How did you discover your interest in illustration?

My interest in illustration goes back to childhood. As long as I can remember I noticed drawings and have enjoyed drawing. Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein were some my early favorites. I loved Mad Magazine and Spy vs. Spy comics. Cartoons were a mainstay, especially the whole Looney Tunes gang. Roadrunner was my favorite and I loved drawing my own scenes of Wile E. Coyote trying to catch Roadrunner. I guess I was storyboarding back then without even knowing it.

My interest in contemporary illustration came later in life. Working as an elementary classroom teacher exposed me to a complete world of amazing illustration as I read aloud picture books to my students. Interestingly, I often chose titles to read based on the illustrations. These books would end up on my desk and invariably at home as I studied them up and down trying to figure out how the illustrations were made. I suppose this was about when editorial illustration came into focus for me. I have always loved reading magazines and perusing newsstands. For years I have enjoyed the covers of The New Yorker, the op-ed pieces in The Times, and illustrations featured in a variety of magazines and newspapers. Then at some point it just clicked and I decided to start illustrating myself.

The Search

The Search

Images from our childhood definitely seem to have an impact on work. What’s some of the most nostalgic books for you, in a visual sense?

Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, everything by Eric Carle and everything by Dr. Seuss. I also loved the covers of Roald Dahl books (Quentin Blake). Like I mentioned, Mad Magazine and Spy vs. Spy were favorites. I also loved comic strips in newspapers growing up, especially Garfield, The Far Side and Peanuts. Cartoons were an enormous visual influence on me. Looney Tunes, Popeye, Inspector Gadget, Scooby Doo, Star Blazers all left some sort of an imprint I’m sure.

What was the journey to honing your personal style?

At first I was focused on style because that’s what I felt art directors wanted. But at some point that felt limiting, so I turned it around and decided to just make a whole bunch of work and let style become a byproduct of what I do. I think everyone has their own idiosyncratic ways of telling stories, in my case, making pictures. And the way we tell these stories evolves – different materials, new techniques, colour palettes, etc. Over time, a common thread appears that connects the work together. I suppose one could call this style.

My Perennial Dilemma

My Perennial Dilemma

So you worked backwards to most people, then. Did you get into commercial work quite quickly?

Yeah, I guess most illustrators go to art school and start working, if they’re lucky, right away. My art career has taken a very winding path so far in my life. I used to work as a graphic designer and then I got into teaching for a number of years. Recently, I just gave up my teaching job to pursue illustration in earnest. I have been illustrating on the side for the past two years and the work is picking up. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to do both jobs! I’m really excited for what lies ahead.

Do you feel your attitude to your art has changed now that it’s become your sole means of income?

Well, I wish I could say I support myself entirely by illustration, but that is not the case yet. I’m taking on freelance graphic design work as well as side work on the small island where I live like salmon fishing, carpentry and house painting. That said, I have been lucky so far to mostly have illustration assignments where art directors have given me a lot of freedom and trust. This keeps the work open, almost like doing personal work. I think, in the end, it is important to always have personal projects going so art making doesn’t become entirely commercial. Some of it needs to be personal to keep the spark alive. Talk to me in a few years. Maybe my attitude will have changed!



What’s your favourite piece of your own work?

I’m pretty sure I haven’t made it yet!

Has there been a point where you didn’t want to continue pursuing illustration? How did you overcome that feeling if so?

No, or at least not yet. I love so many aspects of illustration and as long as there remains a personal element to it (making my own work), I imagine illustration will continue to hold my interest.

What do you think is important for you as an artist to remain inspired?

To free my mind and be in the moment as much as possible. When my mind is centered and nimble I trust my instincts the most. This is also when the purest of experiments occur, often leading to happy accidents. Exercise, nature and meditation all help with this. Travel has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for me. Music, reading, spending time with friends and looking at other artists’ work help keep my inspired as well.

Do you feel like other artists’ work influences your style or the content or your work, or do you approach this kind of inspiration differently?

I do. When I first started illustrating, I looked to contemporary illustrators and what they were doing and I think it showed in my work. Maybe it still does, but I am more careful now to draw from a wider variety of influences and I am more discerning about what I borrow. Looking at dead artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Seurat and Diego Rivera to the Coast Salish art from the region I live, to Tibetan thangka paintings and Art Deco posters, my influences are varied and eclectic. I am now more aware of what I borrow. It might be a colour, the way an artist draws eyes or trees or buildings, or a printmaking effect. Whatever it is I take from others, I try to incorporate it into what I do to make it my own.

Knitting Pearl

Knitting Pearl

You mention in your biography and your previous question that you’re a keen traveller. Can you share one of your favourite moments whilst travelling?

That’s a tough question as I have many favorite moments from my travels! It would likely be from the Indian subcontinent as I have spent a lot of time there. On my last trip to India, my partner and I travelled 5,000 km on an Enfield Bullet motorcycle though the south. We always enjoyed getting out in the rural areas where road maps tended to be more vague and route-finding became more difficult. In India, you will find a lot of men loafing around, chatting and watching the world go by. We began to notice as we would pull into a village that some man on the side of the road would point the way without us stopping for directions. We began to trust these unsolicited directions and they always led us to where we needed to go. We jokingly vowed that our next motorcycle journey in India would have no predetermined route, that we would just follow the pointing fingers of village men and see where that leads us!

Do you take the same kind of attitude to your artwork?

It depends. I prefer to just grab pencil and paper and let it go. A lot of my personal work starts like this without any preconceived idea of what I want to make. Or it might be really vague, like, “I want to draw a dog.” Or, “I want to draw women because I have been drawing too many men lately.” The drawings are loose and sloppy and the compositions build as a reaction to what is already on the paper. On the other hand, editorial illustration assignments come with a certain amount of direction. These usually start with word associations and lots of thumbnail sketches, hopefully ruling out most of the visual cliches. Because of the conceptual nature of these assignments and the art director needing to approve sketches, I mostly have an idea of what I am going to make. That said, there have been occasions when my free explorations have worked well for these types of assignments.

In what way do you use your sketchbook? Do you carry it with you everywhere and keep it as a diary? What’s your process when you have an idea for an illustration?

I don’t use my sketchbook as a diary, but it does go with me most places. I use it to capture ideas that fly through my mind before they are lost. I use it to draw from real life. Sometimes I’ll do a study of a particular artist I have in mind. It’s a catchall with no particular organisation and some pages are chaotically dense with many ideas, while other pages are dedicated to one sketch or concept. My illustrations start from these pages. I flip through until something catches my eye. Sometimes I refine the sketch with tracing paper. Then I take a picture of it or scan the page and build it in Photoshop or Illustrator.


Finally, if you could go back in time to when you first started illustrating, what would you tell yourself?

To trust myself more and to not compare my work to other illustrators. I think I generated a lot of self doubt starting out by looking at what established illustrators were doing and feeling inadequate with where I was. This is counterproductive. It’s important to look around and see what others are doing, but it’s more important to just do your thing and trust it to grow on its own. I have less self doubt now and I am certainly still growing, but after making a lot of pictures, I feel more like I’m on my own path.

See more of Joe’s work at:
Or follow him on Instagram: @joeandersonstudio

Image Credit: A Case for Peace