Joanne Ho (Helo Birdie) is a New Zealand-based painter whose work instantly transports you to the pools, deserts and jungles of your dreams.
After a career in architecture she turned to creating artwork full-time, although each of her works show hints of her love for exotic and beautiful buildings. Joanne’s work has been featured in publications such as Man Repeller and in retailers such as Anthropologie. Here, Joanne—who appeared in our 3.4 Art Quarterly: Storytellers Edition—talks us through how her 9-5 job influenced her freelance career and how, no matter how cheesy it might sound, never giving up on a dream is often truly the key to success.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started as an artist?
There are quite a few things that played a part in my push to get started as an artist and, when I think back, they go as far back as when I was just a wee dot. Firstly, my Dad was quite creative and great at drawing, and he worked in architecture as a draftsman for many years. My older sister was also super creative—still is—and I quite often wanted to follow in her footsteps but never felt there was enough room in the family for two artists! Silly, I know.
I studied every creative subject I could in high school and ended up doing a master’s degree in architecture. Back then it wasn’t really known how artists could make money or have a career, so architecture was somewhere in the middle of being creative and having some sort of paid career. Architecture school was super artistic for me and I was able to explore quite a few mediums: sculpture, painting, design, etc. At the same time, during my studies, I worked part-time in sales at a gift store which also sold a lot of original art from local artists and I was inspired to create work of my own. I ended up selling quite a few of my own works there and I think this was where I started painting a bit more seriously.
You worked in the architecture industry for a number of years. How does that background play into your artistic practice?
Artistically, I think studying architecture meant five years of practicing and learning how to draw and think laterally, which has helped me now in my paintings. In terms of working in the industry, I don’t know if this helps with my artistic practice much at all, rather that it can be such a practical and logical industry. I felt excited to get back into my creative artwork as I had been working on a computer half the week. I guess drawing houses with a mouse and keyboard most of the day meant that I found it easy to draw buildings if they were a subject matter in my creative work. If anything, the business side of working in architecture has helped me the most—emailing, dealing with clients, filing, etc. Without my experience in my day job I think I would have really struggled in my artistic business.
Walk us through your artistic process. How do you work? What mediums do you work with? Which is your favorite and why?
There are a few different types of “jobs” that I would categorize my work into: my personal work and paintings, commissioned paintings and commercial illustration. If it is my own personal work, I either just sketch and paint ideas that pop into my head, whether it be inspired by a color palette or a specific scene. I also like to continue themed projects such as pools and beaches. I will just go back to them when I think of a pool or beach I want to paint or like the look of. With personal work, my preferred medium is gouache or acrylic gouache, pencil and watercolor paper. If I were to do a piece that has been commissioned by an individual, I would of course work with the client and sketch up a layout with them and ask them for reference pieces of older works that they like of mine to get a feel for what they like. The mediums I would use for commissioned pieces are usually watercolor paints, as well as gouache.
Commercial work is more time-consuming but interesting as I would work with colored pencil, and pencil for the sketch phase, as well as collage on Photoshop. For the final works, I would again use gouache and watercolors, but I am able to play around with the scanned images on Photoshop a bit more. Gouache is by far my favorite medium! It is super relaxing and fun, and seeing all the amazing colors come to life is the best. You can watch other gouache artists on Instagram Stories to see what I mean!
Your works have such a fun vibe–they’re so bright and playful. What inspires your subjects and what do you hope to express through your works? Are they based on real places and people?
The vibe of my work really comes from a “where I want to be right now” mentality. I never intended for my works to have deep and meaningful stories behind them—I just want viewers feel happy and excited from feeling like they were somewhere special, or to be delighted by the color palette. Lots of the locations are based on real beaches in New Zealand or pools around the world. Some scenes are a mish-mash of different locations merged together to create a dream scene.
The people are not based on anyone specific, mostly myself or, again, people who I think would be cute, like girls with blue or pink hair wearing the cutest high-waisted bikini or clothing that I would love to wear, but have nowhere to wear it to (or am not daring enough to). The little figures are sometimes just personalities that I would find funny or cute.
You’re from New Zealand but many of your works are inspired by your travels. How does your location influence your works? What’s your favorite place to visit?
The beach scenes I paint are definitely inspired by the local scenery in New Zealand. There are tons of amazing coastal spots all around the country; we are so spoiled. My favorite coastal places to visit are up North, spots around the South Island and Taranaki region. It’s also the vibe of these places—obviously more peaceful and chilled out than the city—which resonates in my painting.
How has your style and practice changed over the years?
I started with acrylic paint on canvas with ink pen because that was really all I knew how to use years ago. I actually started painting large scale monochromatic paintings of local flora and fauna when I was starting out, then started doing smaller more colorful works which were a bit more cutesy and featured little characters and creatures in them. When I found watercolor as a medium, I began to stick a bit more to my little figures and characters, placing them in different scenes and locations. I now use a mixture of gouache, acrylic gouache and watercolor, but remain with my tiny characters in various locations.
Any favorite artists or artistic movements that inspired you? What do you like about them?
Definitely the more illustrative art which has opened up my world. I never even realized at first that the work I was drawn to was considered illustration and not “art” per se. I love that this kind of art or painting didn’t just have to be landscapes, portraits or still lifes.
The girl power art movement has been cool to see over the years, and I feel like I have sort of naturally by default fallen into that category unintentionally. My favorite artists and illustrators over the years have been Monica Ramos, Nina Cosford, Ruby Taylor, Deth P. Sun, Apak, Laura Berger and Slinkachu. Some New Zealand artists I love—who have not directly inspired my own work but inspire me to continue as an artist in New Zealand in general—are Dick Frizzell, Alan Ibell and Gordon Walters.
What’s your proudest achievement as an artist?
Honestly, I think my proudest achievement as an artist is not giving up on the dream and continuing on and trusting that it will all work out!
How has Society6 impacted your journey as an artist?
Wow, it has been my rock as an artist, allowing me to share my work instantly with the world and essentially providing me with a full-time job!