Illustrator Profile - Johanna Goodman: "I just try to follow my gut and make work that turns me on"

By Robert Newman   Thursday January 7, 2016

Johanna Goodman is a vibrant and diverse illustrator and artist who works in both paint and ink and collage. She does a lot of editorial illustration, much of it oil and ink portraits. (I’m very partial to this Village Voice cover illustration of Brian Wilson.) Goodman has also done a powerful set of concept lllustrations, and recently started working with collage, to great effect. Her work is bright, stylish and smart.

Goodman works and lives 30 minutes north of New York City. Her style has developed and changed over the years, but she says “I just try to follow my gut and make work that turns me on.”

I live and work in Nyack, NY, about 30 minutes up the Hudson from the city. I’ve been freelancing as an illustrator since graduating college in 1992—23 years (seriously)?

I grew-up in a converted barn on Long Island. My parents weren’t artists by trade but they were definitely latent artists. They were pretty unconventional and had a reverence for art and artists—they both hung-around with the Pop artists in the 60s and went to art openings all the time before I came along and ended that party. We had a lot of art around the house and I spent a whole lot of time drawing. Once in kindergarten my friend asked me for my autograph on a drawing I made for her. Drunk on power and fame I decided I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Since then it’s been all power and fame (or all drunk—I can’t remember).

I started college at Boston University’s School for the Arts, which was very classical and traditional. It was great for really learning how to draw and paint and see, but the emphasis was on painting for the sake of art, as in waiting on tables during the day and painting at night, and a little voice inside me said “no.” The day I found out what the term “illustration” meant, I knew it was want I wanted to do—getting to draw/paint for money—as my job! So I transferred to Parsons School of Design and got my BFA in illustration. I loved (and still do love) the idea that I’m always being fed ideas with assignments, and that my work actually gets seen by lots of people.

I liked being in school in the city—the galleries and museums and street life. Also being around other illustrators who were making an impression on the design world at the time. I worked for Steven Guarnaccia in his studio as an assistant while I was in school and it was great. It gave me a chance to see that you could really make a living at a drawing table (and gave me access to his record collection, and we ordered lunch from Florent every day). I also got to work there with some other students who became great illustrators, like George Bates and Ingo Fast.

I love my studio.  It’s the front room of my house and has light and air and I can see what’s happening outside (marauding kids mostly). It has French doors so I can also see what’s happening in the house (more marauding kids). I have my easel, my stand-up computer desk, my makeshift sheet rock drawing table, my sewing table and my collage “station.” I am truly grateful. That’s all I need. My husband’s studio is downstairs from mine (he’s a sculptor) and I like that I can hear him work as I work (I can hear the ring of hammer on anvil as I write this). It's a two-person artist’s colony.  

I have a few different styles. For years I’ve been making my illustrations by painting in oil and in ink. It’s been a long enough time that I feel totally comfortable in the medium. I do a lot of portraits, though not exclusively. I’ve always had a thing for faces and I looove painting likenesses. I will never tire of that. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, when working on a portrait I start to feel a real connection to the subject and I get on a whole empathetic humankind-we-are-all-one kind of trip.

On the other hand, my collages are relatively new and I really dig the process of not being able to plan ahead too much and not knowing what I'll find to use next. It’s really intuitive and surprising and sometimes totally confounding which is a real treat.


My first (and ultimately only) day job was at a gallery in Soho called Crown Point Press. It was a printmaking gallery, which  represented some dope artists, like Diebenkorn. I did portfolio drop-offs on my lunch hour (which didn’t allow much time for eating so I subsisted on street hot dogs on subway platforms, which I attribute my girlish figure to) and did my illustration work at night.  One day I got a call from Arthur Hochstein, the art director at Time magazine, asking me to do the cover. I was exhilarated and intimidated and felt really young and green. He gave me the very best art direction I’ve gotten thus far: “just do your best work.”  He acknowledged illustrators often freaked-out and tightened up for the cover of Time. Unfortunately my piece didn’t run on the cover (they used to hire a few illustrators for each cover and then choose just one). It did run inside soon after though.

Fortunately I did get a couple more opportunities to do the cover and they did run.

Soon after that I quit the gallery and took the risk of freelance and never had a day job again. Which was crazy. And still is. For decades I’ve been drawing and painting and cutting paper and gluing and scanning and tweaking every chance I get, year upon year, even though it’s totally impractical and self-indulgent and against all better judgment. I can’t really express how fortunate I feel to be able to do this for a living.

I love the work of Marisol Escobar—those amazing collaged, sculptural portraits.

Also African art and especially textiles—I have a serious wax print/mud cloth fixation. I do a lot of sewing with those fabrics (I sew a lot of my clothing—the stuff I wear when I actually leave the studio). I’m still waiting to see how that all works its way into my illustration work (or how my illustration works its way into my clothing?)...

My husband, artist Rodger Stevens

We met when we were both students at Parsons. He’s a sculptor but I’d say he could also be considered an illustrator who works three-dimensionally. He solves design problems with lengths of brass and steel for lots of commercial clients. His work rolls out of him like magic. I’ve been watching him for years and I still don’t know how he does it.

Losing my fashion sense. I’ve been dressing pretty shoddily and “comfortably” for so long that when it’s time to go out into the world of people I’m a little out of practice. Other than that, working alone is dreamy. I’ve gotten really good at it. I listen to a lot of music and people talking.

Lack of time. Or maybe I should say my kids. Ever since having kids I don’t take time for granted. I’m able to work so fast now that sometimes it’s embarrassing. I often finish and turn in jobs way before the deadline. [Editor’s note: Johanna turned in the answers to this interview over three weeks before her deadline!] I don't second-guess myself anymore; I trust my instincts and the work is better as a result.

I had a year-long gig doing the illustrations for a weekly feature in M magazine, the weekend style magazine of Le Monde in Paris. Each week the writer would write some very funny critiques of whatever the silly trend of the moment was.  It was a lot of fun doing so much collage—I loved it so much that I created three or four illustrations per week and let them choose their favorite.  

My dream job would be a regular, recurring, high-visibility gig that pays a lot of money where I have lots of creative freedom. My number is 917-327-5339.

Wes Bausmith of the LA Times. Wes gives me different kinds of challenges and encourages me to work in whatever style I think is appropriate for a piece. And he always gives me the freedom to take an illustration wherever I want. He is the perfect storm of enthusiasm and good vibes.  

Also Kory Kennedy, because he gives fun jobs and has always been the kind of champion of illustration that we want on our side.


Angelo Torres of Mad magazine fame. He is a master of the portrait and has done a record amount of drawing—it boggles the mind.

Margaret Mccartney, who is living my illustrated textile dream.

Steve Wacksman, sweet eye candy.

Jodi Levine, whose medium is paper, candy and the occasional balloon.


I don’t make any deliberate effort to make my work appear current or trendy or in style. I think if I did, the result would just be an embarrassing, off-the-mark, contorted contrivance (also the title of my forthcoming memoir). I just try to follow my gut and make work that turns me on and hopefully it will appeal to the masses as well.

Too much self-promotion is annoying so I think I err on the side of anemic promotion. All online, here, here, and here. And Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram.

Someday I plan on networking a little too. But it's only been 23 years, so not yet...

Just keep at it until it takes. And learn to let rejection roll right off you. And just do your best work :)

See more Johanna Goodman illustrations, new work, and updates here:
Johanna Goodman website
Collage Tumblr
Faces Tumblr
House and studio tour