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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Mirka Hokkanen

Mirka Hokkanen is an amazing illustrator who uses a variety of printmaking, drawing, painting, and digital techniques in her art. “Her love for line and drawing underlie her style no matter which media she is working in and her favorite subjects to illustrate are quirky animals and inquisitive little people.”

Her illustrator debut picture book, Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book, releases March 15th.

Welcome Mirka, tell us a little about yourself. (How did you get started illustrating? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate?)

I’m a mom of 3 during the day and an artist at night (and during nap time). My work has always had an illustrative bent to it. I toiled happily as a professional fine artist for well over 10 years, until one day I found an online class that taught illustration for picture books. It gave me the tools to grow into illustration, and from the social group, I learned about SCBWI and many other valuable resources to move forwards.

I work from my studio at home, so it’s easy to pop in and out as time permits. I love drawing animals and finding quirky angles to show stories from. It’s natural for me to think up stories and funny bits for illustrations that are not included in the manuscript.

That's a great talent to have, Mirka. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I love making stuff: I knit, crochet, felt, build frames for prints and even have a weaving loom in the house… (My husband is a very generous man and tolerates all the room it takes, and mess it makes.)

Your house sounds amazing and a wonderful place to grow up as a child. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I am from Finland and read books in Finnish growing up. Many of the earlier picture books had animals as main characters, and I was always very aware of the art in them. Some of the first books I read on my own, that really made an impact on me, were the Moomins, by Tove Jansson, and many of the books by Astrid Lindgren - Ronja the Robbers Daughter; Mio, my Son; and The Brothers Lionheart and Tirlittan. I remember crying reading many of them. I think there was a reality created in them, that was plausible, but fantastical at the same time, like something big lurking right out of your field of vision in the woods. It had a really big impact on me and the kinds of things I still find attractive today.

Wow, what a vivid image. What captured your attention or imagination with Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book?

First, it was all about animals. And second, it was beautifully written. The words evoked very strong images in my mind on first reading- I could see otters frolicking on a riverbank and butterflies flitting in a meadow at dusk. It was a dream come true, that I was picked to illustrate it.

*(Curious about Mirka's submission packet for this project? -*

I am so glad you were, too. What challenges did this story pose for your printmaking? Were these images created on linoleum or wood blocks?

I originally thought that we would do 2-3 colors per illustration. Each color needs to be carved by hand, which is very time consuming. To do the text more justice, I ended up making the illustrations 3-5 colors, which took even more long hours of carving away.

The technique I used to make the prints was wood engraving. The tools are very sharp and pointed, the same as used for metal engraving. They make tiny marks, and the illustrations in the book were blown up about 3 times from the size I worked on them as. Wood engraving is traditionally done on, you guessed it, wood, but for speed and cost efficiency, I used high impact polystyrene (HIPS). It’s softer to cut, which saved my hands, and cheaper to purchase and store, because it is just a very thin piece of plastic. The carving and printing process was the same as for wood though.

*(Watch the carving and printing process for the five owls above -*

Amazing Mirka, I am impressed that you did that for each of the illustrations. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Four Otters Toboggan? Could you share a few with us?

This story was hard to weave an extra story into, because the animals lived in different ecosystems, the limited color palette, and having to carve each detail by hand. What I decided to do instead was to hide some extra little animals in the pages, that you can see hints for at the end of the book and I also made the cover so you could count animals from 1-5 on it.

Text © Vivian Kirkfield, 2019. Image © Mirka Hokkanen, 2019.

In the bottom left, you can see where Mirka added a sweet little chipmunk watching the foxes.

She actually carved SEVEN other animals into the story! What's something you want your readers to know about your illustrations in Four Otters Toboggan?

I wish that people would soak the illustrations up slowly and get inspired to go out to enjoy nature. If they have time to look closer at the illustrations and imagine – each blade of grass, line and dot meticulously carved around by my hands. I think it's always fun to think about the physical work that went into making something.

There is so much to discover in the texture and detail of each picture, I too hope the readers linger. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

When there’s a will there’s a way. (I saw that in a kids cartoon when I was really young, and it’s stuck with me since.) I try to instill a resilience/indomitable spirit into my kids. It’s easy to give up when things get hard, but if you stick with it and find creative ways to move forwards, you will be rewarded in the end, even if it’s not in the way you expect.

Great message for all of us. The illustration style in Four Otters Toboggan combines printmaking and painting, correct? Your portfolio also has some amazing traditionally painted images. What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?

Yes and no. Ha ha. It was a long process and I’ll try to explain it very concisely. There are two end results of the illustrations: the illustrations for the book and original signed and numbered prints. The illustrations for the book, were printed in black, then scanned and layered and colored digitally, so there was no painting except for in Photoshop. After the illustrations were done, I went back and printed editions of some of the illustrations with traditional printmaking methods – printing each layer in color, registering each color on top of each other on a piece of paper. For these, I added watercolor for some small spot colors like butterfly wings. I know it can be confusing, and I’ve made several blog posts about the illustration part of the process:

I get the most enjoyment out of traditional media. Working with my hands. Both printmaking and watercolor fit the bill and I love combining drawing in there too. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time to do things by hand, so it’s nice to be able to work digitally. I always struggle with gouache, and want to learn to use collage in my work. I think it would add a fun layer to it.

Wow, I'm impressed! Thank you for sharing these posts with us. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)

I feel like I look up to so many people it’s hard to narrow it down. Some of my current favorites are Mauri Kunnas, Emily Hughes, John Lawrence, Angela Harding and the list could go on and on... I love the way Mauri Kunnas adds humor and sub narratives in his books, and his style of watercolor and pencil illustration is so engaging in general. I love lines and drawing, and that’s why I always have Emily Hughes books lying around for inspiration. John and Angela are two printmakers who have already made it in illustration. I look up to them as role models.

When I was young, I would draw horses ad nauseam and would often emulate the style of Lena Furberg. She made a career out of drawing horses, and still works in it today!

If anyone else is unfamiliar with these amazing illustrators, I included their links. Thanks Mirka for the introduction to these amazing artists. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Four Otters is my first book, and I have been busy working on marketing and making a coloring an activity book to go with it. The activity book will be offered as a free download on our sites and I’ll also have paper copies available in my shop. I just finished a new book dummy that my awesome agent, Essie White, started looking for a home for.

Congrats and best of luck with it! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?

The fine art world had prepared me to be patient and look at things on a long time frame.

I knew the industry was hard to get into, and that’s part of why it took me so long to get started. I think what has surprised me the most, is the love for picture books that every one exudes all across the field and how genuinely helpful people are. It has been such a warm community, had I known about it before, I would have jumped in sooner.

I've heard that a fair bit. What is your favorite animal? Why? (Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?)

I loved horses growing up, but now, I think anything that’s furry and cuddly would do. Give me anything from an aardvark to a zebra. I have to add, after drawing many otters lately, their slinky, bendy bodies with button noses are really fun to draw, and I wouldn’t mind drawing a whole book of them. In my fine art, I often choose birds, because they are easy for people to relate to, and their feathers are a fun challenge to draw.

Thank you, Mirka for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you for the opportunity to share about my work, it’s always a pleasure.

Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF review of Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book.

To find out more about Mirka Hokkanen, or get in touch with her:

If you missed Vivian Kirkfield's interview go here.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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