Illustrating the World: Pondering Illustration and Children’s Books

Satu Kettunen

I have studied clothes design (from 1999 to 2003) and art education (from 2005 onwards) at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, which back then was called Taideteollinen korkeakoulu (the University of Art and Design). I have baccalaureates in both subjects and I plan to do my master’s thesis in art education. Currently it is unfinished, however, due to the birth of my first child a year and a half ago.

I did my first illustrations back when I was about fourteen years old. The local newspaper Karjalainen in Joensuu, Finland, published them in their youth section. It was great to see your own drawings in a newspaper. Maybe it sparked something in me! I was fascinated by fashion illustration during my design studies, and I took some courses on illustration at both our department and the department of graphic design. Back then, there were not many courses aimed at design studies students – I do not know whether that has changed. At the time, I illustrated the Trend Info for the Fashion Fair on three occasions, but it turned out to be more akin to practise as I had not yet found my own style. Also, fashion illustration started to feel too focused on only one thing, whereas I wanted to illustrate different themes and topics more freely. Back then, it was not possible to study illustration at university level and I lacked the courage to apply for the right to study graphic design. However, teaching art was something that felt close to me. Finally, I took and passed the exam to study art education.

Soon after that, the Demi Magazine was looking for a new illustrator and a former classmate from design studies who was working for them recommended me. After several test illustrations, my career as an illustrator truly started. I did monthly illustrations for the magazine for more than four years: I illustrated, for example, articles and the make-up and horoscope pages. In addition, I illustrated three of their calendars. The Demi Magazine was a wonderful employer and I was always able to do illustrations that were very different from each other. I experimented with multiple styles and techniques during those years, developing the collage technique I went on to use in my illustrations for children’s novels.

For me, The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My is an extremely important picture book. It is a brave and fresh book, even by today’s standards, and I admire it a lot. In addition to the entire illustration, I like the limited range of colours, the hand-written texts and the surprising gaps. It is a book that I have liked ever since I was a child. Several years ago, when I was travelling in Spain, I stumbled upon a picture book called Omega y la Osa by Beatrice Alemagna. It had a profound effect on me. That together with other books by Alemagna, in which she uses collage and mixed techniques, encouraged me to develop my own collage style into a bolder direction. I admire so many magnificent works by great illustrators – for example the Finnish illustrators Marika Maijala, Matti Pikkujämsä, Riikka Sormunen and Camilla Pentti have been really inspiring. However, also for example Andrea Wan (what great compositions and imagination), Laura Carlin (the relaxed and focused handprint) and Joanna Concejo (delicate and personal take on pencil drawing) are amazing illustrators – to name but a few.

For me it is easier to illustrate someone else’s text. When I am reading a text for the first time, it is a fresh experience and I can allow the words to sing and freely conjure up images. You know your own text through and through, which makes it impossible to see the words as separate from the whole process, during which other words were left behind, plot developments were shortened, and a number of other changes had to be made regarding either the words or the narration. It is more wavering and uncertain to illustrate your own text, at least for me. You cannot lean on to words unless you are certain. In the Otso book (Otso Aarnisen salaperäinen seikkailu 2014, ’The Mysterious Adventure of Otso Aarninen’), I felt confident about several sentences and metaphors from the very beginning, and the story was built on them. They were the easiest to illustrate, while several other settings were illustrated first and I only polished the text after I had finished the pictures. First, I thought about the plotline, then I did the pictures and only after that, I made the final choices regarding words. I chose the subject and some developments in the plot purely based on what I would love to illustrate. Nevertheless, creating the book was a long and meandering process.

Otso in the crowd, waiting for life.

A good example of the process is the scene in the third spread. The little girl is giving advice: ”In that case, you should bravely say yes and pounce. That way life can come, take you by the hand and lead you.” This is an important point in the story, since the protagonist Otso is lonely. His heart dashes when he thinks that someone might come and take him by the hand. At this spot and scene, the words came first. In the picture, I wanted to illustrate the exact thought that makes Otso seize the challenge. Later on in the story, a hand reaches out to Otso from the crowd – it is a fateful sign for Otso, as if someone was saying, ”here comes life, grab it!” This spread was already a clear picture in my mind, since this s where the adventure of Otso Aarninen really begins.

However, I was instantly touched by what Inka Nousiainen wrote in ’The Night Book’ (Yökirja 2015); I saw some of the pivotal scenes in front of my eyes, right away. I also loved the sensitivity of the text, the way things can be said between the lines, which was really inspiring. It was so nice to just be able to read the words and let the pictures and characters take shape, conjured up by the text alone. To me, it just takes less time to illustrate someone else’s text. It is easier to see where the words end and my turn begins. When I write and illustrate, it is my turn all the time, and I may find out that I have said the same thing twice, with both words and pictures. On those occasions, one or the other has to be changed, making it a slower process.


A digital collage, or mixed technique, is probably the best description of my technique. Using Photoshop in a very free manner, I combine different marks, surfaces and shapes produced by hand and with different equipment. I also use the pencil mouse. When I am doing something on a tighter schedule, a short illustration work or something for a newspaper, I emphasise pencils, watercolours and drawing inks, since it is easier to work and rework with them. Besides, the colours work better in a newspaper. In a picture book illustration, however, I want to create a juicier picture world. Using paper collages, I can construct multi-level illustrations. The technique is basically the same, but in addition to creating surfaces with a pen or a brush, I edit the paper cuttings I have photographed.

