There aren’t many artists in South Africa who can match the raw talent of Johann Strauss. No, not the musician – the illustrator based in Pretoria. Just a short squiz through his portfolio and it would be hard to deny that he isn’t one of the top talents in the industry. And for good reason. Johann has worked with some of South Africa’s top advertising companies, lending his artistic hand, through freelance work, to everything from children’s books, game concept art to comic books and billboard design. Johann took some time off from his busy (and we mean busy) schedule to answer a few questions regarding his work and love for all things art.
Q: Looking through your work it’s clear that you have a remarkable talent. When did you first discover your love for art and illustration? And can you clearly remember the moment when you first realized that you were good at it?
A: Nah. There was no clear moment of discovery. But I remember that, as a kid, I was never content by just ‘watching’ my favourite shows. I always felt I had to do more than just sit there and watch (with that goofy expression I got whenever my toddler soaps started). I still remember pausing shows like Bionic Six and Robotech and drawing the mechs.
Q: You have a really impressive body of work that includes a number of storyboards, children’s books, comic book characters, cartoons, commercial illustrations, video game characters and sketches. How did you manage to find yourself doing this as a full-time career and where do you draw inspiration from?
A: I studied Graphic Design only because I actually didn’t think you could illustrate as a full-time job. Luckily a publication house recruited me in my third year to work for them as a full-time children’s book illustrator. From there a few friends who started working for ad agencies ask me to do a few things on the side. Then it just snowballed from there… luckily.
My inspiration pretty much comes from all over really. Different people inspire me in different disciplines. With the internet today, we are fortunate to see new artists on the scene every day. So I tend to obsess over a new talent almost every week. But my all-time favourites are legends like Norman Rockwell, Alex Ross, Andrew Loomis, Lucian Freud and so forth.
Q: It’s an obvious question – but what mediums do you use to create your artworks? And do you have any formal training in any of these methods?
A: Not an obvious question at all! I pretty much use a wide range of mediums, everything from oil to pencil. But mostly I use a Wacom tablet because of the increased deadlines and amount of work I have to do. It’s just easier to make changes with the Wacom (should there be any… and there usually are!) and saves on paper and material costs. And it’s easier to make changes… Did I mention the changes? I don’t think one can really have any kind of ‘formal training’ in art. You can get a brief and a lecturer can critique it, but the only way you can become adept in any medium is basically by practice, practice, practice.
Q: You’ve managed to land some pretty big contracts? Motorola, Nestle, Wesbank, and FNB are just a few. How long did it take for you to become a recognised talent in the field?
A: It’s just a natural progression I suppose. You start out with a few smaller projects and as you improve, so does your client list.
Q: I noticed that you are quite diverse in style and mediums, changing between various projects. Is there a specific reason you haven’t stuck to one specific art style, or do you just prefer experimenting with different types of art?
A: In a perfect world it would be amazing to have just one style and perfect that through one’s career. But unfortunately that will just narrow the type of projects you would be able to do. That’s the reason why I really try to study different artists and different styles, so I will be able to cater to the different needs of different clients. It’s tricky to change gear this way sometimes, but it also keeps things interesting.
Q: Does the term “struggling artist” ring true even for artists in the 21st century?
A: Haha! Yes, well I suppose the term ‘struggling’ can be applied to any field one doesn’t work hard at it. Freelance work is unfortunately directly coupled to the amount of work you put out there. So the harder you work the better you become. And the better you are the more work you get. It’s as simple as that.
Q: What is the biggest project you’ve worked on and the creation that you are most proud of?
A: Oh, now that’s a tough one! It will be very hard to pin point any one project, as each of them have elements that stand out. But basically most projects I do with HKLM (especially their Cape Town office) and Saatchi&Saatchi tend have a level of finish and creativity that I’m really proud of. I also have to mention a job I did with Fandam studio’s for Wesbank, two 11 x 3m murals. It was great fun!
Q: With all creative types there is always the danger of becoming engorged in one’s own success. How do you stay humble?
A: If I was successful I would most likely not have answer your questions.
Q: What can we expect from Johann Strauss in the near future?
A: In the future? A traveling family Lil’ Wayne tribute band. But in the near future, I am just finishing off the final concept art pieces for a game called Bounty Arms with Open Reset. I am extremely proud and excited about this project that should come to fruition in June/July this year (Android). Keep an eye out. Other than that, I am working on a few children’s books and various agency projects. So basically, you can expect more of the same – just bigger, better, stronger, more yellow, with hazelnuts and
caramel… sorry, what was the question?