Lars Justinen: Dialogue with an Adventist illustrator and artist

“I get bored easily,” admits Lars Justinen. So one of the things he particularly enjoys about what he does is variety. “No day is ever the same,” he says.

Lars’ range of interests—and skills—mark him as a true renaissance man. Besides his art, he is interested in music, nature, computer technology, family, religion, and other areas. Seventh-day Adventists are familiar with Lars’ work through his covers of the adult Sabbath school lesson quarterlies, used around the world. In addition, his work and that of his wife, Kim, appear regularly in numerous books, periodicals, and advertising both for the church and for others.

Justinen Creative Group (JCG), the business Lars and Kim founded, employs a number of individuals with complementary skills. Recently, JCG has become increasingly involved with computer animation and designing web sites. Lars does not see the recent explosion in computer technology as threatening to artistic creativity, as some have done. Instead, he welcomes the changes the computer has brought. “It’s liberating,” he declares.

Have you always been aware that you had artistic capabilities—that you could draw, for example?

Yes. Art always played an important role in our home and in my life. My mother was an amateur artist, and she kept stacks of newsprint around with pencils. From a young age, my brother and I would lie on the floor and draw the kinds of toys we wished we had. Looking back on it now, that was probably a better experience for us than having real toys.

Did you have any formal art training?

My mother was a member of a women’s painting group. Whenever they went out into nature to paint, I tagged along with my mother and painted and had a lot of fun. When I turned 13, my mother enrolled me in a private painting class for a few weeks.

How did you decide to make art your life’s work?

I came to art through the roundabout path of pre-medicine and dentistry. At Walla Walla College I took pre-med, while majoring in art! Besides the fact that I enjoyed art, I thought medical schools might look favorably at someone with an unusual major, instead of the usual chemistry majors. But by my junior year, I was enjoying art so much that I said to myself, “If I go into medicine, I won’t have time for art.” So I switched to pre-dentistry. I had taken a lot of pre-med courses that would apply to pre-dentistry as well. My plan was simple: be a dentist three days a week making a comfortable living, and devote the rest of my time to art!

Then in my senior year, I ran out of money. So I dropped out of school and moved back to Victoria, British Columbia, to earn enough money to finish college. I spent the next four years living the proverbial life of the impoverished artist, from rent check to rent check. Eventually, I knew I had the talent and ability to make a living as an artist. I had a few breaks. I did a limited-edition print that was well received. I began to look at successful artists and say, “I think I could do that.”

What was the first piece of art you actually sold?

The very first drawing I ever sold was a crayon picture of a sunset. I sold it for five cents. I was seven then. I did these drawings for a Sabbath school investment project, and church members bought them. My mother bought some and saved them. I still have at least one somewhere. It says “five cents” in the corner. I also remember making a little money later on by painting watercolors on white paper plates and selling them to tourists. But professionally, my first sale was through a gallery. I took two paintings to a gallery and asked to have them framed, but I was surprised that the gallery offered to exhibit both paintings. I prayed a lot that God would somehow make this happen. And He did! The gallery sold both paintings, and I received $200 for each. That experience gave me self-confidence that I could actually make a living as an artist.

Can you describe the creative process as you experience it. Does an illustration just come out of your imagination? Do you do a lot of research first? Is it a sort of effortless process of inspiration, or is it just hard work?

All of the above! Every time I do something creative, I bring to it everything that has ever happened to me in the past. That’s one reason I encourage young artists to do a lot of experimenting. That’s why practice is so important. The creative process is not without that leap from what you know to what you don’t know. That’s the “talent” part of the process and the hardest part to articulate. But without the tools, you’re still an amateur. The tools and the experience are what separates a creative child with crayons from a professional artist who has a mental image of where he or she wants to go and knows how to use the tools to achieve that destination.

What do you find most satisfying personally about what you do? And conversely, what do you enjoy the least?

The least? Deadlines!

