Libby Bandelin — Staff writer
A sparkle glistens in her eyes and peaks through the corners of her lips. When Emma paints, she smiles.
Not many college students could say they: illustrated a published novel, designed a collection of wine bottle covers, created custom commissions from all over the world, painted a watercolor series of all sixty-three national parks, or have been featured in national competitions and artist magazines. But for Dordt student Emma Vande Voort, this is her resume.
When the sophomore and biology major is not in a lab, she labors away in her art studio (the desk of her Covey-basement Dorm) where she paints watercolors for her Etsy shop, ‘Lewis the Dog Studios’.
“No painting of mine will ever compare to God’s paintbrush,” one of her Instagram posts reads. Through her joint love of science and art Vande Voort desires to inspire people with a better appreciation for His Creation.
A native of Washington State, Vande Voort grew up surrounded by the influence of nature on her family’s five-acre hobby farm in the heart of Puget Sound.
The Cascade Mountain range runs through her town, with the highest peak, Mt. Baker visible from her backyard. “It’s 360-degrees of mountains,” Vande Voort says. “Everywhere you look, there is a new painting.”
An artist from a young age, Vande Voort recreated the design she found in nature and in the animal life around her through coloring pictures and following ‘how to draw’ books. In middle school, she quickly fell in love with the precision of pencil and graphite drawing, specifically sketching horses. She wanted to focus on making her drawings as real as possible and get the anatomy just right.
Her art gained attention, winning school, and state competitions. Encouraged by feedback from family and friends, Vande Voort opened an Etsy shop, christening it after her Great Pyrenees dog, Lewis.
While Vande Voort had found her niche in graphite and pencil sketching, her nemesis was watercolor.
She found her foe to be temperamental, a medium much harder to control than sketching with lead.
Vande Voort was frustrated with her inability to communicate with the same depth, realism and shading that she could with pencil. There is no eraser for watercolor – once the paint goes on the paper, it is permanent.
After putting down her brush for a couple of years, Vande Voort picked it back up again in 2019 to paint a portrait of her friends and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Reflecting on the change of results, Vande Voort concludes that she needed to mature as a person before her art could.
“You have to have a ton of patience for something like watercolor, and patience was something I needed to develop,” Vande Voort said. “I needed that extra time to mature and grow before I could get the hang of it.”
A spark ignited from this initial success, so that when one of her charcoal pieces won second place in an art gallery competition, Vande Voort knew exactly what to spend her prize money on: Eighteen tubes of Daniel Smith Extra Fine watercolors.
Vande Voort had the necessary equipment, now she just needed the time and dedication to develop her skill. This came in the form of the Covid-19 lockdown.
When Covid hit, Vande Voort found she had the time she needed on her hands, which she used to practice watercolor every day.
Inspired again by her love for nature and the outdoors, Vande Voort painted a 4 x 4 square of Yellowstone National Park.
“I traveled during Covid through my painting,” Vande Voort said. “It was a way for me to escape, to go to new places I had never gone, and to revisit the places I loved.”
From her Yellowstone painting, Vande Voort challenged herself to paint 62 more 4 x 4 squares of the remaining national parks.
“It was like going from 0 to 100,” she said. Her watercolor skills took off.
Vande Voort used some of her own photography and researched pictures of the most iconic views as references for creating her national park paintings. For copyright reasons, Vande Voort had to be careful with the images and portions of images she selected.
“It starts to get legal if you copy an image straight,” Vande Voort said.
She starts painting with a light pencil sketch, this details the image and outlines where the paint will go. After dipping her paintbrush into a cleaned-out-miniature jam jar (now holding water) pigment is added to the paper. Her brush sweeps the color gently across the page, from one section to another. Slowly, smoothly, the image is brought to life, formed in the dreamy hues of watercolor.
Vande Voort started her national park saga with ‘Yellowstone’ in 2020, and completed her series with ‘Gate of the Artic’ this past summer. As a celebration of her success, Vande Voort and her mom designed a poster to showcase all 63 of her paintings. The poster sells out so quickly, it is hard to keep in stock.
Over the past two years, she has sold about 40 posters, and over 900 prints of her paintings on her Etsy shop.
Her business has given her experience in customer service, tracking expenses, managing advertisements and social media.
The time and content Vande Voort shares on social media directly correlates with the success of her business. She says Instagram brings in 95 percent of her commissions.
Aside from business advertising, social media connects her with the larger artist community. When she first sold her national park prints, “I was lowballing,” Vande Voort said.
Another artist DM’d her over Instagram, “You need to triple your prices! You are a talented artist, and people will take you more seriously.”
Vande Voort followed her advice, and immediately her sales went up.
“I’m thankful that she reached out, it was so kind,” Vande Voort said. “Even if it’s just a hobby, you want to be compensated.”
In turn, Vande Voort has also reached out to encourage other budding artists to do the same.
Emma has built relationships with fellow artists from all over the world.
An artist from Southern-California is making earrings for Vander Voort’s upcoming July wedding, they will officially meet in person this spring.
Vande Voort would also like to meet another artist friend from New Zealand, who lives on a black current farm. The two met last summer when Vande Voort was working on a raspberry farm in Washington. While they initially bonded over art, their similar summer experiences allowed Vande Voort to make even deeper connections. Through the pictures they posted, driving, sacking, and sorting, Vande Voort found out her friend from down-under owns an Oxbow harvester. The same harvester her father (an engineer for Oxbow) designed.
“My dad said only four people purchased that harvester from New Zealand, and I know one of them!” Vande Voort said.
In addition to developing artist friendships, Vande Voort has also formed partnerships with Art companies.
Artist brands like Speedball reached out to Vande Voort on her Instagram, asking her to be a product reviewer.
The same brand she used to launch her watercolor career, Daniel-Smith, contacted Vande Voort over spring break and asked her to be a part of their international artist community. She will record videos for the brand and will work alongside artists all over the world.
People have also recruited Vande Voort for over 200 painting commissions. Right now, she is working on portraits of three military brothers for their mother. Her commissions include: animal portraits, wedding portraits, wedding bouquets, landscapes and a four-foot-long mural of horses riding in a field of blue-bonnets. One customer sent twelve different pictures of her late Grandma and her horse. Vande Voort sketched from portions of the pictures so that the finished painting brought the two together.
“It’s a way to create and give her something she never had.” Vande Voort said.
When Vande Voort came to Dordt declaring a Biology major and an art minor, her science professors were intrigued by the combination.
She showed her artwork and her drawings of class dissections and anatomy to Drs. Eppinga, Visser and Ploekstra, who immediately encouraged her to pursue scientific illustration.
“In every science class we look at diagrams and drawings to learn about design,” Vande Voort said. “Someone had to create those. It shows that Art and Science are a lot more connected than people think.”
The science professors have commissioned her to illustrate and create a textbook cover for a collection of scientific essays they have written.
“They want to make it prettier,” Vande Voort said.
She hopes she can continue to do more art for the science department down the road.
While scientific illustration is her end goal, there are other avenues her biology degree can provide. Like any other college student, the future may still be uncertain, but Vande Voort knows that art will always be involved.
You can see more of Emma’s artwork by visiting her Instagram @lewisthedogstudio or Etsy store front: www.lewisthedogstudio.Etsy.com
Photo credit: Emma Vande Voort