Year 2021 illustrated

I like to follow the balance between my illustration work and infographics/data visualizations. It is not always easy to draw the line, since most of my projects are a combination of both. And not rarely a project that starts out as an infographics commission ends up being an illustration – with perhaps a very communicative function.

My interest in this balance is one of the reasons why I’ve done these summaries of my years (2018 & 2020). This year I decided not to count the amounts of illustrations or other work pieces like I’ve done before. It was always tricky to do (the projects are so different from one another) and the number didn’t basically tell me anything.

This year I based it on time used.

In 2021 I worked on 2 books (finished 1).

Book projects are the backbone of my professional year: they take so much time. So they need to be planned ahead and usually still it’s a juggling act on getting it all done on time.

And of course they are important. And of course there are always new ones screaming for my attention.

In 2021 I illustrated 253 people.

In the previous years I counted only the characters with facial features (2020: 145, 2018: 85). But I often illustrate tiny human figures, and some of them clearly represent a specific gender. So this year I counted all the characters who were more than mere stick figures or something very general.

Illustration is often intertwined with stereotypes in order to communicate, and I believe everyone has moments of bias and blindness. As much as possible I portray non-binary in my characters. It is work-in-progress, always.

Gender equality is important to me especially because I’ve illustrated subjects like rally car racing and motorcycle road racing – traditionally male-dominated. Nowadays it’s time they look different.

These numbers, obviously, are based on how the characters look. I’ve had a fair share of notions about eye lashes on men… perhaps someone else might do the math a little different!

Bye 2021! You and your numbers.

What’s so special about picture books?

There’s picture books and there’s illustrated books.

To first have a text, then commission an illustrator to illustrate it, and then put it all together maybe using a graphic designer is a way to make an illustrated book. I know this is how a lot of publishers work, and their expertise lies especially in finding the right illustrator to match a specific text or a specific writer. But to make a picture book like that?

I attended a seminar in Tampere, Finland on November 18th by the Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature. It focused on the illustration in children’s books. For me the seminar only crystallized the specialty of a picture book, an artform of story, illustration and words. Hence the idea of words coming to life and being revised to perfection before an illustrator even comes along puzzles me. In that case is it more of an illustrated book, a picture-book-lookalike? How much is it a picture book if words are the ones running the show? If the pictures are left with the role of a decorative element, something you turn your eyes to after reading the text? Counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say, if it’s a picture book?

Text first, pictures second

We live in a crazily visual culture with the never-stopping image feed of social media and daily communication through emojis and memes. Yet we strongly hold onto words as a source of real and serious information. The idea of words coming first, pictures second is so usual we don’t even stop to think could it be the other way around. The illustrators and other visual designers know this, but if it’s only the illustrator raising their voice in wanting to start working earlier in the process it is rarely heard. Or it may be misunderstood: “The illustrator is just so eager to start selecting the right pencils…”

With data visualizations the presence of a visual designer on the starting line is perhaps even more obvious. In the Data Visualization Handbook the authors Juuso Koponen, Jonatan Hildén and Tapio Vapaasalo (2016, the original Finnish version) go through work processes of information design. Below I’m freely summarizing a few ideas why they think the visual designer needs to be aboard when the project starts.

The best ideas typically are born out of interaction between people with different skill sets. A good visual designer knows the presentations of data generally better than the content experts. Defining the target audience and its needs are decisions of the early stage where the input of visual designer is helpful: a lot of later decisions depend heavily on the needs of the target audience. Also, a good information designer understands the type of data that is needed to construct visualizations usually better than the content experts. It can be very time-consuming to start proceeding with the wrong type of data that is challenging to bend into visual shape – desired or any.

Not just eager to sharpen pencils

I don’t mean to exaggerate. Stellar picture books born out of a brilliant text do exist. The illustrator’s take on the text influences and changes it, and could lead to a properly equal cooperation of a kick-ass author-illustrator match.

Picture books can tell about something small and light and leave the reader delighted and entertained. Or they can tell about things big and heavy, and leave the reader touched and transformed. Non-fiction picture books can take a real and serious idea and make it even more real and serious – even so serious that adults pay attention! Illustrators are the ones deepest invested in the soul of a picture book, and they need to be involved every step of the way. They need to be there when selecting the topic and collecting data, and when the needs of target audience are decided.

Otherwise the book might end up an illustrated book, where the reader reads the text first and glimpses at the decorating pictures second. Counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say, if it’s a picture book?

Name change: Illustrating Data

This blog used to be called “Cold as Ice Cream”, based on a Blondie song Sunday Girl. It was my visual diary that I started 2015.

I will spend spring semester 2022 in Simmons University, Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in Boston, MA, USA, as a Fulbright grantee. My project is called ”Data visualizations in children’s non-fiction picture books”. It is a combination of my two passions as well as main themes in my career so far: Creating non-fiction picture books and illustrating data. I realized I wanted a platform where to write about those themes, and about the project.

Hence the new name, hence the new layout! From now on I will write about non-fiction picture books, the cooperation of illustration and words, infographics and visual accessibility and of course – illustrating data.

