Petra Eriksson

Mushrooms, tea, space and weird animal facts

Petra Eriksson header
Photo by Carles Araguz, illustration by Petra Eriksson

The Eindhoven-based Swedish illustrator and self-professed “professional tea drinker” wants us to feed our inner child, defy expectations and embrace colour

The mysteries of mushrooms, space and weird animal facts inspire me as much as someone’s bright red coat on the subway.

Petra Eriksson

Renowned for her portraits of women, Petra Eriksson blames her love of bold imagery, bright colours and patterns on a certain woman in her life – her mother, who constantly matches everything. “It was impossible for me not to become obsessed with colours. I never really stood a chance.”

This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Face This. The Dutch charity brings together street artists with Indonesian school kids to turn children’s drawings into merch to support their education. Read all the interviews.

Born in Stockholm and now based in Eindhoven, the artist has lived in Dublin, Malta, Berlin and Barcelona, an influence you can see in her work. It’s littered with the eclectic references she has picked up, from Swedish artist Hilma af Klint to nature itself.

With over 100,000 followers on Instagram and boasting clients such as The New Yorker, VICE, Refinery29 and The Guardian, Petra studied Graphic Design at the renowned Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm, where she learned about colour theory. However, she says she mostly chooses colours based on a gut feeling.

When she’s not working, Petra spends her time drinking green tea, reading and watching the Japanese animations by Studio Ghibli. She sees film as an escape, an inspiration and a vehicle for making sense of herself and the world.

We spoke to the accomplished artist about bringing colours to others and the importance of creating positive impact with her work.

Q&A: Petra Eriksson

What moves you to do what you do?

Playing with shapes and colours is like a meditation for me, but also a way to just let myself be playful. I’m a very visual person. The best way for me to take in the world is through images so I use my own art to make sense of what I’ve seen and experienced. Sometimes what I draw doesn’t make sense to me until afterwards when I have some åerspective and I’m able to more clearly see where an idea came from. I’m not the most conceptual person, but I like to use my art to try to tell parts of my story or to give colour to someone else’s story.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Did you always like to draw? 

Yes, for as long as I can remember I have always been drawing. I grew up with a creative family; my mum used to work as a graphic designer and illustrator and my grandma was a very creative soul who loved being around kids and helping create an inspiring environment. I was also a very shy and introverted kid so a lot of my playtime was me reading, drawing and creating imaginary worlds in my head. Most of the pictures I remember were me trying to copy my older cousins’ drawings.

While I wanted to be an artist from a young age, it took me a while to figure out how to do it. I went to art school but felt a bit lost during those years. It was only later when I studied graphic design that things started to fall into place. Thankfully, I had people around me who told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I was prepared to work hard for it.

In 2018, Petra created 52 portraits of women from history for Bygone Badass Broads by Mackenzi Lee 

How important is it to you to bring positive impact with your work?

It is important to use my art to both share joy and to amplify the messages and histories of people and causes that I support. It’s also important for me to use my art to share some of my personal journeys with anxiety and mental health issues as I feel like putting it out in the open is not only helpful for me but for other people as well by taking away some of the stigma around it. 

One of Petra’s favourite projects is a wheel cover for Izzy Wheels, who create colourful wheelchair covers in different styles so there’s something for everyone

Can you pinpoint one of your artworks that means the most to you?

About four years ago, I created the piece Commitment Issues during a time of intense therapy. I was trying to dig through my history and my inner world to try to figure out why I could never make romantic relationships work, why I either ran far away from any one who was interested even when I maybe wanted to stay, or I tried to force something that would never work, but most of the time I just hid away to try to protect myself. I filled up my days with schoolwork, work or moving to new countries to stimulate myself instead of letting someone in who could hurt me. I created this piece to try to approach the subject through art, to try to figure out how I could let someone inside of my toughest layers.

Commitment Issues

What has been the most unexpected outcome from your work?

It’s probably the unexpected stories and things that shows up in my work when I think I’m drawing something without an intention, and then the artwork itself takes me on a ride and I come out on the end of it with something I didn’t expect to feel or see.

And the biggest challenge?

To not compare myself too much with other artists, unfortunately. It’s not like that all the time, but Instagram is definitely messing with my head from time to time, especially if I’m in a phase of feeling uncreative and not being able to access new ideas as much as I would like to. Seeing other people create a lot of great pieces during those times often takes a toll on my creative self esteem, making me feel like I need to put new work out there. I’m trying to work on ways to be better at breaking that cycle and letting my brain rest by coming back to exploring and trying to take away the pressure I put on myself.

What and who are you most inspired by?

