Illustrations: Adding life to stories

Illustrations feed the imagination of the reader, especially children.They have the ability to be taken in all at once, unlike an essay, a book or a movie. Images are accessible and can form an instant connection with the audience. AABP recently interacted with four children book illustrators who have wooed us with their beautiful and meaningful illustrations. Excerpts.

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Ishaan and Ayesha are a 2 person studio. Married, and working together for the last 10 years, they love art, food, travel and cats. They both studied at the Srishti School of Design in Bangalore and specialised in Textile and Graphic Design. They recently illustrated the book Koki’s Song by Ruskin Bond and published by HarperCollins India.

While, Shamika Chaves is an author, illustrator and graphic designer based in Mumbai. She was born into a family of artists and so was surrounded by art since she was a child. She pursued a degree in applied art in the year 2009 from Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai and almost immediately started working a full time job as a graphic designer. However, she was always interested in children’s book illustration but was too afraid to take the freelance route. It took her 8 whole years of a desk job that wasn’t very fulfilling to realize what she really wants to do. She now works from home as a freelance children’s book illustrator. She recently illustrated the book Lucky, It’s Summer! by Sorensen Nalini and published by HarperCollins India.

Harshad Marathe is a visual artist and a solo traveller. He loves making art, but he also has a diverse range of unusual interests. He got his MFA in Illustration from School of Visual Arts, New York. Before that, he did a BA from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. He recently illustrated the book All of Me by Venita Coelho and published by HarperCollins India.

Here, these four illustrators share their journey and joys of illustrating children books. Excerpts.

Q: As an artist, what is your inspiration?

Ishaan and Ayesha: It’s hard to focus on specific inspirations. It can come from art, architecture, music, movies, nature, food, culture, science, etc. There are people doing amazing things and we are constantly inspired by stories and food and art. In today’s day and age, when we have access to so much information, it’s hard to close one’s doors or specialise on inspiration.

Shamika: I get most of my inspiration from day to day life. Whenever I find any situation or incident funny, I instantly draw it. I love my husband’s sense of humour so even while I was working a 9 to 5, whenever I got the chance, I used to draw little comic strips about him and put it up on social media. The responses encouraged me to pursue a career in children’s book publishing even more.

Harshad: Art has the potential to energise and to turn ideas (visual or otherwise). I’m here to allow inspiration to flow through me into whatever I do.

Q: When did you first realise you want to get into Illustrations and what is the medium you use?

Ishaan and Ayesha: We are not sure when the decision was formally made, but drawing was something that was always part of us. We love to try different mediums; usually we let the project dictate the direction we want to take or explore.

Shamika: It was in the year 2013 when a dear friend of mine encouraged me to start my own blog. It really wasn’t a eureka moment but that was my first big step towards my dream of being a children’s book illustrator. I enjoy the freedom of hand rendering my illustrations and then digitalizing them. I work in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Indesign. So it is a mixture of both mediums, traditional as well as contemporary.

Harshad: I’ve been drawing since I was three years old. I guess I’ve always known that I want to make art. I like using many mediums, traditional and digital.

Q: Why do you think illustrations are so important?

Ishaan and Ayesha: Illustration is just another form of communication. And we all strive to communicate and understand each other through language or image, to build ideas and stories that pass on beyond our limited lives.

Shamika: Illustrating to me is my way of best expressing myself. It brings any story to life and feeds the imagination of the reader, especially children. I love the process of getting into the author’s mind through their story, expressing it through illustrations and making it as appealing as I can to young readers.

Harshad: An image has the ability to be taken in all at once, unlike an essay, a book or a movie. Images are accessible and can form an instant connection with the audience. The connection could be emotional, political, aesthetic, conceptual or even spiritual.

Q: What is the role of illustrations for kids?

Ishaan and Ayesha: All big things have to start small. Illustrations provide a place for not only communicating complex ideas without language, but also creates room for observation, understanding and interpretation.

Shamika: One of the sweetest responses that I heard from a parent of a young reader was that he recognized my illustration style when my latest book ‘Happy Holidays!’ was released without having to read my name. To me that shows how observant children are and that they don’t fail to notice every tiny detail while they are reading a book. I really do believe that illustrations and a good story go hand in hand.

Harshad: I started drawing when I was three, but what inspired me was comics, children’s books, cartoons and visual depictions of different stories in different forms. Learning visual vocabulary is something innate for children. Truth be told, some of the best art in the world is in children’s books.

Q: Coming to the cover design, what are the points you consider to make it aesthetic, so that a reader wants to reach out?

Ishaan and Ayesha: I think, for us, it all boils down to if the cover represents the story well enough or not, without giving too much away.

Shamika: I know they say never judge a book by its cover, but honestly whenever we go to a bookstore, we tend to pick up books that appear outstanding or appealing at first glance. The aesthetic appeal has to be even stronger when it comes to children. So whenever I am designing a cover, the key point is to help it stand out solely based on its cover. I always keep three things in mind. One, make the title as readable as possible even from a distance. Two, children love colour, make it as colourful as you can. And three, don’t make it too crowded. There’s just so much your eye can take in a fraction of a second and children are a lot more impatient than adults. However, if you do want to make it crowded, make it as interactive as you can. If you consider these three points, you will have an outstanding cover.

Harshad: I try not to get too theoretical about it. Inspiration hits me and I let it flow through me. The things that make an image successful are things that I have consciously and unconsciously learnt over many years.