Welcome!

Year 2020 illustrated

My 2020’s numbers illustrated. I did this two years ago, too, and thought it’s time for an update with new numbers of the strange year.

Towards new!

Downsizing big and bold

Two years ago I arranged an exhibition big and bold. 16 illustrations, height 2,3 meters, width 6 meters. Altogether the exhibition was nearly 100 meters wide, it was outside, and it was my first exhibition ever.

No one knows how many people saw it during those 2,5 weeks, but I know several who went and saw it on a motorcycle. I had wished for that, since the illustrations were from a book that told about a motorcycle road racing legend, Jarno Saarinen. The exhibition was following a road that used to be a race circuit, next to the Helsinki Olympic Stadium.

After the exhibition was over, I took the pieces down, rolled them up and carried to my storage, washed them (both sides) and rolled them up again. It was a lot of work, they were huge and heavy, and when I closed the storage door there was nothing I wanted more than to forget they existed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love them! Among those 16 were the illustrations that got highly commended in the World Illustration Awards children’s book category 2019. The printing turned out superb, they’re truly impressive with their size. People wanted to buy, I wanted to sell. Until the buyers realized it was actually 6 meters wide we’re talking about.

They were just TOO BIG.

When the lockdown started in March 2020, I knew what my corona project would be: downsizing the big and bold exhibition posters. They had started their siren songs from the depths of the storage (two stories up from my apartment) and I knew I couldn’t hide anymore.

But how? Where should I cut? I started it on screen.

I had to create something new. I couldn’t look at them the same way I had when creating illustrations for the book, to tell the story. And I had to pay attention to the size.

The motorcycles were the most interesting to cut. I had loved illustrating all the small technical parts and to learn how a motorcycle works – even only shallowly. Now all that small technical got to be highlighted better than before.

Photographer Tuomas Kaisti

I don’t think I ever will arrange an exhibition that big again. But if someone asked for my advice in arranging one – if they should do it or not, I would say in a heartbeat: “Go for it.”

Photographer Tuomas Kaisti

And then I would add: “You can always downsize them later.”

You’re the designer

“Longest way round is the shortest way home”, wrote James Joyce, and Debbie Millman with her story illustrated the sentiment aptly. In her keynote speech at the Huiput Creative Festival in Helsinki Millman focused on rejections and walked us through her career – and the worst day of her life. She got a handful of rejections all at once (and then some). She put it to words well how easy it is to disguise disappointments into feelings of other colours, even if it’s only for yourself. Luckily things turned out well for her, but it didn’t happen fast, and that was the most important message I was left with. To not try to peak quickly. “If it takes you long to reach it, perhaps you stay there longer”, she suggested.

Lauren Currie urged us to recognize our privilege and use our power. She asked how many of us have a domain with our own name. A lot of hands were raised, including my own. “You are in control of your digital footprint”, she addressed, and I liked the notion, obvious as it seems. I thought about my very own digital footprint, the portfolio website I just updated: it has been existing since summer 2012. Before that I had a blog with my name. I’ve been digitally around a third of my life – with my real name.

Designer decides the gap between columns.

David Carson shared with us a lot of pictures and a lot of jokes. I appreciated both (deeply!). Have the designers gotten lazy? He asked not long into the presentation. With all our software it’s easy to rely on guides, grid and all the help they bring. But you can’t give out the power or the responsibility: You’re the designer. Designer decides the gap between columns.

“Never snap to guides” is a notion I picked for my Instagram post. I don’t think I have, but I have often thought I should. I have often described my layout designing as ‘moving elements around on a spread’, referring to my non-existing knowledge on layout grids and all. Nevertheless I think the layout designing I’ve done is good.

“Your wave is coming”, Carson said. Not only said, he had written it down. In a nice way, and I followed. What a lovely sentiment. And I don’t even surf.

Five years

I started this blog in January 2015. I wanted to have a platform of my own to do something, to post something. I have done so and enjoyed!

In preparing my own portfolio update recently I updated this blog first. Whilst testing out themes I compiled together the illustrations I had posted here 2015-2020. All of them were created with the idea of publishing them on a free platform where not a lot of traffic was happening. I liked what I saw, and realised what I owed to this blog.

Perhaps from now on I will take a different course here. I might do something, post something, a bit more. Since 2015 I’ve cut down eating ice cream but I still love the name – and the Blondie song!

Motorcycle Stories

Alongside my very dear book project “The Baron” I drew some other motorcycles as well during last year. You can say I kinda fell for them ❤ Especially in the old race motorcycles there’s such simplicity and beauty. And the thought alone to be illustrating motorcycles for kids charmed me… I could use all the color palettes I wanted, I could illustrate all the tiny bits with as much fun as I only could!

Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 02 Ducati 02

This Ducati from the year 2002 is one of my favorites. It just keeps charming me!

Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 03 Red Pipe
Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 04 Raisu 78

Yes, it was a small and cute one ❤

Pirita Tolvanen Motorcycle Stories 05 Yamaha

Revolution counter – how’s that for a word!