Øivind Hovland’s Illustrations Turn Moments Into Metaphors

By Scott Kirkwood

Øivind Hovland took a rather circuitous route to a career in illustration. As a child, he doodled on everything from school books to wallpaper, prompting teachers and family members to praise his efforts while gently nudging him to more “appropriate” surfaces. But he never imagined he could turn that skill into a job.

That changed when he began studying fine art at Follo Folkehøgyskole in his native Norway during a foundation year—a two-semester program for many European students that serves as a precursor to university. Hovland quickly recognized that illustration could provide a paycheck, which was much more appealing than life as a starving artist. After completing his mandatory year of service (a national requirement at the time), Hovland went on to study illustration at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland and University of Plymouth in Exeter, England; then he tacked on an art-history degree at the University of Bergen, Norway, for good measure.

Hovland’s distinctive illustration style features bold colors and simple lines. 

Hovland paid his bills (and paid off his hefty student loans) with part-time jobs as a social worker, bartender, and barista while interning at a design studio, where he learned to use Adobe Photoshop and other digital tools. After three years, he dove into full-time freelance work, focusing on editorial illustration for local English newspapers and smaller Norwegian publications including Kapital and Bergens Tidende. For the first few years of his freelance career, he greeted his accountant by apologizing for his low meager income, but in time he brought on more clients with bigger circulations and bigger budgets, including the Financial Times and TimeOut London. He also cemented an ongoing relationship with art directors at Verdens Gang, Norway’s most widely read online publication, with a daily audience of approximately two million people.


Verdens Gang and Bergens Tidende both asked Hovland to illustrate departments that focused on psychology and relationships, which led him to render couples in various states of disagreement—like Technicolor versions of New Yorker cartoons, no captions required. It’s a theme that continues throughout his work: For instance, in one image, two people in bed wear rubber gloves and a surgical mask. In another, a distant couple stare off in opposite directions, their living room split open by a chasm, for a piece on marital separation.

“I love illustrating scenes with the feeling that you’ve walked into a room and something has just happened or something is about to happen,” says Hovland. “I’m always trying to create situations where there’s a bit of energy in the scene, but you can’t quite grasp it.”

Working frequently with two Norwegian publications, Hovland has created many images depicting challenges in interpersonal relationships. 

Hovland also devotes plenty of pixels to the theme of self-improvement in the modern world: curbing addictions to social media, the perils of driving and texting, and knowing when to let go of unfulfilled dreams, for instance. And that focus on inner worlds has brought some introspection: Hovland has noticed that illustrators tend to be some of the kindest, most thoughtful people he’s ever met. And he’s got a theory to explain that.

“As illustrators, we spend every day creating and helping clients communicate their ideas, and that often means accepting a client’s wishes even if you don’t completely agree with the idea behind it,” he says. “That might mean that we’re more able to accept new ideas and learn from different viewpoints—whether the profession changes us or we’re already drawn to that sort of thinking to begin with. You can’t really be as subjective as fine artists, who often become their work. With illustration, there’s got to be a bit of distance between you and your work—if you took it personally, you’d never get the job done.”


Whether he’s getting jobs done for the BBC, Esquire, Wired, or any other client, Hovland’s illustrations feature approachable characters rendered in simple lines and bold colors. But that wasn’t always the case.

“In school, I was focused on woodcuts and drawing with charcoal—a lot of dark, gray images with a German expressionism feel,” he says. “Until I realized, ‘If I’m going to be illustrating work for newspapers and magazines, this isn’t going to work.’” One of his teachers suggested he try out screen printing, to get a better feel for playing with color. Hovland took to it immediately. When he started creating illustrations in Photoshop, he began by imitating the layers from screen printing—an approach he still employs in his illustration work today. 

For editorial pieces, his process generally involves reviewing the art director’s brief, reading the article, and sketching in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet—no pencil or paper at any point. Hovland typically starts by drawing colored shapes and using the eraser tool to remove what he doesn’t want—essentially “negative drawing” as he describes it. Then he adds more layers and moves objects around by manipulating those layers, before locking down the color scheme and adding textures from his library of scanned files.

Right now, Hovland is creating more than a dozen illustrations for the third book in Gylendal’s series Min første biografi (“My First Biography”) a collection of illustrated biographies for children. The book and Hovland’s illustrations focus on a well-known Norwegian politician and gay activist who takes young readers through her life as if she were a child tour guide, sharing her own personal history on every page.

The Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen asked Hovland to illustrate scenes for their publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Although Hovland has lived in England for 18 years, much of his work still concerns the country of his youth: Over the Easter weekend, many Norwegians travel to their cabins, where they read books about crime and inhale whodunits and murder mysteries on TV. In that spirit, the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen asked Hovland to illustrate scenes for their publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which details a seemingly impossible crime and a clever detective who solves it (considered a classic in the genre, the short story inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes). Hovland selected four scenes from the short story, and illustrated them in his characteristic style, using nothing more than red, white, and black. For a man who learned his trade in several countries, it’s only fitting that Hovland would sit at a desk in Britain and illustrate a story written by an American, so that it can be enjoyed by millions of Norwegians. 

See more of Hovland’s work on his portfolio site

April 30, 2019