Into her studio: Sjoukje Bierma, fashion illustrator and portrait painter

Everything about Sjoukje (pronounced “ciao-kia”) is sunny – her eyes, her hair, her studio… even her dog is called Sinne which means sunshine in Frisian, Sjoukje’s mother language. She is a fashion illustrator and portrait painter. Her studio is on the top floor of an old school building in Amsterdam Oud-West.

Introduce yourself, describe your work
I’m a fashion illustrator and portrait painter based in Amsterdam. I make illustrations mainly for media and fashion brands, and commissioned portraits for private clients. Next to these, of course, I also make free work.

How did it all start?
As a child, I was always drawing, and designing and making clothes for my Barbie dolls and for myself. At 18 I went to the Arnhem Academy of Fine Arts (now ArtEZ) to study Fashion & Design, and after I’d graduated I had a career in the fashion industry – mainly as apparel & accessories designer, but also as an illustrator, a concept designer… all sorts of creative roles… for a while I even did hair and make-up for movies and fashion shoots.
8 or 9 years ago I decided to focus on my first love – namely painting and illustrating – and become a professional artist.

What materials do you use?
It depends on the specific assignment – the message and mood that I want to convey; where – and in what media – it will appear; the time available to me, and so on.
So, with illustrations for Het Parool (the Amsterdam daily newspaper), where strong, graphic images are required, and where the deadlines are usually quite tight, I’ll tend to use ink, gouache and watercolour on paper.
For commissioned portraits, where I want to create more complex, subtle effects (and where I often have the luxury of more time), I’ll generally use open acrylics on linen or canvas.
These are not “rules” of course; I’m constantly looking at new materials and techniques and I’ll use whichever combination I think will deliver the right effect.

What is your process?
For illustrations, once I’ve discussed and agreed on the brief with the client, I’ll do a load of research and then make sketches – usually lots of them, but sometimes it works really quickly – the better the brief and the more preparatory research I do, the quicker the sketching process; I select the sketches that I want to go forward with, and then turn them into finished illustrations using ink, gouache, whatever is right. Once they’re complete, I deliver them to the client… of course, there is some dialogue with the client during this process, depending on deadlines and on what we have agreed.
With privately commissioned portraits, I start off by meeting the client and getting to know them while making photographs and quick sketches. We’ll agree on a mood and a composition for the portrait, I say “au revoir” to the client and I’ll start sketching properly; once I have the right composition I’ll send it to the client for their agreement and then start working on the painting. I’ll leave and revisit the work over the course of days or weeks until I’m happy that it has captured the feeling that I was looking for.
For my free work (non-commissioned), I will have been inspired by something that I have seen, somewhere – a pose, an attitude, a silhouette, anything – and I will start sketching… the sketches go up on a pin-board (as with my illustrations and portraits, I make a lot of sketches and throw most of them away). This lets me see the direction that I want to take it and I’ll start painting – and leave it and revisit it until I’m satisfied that it’s finished. Although I will start out with an idea of what I want to make, the work defines its own way. This process can take months from beginning to end. The crucial part is starting – I tell my students: just start – something will happen and the paper will speak to you.

What are your themes?
Elegance and beauty – but beauty with humanity; I want the audience to empathise with the subject so I use the portrayal of body language, facial expressions, movement, and so on to capture an emotion, mood, or moment which we all can recognise, understand, and – at some level – identify with. It’s never just a picture – it should tell a story.

What motivates you?
Drawing, painting, illustrating, creating beautiful work which strikes an emotional chord with the audience is energising and motivating in itself. I do work best under deadlines – they help to keep me laser-focused.

Your inspirations?
Many and varied… from Rembrandt to Rothko… the great fashion illustrators of the 50’s and 60’s of course, the art nouveau movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, collections from various couturiers (past and present). Everyday life also provides its own inspiration, of course.

Would you say our art is typical female?
I would say that it definitely has certain “feminine” qualities – beauty, elegance, calm, depth of emotion (which is not to say that these qualities are exclusively female of course!).

How do you know when a piece is finished?
Once I start losing focus on a piece I need to stop working on it or I can ruin it; I photograph the work and review it at home in the evening, making notes so I am clear on what needs to be done the following day.
It’s just a feeling I have that the work is finished – I can’t explain it very well – I just know.

When I started as a professional illustrator I wanted all my work to be absolutely perfect, but over the years I have grown in confidence – I now embrace coincidences and imperfections in my work and this allows me to work more freely. Making “mistakes” and exploring new techniques is what drives my development as an artist. My job just continues to be interesting and surprising, all by itself – how cool is that?

Describe your studio
I am very lucky – I have a beautiful atelier in Amsterdam, an old school room with high ceilings, enormous windows and plenty of light. It is safe, tranquil, and relaxed – it’s my second home.

How do you run your business?
I paint privately commissioned portraits and commercially commissioned fashion illustrations. I make free work, the best of which gets exhibited in galleries and hopefully sold. I guest tutor fashion illustration master classes at various academies as well. I also sell limited edition giclée prints of some of my fashion illustrations. There is quite a lot going on, so I’m fortunate that my partner Alec supports me with the commercial side of things, which allows me to concentrate on creating the work, rather than getting swallowed up by the all of the other stuff.

How do you promote yourself?
The usual ways – FacebookInstagram, media exposure. I should really work harder at social media, but I prefer to meet people, face-to-face, in real life. I believe that the best promotion is to keep working and delivering great art – as long as the energy is flowing, good things will happen.

And in the future?
My goal is to be able to make more free work – ideally outside, in the sunshine, surrounded by my friends and loved ones.

Do you have an agent?
Not yet – it’s on my to-do list!

What’s next?
This week, I have 2 front-page illustrations for Het Parool to complete; 2 illustrations for the interior designer Thomas Eurlings which will be used as wallpaper for the Hotel Modez in Arnhem – they will be blown up to 3m high and should look fabulous. And I have to start on 2 commissioned portraits for private clients as well as a couple of fashion illustration projects which are at the concept stage.
I also a web-shop which sell limited edition giclée prints of some of my fashion illustrations


You can find Sjoukje’s work here and here.
Follow her on Instagram or Facebook
Photography + Interview: Julia Kaiser
Editor: Alec Page