My Dutch Life: Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

27 October 2016

Joanne Lew-Vriethoff is an Asian-American illustrator currently living in Amsterdam with her Dutch husband and two children. Born in Malaysia, Joanne grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design. When she’s not illustrating, Joanne loves to travel around the world with her family, exploring and collecting ideas and stories for her inspirations. Awards include the 2015 Mom’s Choice Award (Gold), 2015 IPA Benjamin Franklin Awards (1 Gold & @ Silvers), 2012 Beehive Book Award (CLAU), the 2011 Gryphon Award, Winner Bank Street Child Study Children’s Book Award Juvenile, and many more.



What originally inspired you to become an illustrator?

I have always loved to draw ever since I was four years old. When I turned twelve, I lived alone with my older sister in a room rented from a family in Los Angeles. I was pretty much left to my own devices to take care of myself. I went to school and worked three jobs. My childhood was pretty tough and lonely and I missed my parents, who, for their own reasons, thought I would have better opportunities in the States. For me, drawing had always been just for fun but the way I felt about making art changed and became something more important and precious was when life got hard. It was the one place I could go where I was able to make my world different from the one I lived in. It was the only way I felt I could express myself freely and be as wild in my imagination as I wanted. It was my safe haven.


Who or what has had the biggest single influence on you?

I am not sure if my parents were the biggest influence but they were definitely my biggest supporters next to my husband. Although my mom still thinks I’m a cartoonist after 15 years, they have always being very supportive and encouraging when it came to doing what I love.

My most awesome talented and funny art instructor Dwight Harmon. I was not a good student in art school and definitely not the most talented or ambitious one.  Yet this man took me aside one day and said, “Your artwork has the potential to be really good, what the heck are you doing and what are you planning to do with it?”   I had never really seen him this serious and stern and it was a good kick in the butt.

After having my daughter, I started drawing and painting with her. I realized how much I had missed it. It made me want to go back to making art and telling stories again. For me, it was about capturing the moments and feelings I shared with my children.



How has living in Holland influenced your views on art or design?

I love the artwork coming out of the Netherlands. There is a total sense of freedom to be completely yourself in the art you make. Design and art in this country challenges the boundaries and dares to go beyond without fear of what others think. It can be shocking but that’s what I love about it. The children’s illustrations are pure, beautiful, quirky, unique and experimental. Holland is a very safe country. I feel  because of that,  kids are generally given the space and freedom to just be kids, get messy, go barefoot exploring in the park, get wet in the fountains without worries of catching a cold,  and make their own adventures. Living here has helped me relive my childhood again but in a more positive way and appreciate a sense of freedom to be an explorer.


What is your design process like?

When the publishers send me the manuscript, I usually take a day or two to process the story.  Then I would start with thumbnails/ storyboard sometimes on post-it notes. Other times, it’s a lot of cutting, pasting and playing around with different pieces before I put together what I envisioned each page is going to be. Once it’s approved, I move on to sketches.  This is where I start working out the details, character sketching, the transition from one page to the next. When I move on to final colors, I start laying out all the big stuff first and then build it up from there. None of my final art has ever felt final because while I am working on one piece, I always find myself going back to the earlier pages because I suddenly thought of something that can be added or taken out. This stage can be quite organic. I usually gather my kids to critique my work and my husband who has a great eye and helps me see something I had missed before. The best part is seeing it all come together.



What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

The best piece of advice is from my husband. Sometimes you have to say ‘No’. It’s not the end of the world if you can’t do it. Be kind to yourself.


What is the best advice you can give to aspiring artists?

Just one. Oh boy. I can’t.

Never take criticism personally.

If you value your work and time, others will as well.

Love what you do or don’t do it at all.

Know how to sell your work because you still need to pay your bills. Believe in yourself but please don’t sit and wait around for something to happen.

Never work for free.




Please tell us about your latest project Beautiful!  

Beautiful is a book about breaking the barrier of what society’s expectations are on what beautiful means for a girl. This book encourages girls of all shapes, sizes, and race to embrace who they are and to realize their endless potentials. It’s showing girls free to be themselves whether it’s playing in mud, conducting science experiments, climbing trees, reading books, or playing sports in a wheelchair. It’s about being free to express yourself without fear of what others think of you. It’s been such a wonderful collaboration and so well-received with enthusiastic praise from parents and children that I’m currently working on two more complementary books to Beautiful called Brave and Love.


p.s. My Dutch life is a monthly series featuring inspirational people living in the Netherlands, or who have a very special connection with the country. Would you like to share your story? Connect with us!