 years now, attending a handful of art workshops, but I’m basically self-taught.

Lisa: Did you start with pencil then go on to paint and marker? Was there a progression? What did start with and what do you use now? What is your favorite medium?

Joanna: As a teenager I used charcoal pencils. I did an illustration of Colin Farrell a couple years back with charcoal pencils….it’s not that easy. I started creating illustrations with watercolour pencils. Then one day I saw the fashion illustrations of Hayden Williams (a British Illustrator) and his illustrations blew my mind. To create art with such vibrant markers, I had to get some and soon six markers grew into 72.

Lisa: Did you always draw cars? Always people? Was there a subject matter you mainly illustrated in the early days and If different than vehicles, how did you evolve into doing cars and motorcycles?

Joanna: Given I started drawing in the ‘80s during the Supermodel era; I’ve always loved drawing people. I’ve drawn Linda Evangelista, Christie Brinkley, Andi MacDowell. My mother wouldn’t let me have a boyfriend, so I survived puberty by drawing the members of Queen over and over and over again.  I would draw using People magazine photos or record album covers. That’s how I taught myself. My mother was amazed and I think relieved that I could spend 6-hours on a summer’s day, drawing. She knew I wouldn’t stop drawing until I got it right.
I started drawing cars because a very good friend, Lisa Verhagen, asked me if I would illustrate her husband’s Sprint car. I said sure. One car illustration led to another car illustration.

Lisa: What’s your favorite to illustrate?

Joanna: I love illustrating people, especially their clothes and if they’re involved in movement. The motorcycle illustration of the girl, those jeans took me 2 hours to colour. I loved it. My favorite illustrations involve people, motorcycle and cars. One day I hope to have an illustration involving all three.
Lisa: Do you have a favorite car? Old or new? Classic or modern?

Joanna: It depends on the car. The classic cars are full of curves and character and there’s usually a story behind how the owner obtained that car. I like hearing about the back story of a particular vehicle. Yet the European sports cars, such as Porsche and McLaren, wow! But besides cars, motorcycles are really cool to illustrate, lots of bends with pipes and air valves. I have learned that tires, be it car or motorcycle, are not round. Tires are oval.

Lisa: How do you feel as you are creating? How do you feel when a project is finished?

Joanna: I feel like I’m doing what I was born to do. I get so into the process. You and your fellow writers will totally get this, it’s like I’m not in this physical space. My husband once called me from work and he thought I had been napping. I explained I had been drawing. His next question was if I had lunch. No. then I better eat something. When I’m really close to finishing, I won’t stop. When I’m done, I’m happy. Sometimes if there’s a quick turnaround time to get that illustration to the client, then I’m also a little sad that I’m letting that picture go so soon. I’m also excited to give that picture to the client and see his/her reaction. I feel like I’m giving that person a gift. That’s a pretty special feeling.

Lisa: Do you ever get ‘stuck’? If so, how do you deal with it? How do you work through it? What do you do to get out of it? How do you get ‘unstuck’?

Joanna: I get stuck. Sometimes when I’m really wondering how to colour something, I’ll colour that object last. Windshields are always tricky, the least favorite part of the vehicle I like to colour. I actually have a process when starting to colour a picture. I always start with the black areas. The drawing process is long and I feel a little uneasy when I first put down the colour, that’s why I start with plain black to build my confidence before I move on to the trickier colours. I will also get my husband’s input. I’ll never forget my first car illustration, it was the Sprint car, and the drawing looked great, the spouse being a car guy, looked at it and said, “It’s too small. The client’s husband races this car. The car needs to be bigger.” You can imagine the look I gave him, but he was right. My husband is my biggest fan yet also my biggest critic. It’s perfect. There have been 3 commissions which I have started drawing over again. It’s got to look right, and I won’t hand it over unless I think I’ve got it.

Lisa: What inspires you? WHO inspires you?

