The fantasy art of Johanna Ost

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Swedish fantasy artist Johanna Öst has a vibrant love of folklore, beautiful objects and 18th century dress-up. Disney parks, mermaids and the past are her friends. Her illustrations are created in deep solitude. She’s maybe like a box tucked behind the rocking horse in the sunny part of the attic. Or maybe she’s also a little like an old forest crone, older than the mother of your great-great-grandmother, even, who tells you a tale so forest-dark, so curling at the edges like the smoke from a woodcutter’s fire, that you run home quick-quick to write the tale down, wary of forgetting a single word lest there be nothing left of you, the tale or the old woman in the morning save ash and embers.

This is just a tiny little bit of her story.

Hot tip: Click on pictures to see them in full!

What sort of things inspired you as a child?

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Credit: Johanna Öst

The main inspirations I remember were children’s book illustrations and my relatives’ drawings, especially my mother’s.

I was particularly inspired by the illustrations of John Bauer, and the illustrations in an old book of H.C. Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, my favourite fairytale (although I don’t remember the name of that illustrator). I think you can still see the influences from both of those illustrators in my art.

I was also, and still am, inspired by anything mysterious, dreamlike or surreal.

You have illustrated everything from books to magazine and album covers – and also your own comic, The Dark. Is there a difference in the way you choose to create a single image, or a string of them to tell a story?

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Credit: Johanna Öst

Yes, I suppose so. I almost always try to tell a bit of a story, even when I’m not actually illustrating one. When I make a single picture I try to squeeze something interesting or unexpected in there to make the viewer imagine a story, but when I’m illustrating a book or comic I can concentrate on more isolated events or objects in a way I seldom do otherwise.

I consider myself a bit crap at writing stories, but I love coming up with fragments of them and making those into pictures.

Can you tell us a little about how you started “the wardrobe project”?

This was such a long time ago now, I think almost ten years? It started with me wanting to clean out and organise my closet because I had a bunch of clothes I never wore and ended up wearing just a few things over and over.

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Credit: Johanna Öst

The idea was that I’d go though my closet one garment at a time, attempt to build an interesting outfit around it and snap a photo. I would then know which clothes to get rid of (the ones I just couldn’t make something interesting out of), and I’d have a collection of photos of interesting outfits as inspiration the next time I felt like I had nothing to wear.

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Credit: Johanna Öst

I posted the photos on the internet for fun, and at the time I hadn’t seen anyone else doing the “outfit of the day” or whatever thing that is so common these days, and it ended up being really popular and people even started doing their own versions.

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Credit: Johanna Öst

Since it was so long ago I actually don’t really remember most of the outfits. Not enough to name a favourite. The project definitely worked though. I got new ideas and I no longer have any clothes I never use.

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Credit: Johanna Öst

You didn’t have much formal training – in a previous interview you mentioned this was due to social phobia. What do you like most about working on your art in your own way? Have you found ways to teach yourself?

I like doing things my own way and I don’t like being told what and how to do things, so in that way I’m quite happy I don’t have any formal art training. It means I can be more proud of my achievements since I made them all by myself.

I have learned pretty much everything I know, not just art, by trial and error, and by simply being very interested. I probably would have been technically better if I’d gone to art school though.

Is your favourite mythological creature the mermaid?

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Johanna Öst ‘Swamp Girls’ prints available from her Etsy art shop

I’m not sure if I’ve ever been able to choose a favourite mythological creature, although I do love mermaids.

I’m completely fascinated by underwater things, and I love stories of creatures who lure people to their death, especially if it’s a watery death. Of course that’s not just mermaids.

My love for The Little Mermaid probably has a lot to do with it as well. I love tonnes of different mythological creatures though.

When growing up you felt positively influenced by typical bad girls, like Jessica Rabbit and the showgirl in Rock-A-Doodle. What do you love about them?

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Credit: Johanna Öst

As a kid I don’t think I reflected on why I liked them, I just thought they were gorgeous and cool. I suppose I like them because they seemingly don’t care about what’s proper and expected of them, they are just all out glamorous, over the top and very tough.

I don’t care for the concepts of being “tasteful” and “classy”, and being a very shy person I admire those who are hard and tough.

You come across as interested in many things, from history to the supernatural to palaeontology. Have you always loved to research things and feed your brain?

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Credit: Johanna Öst

Oh absolutely! I’m constantly researching things and learning about things I’m interested in. I did it through books and television when I was younger, but now with the internet it’s all so gloriously easy to find information about any obscure thing that catches my fancy.

I only learn about completely useless things though. I have a vast knowledge of pop culture but know nothing of actual use.

I think the latest thing I was deeply into was carnivals and fairgrounds, especially of the traveling variety, and particularly ghost trains. I looked at tonnes of pictures of fairground rides and attractions from the 19th century to the 1990s, watched 1950s documentaries on British carnies and learnt about all the different kinds of attractions and what they are called. It’s a dream of mine to build and manage some sort of ghost train or haunted house attraction.

It’s often said you have a deep love for toys and beautiful things. Do you have any particular treasured, beloved objects in your possession?

I have many treasured objects, I love most things I own deeply, but my most beloved object is not particularly beautiful. It’s a little mouse toy that I slept with ever since I was a newborn until I left home about seven years ago. Now she’s in a bag inside my nightstand.

If you could work in any kind of museum, what could it be?

I’d love to work in any sort of history related museum really, or a natural history museum. A historical curiosity/natural history museum would probably be the ideal. Or hey, a museum of fairground, carnival and/or circus stuff!

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Credit: Johanna Öst

If you could find an animal that never existed before, what would it be?

It would be amazing to discover that there really were big lake monsters such as Nessie.

If you could prepare a beautiful dinner for any character, real or fictional, to visit your gorgeous home – what would you prepare and who would it be?

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Credit: Johanna Öst

I can’t think of a fictional character I’d like to meet actually, I thought I would. As for real people, living: Jennifer Saunders, dead: Rik Mayall. I’d be a terrible dinner host though because I just don’t cook. I’d much rather buy snacks and watch movies or something. I’d just like to get drunk with Jennifer Saunders really.

Could you pick 3 of your illustrations and say why you picked them?

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Credit: Johanna Öst

This is my latest painting and I’m picking it because I’m always in love with the latest thing I’ve done. Well, almost always, sometimes things don’t turn out exactly the way I want, but that happens very rarely.

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Credit: Johanna Öst

I’m picking this because it’s so over the top and extra everything. I just wanted to draw whatever cool things I could think of purely for fun without any restraint. There’s slime, crystals, skeletons, smoke, a castle in the clouds, a see through horse! It’s a very childish picture, something I could have drawn when I was a kid. It’s not my best picture technically, but I love it because it’s so indulgent.

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Credit: Johanna Öst

This is one of my personal favourites. It’s based on a story of a monster that allegedly attacked people in rural France in the mid 18th century. The first attack reported was on a shepherdess, and I wanted the painting to be reminiscent of those pastoral idylls painted by Boucher and others around the same time, but unexpectedly invaded by the beast. I also like how you can’t really tell if her head is still attached to her neck…

Is there something we really should have asked you but mysteriously forgot?

I don’t think so. And may I just say thank you for writing such thoughtful questions! They were great fun to answer.

Johanna Öst links and credits

Johanna Öst’s website – for endless inspiration. Perhaps you’d like to leave a little comment of appreciation if you like what she does?

Johanna Ost’s Etsy Shop – for prints, comics and all manner of good things.

Photo credits: All pictures used here have been featured with Johanna Öst’s permission. If you’d like to share and credit them, please pop along to her website and get in touch.


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