Miss Led aka Joanna Henly on going solo, surviving a decade in business and embracing downtime

If you happen to love Instagram as much as I do and you follow a ton of creative accounts, then you'll definitely have seen the work of Miss Led, aka Joanna Henly – the East London-based artist, illustrator and art director who has made quite the name for herself.

Photo credit: Sophia Schorr-Kon @3rd Lens Studio

Photo credit: Sophia Schorr-Kon @3rd Lens Studio

Launching her own business over a decade ago, Joanna is a wizard with social media and, at one point, had almost a million followers on her Facebook page alone. But since then, she's dialled down the daily updates and is finding more exposure and success through self-initiated projects and aligning herself with some of the world's biggest brands. Google, for instance, recently commissioned her to use its Virtual Reality tech to come up with some bespoke artwork.

But she doesn't stop there. Not only is she renowned for her fashion illustration, Joanna is also a true champion of supporting the industry (that's our kind of ethos) and she regularly hosts workshops and training courses to help others improve their drawing skills. Is there nothing this creative can't achieve? We spoke to Miss Led about what she's been up to lately – including the launch of a new book.

You ended last year by going solo and leaving your agents behind. How does it feel?

Yes, it feels good! Going solo has paved the way for a long overdue career step up and it’s kicked off a lot quicker than I'd imagined.

In the last 10 years, I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate with some pretty influential brands. Working in areas covering beauty, fashion, sports, digital media and new technology, my role as an artist has developed a set of skills beyond purely mark-making.

From covering walls and creating window displays, producing animation and film, to designing products and packaging, live and environmental installations – creative spaces and ideas are now limitless.

I love developing concepts, solving problems and building teams, creating projects where I can practice different approaches. This allows me to stay on my toes and in turn empower each project through its uniqueness.

No one can present what I do, or work better than me. Illustration is a part of my focus, but not the whole story.

How have you made such a success of yourself, aside from being so talented?

Thank you, I believe it's a need to constantly try new things and to trust that everything will work out. I’ve always been open to exploring and experimenting with different materials, styles and environments whether alone or through collaboration. Each project comes with a new challenge. I'm really driven by the element of learning and growth.

You're hugely popular on Instagram – would you say that the platform has played a big part?

Yes, it’s definitely played a part. I've done a number of Instagram takeovers for clients such as Wacom, created an animated gif for the beauty brand Illamasqua’s social platforms, did an online promo campaign with Faber Castell, and recently produced a Miss Led Studio short film for skincare brand, Quantum Botanika.

However, my online growth has also been equally supported by much offline activity such as talking on panels, painting in design festivals, exhibiting work and running workshops all over.

Character designs, storyboarding and animation co-direction by Miss Led for Clinique

Character designs, storyboarding and animation co-direction by Miss Led for Clinique

Social has been instrumental in supporting my partnerships. This can be anything from running competitions, creating animation or producing film content, all of which help propel various campaigns and product launches. It’s allowed me the opportunity to give back to all the people that have supported me and my work over the years.

You love teaching others about illustration via workshops, social media and podcasts. How did it all begin?

My workshop experience started a while before Miss Led existed. I gained a lot of experience through teaching, which helped to hone skills like mural painting, textile art, delivering drawing, painting and printing. I was also collaborating on and producing a number of public art projects at the time. Supporting other people’s creativity is a really healthy and rewarding experience.

A few years later, I decided to combine my workshop knowledge with my working practice. Live painting with different material stores in London eventually led to delivering workshops at The Saatchi Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery, to a returning summer workshop in the amazing La Galería Roja in Seville, and two sold-out fashion illustration classes in Hong Kong for a huge multifaceted accessories and art campaign and solo show with The Dot.

Nina : Illustration for Fashion, tuturial course co produced and directed by Miss Led

Nina : Illustration for Fashion, tuturial course co produced and directed by Miss Led

Recently, I co-produced my own, Illustration for Fashion, video course with the team at Train to Create. The two-hour intensive illustration course was sponsored and supported by Liquitex, Wacom and Digital Arts magazine, and has been a great experience for studio-based film production work.

What's the biggest lesson you've ever learned?

