One day, Lithuanian illustrator Kissi Ussuki was waiting for the red light at the pedestrian crossing when she noticed the woman in front of her. “She had a very thick neck and a beautiful pearl necklace and this combination looked kind of funny and absurd,” she says, “but I love it and I can’t get it out of my head now.”
With their bendy necks, beak-like noses or sticking-out ears, there’s a wonderful ugliness to the characters she paints. “I do love to scroll through Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed too, but conventional beauty is somehow boring to me,” she says. “Us humans are such weird creatures with so many different ‘flaws' like crooked noses or moles on our bodies that are way more interesting than beauty standards!”
Kissi has always drawn people. Notebooks that she’s kept since she was four or five are filled with girls in pink and purple dresses. “In general I find people fascinating because they are so varied in their appearance and have such a broad spectrum of emotions,” she says.
At school she was very into drawing portraits, especially of David Gilmour from Pink Floyd. “I guess partially I was just programmed to draw humans since my childhood.”
Now Kissi works from her studio in the Lithuanian National Radio and Television building in Vilnuis, built in the 1970s. “The spirit of soviet brutalism is still prevailing there but I enjoy it in a way because it’s a part of my identity,” she says.
And although brutalism might be part of her identity, her illustration style is nothing like it. Instead, it’s quirky and fun, using pastel colors. After a new year’s resolution she decided to set her pencils aside and take up painting. “It came to me quite easily,” she says, “I feel like no tablet could ever substitute the pleasure of putting wet paint on paper.”
To begin, Kissi walked into a local art supply store and chose the prettiest colors of acrylic paint that she could find: baby pink, lavender and turquoise. “With the basis of my palette sorted I started painting funny heads and big shapes. I wasn’t interested in focusing on brushstrokes and shadows, I just wanted to draw simple shapes and funny scenarios,” she says. “Primarily I wanted to have fun.”
Though her box of paints is now host to a whole party of shades, Kissi still sticks to just four to six colors per painting so as not to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. “I feel like I’ve achieved my goal when people can relate to my drawings or they find them funny,” she says. “But it’s also enough for me if they just enjoy the color combination.”
The fun factor in her images comes partially from her love for old horror movies. On occasion, she draws characters with a third eye, an axe to the head or a tulip sprouting from their eye socket. In one painting, a mauve vampire with pointy ears sinks his incisors into his victim’s soft pink neck.
To find her artist alias though (Kissi was actually born Justė Urbonavičiūtė) she looked to a different genre of film, the spy movie. After watching old James Bond movies she rearranged the letters in the name of Bond girl Kissy Suzuki from You Only Live Twice .
Though it’s hard to spot the resemblance, she insists that most of her paintings are self-portraits inspired by her emotions or her outfits. “I usually dress my characters up in the same clothes that I wear or I wish I could wear every day,” she says.
She gets easily obsessed with trendy fashion pieces. “I might draw a character with chunky Balenciaga sneakers or a teddy coat that I stumbled upon while scrolling through Asos.”
Like the woman with the pearl necklace, her other subjects could be people she encounters on the street, friends, movie characters or random faces her mind makes up on the spot. She has a habit of painting sad fictional couples who she creates elaborate backstories for.
“When I sit down to draw them I just cannot help but analyze what’s wrong in their relationships, why they are unhappy, whether one of them is cheating.”
Words by Alix-Rose Cowie.