Joanna: The everyday people who take the risk to do something different. My daughters inspire me, both of them are pursuing different careers. The Bear Mountain shuttle guy, who is touring Canada with his band. The risk takers who are pursuing their dreams. With risk there is success and disappointment, but by not pursuing my dream, I’ll have a greater disappointment in myself than if I had tried and been rejected. Keep trying. Three years ago I never thought I would be communicating with a Professional Brazilian Motorcycle Driver or have a lady in Germany buy one of my art cards.
My icons are David Downton, a British Fashion Illustrator who has been commissioned to illustrate the Obamas, and he has illustrated Fashion icons, and the late William Davies, a Canadian illustrator. William Davies used reference photos, and learning that made me realize its okay using a reference photo. I’m very hard on myself when it comes to art.

Lisa: What are you dreams or goals for your creative self? Where would you like your career to go?
I’m shooting big. I want to be known internationally as “that female car and motorcycle illustrator.” Go big or go home, right? I want to ship art to Brazil or Germany or London, to communicate with clients overseas about their car illustration.
I would also love to spend 6 months in London, Paris or Venice creating art. Start the morning by walking to a local bistro, get my coffee and head back to where I’m staying and start creating my next illustration.

Lisa: What do you fantasize about doing in your creative career? Commission a drawing for Mario Andretti? If there is one car or motorcycle you would love to draw, which would it be?

Joanna: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sitting in his father’s, Mercedes-Benz 300SL, and for race car drivers, I would like to illustrate James Hinchcliffe standing beside his race car.

Lisa: Is there a famous person who you dream about illustrating?

Joanna: (smile) Yes. Benedict Cumberbatch.

Lisa: What advice would you give someone who is struggling with their progression? Struggling with a piece they are working on? On the verge of giving up?

Joanna: Never give up. Scribble. Doodle. Try a different medium. If an artist is struggling with a piece, ask why that piece is so difficult? Maybe it’s the subject matter. Maybe that artist loves to illustrate gardens and has found herself/himself illustrating a house. After each piece I complete, I take a 24 to 48 hour break. I’ve tried jumping right into the next art piece and it never works. There’s always some sort of mistake made when I do that. Remember why you’re creating. Numero uno, I create for myself. I also need to get something out of that commissioned illustration.

Lisa: Do you have any pets? If so, do they inspire you? Get in the way? Become models for your illustrations?

Joanna: I have my miniature schnauzer Ozzy. That dog is good for my soul. I know I’ve been drawing/colouring too long, when he comes up to me, stands on his back paws, and paws my leg with his right paw. That always makes me feel guilty.

Lisa: I understand you do commissions and that some of your work has been printed as greeting cards? Where are they sold?

Joanna: My Etsy store is JoannasArtandCards and I just sold my first greeting card to a lady in Germany. Yes, my car illustrations are made into art cards and available on my Etsy site. However, when it comes to portraits, those I do not sell to the public. I consider portraits very personal and should not be mass produced. If an individual would like a car illustrated or a portrait done, I just need to be emailed a reference photo at joanna.vandervlugt(at)
I’ve sold art cards locally and a large supply was purchased by the Metropolitan Pit Stop in North Hollywood, California. Over $300 was raised with the sale of the Puppy Love cards and the proceeds from those card sales went to Broken Promises Rescue, a local volunteer organization that rescues all animals, dogs, cats, horses, etc. In terms of my 11 x 14 illustrated portraits, I’ve sold many locally and just recently to a professional motorcycle racer in Francisco Beltrao, Brazil.

Lisa: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?

Joanna: I’m on Instagram as Jvandervlugt_illustrations and Facebook as Joanna Szasz Vandervlugt. I’m very selective in friend requests on FB, so if you’re interested in following me on FB, maybe just drop a line that you’re a fan of my work after reading this article.

Thank you for joining me, Joanna! I hope everyone enjoyed getting the behind-scenes-peek into the life and work of such a talented illustrator. Be sure to check out Joanna on line!


  1. Thank you for sharing your process, Joanna! Your advice for a stuck artist could easily apply to a stuck writer. And I'd like that six months in Europe too!

  2. You are welcome Ros. Artist--writers, it's cool the similarities we share with the creative process. Joanna

  3. I am not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for excellent info I was looking for this information for my mission.
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