I first noticed Stina Persson’s illustrations many years ago among the pages of a women’s magazine. Those small spots of watercolor illustrations were done for a horoscope column, and they stood out among immaculate photos of beautiful people for their dreamy, organic and vibrant quality. “I’d have to figure out new ways of conveying them each time,” Persson says with a laugh. While she’s since moved on to bigger projects and a varied roster of clients—recently, she collaborated with fashion brand Artpiece to create silk kaftans—it’s this love of exploration and play that keeps her work fresh.
Though her specialty is watercolor and ink, each of her illustrations imparts her fluid, relaxed signature style, whether it’s composed of cut paper, abstract art or handwritten text. Her love of looseness coupled with her organic process is precisely the reason why her work looks perfectly imperfect. “I think I’m good with liquid stuff,” she says. “I was never good at the intricate stuff, the detailed bits. I’m not one to pencil in tiny dots or fashion an eyebrow first.” While her work may seem effortless, she professes to have a love/hate relationship with watercolor because the medium can easily carry connotations of being corny and New Agey. “I always strive for beauty. But I don’t want it to be perfect or cute,” she says. When she wields her brushes, her focus is on giving her subjects power and the veritable edge that her work has become known for. Her work immediately springs to mind when I think of images of women rendered in ink and watercolor with an ethereal quality, yet oozing with attitude. “I always want something to show through their eyes,” she says, “As though I’ve painted a real person—not just a fashion illustration.”
Persson, 46, was born in Lund, in southern Sweden. Her parents were sociology professors (her father died 20 years ago), and she has five siblings. With limited access to TV, the great outdoors became her main source of entertainment. She recalls constantly whining to her mother that there was nothing to do, hence the need for her to create her own toys, inventing games and entire worlds. She and her siblings even went as far as making their own schoolbooks. “I guess I did have a lot of things to do; I just needed to get over that threshold of thinking I didn’t,” she says.
Persson continued her creative trajectory by enrolling in an art school in Perugia, Italy, feeling her way through introductory art courses to see if the field was something that she wanted to pursue. She wound up in Florence next, where she studied fashion. “I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do, but I went there because I heard it was a really good school,” she says. She found to her dismay that fashion is a kind of science, one rooted in technical details that she has neither the heart nor patience for.
“I was awful. With fashion, every measurement has to be exact, and I was not very precise,” she says. But while her experience in patternmaking was dismal, her skill and interest in the field’s subset—fashion illustration—blossomed. An art teacher at the fashion school who saw how Persson excelled at fashion illustration encouraged her to go to New York to study illustration at Pratt Institute. And so, in 1995, she did.
Persson completed her studies in two years. “I was scared when I graduated. I was told that illustration was a really difficult field to get into, so I thought I should be an artist instead. But that was so much harder!” she says. Unsure of what she wanted to do, she painted large-scale portraits and waited tables at a restaurant, completing freelance illustration assignments from Swedish magazines in her spare time. “I got really good at waiting tables too!” she says.
Everything changed for Persson after 9/11. The restaurant she was working at closed down because of its vicinity to ground zero. With the world spinning and changing around her, Persson decided that she could no longer continue living her life the way she had been. Finally committed to pursuing illustration seriously, she decided that she needed an agent. Thankfully for her, she had been productive even when she waited tables, and had amassed a portfolio that was ready to be shown. “I was brazen—I called up different agencies and told them that they needed to see me!” she says with a laugh. It was then that she landed on KOKO Art Agency, a New York City–based agency that still represents her today.
“Her portfolio stood out amongst many candidates we were considering to represent. Not only was she versatile in every medium, but [we saw that] she had the ability to work with any client in any field, from high fashion to pharmaceutical companies to even government agencies,” says Koko Nakano, president of KOKO Art Agency. Their relationship has been a constant throughout the years as Persson has expanded her clientele (she almost exclusively worked with Swedish clients prior) and raised three boys (now aged fifteen, thirteen and eleven) in Stockholm, Sweden. She professes that having an agent made a huge difference as Nakano has helped her gain exposure, and navigated the business side of things, like negotiating and making contracts. “It’s rare for people to have such a long relationship in the illustration business, but we’re evolving along with the business too, and that’s very important,” says Persson.
With more than fifteen years of experience under her belt, Persson has fine-tuned her process. She starts by asking clients to send over images of her work that caught their eye so she can tailor her work to their expectations. With recurring clients, she already understands their aesthetics and preferences, so she’s able to solve the brief intuitively. She also guides clients by pointing out what works for illustration rather than photography. She says that the former is nuanced, subtle and less literal—especially when one is working with colors, tones and atmospheres to express a concept.
In the past, her portfolio was made up of work that incorporated a lot more digital editing, but she’s since tried harder to get the look right on paper with more analog tools: bamboo brushes, india ink and Dr. Ph. Martin’s transparent dyes. “Previously, I would make sketches, but I realized it was too tedious. When you’re translating sketches to ink and watercolor, the changes are too dramatic and unpredictable,” says Persson. These days, she goes straight to creating different versions of artworks so clients can select the final from a pool of three to six images. “There’s just more room for happy accidents this way,” she says.
As most of her pieces are hand drawn, her whole process can take anywhere from five minutes to five days. The appeal of her work lies in her ability to make each piece look effortless, and the necessary repetition and practice can create a literal paper trail—the floor of the studio that she shares with four other people in Stockholm is sometimes covered with so many drawings and paintings that her studio mates have to sidestep her pieces as they’re drying on the floor. Persson’s ability to work quickly stems from her desire to get her ideas onto paper as much as she can while they’re still fresh in her mind. Once a final piece is selected, it goes through a round of tweaking on the computer to allow for any necessary color adjustments.
Her style has also evolved throughout the years. When creating past works, she felt as though her hands were less secure, although no less daring. Her work these days is more fluid, albeit with an edge. She’s ever conscious of negotiating this fine balance by shying away from works that are too pretty or soft. “Her portfolio has expanded organically. Though her work was never literal, she’s experimented with narrative art and even abstract pieces to add breadth to her portfolio,” says Nakano. This growth and change is partly attributed to the art shows that she’s put on almost every year since her graduation from Pratt, either in New York, Sweden or Tokyo.
Once a curator gets in touch about showing her work at a bar or a small gallery, things move forward quickly. “I’ll say yes to a show for March, but then February comes along and I’ll panic,” she says. In preparation for the show, she goes through a phase where absolutely nothing happens on the page. “It’s a struggle—it’s painful and really not fun. I create so many bad pieces. But, all of a sudden, everything falls into place—it works, and I evolve. [I create work that] is new and different.” Making art for shows offers her a way to explore new themes and techniques in a zone unhindered by the realities of client work—much like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Ultimately, the new rhythm and energy born out of these shows seep into her commercial work.
When I ask Persson what her advice to young artists and illustrators is, she says, “Don’t be afraid of change. Adapt a little sooner. Say yes more often.” They’re succinct words of wisdom she’s distilled over the years of kicking herself for turning down amazing projects—an album cover for Lady Gaga; a collaboration with fashion photographer Michelangelo Di Battista; a live-painting gig for one of her “favorite designers,” Stella McCartney—simply because she was fearful of doing something beyond her comfort zone. She’s aware of how easy it is to be overwhelmed by fear when there’s no precedent, although this is something she’s learning how to let go of.
“Now I can see that it’s only paper, so how bad could it be? So, if Stella McCartney reads this, I’m here,” she says. “I’m ready.” ca