If you don’t already know the work of London-based, Swedish-born illustrator Monika Forsberg, today is your lucky day. I am thrilled to include Monika as the latest subject in my Interviews with People I Admire series. I first became acquainted with Monika’s work a couple years ago and fell instantly in love. Over the last two years, she has continued to wow the illustration community and scores of new fans with her combination of boldly colorful, super quirky illustrations, hand lettering and animations. I was lucky enough to meet Monika in person last month in New York, where we were both attending Surtex, and she’s as lovely in person as she is on the Internets. Without further ado, I present to you an interview with Monika, in which we discuss her background (including her thoughts on her home country of Sweden), her process and other fun facts.
Lisa: Monika, I am such a huge fan of everything you do! Tell my readers a little bit about you. Where did you grow up? Did your childhood/early years have an influence on your style of artwork or creative endeavors over the years?
Monika: Thank you so much, Lisa! I grew up in Lulea which is a seaside town in the very north of Sweden. I remember snow, summer, sea, sand, trees and all the smells and a very slow pace, there was so much space for boredom. I still get that feeling in Sweden. Its the most beautiful place on earth but everything is already ordered and put in its right place and it’s so good you shouldn’t touch it. Nothing can beat the tender bright bright colours of the skies in my home town or the smell of pine forest in late summer when the mosquitos have died.
As children, my friend and I were obsessed with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the Mississippi river (of our imagination). We ran around our neighborhood, and I WAS Huck, and I didn’t pretend I was him but I actually WAS him.
As an adult when I am in Sweden, I just sit there (in the afternoon sun or at the kitchen table looking out at the forest through the triple glazed windows) and don’t know how to grasp it or get my rhythm to fall into synch with that tranquility and perfection. My kids love Sweden. It’s a sunshiny place. And Morfar (their granddad) makes fantastic pancakes and always has home made apple juice in the fridge.
I moved to England when I was in my early 20’s, and in London everything is like a crazy person’s idea of structure. There’s a disobedience and idiosyncrasy that, when I first came here, I found liberating, bewildering and rather difficult. Now I love that there’s always 569 things on the to do list (or the house will fall apart) and that nothing is perfect and so if I experiment it doesn’t matter. Nothing is perfect so I can make a mess.
My mum is a huge influence in my work. She had a great eye for style, color and was always making things. We always came to blows when she tried to teach me things because we annoyed each other (so much). I have memories of me sitting under the kitchen table, angry, cutting things up and being sad. Even though we clashed, I learned most of what I know today from her. It wasn’t from the things she consciously taught me but from the things I observed her doing, from just being with her. And she was the best person in the world to hug. I’m not sure if that makes sense, Lisa?
Lisa: It does! Our relationships with our mothers are so interesting! So tell us, before becoming an official “illustrator” in the last few years, you had a varied creative path. Start from when you were a teenager to where you are now. What was your path like?
Monika: I was a really embarrassing teenager. Cringe worthily so. You know; bad poetry, painful shyness and generally reveling in being misunderstood (how can anyone understand you when you’re too shy to speak and when you do actually speak you make no sense?). I was really childish, a late bloomer and everything in my head was a bit like grey porrige. I watched “Pretty in Pink” “The Breakfast Club” and “My Life as a Dog,” thinking THAT is what life should be like. I’m still all of these things, come to think of it.
My friend’s dad was really into photography, and I discovered Anders Petersen’s work as a teenager when leafing through a photography magazine at their house. He photographed real life. Told stories. I quit normal school and enrolled at a photography school which had mixed aged students, and there I found my kind of world and a way to communicate that made sense. It was heaven.
The downside was that I’m an introverted shy person so photographing people all day long (as I didn’t have the patience to photograph still objects) was REALLY HARD WORK. So I moved to England to study art instead with the intention to become a textile designer. I found animation instead. And learned a new language.
I worried up until about 2 years ago that I had nothing interesting to say and that my art was boring but at the age of 39, I embraced that being rather boring is okay and that it is fine to draw little things without any big meanings.
Lisa: To me, your work is the opposite of boring. In fact, your work has a very distinct style. What mediums do you work in? Does your work start by hand or do you render everything digitally? Or is it a combination?
Monika: I do as little work by the computer as possible. So the starting point is always pen, paint and paper sitting on my bed, whilst listening to audio books or radio documentaries. When I have a big enough pile of drawings I scan it all in and maybe use a third of it for whichever picture/project I’m working on. So there’s a lot of spillage. I use Photoshop to assemble the pictures and to enhance and remove and add little bits n bobs. I worked with Leigh Hodgkinson, the picture book author/artist, to teach me Photoshop and After Effects back in 2003 when I was making an animation for telly (and I knew nothing about computers back then), and I still use the 3-4 basic things she taught me and not much else.
I love how all creatives seem to use these programs completely differently. I tried using Adobe Illustrator once but it did my head in. I think using technology sparingly is the key. Or things turn into epic cgi monsters, which is fine if you like that sort of thing (but I don’t). How do you approach your work, Lisa?
Lisa: My process is similar! Everything starts by hand (pen, paint, pencil) but ends up getting scanned and then “cleaned up,” moved around and arranged in Photoshop. I am self taught except (like you) for some Photoshop lessons I got from someone back in 2008, so I use the same 6 processes in Photoshop and not much else. There might be a faster, easier way to do what I do, but I have no idea. Next, let’s talk about your animations. How is the process of animation the same or different from still illustration?
