Originally from Finland but now based in the UK, Annu Kilpeläinen is an illustrator known and loved for her radiant tropical depictions of cars, flowers and landscapes. A graduate from London College of Communication, her work has appeared in magazines such as The Gourmand, Lucky Peach and Yen and her vivid patterns can be found on anything from book covers to blankets to skateboards. Inspired by film stills, Annu's illustrations exist somewhere between a comic and a painting. Her feel-good aesthetic and flirtatious scenes are inherently euphoric while her confident use of lurid and rich colours embraces the extravagance of youth. Now back in London after a year living and travelling around Australia, we visited Annu in Hackney at her studio to see her in action. A mirror image of her exuberant and high-spirited work, we sat down with the bright and brilliant illustrator to find out more about her process, her upcoming show in L.A and the harsh realities of working for yourself.
Words by Kadish Morris & Photography by Mel Lou
Tell me and little bit about your background and how you ended up in the UK?
I was born in the countryside in Finland. As a teenager, I wanted to move to the city, but Helsinki seemed too big. There’s around a million people there, so it’s really not that big but at that point, I was a country girl from a small town. At Uni, I did graphic design but I didn’t like it. It was too corporate. Designing logos and typefaces wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I decided to take a gap year and I moved to London. I came here, and applied to Uni. Once I got accepted, I decided to stay and now I’ve been here for 10 years.
Did London meet your expectations?
I’d never been to London before I moved here. Everyone was like ‘Why are you moving to London. It’s going to rain and everyone is going to be really miserable’. But when I came here, the weather was so much better than in Finland!
You lived in Australia for a year. What was that like?
It was amazing. I spent a lot of time in Melbourne. Australia is so big so if you want to fly to the other side, it takes hours but I did do quite a lot. I went to Tasmania and to the Gold Coast, and Sydney and Cairns and did loads of road trips too. I went to America a month before Australia because I had a show in Portland. My ex boyfriend came with me and we did a road trip from Portland to San Francisco to L.A.
Where does your sunny and vibrant aesthetic come from?
People always ask me why I draw all of these tropical things since I’m from Finland [Laughs]. When I was studying, I was quite set on doing black and white drawings but then I started experimenting with colour. I worked at a biscuit factory and everyday, I was mixing these giant bowls of candy colours. We also had to design the biscuits and I’m sure that had a massive effect on my work. People have said to me that colours make things look childish, but should I just make black and white work to be taken seriously?
No you shouldn’t! There’s nothing child-like about your illustrations. What would you say is your favourite colour to work with?
I really like yellow. It’s in most of my work. I’m really into dark colours now. Dark red and dark blue. When I was in Australia, I wanted to do something that wasn’t colourful and so I did a series of cars in black and white. It was really nice to do but I was like I’ve got it out of my system now, I’ll go back to colour now! But it was nice to know that I could do grayscale if I needed to.
“At Uni, I did graphic design but I didn’t like it. It was too corporate. Designing logos and typefaces wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Do you feel connected to the world and characters you create?
Yes definitely. Everything is like film stills. I take screenshots of films. I like how the scene can be cut where you just see the feet and that can tell you more than the whole scene. Your brain will automatically start filling in the gaps and coming up with before and after scenarios. Taking from the experiences of the viewer and hopefully this way, the images become more relatable to everyone.
What is your process?
I usually start by doing loose sketches to see how the colours will work together. Then I sketch it out and colour in with the pens. It’s exciting to do the penciling more so than the coloring in. I used to listen to music but it got really boring because it’s so repetitive. I started watching documentaries so that the time would pass and I could learn something at the same time.
What’s the best documentary you’ve watched?
I really like Alma Har’el. She has two documentaries. Ones called Bombay Beach, the other one is Love True. They’re both a mix of documentary and film. All the people in it are real people but she makes them act out scenes. Bombay Beach tells the story of a place called Salton Sea. A sea that gets formed by an accident and becomes a seaside destination. It’s in the desert so it’s really hot there too. People move there and build houses, but they discover that the farm house nearby are leaking toxic waste into the sea which causes the birds and fishes to die. It’s insane.
“I do feel confident. When I work on my own things, it’s really easy. You can try things out and you know what works and what doesn’t work.”
Do you feel competent with what you’re doing. Do you have moments where you’re unsure about your style?
