Known for her detailed and representative pictures, Caymanian artist Jo Austin draws endless inspiration from the diversity of the natural and built environment found here. Attracted by the interplay of light, texture and mood, characters and landscapes, a strong and compelling narrative thread runs through much of her work.
Sent to boarding school aged 11 and art school in Scotland, Jo obtained a bachelor’s degree in Illustration from Edinburgh College of Art, among whose alumni include the 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright.
As an undergraduate the illustrator, who particularly enjoys including characters in her paintings and drawings, won a Sunday Herald political sketch competition for her vivid pen and ink drawing of Scottish parliamentarian Annabel Goldie.
Following graduation, Jo exhibited her watercolors at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, which was later followed up with a show of her richly observed wine drawings and birds with the Visual Arts Society at Pedro St. James.
“I started by doing lots of different Cayman scenes, not just beach scenes,” she notes. “Most of the time people seem to want empty beaches in paintings but I love adding little people or the touches of modern life that give it a sense of place and not just any beach or any place anywhere.”
These days, due to her full-time job as a brand manager at Jacques Scott, Jo creates artwork, including some commissioned pieces, in the evenings and at weekends. Her extensive portfolio contains mainly small landscapes, animals and birds, beach scenes and landscapes; depicted in her preferred mediums of pen and ink, watercolor and, most recently, acrylics.
“I’ve always enjoyed drawing characters and that’s what I did the most of at art college,” she says. “When I came back to Cayman I really hadn’t done a lot of watercolor before but it’s one of those techniques that’s easy to do anywhere – even to take out and about with you.”
Her latest foray into acrylics allows her to try different techniques: “I envy any artist who can create a large, splashy beautiful landscape,” she says, noting that the medium allows for a more dimensional and textured look.
“I’ve always wanted to able to paint loose, so really it’s quite indulgent for me to go off and do my own thing. Some people may prefer my watercolors but it’s more about the process when it comes to painting bigger and looser. It’s fun.”
Much of Jo’s artwork such as “The Lobster Pot,” and “Poolside at The Ritz” offer fly-on-the-wall vignettes of the ebb and flow of life in Cayman. Others like “Uncle Bob’s Souvenirs”, one of a triptych set in West Bay, are equally arbitrary in their choice of subject and give an unhurried glimpse of a way of life that is fast fading. Without making a statement about such change, Jo perhaps invites viewers to marvel at the rapidity of that change and its consequences.
Her approach to the creative process is fairly workman-like. “I usually take a lot of pictures while out and about if the scene in front of me appeals,” she explains. “It’s all about light and color… and if I get excited enough about what I’ve seen and shot, I go home and make a start.”
Making a start means reviewing her photographs and deciding how large to depict a scene. Jo then makes quick pencil sketches before rendering her ideas in watercolor, finishing off the picture by adding further detail in pen and ink. This final stage, though painstaking, is highly rewarding. As too is knowing exactly when to stop, a process that has become instinctive.
“I enjoy adding detail on top of the watercolors. It’s very satisfying and can take hours to do,” she adds.
Working on her artwork in her one-bedroom apartment, Jo craves a studio of her own one day, albeit one that doubles up as a spare bedroom. “I’ve often got a giant painting propped up for weeks in my living room, much to my boyfriend’s exasperation,” she notes.
Listening to her Spotify playlist, Jo generally paints and draws to soft Indie music. Noah and the Whale and the Beatles are a few of her favorites.
Having always taken on commissions, Jo says they take several hours to fully execute depending on the level of detail required. Larger, more complex pieces like the three pen and ink pieces she’s recently finished of Camana Bay take around 13 hours each to complete.
“I really enjoy painting animals in watercolor, pen and ink. I always think that they have much more character and personality. I guess in the same way I prefer a pen sketch of a person to a realistic painting of one. I do love the bright colors of acrylics for landscapes though.”
As to the future, Jo wants to stage a wine and art-inspired solo show displaying the many cartoon-like wine drawings she so enjoys.
“My later work has been a lot more focused on studies of birds and animals,” she says.
“I remember painting a lionfish from a friend’s photo and it was just so much fun adding all the detail and stripes of the spikes,” she recalls.
To view her artwork, visit Jo Austin Illustrations on Facebook.