Joanne Ho The New Zealand illustrator painting an endless summer

Cover Image - Joanne Ho
WordsAlix-Rose Cowie

It’s eternally summer in Joanne Ho’s paintings of turquoise seas and crystal clear swimming pools. They transport you to cool water, floating on your back with your ears beneath the surface, so all you can hear is the sound of your own breathing (or the chug of the pool cleaner).

Based in New Zealand, on Auckland’s North Shore, Joanne is surrounded by bounty white sand beaches. Her house is a five minute walk to a bay and not much further from bush trails where she takes her dog for walks on the weekend. “I do spend a lot of time in nature and in the water,” the illustrator says. “It’s just a part of our culture here in Auckland!”

Self-taught, Joanne first began painting when she moved into a new apartment. The bare walls were staring back at her, so she decided to make large scale pieces to fill the rooms.

She works with an acrylic gouache from Japan which allows the texture of the paper to come through. “It’s very opaque, which means fewer layers of paint, it also dries matte, is very thin so I can use it on paper, and it can be watered down to create very thin and detailed lines,” she says.

“It doesn’t pick up the paint underneath it so you can apply layer upon layer and the colors don’t get all muddled like they do with regular gouache.”

Every single piece Joanne makes features water. She paints pools or beaches, with tiny people enjoying the refreshing cool. It’s something she’s become well-known for and she was recently commissioned by Man Repeller to paint a series of the best public pools in New York City, from Red Hook to Harlem.

The people in her images look like they’re enjoying themselves, wearing bright bathing suits and splashing around in the water — but, because they’re so far away, you can never be sure. “I am more interested in their clothing and hair and body shape than their intellect,” she explains.

Often she’ll paint from a bird’s eye view, like a small holiday blogger sent up a drone to capture the scene from the sunny skies above. In fact, it was the advent of drone photography that first got her interested in painting from this perspective several years back.

“I like that you can see the different shapes of the pool, the patterned geometric tiles and the little people spread out like dots of color,” she says. In her images the wavy waters distort the tilework at the bottom of the pool, but interestingly you never see her characters’ limbs underwater, as if they’re blanketed by the blue.

She selects the destinations based on where she would rather be, whether that’s only a short drive or several long flights away; the gorgeous beaches of the far north of New Zealand or a rooftop pool on the Greek island Santorini.

For Joanne, water is the ultimate escape, but she hopes her peaceful scenes also help viewers to daydream about better places and sunny days – like looking back at a holiday snapshot. Her paintings are definitely a dream for her tiny subjects who live their best fictitious lives sunbathing, surfing or luxuriating in a pool in Marrakesh.

From Brazil to Greece, Joanne uses her paintbrush to travel the world, making envy-inducing images of holidays long gone. All the while, she can be found in her home studio overlooking the garden, working in silence like her ears are underwater…

Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.