Featured Illustrator

Leena Kisonen

August 2019

We caught up with illustrator Leena Kisonen to talk about the path from day job to freelance. Leena shares with us the trickier aspects of working for yourself, why she loves creating for a living, and the of importance getting to know yourself.

Any hilarious stories about you as a kid being creative?

There is nothing traditionally artistic in my background, but our family was big on DIY. We kept making our own stuff instead of buying it, and I think that’s one of the biggest influences behind my creativity. You can always figure out how to do something by yourself.

I’m lucky to have had parents who encouraged me to be a self-starter and make my own stuff. My parents were creative in their own practical ways — my dad was a car engineer and my mum was a hairdresser. I was always encouraged to draw and to make things from scratch. For example, I would make furniture for my dolls from empty milk cartons and yogurt cups. I also remember building a little wooden house for my pet guinea pig. She loved hiding inside it and I remember being so proud of creating something that was so well-received!

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I have an MA in Graphic Design from Aalto University and a BA in Graphic Design from Lahti University of Applied Sciences. I also did exchange studies in Poland and Germany during my studies. You can’t major in illustration in Finland, so I shifted into the field from graphic design just by taking classes and practising on my own.

During my BA studies, I did my first internship at a local magazine publishing house in Helsinki, Image Kustannus. I assisted the art directors in small tasks, but mostly just observed other people working. I also interned at a publishing house, an advertising agency, and a design studio in Murcia in Spain. I had no idea what was expected of me when I got into my first jobs, so I imagine I must have been a pretty clueless intern in the beginning. Thank you to everyone for having extra long nerves with me when I was just starting out!

I started to freelance when I was doing my MA studies. I did mostly book layouts and small illustration jobs for local publishing houses. In the beginning it was mostly small, one-off projects that started to slowly grow in size and frequency over time.

Before I went into freelance illustration full-time, I worked in different kinds of day jobs for 10 years. I’ve worked as a graphic designer, project manager and art director in architecture, corporate communications and advertising. Having all these different roles and experiences has been very helpful in running my own studio. I recommend working for others first before going freelance. It helps you understand the practical part of the business, and you make a lot of connections.

Talk us through a typical working day for you right now.

I currently work from home, which I find very comfortable and practical. I like having routines as they help me focus on my actual work and keep my days structured. I wake up around 7:30 - 8 AM and try to be at work by 9.30 AM. Then I just do what ever needs to be done during my work hours and try to finish around 6 PM. I try to get out of the house during lunch to get some fresh air, and to see a friend over lunch sometimes.

Most of my days are divided between creative work and admin. I create my illustrations by combining handmade paper cuts and vector graphics. Some of my days include a lot of paper cutting and scanning. I work on a laptop with my Wacom tablet, so I’m sitting at my desk most of the day. Admin can be anything from updating my online profiles to writing quotes and contracts.

I mostly work with clients in the US, Finland and Japan. Sometimes scheduling is tricky when clients are on so many different time zones, but so far things have worked out. I try to stick to my eight-ish work hours, but am willing to be flexible if there’s a rush or if something just needs to be done.

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You don’t have to do the same thing as everybody else. This is something my art teacher told me in high school, and it’s a piece of advice I keep returning to over and over again.

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What are some of the best and worst parts of your job, day-to-day?

The best part is just getting to work with something I love every day and get paid for it! Getting illustrate for a living feels like having found my place in the world. Creating art is my way of connecting with people and my way of giving something to the world. That is also why I never feel alone, even though I work in solitude. I feel pure joy if I manage to create something that connects with people. That feeling gives me the energy to keep going.

I don't think there are a lot of bad parts of my work. I’ve chosen to take this path myself, so I choose not to complain about it. The worst is sometimes just that there is often not enough time for new creative work and exploration. Admin and email can take up huge chunks of my time; sometimes they’re about 50% my work hours. But it’s a part of the job as well and you have to accept that. However, I do dream of hiring a studio manager one day so I could concentrate on creating only.

What's the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

You don’t have to do the same thing as everybody else. This is something my art teacher told me in high school, and it’s a piece of advice I keep returning to over and over again. It’s a good reminder - don’t be afraid to do your own thing.

What advice would you give students graduating in 2019?

Being an interesting creative starts with knowing who you are as a person. While it’s important to learn from others, don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s work and at social media. Instead try to get to know yourself and what you are all about. Form your own perspective and opinions.

It’s only possible to create unique work that connects with people when you are creating from your inner self. Trying to copy or imitate other people’s work is not something you can build a sustainable creative career on. It’s a path that will take you nowhere worthwhile. The process of creating your own style can be a painful process, but the joy of getting to express yourself and connecting with others will outdo the struggle.

Website: leenakisonen.com

Instagram: @leenakisonen

Twitter: @leenakisonen

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