When it comes to superb architecture and mesmerising facades, there are not many cities that can compete with Brussels. Think of the elegance of Art Nouveau, the grandiosity of Neoclassicism and the complexity of gothic architecture; these are only some of the styles that characterise the buildings of the European capital.
Not only do those buildings catch our eyes every time we walk around the city, they also inspired the illustrator Johanna Medvey to create a series of drawings dedicated to Brussels houses! Fascinated by her art, we talked to her to discover more about it.
Tell us a bit about “Johanna the Illustrator”: how would you describe your style and what inspires you the most?
There is a certain naivete in my style and I’d like to believe that this conveys a bit of child-like innocence and some joie de vivre. And the world can always do with more of those, right? I am self-taught and so this aspect is actually not something I consciously chose, it feels more like a given.
For the architectural drawings my inspiration is obviously built heritage. I guess one could say it is a pinch of the Belgian comic strip basics mixed with my vision and endless enthusiasm for beautiful architecture. I have huge respect for quality craftsmanship and love discovering the unique details of the ‘maisons de maitres’.
Otherwise I take inspiration in my surroundings, the work of other visual artists, colours, and without a doubt, life experiences.
I can find beauty in simple things like the leaf of a tropical plant as well as in complex Art Nouveau details of a facade.
We really love the sets of postcards based on Brussels houses: what is your creative process? Do you take a picture of a house you like and then draw it at home or do you work “en plein air”?
At the beginning, about 7 years ago, I took pictures of the houses I liked and drew them for my own pleasure. When I had about a dozen, I created my first postcard set and that was a great way to be noticed as an artist. Now I work based on photos sent by my clients. I love open air drawing but when you do this professionally, it’s just unrealistic to go everywhere and sit outside all year around withstanding the Belgian weather…
My process has evolved over the years. At the beginning it was all sketched out on paper, scanned and then coloured digitally. But since 2016 I have been drawing on a tablet. It has many advantages : you can enlarge the drawing to work out small details or to easily modify certain elements, and you can work on several so-called “layers”, which facilitates the process enormously. Another advantage of working digitally is that my drawings are vectorised, which means I can have them printed at any size, without impacting the quality.
I start by putting pictures of the building in front of me and I sketching on my tablet. Then I draw the contours of the house in a very clean way, I colour it in and I add all the little details and nuances that make the final drawing come more “alive”. I like to think of the coloring-in process as doing a mandala. Some people buy colouring books and spend hours on them to relax. I am lucky to colour my own drawings and to get in a complete “flow experience” on a regular basis. I love it!
Do you have a favourite house in Brussels? What is the story behind it?
It would be hard to choose one ! I love cycling around the city and finding new facades that make my heart sing, usually turn-of-the-century gems with their unique details. I have to admit that I like the anonymous ones even more than the famous, widely admired houses. I have a folder on my computer full of photos of “houses to draw”. If I ever stop having client work, I can rely on this collection to keep myself busy for a very long time.
After studying in Hungary, Germany and the Netherlands, why did you decide to move to Brussels?
My story resembles that of many others: I arrived for an internship, fell in love and ended up staying much longer than initially expected. But Brussels was a logical choice for me, as I have always been very European at heart. And because I studied International Relations and Environment and Resource Management, it made a lot of sense that I come here and work in the field of European environmental and climate legislation. Brussels was the place to be!
What do you like most about the Belgian capital and what are the most interesting features of Brussels’ artistic heritage in your opinion?
I truly enjoy the diversity of the people, the size and location of the city, its architectural heritage, the relaxed, friendly nature of Belgians, the hearty Belgian food, the brocantes… and I love that in Brussels it’s completely normal to be a binational couple and to speak three languages at home with our daughter. In terms of Brussels’ artistic heritage, I relate particularly to comic strips and to the late 19th early 20th century architecture.
Besides the houses in Brussels, are there other thematics & cities which inspire you?
For the last four years I divided my time living between Madagascar and Europe. I spend most of the year in the southern hemisphere and a few months on the old continent. This is without a doubt very inspiring – the colours, smells and experiences are so intense and unique in Madagascar, they are a huge source of inspiration in my work and in my personal life as well. I love the traditional architecture here too, the vintage cars (the capital Antananarivo is full of Citroën 2CVs and Renault 4Ls !) and obviously the crazy cool biodiversity of this country.
My big personal project during the confinement last year was to draw a series of birds that are unique to Madagascar. I drew one bird each week for three months, published them with a little description on Instagram (I tried to find a fun, memorable detail about each species). This project gave me a framework during the confinement and resulted in twelve greeting cards with twelve beautiful birds on them.
Another inspiring project was working alongside my friend, Laura Robson to create illustrations for The Body Literacy Collective. I’ve learnt a lot about the functioning of the female body and the menstrual cycle in more particular and felt I was contributing to something amazing.
While still accepting house portrait commissions from Belgium, Johanna is now taking time to work on projects linked to Madagascar. She is planning a new series of drawings to put forward the unique fauna of Madagascar, combining images with fun messages. After the success of the Brussels houses series, we look forward to this next one!
Cards with Johanna’s illustrations can be purchased in two shops in Brussels at the moment:
– Bookshop of the CIVA: https://civa.brussels/fr/bookshop, Rue de l’Ermitage 55 — 1050 Bruxelles
– PUB ULB: https://www.pub-ulb.be/#, Avenue Paul Heger 42, 1000 Bruxelles
Interested to get more info? Visit Johanna’s website and get in touch!