The fuel that powers painting.

Hello. Who are you?
My name is Johanna Ryönänkoski, and I am a painter.

Since when have you painted?
Since I could hold a crayon in my little hand! (laughs)

Were your parents supportive?
Yes, they were. I was very encouraged.

Do you keep any works from your childhood?
Some of them, yes. Most I gave away.

What do you do today besides painting?
I teach painting, and I study at the Open University (Avoinyliopisto). I want to become an educator so I can teach art at schools and other places.

How did you evolve into a professional artist?
Well, after high-school I went for a year to Serguei Zlenko’s Academic Painting and Drawing School. At the time it was in Albertinkatu, in downtown Helsinki, then it moved to Pitäjänmäki. I don’t know if Serguei is still teaching in Finland today.

Was there some sort of program at the school? Did you get some diploma at some point?
No. You just went to study, and paint.

What did you learn there?
I learned the basics of classical painting. Drawing, proportions. Working with live models. But after a year, it was becoming too difficult for me.

In general, the Russian system of teaching puts tremendous pressure on students.
Yes. And if they see potential in you, they try to cram a lot of stuff into your head. Specially if you’re young.

Did you feel any of this at Serguei’s?
Probably, yes.

Did that experience discourage or motivate you?
It’s a bit of a paradox. Without him I wouldn’t have chosen this path. But at the same time it was very difficult. I was young (nineteen, twenty) and aimless… I was not doing much. So, after one year at Serguei’s I decided I wanted to be a fashion designer. I moved to Heinola (about 140 km from Helsinki) to study clothing design. It took me three years and a half.

How did that go?
One year into it, I felt it was not what I wanted. But I did the whole thing anyway. And it was quite creative, to design clothes. You have to draw a lot, so it was not so bad. I also learned discipline there, how to work and meet deadlines. And I made lots of friends.

After that I came back to Helsinki, got together with my boyfriend from high-school, and my son was born (he’s 16 now). I also went back to Serguei’s school. Back to live models, classical paintings. And I started my own business, painting portraits.

Then in 2005 I opened my own painting school, and that was good. But after two years I felt drained. Like I had given my students everything I had to give. So I went to the Repin Institute in Kotka: all Russian teachers, coming from St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts.

What language do they use to communicate in?
Russian (laughs). But there is a translator.

For how long did you attend?
One year. But you can stay more, if you want (and have the money). It’s like 5.000 eu per year.

Yeah. At the time I was there they were getting some support from the EU, so I didn’t have to pay so much, but yes, it was harsh. I had to take a loan.

And you already knew the Russian methods.
He, he, yes. I was used to the way Russian teachers operate, so I wasn’t shocked. It was easy for me.

What about other Finnish students?
It was difficult for some. Under the Russian system you are told directly to “do this” and you just do it. The Finnish system is more easy-going: “do what you want, show your creativity!” And you don’t get much feedback or criticism, which is not very good. In Kotka there was feedback if you were interested in it. They would also observe if you had self-discipline, and if you did, they would let you work more on your own.

How did the Finns take criticism?
Not so well. It’s harsh for Finns having someone come over and say “your painting is bad” just like that, so they sort of blocked it out.

Anybody quit?
Not while I was there, because it was the second year and people were more aware of the differences in the teaching systems. But I was told that during the first year there were several cultural clashes. I was lucky not to see that, because bad vibes affect me a lot.

You had achieved a certain technical level with Serguei. Did Kotka take you higher?
Yes, it did. But after Kotka I felt drained again (laughs). It was really difficult to start painting again. I think after very intensive educational periods it’s hard to get going. It’s like a separation anxiety, you know?

What happened next?
I divorced.

It’s okay. I guess my ex couldn’t totally accept that side of me; it wasn’t in his plans to be married to an artist. But now that I’m on my own I can focus more on my work. And my current boyfriend is a gallerist, which works well for us (smiles). We are both very work-oriented.

Are you aware of a certain darkness in your art?
Darkness? How so?

In the “rooms” series, for example, the values and colors are pretty dark, and the compositions moody.
My blue period. That was right after the divorce. At that point I decided to explore emotions in my work. Maybe I was painting out the separation anxiety…

Are you a happy person, would you say?
I am both melancholic and positive. There are so many things in life to laugh about and enjoy. But it’s always hard to set up barriers to protect myself.

How do you balance your roles of mom and artist?
It’s easy for me. I am at home painting, ready to receive my son when he comes from school.

What does your son say about your art?
He says “mother, look at your art, this is what you get by being an artist.” I think he means “don’t complain, because you have chosen this path on your own”.

Do you complain a lot?
(laughs) No… I love to be an artist. But, it’s like everything, things get difficult sometimes; money issues, you get tired…

How do you get work?
It’s a permanent chore to get noticed, and it takes time and effort to keep the connections going. And I dislike the “hey, see me, I’m a painter!” routine so much. I know and understand it comes with the job, but it can be exhausting…

You obviously design your compositions. How much do you alter the elements at the time of painting? Do you take photos?
Yes, I like to design my own compositions and I try to use live models as much as I can. It’s interesting for me to create the setups, ask the models to do this or that, and to arrange things. I take photos, but I don’t change the compositions afterwards. I do adjust the colors, as I don’t want to depend on how the camera sees them. The colors for me must come out of direct observation.

Do you use anything else besides oils?
Mainly oils. But sometimes acrylics, tempera, and watercolors. Acrylics are the most difficult because they dry up really fast. Oil remains wet for so long that you can easily mix it, during the painting process.

I assume the Rembrandt / Dutch-masters influences in your style are not a happy coincidence.
Thank you. I do have an interest in Rembrandt, yes. Of course my paintings are my own, but they are influenced, sometimes by his style, others by the Impressionists, and also by the Renaissance period. But you need to get all that stuff out of your head anyway in order to search for your own style.

Do you think you have achieved a personal style?
Little by little, step by step…

Are you happy with it?
Noooo! Of course not…

Why not? You are an accomplished artist already.
Hmmm… I see a lot of problems, and things that are still missing…

Such as?
Difficult question. Most of the time my work is not… free enough. It’s too… academic. I don’t want to paint academic stuff. And it’s a constant search. As an artist, you can never be happy. Why continue painting, if you feel happy? Unhappiness is the fuel that powers painting! Being unhappy with your own work is what drives you. It may sound negative, but for me, it isn’t.

You don’t pursue realism, so your search is not purely technical. What is it that you’re after, and that sometimes you feel you reach and sometimes not?
I think what I want is to achieve a certain wholeness. The difficult thing in my style, I think, is to prevent that the components become like little separate pieces that break apart and collapse… I want unity! It’s such a challenge to find balance with colors, and to provide the right impression through them. So when I can do all of that in a work, I feel satisfied. It can also happen that after months, or maybe even years, I see it again and I am happy with it. I forgive my painting.

Perhaps you forgive… yourself?
(reflects) Could be.

This is Johanna’s website.