Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 7, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Mirka Hokkanen

Mirka Hokkanen:

Nature and animals have always been fascinating to Mirka Hokkanen. Since she was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1979 and could walk, she has played in the woods and explored the variety of wildlife that existed around her. After moving to Illinois, USA, from Finland in 1998 her appreciation and closeness to nature grew even more as an international student far away from the lakes and forests that she was accustomed to.

Mirka took her first printmaking class as a freshman in college and hasn’t stopped printing since. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Rockford University, Rockford, IL, in 2002, and Master of Art (2004) and Master of Fine Arts (2006) degrees from University of Dallas, in Irving, TX. (All degrees with a concentration in printmaking.) Since graduation Mirka has worked as a fulltime artist exhibiting work both nationally and internationally. In addition to showing her work on a regular basis, she has attended art fairs, been on panels at conferences, curated exhibitions and taught a variety of classes and lectures in printmaking, drawing and art history. She currently lives in TX with her husband and two wild kids.

Hokkanen uses a variety of printmaking, drawing and painting techniques in her art; depending on what media she thinks will best convey the message she is trying to communicate. Currently the main media employed in her work is relief printing; linocuts and wood engravings. Through her work Hokkanen hopes to convey her love and fascination towards nature and wake up the viewers senses to it. She is interested in the shapes animals make, the relationships we have with them, and capturing undulating and swirling fur/feather patterns. In addition to images of animals, Hokkanen’s art is often imbued with a second dimension of subtle humor that reflects her personality. As a whole, her body of work is varied and particular attention is paid to all the hands-on technical aspects of creating an original hand pulled print that will delight the audience with its skill and wit.

Short Artist Statment

The subject of my art has always been animals and nature. Living inside air-conditioned boxes and noses buried in our lives many of us don’t take time to venture out into nature and discover what it has to offer. Little sublime moments are strangely sobering. I will never be able to capture how awesome, beautiful and varied creation is around us, but I am doing my best to make footnotes. These little studies are well translated from my head to paper in detailed engravings, relief cuts and sometimes drawings. I am fascinated by; the shapes created by animals as they live, the relationships we have with them and the undulating and swirling fur/feather patterns. Through printmaking I hope to turn the viewers senses on to the wonderful living things around us.

I wanted to include in this post lots of photos of the process. We started out with a very rough sketch, just collecting all the animals on it. Below is the second sketch, where I started working on a design to incorporate all the elements. It’s a little light, you can click on the image to see it bigger. At one point I scanned the sketch in the computer, to play around with colors, which area would print with which color. Its faster to do on the computer, since I can quickly change colors to get an idea what the finished print would look like.

Since I was doing 4 colors, I needed to have a key plate, that would be where most of the information for the image would be. That was the first one for me to carve, and after it was done, I rolled it up with black ink, printed it on a transparency, which I then rubbed on the other 3 blank linoleum pieces, to transfer the image. Registration would be pretty important, with 4 plates to match.

After the color separation blocks dried a couple days, I carved them all out. The designs were fairly simple, so this didn’t take me too long. I use a Speedball carver for most of the detail work, and then larger Flexcut tools for everything beyond that. They are sharper and easier to cut with than the Speedball, but I’ve found nothing that will give me better details on linoleum than my Speedball tiny v-cutter.


I try to print from the lightest color to the darkest. So with this series, I started with the yellow plate. I mixed a small amount of cobalt drier in the ink, so it would dry faster and allow me to print all colors in a short time.

Since I had already printed the key block on a transparency, I used that to register my yellow plate down on the press. I use a piece of plywood, with a sheet of mylar glued to it, and I attach the linoleum to the mylar with a light coat of spray adhesive on the back of my linoleum. After those prints were pulled, they hung for a day, and the next day I printed the green color. (Drier mixed in ink again.)

Below are some shots of the green color in process and drying. I use a 3 tiered clothes drying rack to dry prints, because it folds up when not in use, so its just very convenient. I did not wet the paper for this edition, because I didn’t want to deal with uneven stretching, and floppy papers while printing. This was printed on 110lb Lettra.

Below you can see the key plate on the press with the print 3/4 way done. The color elements are all there, red, yellow and green, and it is just waiting for the navy layer to complete the gaps.

Mixing the navy ink.

I did a short video of the process as well. Its always easier to understand how things proceed, with a video. You can see little foam pads on the side of the block during printing. These help that the paper doesn’t lay on the plate until the roller rolls over it. This trick helps keep the print clean from smudges and ink shifting while the paper stretches as its being run through the press.

Ta-daaa! the finished prints. It took a while to get the prints to print dark enough, but not too dark, where the details would be lost. I was so happy with the print, but the edition was only limited to the amount that we were sending to the portfolio. I have a couple proofs left, and did get nice big postcards done, so if you want one, you can have one on your wall too.

Below are the separate plates used to print on the right, and the ink swatches on the bottom left and first sketch on the bottom.

Once the prints were dry, both of us signed them.

Exited to share the finished image together.

Finished piece.