I do feel confident. When I work on my own things, it’s really easy. You can try things out and you know what works and what doesn’t work. Commercial work with clients is about finding the balance between their wishes and my interpretation. Theres a round of sketches and few feedback rounds where things might change quite drastically. But I get commissioned because of my work so its been great to see how I have been given more freedom to interpret things and just play around over the years. Doing illustration for Lucky Peach was so much fun. The guy emailed me and was like ‘I really like your cars’. They had this article on cheese quesadillas. I read the article and I decided to do two cars crashing into each others with loads of cheese and pastrami in the middle [Laughs] So, stuff like that is super fun to work on. It’s fun to see stuff in magazines. Doing actual products is amazing too.
Would you want to explore product making?
Yes definitely. My friend has a clay studio. I’ve been there a couple of times trying to make some stuff with clay for my show in L.A. I definitely want the show to have more experimental work. I tried to get some beach towels made in Australia. I contacted loads of companies but you either get small editions made with really flimsy fabric or if you want the thick ones, you need to make 500. Maybe down the line, in a couple of years I can start make bigger batches of stuff.
What’s the toughest thing about working independently?
Dealing with money definitely. It’s nice because I know other illustrators so I always have someone to ask, but it’s things like pricing your work, working out the rights and usage and negotiating with clients. Also, invoicing people and not getting paid for like 5 months and having to track them down. Once, I didn’t get paid for 9 months. I emailed the person who was in charge of the invoices maybe 5 times and they just stopped replying after the 2nd time so I found everyone’s email in the company and sent a group email saying that I hadn’t been paid for 9 months. The guy who I’d been emailing before got back to me within 5 minutes!
What’s it like working on your own?
When I was working from home, I would get a bit too into my own brain. I’m also working with people through email. That’s most of the projects I do. It’s funny because you don’t even hear the voice of the person you’re working with. Having the studio is super nice because I’m still working on my own but other people are around and it’s nice to bounce ideas back and forth. In the new studio, there is going to be four of us and we’re all really good friends. We went there a week ago to check out the space and we were there for 2 hours just non stop talking. I’m not sure I’ll get any work done [Laugh].
“It was a weird concept in my hometown because growing up, I didn’t even know you could be an illustrator.”
What do you do outside of work?
I try to go and see shows. There’s so much in London to do but two months pass and you haven’t been to see anything although that’s why you’re in London! Sometimes I have art days with my friends and we go around to different galleries. What’s good about being freelance is that mid week, you can go to the galleries because they’re not busy. Saturday and Sunday, I come here and do work so I usually have a day off in the week.
Do you get a lot of work via social media?
Yes, I get most of my work through Instagram. I don’t know how people got work before instagram! It used to be way more important to have an agent but things are different now.
What do your family and friends think about what you do?
My family has started to understand the bigger picture of what I do. When I was studying, they kept asking me what I was going to do when I graduated. Are you going to just draw? They would ask. It was a weird concept in my hometown because growing up, I didn’t even know you could be an illustrator. It’s funny because most of my friends are illustrators, but when I go back to my hometown, everyone still asks questions. Sometimes I get loads of commissions but technically I have no idea what’s coming next. You get quieter periods and then you get loads of work coming in. My nieces and nephews had never been to London so where I lived and what I did was this really abstract thing to them. Then they came here when I was part of Pick Me Up. We all went to Somerset House and it was so grand and we walked in and my work was there and they thought I was so cool.
Is there a dream project you would one day love to do?
Just anything really big. I had a meeting with an agency in London and they asked if I could do anything what would it be and I said it would be so cool to design an airplane.
That would be great. You’ve painted a car before, right?
Yes I did. A few years ago in Finland. My aunty works at the local newspaper and she called me up one day and told me about this lady that had scrap cars that they used for rallies and suggested that I paint one of them. I called the lady up and said I had 5 days left in Finland but if she had a car that I could paint, I would love to do it. It was really cool because the owner of the car was this 12 year old boy who used it to drive around the fields. He said he looked up my drawings and thought they were cool and told me to do whatever I wanted and so I painted it and he came to see it and the first thing he said is it’s got a lot of pink but it’s really cool [Laughs].
“They’re giving me free reign to do what I want. They’re really into the idea of me trying out stuff.”
If you could curate a show, who would be in it?
Definitely the girls I’m moving into studio with – Sara Andreasson. Hattie Stewart and Lynne Zulu.
Wow. That’s such a great group! What do you like about their work?
They have great personal style that is real strong. They all know what they’re doing.
So what’s next for you?
My show in L.A. It’s really nice because I know the guys who run the gallery so it’s going to be really easy working with them. They’re giving me free reign to do what I want. They’re really into the idea of me trying out stuff. Doing the show in Portland was my first show on my own so I didn’t know what to do, but having done that, now I have a much clearer vision of what I want to do.