To trust my gut and keep moving. Over the last decade, I’m proud of the many peaks but the dips and the burnouts resonate. Balance is important, but more than that – if some things don’t work out then I have to appreciate that I've learnt valuable lessons along the way.

Time and experience is something to be trusted. By moving forward and picking up as many skills as I can along the way keeps my ideas fresh.

Going back to the beginning of your career, how did you get started?

Through relentless image sharing of my portraits and networking online, one thing led to another and I secured my first group show was at Subtext Gallery in California. My first commissions were live painting for Diesel in their UK flagship stores and collaborating with Reebok on large-scale artwork for their 'Bread and Butter' show in Barcelona. I created a 2.5-metre high character wearing the Miss Led x Reebok custom kick. I had a Reebok, in my name. Wow. It was all very fast and pretty exhilarating.

I was painting and exhibiting a lot in Europe and the US. With a paint pen and brush in hand I covered canvases and walls, a window for Selfridges, an old 20-metre long Dutch barge and a vinyl wrapped car for Vauxhall for their Art Car Boot Fair. This led to commissioned artwork for the main stage of the Big Chill festival. How I managed to create a naked woman that reached over 13 metres tall I still don’t know!

TMW agency got in touch asking to create a brief for fragrance brand, LYNX. As this was a role for an art director, not just an illustrator – and my ideas were too good to give up – I suggested they should just hire me to produce the entire project. I think that pretty much sealed the deal.

The project was a massive career jump for me. Even though I was working with lots of big brands at the time, up until this point I was just hired to create imagery and brought in much later along the creative process.

Here, I had the power to pull together and manage a small team to deliver a slick film production. Other assets included behind the scenes content, an artist interview, large-scale fine art painting, and other products to support online content. This drove the campaign to reach an audience beyond young males. It was magic.

Did you always know what you wanted to do?

Totally, without a doubt. I’ve been drawing and passionate about art since I can remember. I approached the team at Faber Castell earlier this year as I wanted them to partner with me on my promotional campaign for my first book launch 'Portrait Drawing'.

I always used a Faber Castell pencil learning to draw, so it seemed appropriate that I work with the company that supported my learning as I'm passing it onto others.

You've continued your teaching with the launch of a new book, Portrait Drawing. What can we expect?

Portrait Drawing is a neatly-sized accessible technical guide which leads primarily through visual instruction, covering everything from mark-making, creating the right setup through to detailed step-by-step examples on each facial feature, various hair types and styles, to understanding how to bring your portrait to life through expression and character.

It was an opportunity to create something a bit fresher compared to the traditional drawing manual.

Portrait Drawing, creative direction, illustration and educational art work Miss Led

Portrait Drawing, creative direction, illustration and educational art work Miss Led

I really enjoyed selecting and including my favourite portraiture work which adds energy and colour to the product. I went to find it last week as it's now stocked at The National Gallery bookshop. I was so chuffed. It was a proud moment.

'Figure Drawing' is the companion to 'Portrait Drawing' and completes the series. This releases in mid-August, again with Rockport Publishers. The book is about getting out of your comfort zone with exercises that help you loosen up, create more expressive works, with a focus on character design and fashion illustration. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Was it challenging writing your first book?

I worked from drawing books when growing up and referenced them when I was teaching – and with thirteen years of teaching art classes I felt – actually I’m probably a bit of an expert here.

The short answer. It was really challenging. I had decided on... not one, but two books to illustrate and write together with Rockport. Having committed to another very involved project for Laurence King at this point it was a lot of work to take on, over a really long period of time.

I had no choice but to step away from posting on any social channels. Other than what went into these projects I had no new work for myself. It’s like I’ve had a year off in many ways. Taking a step back has allowed me to assess what the next phase is all about. I’m thankful for that.

What's your toolkit look like?

I have so many toolkits. I’m not a light traveller. My digital art kit is my Wacom Studio Pro / Cintiq 27HD / iPad Pro. For my painting, Liquitex paints and my signature Miss Led brushes created by Escoda. For sketching, a set of Faber Castell retractable pencils and eraser and A5 sketch pad. My journal and ideas writing kit, Parker fountain pen, A4 gridded pad and all the coloured Post-it notes!

Do you have a favourite medium?