So many things. Artists like Hilma af Klint, Gerhard Richter, Luy Tuymans, Georgia O’keeffe, Ellsworth Kelly and so many more. Nature – patterns on a tree trunk or on a leaf, the colours of the sea and sky and all the flowers. The mysteries of mushrooms, space and weird animal facts inspire me as much as someone’s bright red coat on the subway. Stories from books and films. Conversations with friends.

The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, Hilma af Klint (1907) is bold, colourful and untethered from any recognisable references to the physical world

What is one thing you do regularly, a simple ritual or hack that brings you joy or elicits a sense of self care? 

I’m trying to set a new routine of reading in the morning and journaling in the afternoon or evening as I feel these habits bring a bit of peace to my head. I also drink a lot of tea and the simple act of preparing myself a cup of my favourite green tea and drinking it in a beautiful ceramic cup brings me joy and tranquillity.

How important is playfulness for you? 

Very, very important. I notice it clearly in myself and my artmaking and creativity when I haven’t given myself enough time to play and experiment. I think playfulness opens us up for thinking more openly. Through play we can connect ideas that we wouldn’t have connected otherwise. 

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Pablo Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Do you have tips on how everyone can cultivate their inner child?

I think of this Picasso quote fairly often! For me it is about two things: trying to keep playing and try to release yourself of the ideas of how a ‘grown up’ life should look. I think most of us forget (partly or completely) to play when we get older, we also might have less time for it after work, cooking, paying taxes, etc, but part of it is simply forgetting or not allowing ourselves to play. You can play with paint, with words, with all kinds of expressions or simply do things just for fun.

Find a sport that you do because you just enjoy it, or start doing improv theatre or dance. But I know that it can be hard in the busy schedules many of us have, but to some degree I think those busy schedules come out of those thoughts we have about how we are supposed to live when we grow up. To have accumulated a certain amount of wealth, to buy a house, to dress a certain way, to do all the things we’re supposed to do. But maybe we can live simpler and freer? Less time working, more time exploring and playing. Maybe we don’t need to climb the ladder, maybe we chose not to have kids, maybe we start wearing clothes with crazy colour combinations just because it’s fun? I think play is the key for any artist or non-artist to cultivate and feed their inner child. 

Maybe we don’t need to climb the ladder, maybe we chose not to have kids, maybe we start wearing clothes with crazy colour combinations just because it’s fun?

Petra Eriksson

You recently designed an artwork by using some of the Indonesian kids’ drawings by Dutch charity Face This, to support their education. Which drawings did you use to create your artwork with?

I really enjoy getting the chance to use my art to contribute to projects like this that create positive change. I felt very drawn towards the flowers and plants that was occurring in many of the children’s drawings, I felt like they had a specific significance that I didn’t understand and I liked that it felt like a beautiful mystery.

I played around with more textured brushes for this project, challenging myself to do something a bit more outside of my comfort zone and I loved the more abstract flowy shapes that came out of it.

What’s next?

I’m just in the process of moving between countries and moving in with my partner Guillem, so there’s a lot of change happening right now. I’m trying to navigate to stay healthy, happy and find calm in the middle of this storm. It brings with it a lot of bureaucratic challenges, but it’s also very inspiring. Right now, I’m trying to be open to all the newness, to new people, new routines and new adventures. I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the year will bring – but on a personal level I feel optimistic. My main dream is to have a solo exhibition. I’m hoping for some fun new projects, some new print releases, new bigger home that we can make our own, a stable, inviting studio space and a lot of time in nature. I’m taking small steps in the direction of figuring both of these things out.

Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?

I really love ‘Jupiter’ by Benjamin Clementine which was recorded in Damon Albarn’s Studio 13. I have been listening to it a lot these past months.

Now enter Petra Eriksson’s World of Good

The artist’s tips of outrageously good people to follow

  1. My friend and forever inspiration Marzi Pane. She’s a social change facilitator with a focus on organic cotton and sustainable agriculture. She’s the creator of Cotton Diaries and I learn so much from her.  
  2. I love the art by Merijn Hos, their shapes and colours are very inspiring!
  3. The art and colours by artist couple Macarena Luzi and Seba Curi make me so happy. I wish I could just move into their beautiful studio space.
  4. PositiveNewsUK is doing a great job in sharing some positivity in a social media world without diminishing the challenges we’re dealing with. 

What’s so good about this?

Creativity has a transformative power for children of all cultures. The Face This Foundation works to empower Indonesian schoolchildren to “design their own future”. Petra Eriksson’s artwork is available on tees, sweaters and tote bags. All pieces are available to buy online. Check out more of her work at petraeriksson.com and @petraerikssonstudio

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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