How long have you been illustrating?

One of my earliest memories is making up animal comic books, photocopying them on an old xerox machine and selling those to family and friends around 8-10 years old.

What and when was the first piece of art you did where someone paid you for your work?

I’ve been a “serious” artist for so long, I actually don’t remember the first time I got paid for my art.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

I have been an artist as long as I can remember, and my subjects have been animals. People who saw my art often mentioned I should illustrate children’s books, that my work always has a narrative bent to it, but coming from a fine art printmaking background, it took me a long time to get the nerves to shift to illustration. I illustrated a book for a self published author in 2012, but did not concentrate my efforts from printmaking to picture book illustration until a year ago.

What made you choose to attend the Rockford University for a BA in Fine Art, then go to University of Dallas for a Master of Art and follow that up with a Master of Fine Art at the same school?

I come from Finland where all levels of education are free. After volunteering at a therapeutic riding program, in Illinois, for a summer in high school, I applied to Rockford College and got accepted with a full tuition scholarship. It was a unique opportunity for a Finnish girl like me,  with no funding otherwise, so I took the chance and moved to Rockford, IL, at 18 years old. My story continues very similarly to graduate school, I received a full tuition scholarship to University of Dallas as well, packed my stuff in a car, and drove down to TX. (My mom and dad flew from Finland to help me make the trip, yay!) The program at UD is a two part program, where you first have to pass the MA program to be accepted into the MFA program. It all flows together very nicely, and the program was excellent for printmaking, so I stayed for both degrees. At that point I thought I was going to teach university, so I knew I needed my MFA for that.

Since all your degrees concentrated in Printmaking, did you focus more on one type of printing making? Do you have a favor a certain type of printmaking, like etchings, silkscreen, etc.?

In school almost all my efforts were concentrated on metal plate intaglio (etching, aquatint, softground). I did some screen-printing, and linocuts, and liked to mix other media with my prints; like magnets or encaustic. After graduation, I got married and my husband was in the Army. We move every three years and very quickly I realized that access to a studio would be limited and I needed to make do with my own equipment. Intaglio is not something you do in a rental house (think: poisons, solvents, acid), so I tried a lot of printmaking techniques, until I settled on linocuts and then wood engraving. I am comfortable and happy with these techniques now, and have a studio that packs up every three years to move to a new location.

Do you think art school influenced your style?

I would say art school influenced my style the most with teaching me art history. I was unaware of most of what art history had to offer, mostly because they did not teach that in high school and I did not come from a family that frequented museums. Knowing what came before me and how I fit in, gives me confidence in what I do. As far as my subject matter, the fine art programs did push me to try to be relevant and have high “white walled gallery” ideals in my work. I let that influence me for a while, but in a couple years, I gave up trying to be some one I was not, and just started making what I wanted to make and loved. I started selling more work, which was a nice recognition that I was on the right path for me. As far as the digital side of things, they did not have computer labs where I went to school, so all my Photoshop skills are learned after graduation on my own.

What job did you do right after you graduated?

I did a bunch of odd jobs after graduation. In between my BFA and MFA, the only job I got was at the Walmart Portrait studio. It really got me motivated to get my masters. After the MFA, I taught printmaking and art history at a state university and a community college in Georgia, I ran an Etsy store with both prints and sewn items in it (back when Etsy was still profitable for small makers), and sold prints through galleries. Every three years when we moved, I had to start over, which is challenging.

Do you do art exhibits to help promote yourself?

As a printmaker, I do regular gallery shows, and attend art fairs. They are both for self promotion and for making ends meet for my business. I have also started to sell prints, notebooks and tea towels of my illustrations, which seem to be as popular as my prints.

Do you have an artist rep. or an agent?

I do have an agent, Essie White from the Storm Literary Agency. We have been working together for a few months, and I trust her with my career and enjoy working with her. She is representing me as both author and illustrator, and I just submitted my second picture book dummy for her.

What type of things do you do to get illustrations jobs?

My agent submits my work to editors and art directors, who she knows are looking for illustrators, and I make regular post cards to send to my own list of editors and art directors in the picture book publishing world. I also do my best to post on social media regularly. Instagram is my #1, and work trickles down to Twitter and Facebook from there. The next thing I hope to participate in is #inktober2017.

How did you manage to get a steamroller to run over your print in the street? Did that draw a big crowd to watch you make your print?

The steamroller printing event was super fun to organize. We had several teams complete giant linocuts, and the event happened during our annual print fair, which was also part of the well attended Downtown Bryan Art Fest. The event took some organizing, but we had the steamroller donated for the event, and the Downtown Association, who helped pull everything off, got us sponsors, so the linoleum, ink and paper were also taken care of. The event is always a crowd pleaser and it didn’t take much for us to get a crowd around a huge steamroller in the middle of the street. Having awesome teams and finished prints also made the event worth putting on.

Do you ever combine painting with your prints to create an illustration?

I sometimes paint my finished editions by hand with watercolors, but have not yet done so for picture book illustrations.

