Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The How of 'Where's That Cat?'

Another thing that just happened was that I decided to base the drawings in the book on an actual street, in Chennai. Every city is different in small ways so making that decision meant that I needed to look carefully at that street whenever I visited Chennai, which is usually every three or four months. My mother and sister and her family all live in Chennai so it seemed like a good plan. On the other hand, I don't live there! So in that sense it wasn't such a good plan. Every time I wanted to know what something looked like I had to jump on a plane and … well, of course I didn't really do that!

Initially, I took a number of pictures of the street that I w
as interested in. Then I asked my niece to take pictures of the shops along a neighbouring street. Then on my next trip I took yet more pictures of the street, this time of people walking up and down. The strange thing is this: however many pictures I had, they were NEVER enough. The moment I started drawing, I would find that I couldn't remember what colour the autorickshaws in Chennai are or what kind of lungi is worn by coconut sellers. When I draw something from real life, I don't try to copy a thing exactly. Instead I look at it again and again, trying to memorize its main features enough that eventually I can draw it without looking at it.

In the beginning, I had wanted to include a traffic policeman in the story. But I couldn't find any clear picture references to what a traffic policeman in Chennai looks like. The uniforms of policemen in different cities in India are DIFFERENT. If you've never noticed that before, then this is your chance to start noticing. Just look at their head gear to begin with: some of them wear peaked caps; some wear berets; in Bombay, they wear topees. Some wear long dark pants and white shirts. Some wear khakhi. In the past, in Chennai, they used to wear starched khakhi shorts th
at stuck out stiffly front and back…

So I asked my niece to be sure to include a picture of the local policeman in the photographs she sent to me by e-mail. She told me later that she almost had an accident trying to get a picture and that by the end of the attempt the policeman was glaring suspiciously in her direction. He was also posing like a Hero, with his shiny sunglasses and walkie-talkie radio. And at the end of all that effort, even though I did a couple of drawings with the policeman playing a starring role, he was removed from the story altogether.

There are many stages to completing the drawings for a book and most are utterly boring – such as drawing the frames for the pages so that I can be sure that the finished artwork will fit on the printed page. This is one of the things I really don't like doing which is nevertheless an important part of the work of being an illustrator. Because I don't like doing it, I am usually asleep when I do it. As a result of being asleep, I ALWAYS get the measurements of the page wrong. Always.

So I usually have to make corrections to all the outer margins of all the drawings and I nearly always discover the mistake only after I've finished the colouring. No wonder I don't like drawing the page frames! Sometimes I begin crying at the start of a project, because I KNOW I'm making a mistake in the measurement right then, but since I'll only find out about much later, I feel I might as well get the tears over with at the start.

For the me the best part is the basic drawing. I love doing the actual pencil
drawing, when I'm still planning the basic structure of each drawing, and the characters, the background, the ideas are still very fresh. I always do detailed drawings in pencil. In the case of Where's That Cat? I did the original pencil drawings on sheets of tracing paper that I had placed over the page frames because it's easier to erase on tracing paper.

Erasing pencil marks on watercolour paper, which is usually thicker and has a bumpier surface compared to other types of paper, often causes the surface to become "scratchy", with little fibres coming loose and waving in the wind. It's useless trying to paint on paper which has become scratchy in this way, so it's best to avoid erasing altogether. Tracing paper by
contrast is perfect for erasing pencil marks. So I made my drawings, erased to my heart's content and when I was ready, I stuck the tracing sheets with small strips of cellotape to the UNDERSIDE of the watercolour paper. Then I shone a light behind both sheets of paper*, so that I could see the pencil drawing THROUGH the thick watercolour paper. Then I re-drew the pencil drawing, in its final form, onto the top sheet.

[*Many artists use a gadget called a light-table, which is a kind of box with a flat surface on top made of frosted glass and tilted at the correct angle for being used as a drawing surface. Under the frosted glass is a light bulb that can be turned on and off, whenever the artist wants to see something underneath the top layer of paper. But light-tables take up a lot of space on a desk. So instead I keep a sheet of transparent plexiglass (a type of strong, light plastic similar to glass, but flexible) for the purpose. When I need a light table, I use the sheet of plexiglass as a drawing board, with my table lamp placed on the floor and behind the now-transparent drawing board. It works fine.]

But even before all of this, I had done a very rough sketch of all 18 pages of the book, as a series of scribbles, to show to Tulika, in order to discuss the story. If a book has no text, then of course the drawings ARE the text! First I did extremely rough sketches with a dash of colour to provide a general idea of what style I was plannin
g to use. I also did a kind of map of the whole book, as a series of little rectangles representing double-page spreads with the characters drawn as tiny stick figures. In fact, it took several months of thinking about the story in this form, before the idea began to settle down properly.

For instance, even though there's a real cat with the name Pooni – and she's very
sweet and elegant – that cat is black and white, not orange! But the moment she entered the book, she became orange. The idea of her chasing a crow only happened when I was doing the actual pencil drawings. First she was just looking at the crows, then stalking them and the next thing I knew they were chasing her! But if Pooni is running away from Minnie, the little girl, then at some point, I would have to show Pooni running back again, the way she came. In which case, how would I ensure that Minnie wouldn't see her along the way? Questions like this are a sort of puzzle that must be solved one way or another while drawing a book.

Meanwhile, I also began to feel the need for a line of text on each page. In terms of publishing, this means a lot more effort for Tulika. Even if it's only a few words per page, the text HAS to be sent to different people for translation. Whenever possible, they like to do their books in EIGHT LANGUAGES aside from English – Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi and Kannada! Wow. So that's really a lot of work and time for everyone.

Because I like to get ALL the drawings done before I start colouring them in, it takes quite a long time before I even begin to think about colours. In this case, because I don't live in Chennai, after doing the pencil drawings on tracing paper, I scanned them in order to be able to send them to Tulika by e-mail, so that they could tell me what they thought of the way the characters looked and the general flow of the story and all kinds of other matters big and small.

Every month, I would write to Tulika, to tell them that the book was "almost" finished and yet at the end of each month, to my great surprise, there were still all kinds of things that remained to be done. My editor Deeya would send me little messages now and then to remind me about the passage of time but … the crows kept on misbehaving. The schoolgirls were refusing to walk in a straight line. The Teacher Ma'am was late getting to the street in time to meet Minnie and to help her look for Pooni. All the cycle tyres were missing their spokes. Problems like these kept on happening right uptil the very end. Indeed, even on the very last day, there were problems with the page sizes. Fortunately, Tulika has a very clever wizard called Shiva who was able to solve all those problems by waving his computerized magic wand over the sides and borders. Eventually it was done. And now we're all feeling tired and happy and … busy planning our NEXT BOOK!

- Manjula Padmanabhan, Author & Illustrator


  1. These are the times when I feel like reading children's book again :)

  2. Ooop....please read book as 'books'


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