Q: What thought came to you when you first got your new book for illustrating?

Ishaan and Ayesha: We immediately felt this mountain air, and wind through the grass and trees when we got Koki’s Song.

Shamika: The Lucky series was an absolute joy to work on. Lucky, It’s Summer! is the third book in the series. It focuses on the adventures of an adorable Cocker Spaniel named Lucky and her family. I personally prefer drawing humans to animals, so working on the Lucky series was challenging and a lot of fun.It did take me out of my comfort zone but that’s what I enjoyed about it the most.

Harshad: I loved the Victorian setting of the book All of Me and it’s association with magic and mystery. It inspired visuals out of me immediately, however it took many weeks of tweaking to get it right!

Q: Words and illustrations – how do you create the bond?

Ishaan and Ayesha: Text always creates images in our mind, and some moments are stronger visually than others, and we try to capture those images as they come and sketch them down to see how they flow together. The images are always working with the words and so they should never be in conflict with the tone of the writing.

Shamika: It is very important to work together with the author and publisher before starting any book. To understand the exact story line and what inspired the author to write it is very important. Once you’re on the same page, I work on character design and describe every illustration in detail before I start drawing and digitalizing them. I am lucky enough to have worked with very creative publishers and authors. In the end, the illustrations should do complete justice to the story.

Harshad: It’s usually a collaborative process between me, the author, the editor and the art director!

Q: How many books have you illustrated and mention the publishers you worked with?

Ishaan and Ayesha: Quite a few now and we have worked for publishers like Tulika, Eklavya, Puffin, Scholastic, Amberjack, Pratham and now HarperCollins India.

Shamika: My very first book as an illustrator was published in 2016 by Scholastic India while I was still working as a full time graphic designer. It was only in 2018 that I pursued a full time career as a freelance children’s book illustrator. Since then, I have worked on 8 books including 2 books as an author and illustrator with HarperCollins India.

Harshad: I haven’t kept count, but I think I must have done around 40 book covers and worked on three children’s books so far. I have worked/am working with many publishers including HarperCollins, Penguin (and Puffin), Simon and Schuster, Hachette, Amazon Westland, Tulika and The World Bank.

Q: What next? 

Ishaan and Ayesha: Travel, we hope.

Shamika: I want to continue working as a children’s book illustrator and make a difference in any way possible. If my books get even 3 out of 10 children hooked on to the habit of reading, those will be my little rewards of hard work. The Harry Potter series was the first ever young adult book that I read as a child and I have never stopped reading after that. Reading truly broadens your mind and being in a field where my illustrations and words have the power to broaden someone’s imagination, is something I see myself doing for a long time.

Harshad: Many things! I’m writing and illustrating my own book, but I won’t say more. I’m also working on another self-directed project. Commercially, I will continue to work with publishers, magazines and organisations. I will also continue to travel!

Q: Your passion?

Ishaan and Ayesha: Not sure. But we guess…feeling alive.

Shamika: I am very grateful that my passion and career are the same. It wasn’t this way for the longest time but I always say, better late than never.

Harshad: Art, mysticism, board games, boxing/kickboxing, astrology, astronomy, mountains and travelling.

Q: Which artist do you look up to?

Ishaan and Ayesha: Far too many to list down. But our role models lie in various fields far beyond our own abilities or scope of work.

Shamika: The list goes on, there isn’t just one. But Judith Kerr, Hayao Miyazaki, Júlia Sardà are a few artists whose work I look up to. And from Indian illustrators, I like Prabha Mallya’s work.

Harshad: Too many to mention. We have an embarrassment of riches in today’s age.

Q: Your advice to new artists/ illustrators?

Ishaan and Ayesha: Practice, patience and pencils.

Shamika: I am no expert in giving advice but from experience I will say that don’t be afraid to put your work out there, you never know what the universe has in store for you. And don’t ever stop doing what you enjoy doing. Even if your passion isn’t your career right now, don’t give up on it.

Harshad: Keep working on your craft and keep evolving. Overcome your shyness/lack of confidence and promote yourself. Don’t be afraid to tap into your social network and reach out to potential clients and express your eagerness to work. Don’t get into this profession if your number one priority is being wealthy!

Q: Your experience working with the author?

Ishaan and Ayesha: We did not work with the author directly, but Ruskin Bond’s writing does have the ability to form vivid images in one’s mind, which does make our work that much simpler and joyous.

Shamika: I have always had good experiences working with authors. Nalini was so much fun to work with! She helped me a lot to understand the inspiration, thought and everything that went behind creating the beautiful Lucky. Like I mentioned earlier, it is important to work hand in hand with the author and if you live their story as your own, the end result will be a beautiful book.

Harshad: This was the first time I worked with Venita. She seems super passionate about her work and her writing conveyed her vision with clarity. For her, the characters she writes about are living, breathing beings. I remember feedback she gave me regarding the cover: “Miss Trent would never carry the Infant Genius on her shoulder. She is a victorian governess. It’s unthinkable.”

Q: Anything else you would like to add

Shamika: I do have days when the illustrations that I am trying to draw don’t go according to plan, sometimes I even have to re-do them. But I don’t consider those days as days that are wasted but rather days that I learnt something and moved on. And lastly, don’t ever give up on your passion, it may or may not resonate, but it defines you and is a part of who you are.

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