What is most personally satisfying? To know that I never really lose all those hours spent creating. I can pick up a 1986 magazine and look at an illustration I did, and there I still see all the hours and effort it took to create that. That’s one level of satisfaction. Another is to know that probably at any hour of the day or night, someone somewhere is looking at an illustration or a limited-edition print or a book cover I have done. In a sense, because of the amount of work I have done, I’m constantly talking to people through my art, and that’s satisfying.

Do you have a favorite painting, one you like more than any other you’ve done?

My favorite painting is always the one I’m going to paint next. To be candid, most of the work I do ends up being a little less than I had hoped it would be. Once in a while, something will meet my expectations. Rarely does a piece exceed my expectations. But that is what is fun about it—trying to see if you can do that perfect illustration.

With technology affecting every area of life, how do you perceive its effect on art?

Exhilarating and perhaps empowering. In the publishing industry today, the artist has a much more central role to play in the process of printing than 10 years ago. The creative input has remained the same, but the implementation has been automated. As I see it, the result is empowerment of the artist.

Technology has been exciting for me. I bought my first computer when I was at a point in my career where I felt I had mastered much of what I was expected to do. Suddenly, I found myself a complete novice again, learning to do on the computer what I had been doing in other media. I felt I was in college again! I enjoy the juxtaposition of working in concert with traditional media and high-end technology. And you can integrate them; they really can complement each other. And it’s fun!

Your wife is an artist in her own right. What role has your family played in your career?

I’m extremely fortunate to have a wife who is not only my best friend, but also my colleague and best critic. We complement each other professionally.

I recently became a father for the second time, and with the children have come some restrictions on the long hours I used to put in. I don’t want to miss seeing them grow up.

How do you feel your Christian faith affects your work as an artist?

God colors everything in a Christian’s life. My faith affects me in practical ways such as the kind of jobs I will accept. Once I was contacted to do a poster for a beer company. The offer was attractive, but I had to turn it down. There’s a price to pay for being a Christian.

The biggest effect, though, is that the whole creative process becomes an extension of God’s creative nature. He created us in His image, and I believe that includes the ability to create things ourselves. The creative process can be a spiritual process.

Recently, a young man who works for you was baptized. Tell me how that happened.

Randy was working for us primarily as an animator. He had been carefully watching my wife and me, we learned later. He noticed how we shut everything down on Sabbath and went to church. We had been working on a book on baptism. One day he said to me, “I would like to go to your church.”

“That would be great,” I said. “I’d be happy to come by and pick you up next Sabbath. I think you would enjoy visiting.”

“No,” he told me. “I want to join your church!”

Here was someone who wanted to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church and he had never even been inside one before. He attended the Net 96 meetings and responded to the first invitation to be baptized.

Who has most influenced your life personally and professionally?

Two individuals. One I have spent almost all my life with, and the other I spent only a single day with.

The first is my mother. She always encouraged me. She had the foresight to expose me to new things—museums, books, art. I learned from her that talent should be valued and improved upon.

The other is Harry Anderson, who recently passed away. I admire him because in his work I first recognized the principles of composition and the understanding of light. When I was young, we had books around the house with his illustrations, and I was able to see what possibilities there were in painting. I had the privilege of spending an entire day with Harry Anderson in his home in Connecticut. He was such a gracious, knowledgeable person.

What advice would you give to a young person who feels drawn to art as a career?

First, have a reasonable amount of artistic talent. That can be subjective, so take your work to a professional artist and ask for an honest appraisal.

Second, be committed. An artist should have the same sense of commitment that a person has who wants to be a lawyer or a physician.

And finally, practice. If a person wants to be first violinist in an orchestra, he or she will have to put in several hours a day practicing. An artist cannot do any less. Some have this romanticized idea that you just sit down and the drawing flows out of your fingertips. It doesn’t happen that way.

Interview by Russell Holt. Russell Holt is vice president for product development at Pacific Press Publishing Association, in Nampa, Idaho, and the author of many articles and books. Lars Justinen’s address: 110 12th Avenue South; Nampa, Idaho 83651; U.S.A. E-mail: