The Illustrator Full of Punch: Janne Iivonen
In the age of the internet, a photograph can be circulated globally in a matter of seconds, with endless ways in which moments are shared – so it’s no wonder that mediums which speak to a slower way of doing things are highly popular – illustration is one of those rare forms which looks to create an image with longevity.
Among the new guard of illustrators reclaiming the art form and redefining it for a 21st century is young Finnish-Born, Brighton-based artist Janne Iivonen. His marriage of realism, clever compositions and retro colour palettes is always relevant, capturing the current zeitgeist in fashion or technology with an honest and playful take, alongside his observations of human habits and the idiosyncrasies of our everyday lives.
With his work featured in global publications such as The Guardian, The Times, New York Times, Wired and Creative Review – and with digital art having now found its space in the mainstream art world’s consciousness – Kate Lawson caught up with Janne to talk about his latest collaboration with eyewear brand Ace & Tate, and the witty sense of fun and mischief behind his illustrations, because if we can’t have a laugh then what else have we got?
Words by Kate Lawson
Illustrations by Janne Iivonen
When did you start illustrating – was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
I’ve drawn for as long as I’ve been able to hold a pen (or a crayon), but I think the fact that I can now make a living doing just that, is thanks to my decision (and admission) to study illustration at the University of Brighton. I received my first proper commissions while still a student there and was fortunate enough to launch a full time career in the field of illustration straight after graduating.
How would you describe what you do / who you are to a person you just met at a party?
I usually say that I draw pictures for books, magazines and websites. They usually leave the conversation by “books…” or even “draw”.
Ha! So you use your own life as inspiration for your work?
All the time! I have a very good visual memory and I’m always observing things, situations, gestures and people when out and about. I draw on these observations when I start sketching and devising ideas for illustrations. Obviously I try to make these ideas work in the context of the brief. I’m also an avid note taker so I make sure to always write down any ideas that come to mind after seeing or experiencing something funny or interesting.
And where does other inspiration come from, for example – global issues, everyday struggles, conversations with friends?
I try not to read the news too often as it just makes me worried and anxious, but I still try to keep on top of things by reading magazines and books on topics that interest me. I’m also a big fan of the cinema so I think that creeps into my work too, at least subliminally. I think that as a creative professional it’s important to keep feeding your brain things in the form of music, art and literature, but also to have time to digest it all afterwards in order to make any sense of it. I have found out that walking is a helpful way to rewire my brain which often leads to new ideas.
You love cinema – what kind of films do you like to watch and which is your favourite ever movie?
I think I gravitate most towards the highly visual and/or cerebral movies. It’s very hard to pick just one, but if forced to, maybe I would pick Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati, because I still find the settings, gestures and cinematography highly inspiring.
The relevance and realism in your work is characterised by human habits – what are your best and worst habits?
Best: I like to keep my surroundings and attire as smart and neat as possible, and I try to be polite and generous towards other people. Worst: I’m bit of a collector/hoarder.
So what do you collect?
Mostly books, comics and records. Books and comics inform my art and vinyl records are still the best, albeit not necessarily the easiest way to enjoy music.
Have you ever drawn yourself in one of your illustrations, and if so which one?
I think there are aspects of myself in all of my characters, but no I haven’t drawn an exact portrait of myself in any of the pieces.
Has the boom in digital art prompted you to keep experimenting and challenging yourself in your work?
I now draw 90% of my illustrations digitally on a wacom cintiq 27 and a Japanese art app called Clip Studio Paint EX. I feel that as an illustrator it is very important to try to keep your brain flexible and one way to do that is to keep learning new things. I have recently started to do some 3d modelling and have also spent more time honing my animation skills.
And you’ve just worked with the eyewear brand Ace & Tate on their style guide (a tool through which customers use to select and buy frames online), illustrating the different personas which apply to style and shopping. Out of the different personas – minimalist, urban, classic, creative – which one do you most identify with?
I would say that I’m a mix of those personas, but if I had to pick just one I guess it would have to be the creative.
And which items in the style guide best describe your personal style or character, which are most important to you?
I think that given the chance I would pick the pen, the minimal watch and trainers. I feel that these objects represent best the things that I value: challenging/interesting work (the pen), making the most of your time (the watch) and walking or being active (the trainers).
When you’re working for a commercial client, do you find it easy to apply your style to meet theirs – how do you find that point where the two seamlessly combine?
It depends on how far apart the client vision is from what I do in terms of style and look. I always try to adapt my art so that it fits a given brief and the client’s vision, but if it’s miles apart from what I do, I might politely decline the project offer.
Fashion illustration seems to have fluctuated in popularity since the explosion of personal camera devices. Why do you think that people are increasingly interested in this medium again?
I think part of it has to do with this sense of authenticity that people attach to handmade things like fashion drawings and illustrations and also that more people are simply aware of the medium.
Do you think illustration can capture something different to a photograph?
Yes: Illustration can show the inner workings of a person’s mind, dreams or express feelings and ideas that might be hard to capture with a camera. Stylised and somewhat generalised character based illustration as opposed to “realistic” can also be easier to relate to than for example fashion photographs with models. What I mean by this is that a viewer/reader can perhaps more easily envisage themselves as the characters than they could if they were actual real people with specific facial features etc. This allows for applications where photography might be harder to use. I also feel that because of the omnipresence of photography, especially after the massive popularity surge of smartphones, Illustration can be seen as something fresh and more bespoke (“someone actually drew that thing for this specific thing”).
Creating networks and connections via social media has grown to be a key part of making a career in the digital art industry – did sharing your work via social platforms help with recognition from art peers, potential clients and press?
Yes, I think that social media is such a good tool for promoting your work and it also helps in connecting with like minded peers and fans. It allows you to gain exposure worldwide and in effect get you those overseas jobs that might have been hard to come by prior to the advent of such media and networks. I can say that I have received several jobs through posting my work on Twitter, Behance, and Instagram.
So you care about what your audience thinks?
Of course, I’d be foolish not to. I think that by definition Illustration and applied art in general needs an audience for it to be what it is. It’s also helpful to see which pieces trigger the biggest responses and which don’t. Having said that I don’t take it as a strict mandate for myself when creating work, but it’s interesting to know nonetheless.
Which other artists do you admire?
Too many to name, but here are few: Fine artists: Giorgio de Chirico, Alberto Giacometti, Patrick Caulfield and the dutch De Stijl guys Gerrit Rietveld and Theo Van Doesburg et al. Older Illustrators: Tove Jansson, Gluyas Williams, Earl Oliver Hurst, Russell Patterson, John Held Jr and Eguchi Hisashi. Contemporary illustrators: Sara Andreasson, Jeff Östberg, Stefan Glerum, Pieter Van Eenoge and Okamura Yuta.
And what are you currently working on?
I’m working on a super detailed illustration spread for an upcoming children’s book and some zeitgeisty editorial work for my regular job at Image magazine.
Do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators?
If you really want to succeed in this line of work you must have a real passion for it, sacrifice a lot and above all keep doing it despite what people around you might say. Many people will say that it isn’t wise to pursue a career in the arts and they might actually be right, but if you are still compelled to do it then do it. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take advice or critique, on the contrary, but just that it’s good to be aware that there are many “gate keepers” and people who discourage you because otherwise they would have to re-evaluate their own ideas of what you are supposed to do or achieve in this life.
So if you could illustrate your philosophy on life, what would it look like?
It would be a serene scene of an urban garden with diverse looking people walking, talking, exchanging ideas, reading and planting vegetables and trees, absolutely no drum circles or acoustic guitars though.