Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guest Post by Niveditha Subramaniam: Stepping away from the Storyboard - thoughts on finding my visual voice

Tulika author and illustrator Niveditha Subramaniam describes what she learnt about illustration during her master’s degree in this guest post.

Though I did Art and Design in senior secondary school, I am a self-taught illustrator. At Tulika, I had the opportunity to create my own work as a writer-illustrator. Being an editor, too, deepened my understanding of the visual. We naturally paid attention to structure, layout, design, composition and other aspects of bookmaking, and the collaborative nature of the work as well as discussions involved always opened up new dimensions. 

The Charles Wallace India Trust Award (2015-2017) enabled me to pursue the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. I felt that this specialised Masters Programme would give me the exposure I needed to evolve as a visual storyteller. My relationship to my work and its making, and my understanding of the children’s book (the picture book medium, in particular) has undergone such a transformation through the course of the Masters.

Much of this is owing to the programme being steeped in the practice of observational drawing. The sketchbook is the illustrator’s playground; the place where the most uninhibited and freshest work happens; where self-expression is discovered through experimentation; where ideas for a children’s book emerge from a tiny scribble. However, observational drawing meant drawing from life and I had always drawn from the privacy of my desk. It was one thing to sketch in a real life drawing room but it was difficult to step out of my comfort zone and draw constantly in public places; in coffee shops, pubs, museums, market squares and so on. Cambridge is a small and friendly city, but I struggled to be at ease with myself and my pencil, often stiffening (sometimes because it was just too cold!).

At the one-on-one or group tutorial sessions where our sketchbooks were reviewed, my lecturers asked pertinent questions: 
Are you drawing from memory here or have you paid attention to what that person really looked like? Is this how the tree is shaped or have you simply looked at one branch and drawn the rest without observing each one? If A was the subject that attracted your attention, why is B taking up so much space on your paper instead? Why are you constantly attempting to ‘finish’ the drawing instead of first paying attention to your lines?

I began to pay attention to draughtsmanship, and realised that in my earlier work, I had made the transition to working on final images for book projects without doing enough sketches and studies.

Tsomo and the Momo
Slowly, through the course of the Masters, I began to ‘see’ with my pencil, and feel my way into the story. I saw the body language and gestures of my characters evolve. As movement and feeling filled them, my sketchbook began to have life. Then I hit my next challenge: bridging the gap between the observational and the representational. A problem that illustrators encounter is bringing the energy and spontaneity of their sketchbook work to the final artwork that is prepared for the book. We had been alerted that even if illustrators did have visual characteristics that marked their work, consciously adopting a style would confine rather than liberate us. Humour was intrinsic to my narratives, which were character-based. But quite a few of my tutors told me that I had to avoid making them ‘too cartoony’. This is a tricky balance to strike. On the one hand, the humour requires exaggeration. On the other hand, I’ve had to be careful about avoiding any kind of distortion that made the characters unconvincing.

Finally, I decided to abandon the idea of creating one set of ‘perfect’ final pictures that I would then use to make my picture books. This change had a significant impact on my work. I was able to:
a. rediscover the relationship between the characters without over-thinking anything; whether it looked ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or whether I would use them at all.
b. tie in particular features of the individual characters with the moods I wanted to express through them.
c. make better mistakes; apprehend what wasn’t working and why it wasn’t working because I was no longer thinking of a single ‘perfect’ illustration.

The Sky Monkey's Beard

My interaction with my tutors and peers gently nudged me out of pre-conceived notions of what constitutes ‘good’ drawing. But learning to trust my own instincts and not second guess myself has been a crucial part of this journey. Cultural perceptions deeply inform and shape artistic sensibilities. For instance, a limited colour palette that might suit one particular kind of visual narrative need not work for another. A rich palette, where the use of each colour is not merely decorative, says a lot about a place, its people, and ways of living and being. Being aware that feedback too can be coloured by embedded attitudes and at the same time, taking thoughtful decisions about each aspect of composition is a big challenge. Small but significant breakthroughs happen when one begins to consider these questions seriously.

Niveditha Subramaniam is a children’s book writer-illustrator. She particularly loves picture books, wordless narratives and comics. She has published several books with Tulika.

Here are the books that Niveditha has written and/or illustrated for Tulika. They are available on our website

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