What piece of art did your submit to in 2017 to take First Place in Portfolio Showcase, Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators Brazos Valley Conference?

The portfolio showcase was judged based on our whole portfolios. Most of the pieces I had in mine are still up on my website at

Mini Bird – wood engraving – 2″ x 2″, 5x5cm

Would you be open to illustrating a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

I am open to working with self-publishing authors if they are aware of industry standards. I can not afford to work for free, but if you have a reasonable budget, feel free to contact me. I have illustrated and designed a full picture book in 2012, and am currently working on a cover design for another self-publishing author for a sci-fi fantasy book coming out fairly soon.

I read on your SCBWI bio that you teach. What do you teach? 

Most recently, I have only taught printmaking. It is my passion, and I love sharing that with anyone who will listen (just ask my students!). I’ve taught drawing and art history before, but with time being a precious resource, I’ve narrowed things down to just printmaking.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? 

I have not, but would love to.

Have you tried to illustrate a wordless picture book? 

Most of my ideas and dummies start out wordless, and then if needed the words come after. I haven’t done a proper wordless picture book yet, but think it would be so much fun.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I love printmaking, and need to make time to make some prints into my illustration portfolio. Printmaking is very labor intensive, compared to watercolors or digital, and it takes weeks of work to finish a piece for a portfolio, whereas I can finish a watercolor or digital illustration within days after I start. After printmaking, I enjoy combining watercolor/gouache with digital.

Has that changed over time? 

Since I set my foot in a printmaking studio, its been my favorite medium. I can’t explain it. It just clicked.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?

Yes, I stay at home with our two kids, and to be able to get any work done, I have to be able to work from home.

What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without? 

My Morgan Line-O-Scribe printing press. It would be the one thing I would be dragging out in case of a fire.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft? 

I can only do my best with two kids (ages 4 and 6) at home most of the days. (They do go to part time day care and my oldest is just starting kindergarten.) I would love to get a chance to work in the studio daily, and I almost always do for my sanity, but life with kids and moving gets messy.

Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project? 

The depth of research depends on the project. For many prints I have an idea and then find photos online to support it. If its for a story, then I research comparable titles, other illustrators who have done those types of characters, or style that I think would fit the project the best. I never copy another illustrators style, but I often borrow bits and pieces to give it the mood I want. I watch movies, videos and my own children for ideas for movement, expressions and posing. And of course, we should never forget Pinterest, where I usually make a board for each project and other ones for general inspiration.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you? 

Yes, I certainly do. I have taken lots of classes online, which I would have never been able to attend in person. My agent found me on Twitter, and other clients have found me on social media as well. A good chunk of my print sales are also through internet interactions.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop CS5

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?

I just recently upgraded to a Wacom Cintiq 22HD. Its an older model of graphics tablet, but I like working on it.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

A big one is winning a Caldecott. It’s a bit of a lofty dream, I know, but it’s fun to dream. In the mean time, I can’t wait to illustrate a whole book in prints.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a cover design for a self-publishing author, and just submitted a dummy for my agent. The dummy needs finished illustrations before we submit it to editors. We are also in the middle of our tri-yearly move, so juggling kids, moving, and illustration is quite the challenge for a few more weeks.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

Whenever you can, go for the better quality supplies, whether it be the graphics tablet, watercolors or paper. But, better quality doesn’t always have to be more expensive. I started out with a tiny Wacom bamboo pad, and have been upgrading it slowly for 10 years to what I have now. It’s ok to buy secondhand, most of my Wacom products came from EBay, I’ve also bought paints there and saved a bunch compared to art store prices. I love paper, good quality and the right type of paper makes a huge difference in the final product. The internet is a great place to start researching, to narrow down choices on any art supply, and then you just have to go and buy some to see what works the best for you (maybe not the graphics tablets, but paper and paints). I use Stonehenge and Mohawk for a lot of my printmaking, they are very affordable papers, and Legion now makes a Stonehenge watercolor paper that is very nice. Before that I liked Arches watercolor papers the best.

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

I feel that I still have a lot of growing to do myself. The thing in any kind of creative industry is that you have to have the passion to do it, otherwise it will wear you out very quickly. Unless you have lots of resources, you also need to be willing to learn how to be a small business owner and take responsibility for yourself to be successful. I pay some one to finish my taxes, but I do everything else myself (accounting, quarterly sales taxes, contracts, advertising, social media, website management, online store management, organizing exhibitions, framing, photography, mailing list management, gallery contacts – the list is endless). It’s a lot to handle, aside from just dreaming up new work in my studio. But if you keep a positive go-get-’em mindset you can get through anything.

Thank you Mirka for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Mirka’s work, you can visit her at her website:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Mirka. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow, Mirka, your work and process are AWE-inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing all this! And—your children are absolutely adorable 😀


  2. Thanks for sharing your work and experience!


  3. gorgeous work Mirka! I enjoyed learning more about you & your process.


  4. Really enjoyed reading this post and especially learning more about printmaking.


  5. This is a really interesting post about you, your illustrations and art processes! Thank you!


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