I have a box full of collage cuttings I can choose from or I may cut new forms for composing a picture. I photograph the cuttings on a white paper in a specific way so that the light always comes from a certain direction and the shadow is on the other side. Then I bring the photos to my computer, place them on a right-sized ’paper’, detach the shadow of the photo from the paper cutting and attach it back in as transparent. This way I can combine them into a real-looking paper collage in a way that allows the paper cuttings from different sources to keep their essence, as the shadows are cast on the cuttings underneath.

One of my idea collages.

I start with the palette and by pondering the overall tone. They are the most important to me, not to mention the groundwork for the illustration process. First I do a collage focusing on the atmosphere, colours and the spirit of the upcoming illustrations. This helps me to see, with only one single look, the mood I want to aim for. After this, I plan a picture manuscript and think over the basic colours of each picture and spread. Then I illustrate the individual images.

Some scenes I see in my mind right away, or at least much more easily than others. With Otso Aarninen, I tried to go picture by picture, since the plan was to slowly change the colour scheme from grey and lifeless into purer, richer and more joyful. But it was difficult to follow the order, and at some point I just started jumping over pictures, proceeding from the easy to the more difficult ones. With ’The Night Book’, I already knew the possible difficulties I might encounter in the illustrating process, so I decided to do the illustrations in a free order.

I would like always to add something to the text with my illustrations, or tell something that may not be said with words. If the text describes, for example, the look of something, there is no point to illustrate it, as it has already been said. At best, the text discusses issues that are hard to tell about through illustrations and the picture is able to tell about issues that are not dealt with by the text.

The manuscript of colours for ’The Night Book’. This is a simple way that helps me to understand the outline of the background colours and the narration of the story.

In my mind, one gap in the text in ’The Night Book’ is the scene with the silent being, the feeling the character Kuu (’Moon’) sometimes gets without any apparent reason: ”Sometimes the silence is so huge that there is no room for it in my home. Therefore, I have taken my Silence somewhere else, where it feels at home. I take my Silence to Raa.” This is a juicy scene for the illustrator, since silence is written with a capital letter as if it referred to a living being. When I was planning the illustration, I was wondering what would be so huge that there is no room for it in Kuu’s home. Something enormously big and silent, unknown and exciting, but nothing too scary. Rather something soft and mild.

The Silence of Kuu that is too huge to be kept inside.

We often talk about the interesting and problematic scenes with my colleagues at our studio, while we all work at our own computers. The idea about the whale came from one of my colleagues; it fitted with my description and I liked it immediately. It is just exciting enough, and also conceptual when we are talking about silence, yet at the same time it fits well into a children’s picture book. It fills up the gap in the text but also raises new ideas, and maybe questions too. A whale fitted the situation in the most versatile manner, simultaneously enlarging the text with the right tone and feeling. There is no need to explain everything; there has to be room for the reader’s interpretations.

’The Night Book’ also contains a spread where Kuu tells about their home, about the little sister Oo La Laa that bumps into and climbs on things and the mother who is focused on her work – on sewing Friends for adults who need a Friend. She sells her creations online through her blog. Mother is lovely, soft and warm, but immersed in her work, so Kuu cannot approach her with an important question. I thought that something is bothering Kuu, but it is something that Kuu cannot verbalise. Kuu was the last one illustrated in the spread, because I was not sure how the character should be illustrated. However, I did not want the picture to look unfinished, so I covered the shape of Kuu with a piece of glimmering star paper. It created the impression that Kuu has taken cover under one of Mother’s sewing fabrics, a starry cloth. Maybe it is about playing a ghost, or maybe about not wanting to reveal one’s face. Sometimes a human being wants to hide her or his face rather than show it, especially when they are crying or the situation is otherwise ”difficult”. The reader can decide what Kuu looks like under the fabric. In this picture, I think there is a gap. In the text the gap is not present, but the picture raises the question.

Kuu’s Mother is sewing Friends, Kuu hides behind the star-covered fabric.

I cannot say which qualities in the text guide my illustrating process. It can be anything. A figure of speech, a sentence that touches me or even something I have misunderstood may give me an idea. Maybe it is something that I read between the lines. Those spaces are for pictures, but I do not want to fill up all the gaps in the text. It is more fertile for the readers if some ambiguity is retained, something is left for them to ponder about. Everyone reads texts from their own personal and historical viewpoint, and I think that the most touching stories are therefore those one is able to see and interpret through his or her own experiences. Of course, there are several things and possible pictures in my mind that the text does not state. At the end, illustrating is all about choices. Pretty much the same thing can be told with several different pictures. The most important thing is to find the colours, items and elements that best support the message. And what could be better than adding to the text through illustration.

Satu Kettunen is a Finnish illustrator. Her debut picture book, Otso Aarnisen salaperäinen seikkailu (2014), won the Rudolf Koivu Award in 2015. The award is given for a Finnish illustrator biannually by Grafia ry (The Association of Visual Communication Designers in Finland).


  • Kettunen, Satu 2014: Otso Aarnisen salaperäinen seikkailu. (’The Mysterious Adventure of Otso Aarninen.’) Tammi.
  • Nousiainen, Inka & Kettunen, Satu 2015: Yökirja. (’Nightbook’.) Tammi.


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