Monika: It’s pretty much the same, just not as detailed. You can make 36 half decent pictures that are nothing special, but if you put them together you’ve got a three second little animation (and things move and looks pretty amazing). Animation is like a non consistent repetition. A forever changing repeat. I love repetition and find it comforting, but, at the same time, it really bores me to death. So animation is kind of perfect. You stay safe by drawing almost the same thing yet you get to make variations on a theme. Restlessness mixed with a compulsion to repeat oneself? When animating I often draw actions backwards (as it is easier to in my mind work out how a movement breaks down if i start at the end of it). Animation is great because you can make ANYTHING happen. A chicken can turn into an exploding whale in matter of seconds (and no actual animals will be harmed in the process).
Lisa: There is very much an element of “silly” in your illustrations (and even your website). I mean that in the best way — your sense of humor really comes through. Do you consider yourself a silly person? Where does that come from?
Monika: I am really silly, and I am really happy. I love playing with words and I love banter and being silly. I think sometimes I might come across as a bit serious (until I start speaking), but it’s much more fun to laugh and have fun, although I’m a massive crier too. I cry at everything. And I have my moody days and I get angry. I sometimes feel a bit too much.
Lisa: You break a lot of drawing and painting “rules” in terms of color, proportion, etc. This is what makes your work so unique and amazingly wonky. Is that an intentional choice or a result of something else?
Monika: My intentions are always really serious. I start things off deeply concentrated and in hyper realistic frame of mind and then about 1/3 into the drawing I lose concentration and get a new idea (or idea of a joke), and I go along with that impulse, and then I spend the last third of the picture trying to bring it back to the beginning or towards a third impulse. I guess this makes things a bit wonky. Also I love feeling the rhythm of things and my rhythm is totally unhinged. I was a terrible cello player when I was younger as I had my own rhythm (unless I played in an orchestra, then I could follow and assimilate to the general rhythm of things).
So when cutting things out I tend to cut in a fast-paced rhythm when going through curves and then slow down at details, but to generally keep a very fast pace, to not get stuck in the detail of things or the fear of not getting things right. If I do things too slowly I lose the thread. Maybe a bit like downhill skiing?
When I assemble things in the computer I am trying to learn to make interesting compositions, that’ll make your eyes dance around and move back and forth (without getting dizzy). It is the same thing with choices of color. It almost always get out of hand. I admire people who chose color palettes and stick to them. I start with a base color and then put somethings that complements it but then I just have to stick on something else, I think: “Ohh, this color likes that color (even if they shouldn’t ),” and it becomes little stories in itself which leads onto something other color wise. Then I have to try bring it all together in the end. I find blue a really difficult color to deal with. Do you feel like that about any colors?
Lisa: Oh gosh, I hate working with purples. I avoid them quite a bit! So, inquiring minds are dying to know: where is WALKYLAND? What’s it like there?
Monika: One day my eldest son and I came up with Walkyland as a joke about something and I realized it was a great name that captured what I wanted to do, be and live. The only problem was that I had no work that fit my idea of Walkyland (a colorful green floral jungle full of strange creatures and happiness). I had no idea how to go about it as at that time I only did realistic black ink line drawings of people at the lido (outdoor swimming pool) here in London. I had no idea how to use colors or how to use my imagination. When I was a child we always drew with marker pens, and so when tackling the task of learning how to use colors I used that as a starting point because it was something I felt comfortable with.
Lisa: What is your favorite way to spend the day?
Monika: With my kids, with my boyfriend, with my friends or all alone. At the cinema, in a cold lake, in the kitchen, on a bus or at the sidelines of my sons football match. Slouching on the sofa. Cooking, drawing, laughing, watching, being. Going to Paperchase on a Saturday afternoon with my youngest son and eating cakes. Pubs and picnics. COFFEE. Talking about all things big and small whilst swimming with my friend. Drawing whilst watching films. Dancing in the kitchen with my boyfriend as lunch is on the stove. Drawing and bantering with my office mate Matt Littler. Sleeping. Holding hands.
Lisa: What is your current dream job or client?
Monika: l love working on commissions. I love the dialogue and the mixing of ideas and concepts between clients and myself. Collaborations. I been very lucky so far in my short illustration career to have only worked with fantastic people. Right now I’m working on some crazy butterflies for Eeboo. They are such fun people and they make work feel like play. If I could make a wish list; In the future I’d love to work on some book projects and editorials as I done very little of this.
Harvey Weinstein once wanted to meet up (well his people wanted to meet my people), but my people said unless they had a good selection of biscuits at the meeting it was a no. I think they didn’t get the joke and/or find it funny and the meeting never happened. But if he ever changes his mind I’d love to make a ridiculously good film together with Harvs.
And we can forget about the cookie clause.
And it’d be awesome to one day do a little collaboration with you Lisa!
Lisa: Yes!! I’d love that! Tell, us, where can people find you on the Internets?
Lisa: Big Thank you to MONIKA for hanging out here on the blog today! I hope you have enjoyed her as much as I have.
Have a great Tuesday, friends!