Illustrator Matti Pikkujämsä: “I’m at my happiest when I’m drawing”

The beloved, award-winning Matti Pikkujämsä will start drawing first thing in the morning, and takes out his sketchbook during the day many times. Part of his artistry consists of portraits, which can make their subjects either cry and laugh.

Illustrator Matti Pikkujämsä
Matti Pikkujämsä is especially known for his funny and sympathetic illustrations in children's books. The Kaari wall shelf is by Artek.

ON HIS WIDE WINDOWSILL, there are side by side the tall, green Majakka (“Lighthouse”) candleholder by Oiva Toikka, and a plant that’s seen better days. The large windows of the spacious apartment open to the Töölö cityscape in Helsinki.

Every morning illustrator Matti Pikkujämsä sits at his long wooden table, on a chair designed by Ilmari Tapiovaara, picks up a marker and draws the view from his window in his sketchbook. He also draws his own hand, with an accurate lively line, in the spirit of classical art. He is right-handed, but sometimes draws with his left hand just to see how different it is.

“I'm at my happiest when I'm drawing,” says Pikkujämsä.

This is easy to understand. He has created so many insightful, heartfelt and delicate pictures.

Matti Pikkujämsä is working in his room on illustrations for Ville Hytönen’s book Hipinä­aasin kaverit.

Matti Pikkujämsä has been drawing for as long as he can remember. When he was a child, he preferred to draw and read indoors rather than play ball games outdoors. At his home in Liminka, they had not only white paper but also other colors, because his uncle Lauri worked at the Serla paper mill. His mother was skillful: a seamstress, weaver and baker. His father was a construction engineer, a job where you have to be able to draw, too. His father’s big sister Kirsti used to read Moomin books to him, and he still loves them.

“Maybe my pictures have some engineering in them, too. I like the fact that there’s some logic behind them, although the feeling is obviously the most important thing,” says Pikkujämsä.

Matti Pikkujämsä has been drawing for as long as he can remember. When he was a child, he preferred to draw and read indoors rather than play ball games outdoors.

As a preschooler, Matti was accepted for a summer camp organized by the local arts school. The bearded teachers looked like a band of Jesuses to him.

“It was all very creative: we did street paintings and blew giant soap bubbles.”

He had his first – and only – major artistic crisis as a first-grader when he took part in the local bank’s drawing competition. He prepared carefully and produced a gently crafted work with color pencils. He came second. The winning entry was a wildly colorful, careless piece.

“I didn’t understand anything about the winning piece. I was given a lesson in what art is about. You mustn’t be too literal but break barriers, and work outside the paper boundaries.”

Birger Kaipiainen’s anonymous work was previously owned by Armi Ratia at Bökars. Vitra’s Akari 3A lamp is designed by Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi – and Matti is popular in Japan.

Today Pikkujämsä is a recognized illustrator with multiple awards. However, when he was young, he didn’t see himself as a free artist, because the impression he got of the life of artists was that it was just liquor and partying.

Matti wasn’t a wild boy by nature. He first practiced at the Lybecker art school in Raahe, and then was admitted to study graphic arts at the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

“That’s where I became interested in life drawing and realized I was good at it. I also enjoyed typography and layout. I thought I’d become a graphic designer and also do the illustrations.”

Pikkujämsä realized, however, that being a graphic designer required more engineering skills than he possessed. His works always had some flaws. He was more interested in colors and composition than precision. In the end, he only worked as a graphic artist during summers when he was a student.

Illustrator Matti Pikkujämsä
Pikkujämsä has made the bear out of plywood. The painting in the background is by Jenni Rope.

Eyes wander on the apartment’s walls looking for art by Matti Pikkujämsä. There’s wooden reliefs, portraits and drawings. I soon find out that he has none of his own work on display.

But he does have paintings by Jenni Rope, a fish plate and the Rialto Bridge by ceramic artist Rut Bryk and one of Matti’s treasures: an anonymous art ceramics work by Birger Kaipiainen, previously owned by Armi Ratia in Bökars.

Pikkujämsä remembers that at first he found illustration stressful.

“My head was full of phrases taught by my teachers. Over time, I have learned to work with more freedom and I cope better with stress.”

Every morning, Matti Pikkujämsä sits down at his long dining table to draw the view through him window, along with Oiva Toikka’s Majakka from the 1960s.

Why does he paint the same scene first thing in the morning? He says he wants to wake up the link between brain and hand.

After that he draws anywhere: in his study, cafés, swimming baths, on public transport, in the street. He always carries a sketchbook with him and always draws by hand. He uses markers and pencils, and paints with acrylics. He uses a computer only to compile material and to process colors. He also takes notes.

“I draw a lot of sketches. I work on stuff which in serious artistic circles is considered amateurish, and enjoy it thoroughly. In terms of my image, I have nothing to lose.”

He admires old, classic art, such as drawings by Rembrandt, and the individuality of van Gogh.

“Certain things never become old. I get more kicks out of them than from something new. Skills and craftsmanship are not highly valued at the moment. Previously you couldn’t be an artist if you didn’t master certain artistic skills.”

The Metsikkö blanket by Lapuan Kankurit is adorned with a magical forest landscape filled with plants and animals of the North.

Matti Pikkujämsä also paints portraits, which is classic too, but this is something he entered into almost by chance. In 2015, he was asked to go to Japan to join a Nordic event, and paint in front of an audience. That's when he came up with portraits, which people these days queue up for him to do. He paints them in his studio and at events.

He finds portraits the most difficult part of his work. Portrait posing have a delicate atmosphere.

“Painting a portrait is it fragile and personal experience.”

“Painting a portrait is it fragile and personal experience, like washing someone. Everyone's face tells so much about them. I paint quickly but also like to talk to people. It would seem rather cold if I did not talk to them.”

When the painting is finished, some people show no feelings. Some people are so excited that they start crying. Some laugh, and that feels good.

Pikkujämsä says that nobody really sees their own face, not even in a mirror.

“I'm not the world’s best painter and never create the best possible likeness. It's nevertheless the best that myself and the customer can come up with at the time,” he says.

The living room sofa is Matti Pikkujämsä’s favorite place to read and draw.

Who: Matti Pikkujämsä (b. 1976)

  • Free illustrator since 1999. Originally from Oulu, now living in Töölö, Helsinki with his spouse Antti Ervasti.
  • Graduated from the University of Art and Design Helsinki as a graphics designer.
  • llustrator of numerous children’s book and book covers, and illustrations for newspapers, such as Helsingin Sanomat, and patterns for Kauniste, Lapuan Kankurit and Marimekko. He also paint portraits.
  • Developer of Cup of Therapy concept by psychotherapists Antti Ervasti and Elina Rehmonen. The latest book Yksi näistä hetkistä – 100 ajatusta yksinäisyydestä ja yksinolosta (“One of those moments – 100 thoughts about loneliness and being alone”), will be published by Gummerus this year.
  • Rudolf Koivu award in 2013, State Prize for Illustrations 2015, Illustrator of the Year 2019 and the Kaarina Helakisa Prize 2021.

See also:

Products designed by Matti Pikkujämsä >
Arabia’s Peppi cups bring joy to Matti Pikkujämsä

Text: Anna-Liisa Hämäläinen Images: Johanna Kinnari

This story was first published in Avotakka magazine's issue 6/2021.

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