Paint. I adore acrylic, oil, watercolour and BIG. These materials make me reminiscent of my installation and solo exhibition, Intimate, at the Printspace a few years back. Their gallery is such a brilliantly large space. I loved covering their walls and enveloping my (role) models in bright lines and symbolic elements.

Miss Led Intimate, solo show mixed media paintings and gallery mural installation. Photo credit: Sophia Schorr-Kon @3rd Lens Studio

Miss Led Intimate, solo show mixed media paintings and gallery mural installation. Photo credit: Sophia Schorr-Kon @3rd Lens Studio

You recently ventured into VR with Google – tell us more

I was invited by them to be one of the artists-in-residence at the Cultural Institute in Paris a few years ago. The day was spent exploring the first generation Tilt Brush application. The tool allows you to paint in VR within a two-metre square playing field.

A year later, I was commissioned by Google to present at a Business of Fashion event. As one of the speakers, I presented Tilt Brush by sculpting in VR a Galliano dress on stage in front of the man himself – just a metre or two away. I had five minutes. It was terrifying. It still gives me the shakes just thinking about it.

Last year, I created a large botanical-themed environment live for a Unilever event, before partnering with VUE Cinema to create a bespoke underwater installation for the Luke Besson film 'Valerian'. It’s been interesting, to say the least.

Miss Led produced VR Installation design for VUE Cinemas and Luc Besson’s Valerian film

Miss Led produced VR Installation design for VUE Cinemas and Luc Besson’s Valerian film

My favourite experience was working with patients in Philadelphia last year. Having the opportunity to listen to these individuals suffering from cancer share their stories, and to translate these through virtual environments in exchange was an incredible experience.

I’m thankful to have worked on some amazing VR-based projects and pick up much learning along the way. With Tilt Brush projects up-to-date, I’ve had to work within limited time frames – therefore bringing in my own detailed illustrative style would be tricky. Creating work in this new medium as a live environment and a 100% sensory experience has been hugely rewarding. However, I’d love to have the capacity to introduce my signature style more into future VR projects.

What do you do to unwind?

I’m learning to give myself permission to check out a lot more. Timeout now is a lot more present than it ever has been. I really value it.

Travel is really important for this – I can actually stop to read and sketch when I’ve escaped the city. Exploring the new is essential as a creative.

Do you have a favourite project? Tell us about how it came about, the process and the outcome

Last year I pitched to produce a short film for Wacom called 'Larger than Life', that traces my journey OOO with only a phone as my camera and the Inutos Pro Paper Edition Tablet. Stripping me of my usual day-to-day trappings, escaping the comfort of my studio, I presented this exercise as the perfect setup for creative play and fresh idea generation. The video, co-produced with Martyn Thomas, sees me live drawing on the tablet in various London locations finding and capturing inspiration.

Still from Larger Than Life, Miss Led art directed and produced film for Wacom

Still from Larger Than Life, Miss Led art directed and produced film for Wacom

With this project I wanted digital art to inform traditional painting and to illustrate the concept of idea expansion through the nature of scale. As the video progresses you see that the initial location sketches, photographs and digital designs are studies for a larger-than-life interior wall mural and window painting in Notting Hill boutique, One Vintage – where we had a launch party with lots of champagne.

What's next for you?

It’s a really exciting time. A big change is in the works, but that’s a story for another time. Miss Led Studio is slowly taking shape. A new environment and bigger projects are on the horizon. When things settle it’ll be time for another exhibition, further public realm and visual merchandising projects.

I'm waiting on a number of completed ventures to pop. From a card game with Laurence King and an LA office to academy interior design work for Schwarzkopf & Henkel – which allowed me to flex my brain as well as my drawing muscles through creating large-scale pattern work over 42 glass panels.

Also, book number two, 'Figure Drawing', with Rockport Publishers launches this August. And all else is mostly portrait focused, unsurprisingly – I’m working on a set of faces in collaboration with Rape Crisis charity of some incredible women who are speaking at a conference this autumn around the theme of success.

This week, I'm finishing a private, larger-than-life commission with a new client in the US and I’ve just accepted another commission, increasing in size again for a private client in Hong Kong, as well as a film with Wacom – so that’s next in line. I’m upscaling and couldn’t be happier.


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