Paint innocence, be an illustrator
You mention Hansel and Gretel and the image that always pops up in my head comes from a book my brother owned as a child. It had a beautiful illustration of the evil witch’s charmed cottage, with gingerbread windows, ice-cream walls and a beautiful roof made of the most delicious of cakes and breads.
After all these decades, through the passing of which one has forgotten so many things, I’m surprised how that one small picture has endured, as has that huge beanstalk Jack climbed, or that ancient Chand-er boori (old woman of the moon) from that Bengali classic for children, Thakumaar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Bag).
For Suddhasattwa Basu, painter and illustrator, who studied fine arts at the Govt. College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, and has also illustrated Nature Watch by Khushwant Singh, and To Live in Magic by Ruskin Bond, illustrations for children are “very different”, from other kinds of art. “Work done for adults can be pretentious. In fact, the more pretentious it is the more acceptable it is to grown-ups, who cannot see straight, and are always trying to read between the lines. Children are different. If they like you they’ll tell you. Any communication to them has to come straight from the heart, clear, direct – it has to have a sense of innocence,” says Basu.
Delhi-based freelance artist Partha Sengupta took up drawing for children after he was unable to forget the beautiful illustrations in the Russian books his brother used to get from College Street in Kolkata. Every story for ‘little people’ should have a picture he says, one that gets into a child’s head. “Today, many people, especially new entrants work on computers, but that’s not the same as manual drawing. A computer will have a fixed style. I have an image in my mind and I feel I am best equipped to use my hands to draw it,” says Sengupta.
A love of reading got both Basu and Sengupta interested in art. Basu’s mother would present him books thrice a year, “though we were not very rich, almost lower middle class,” he says. So, he would get his first book during the Bengali New Year, the second one would arrive on his birthday, and the last one during the Pujas.
Says Sengupta, “A child’s imagination works differently. The work should be realistic, simple, colourful and catchy.”
Another crucial thing these artists have to remember is the child within them. “I may be illustrating for a business magazine, doing something for a ministry, or for children, but the child within me is always jumping. You can do nothing if the child is dead,” says Basu.
“I keep observing children, the way they play, the way they can’t seem to do without each other, their expressions,” says Sengupta.
What’s it about?
A children’s illustrator has to submit drawings and paintings for any publication meant for an audience that has just started to read or enjoys flipping through books and looking at good pictures. Illustrators can work for children’s magazines or bigger publishing houses such as the National Book Trust, Children’s Book Trust, Scholastic India or Puffin Books (from Penguin)
The English publishing industry pays you decent money though things might be a little difficult for illustrators in the Hindi and regional-languages segments where books are not priced high. Freelancers can earn Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 a month. Depending on projects, you might get Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 for a 16-page publication
. 6 am: Wake up, go for a walk to the park
. 8 am: Get back home, get ready and go to my ‘den’ to finish an illustration for a National Book Trust assignment
. 1.30 pm: Take a break for lunch
. 2 pm: Leave for meeting with publisher from a publishing house for children, discuss book for which illustrations are required. Collect script
. 5 pm: Get back home and back at den with coffee to finish the illustration
. 8 pm: Finish up for the day, catch up with family and watch TV
. 9 pm: Dinner
. 10 pm: Retire to bed and read the script
A confident, strong hand
Sound knowledge of drawing and painting techniques, ability to play with colours and handle pen and ink, poster colours and watercolours
Good with children, able to guage their mind and deliver what they want
Excellent communication skills to market, sell your work
How do i get there?
Talent is something you are born with. If you are good with the pencil or brush you can continue to hone your talent at the senior-school level and build up a portfolio of your work before you join art school. Most colleges will hold an aptitude test. Those of you who make it to a good art college will be required to do a four-year Bachelor’s degree in fine arts in which you will be taught about visual communication, drawing, nature and object drawing, illustrations, etc. You can follow it up with a Masters in fine arts
Institutes & urls
. Government College of Art, Kolkata
. College of Art, Delhi
. Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai
. Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU Baroda
. Visva Bharati
Pros & Cons
. Best thing to do if you like children, are a child at heart and love to draw and paint
. Takes some time and good marketing skills to be recognised
. Money not very good
. Frequency of work depends on your talent, turnaround time and PR skills
Why haven’t I seen any fair demons?
A senior children’s illustrator talks about influencing young minds
Who will give a children’s book illustrator a job?
You (said disdainfully), are not supposed to look for a job. It is a profession, you are a professional, and all that you are supposed to do is ‘offer your services’. You do not do a job, you get an assignment. Yes, there are publications and they need illustrators, but look at some of those in-house illustrators with regular jobs churning out the same kind of illustrations day in and day out. It’s better to not get into this profession keeping a nine-to-five routine in mind. Sometimes you might get an assignment from a newspaper, an ad agency, the government of India and various ministries, and sometimes you will have to illustrate for children. All this makes the profession more interesting. You have no time to develop a set formula. You have to start from scratch each time you get something new to do, thinking of new ways to communicate with your audience.
Can any artist become a children’s book illustrator?
Ask some big author if he or she would like to write for children. Some might say no while others might fail miserably. That’s the case with children’s illustrations. It is a highly specialised area. You have to first know how to draw and paint, learn to communicate in the language (of art) itself. You have to understand forms, colours, textures — what kind of feeling you want to communicate and if the representation is proper or not.
Also, you have to create something that children would love to see. If a child gets scared of something you have drawn and shuts the book, then you are a failure. An illustrator has to be careful about what he is drawing. He is giving something to a person who is about to grow and will grow with all the things you give him. If you give poison that tree will be poisonous. If you give nectar the tree will grow with a lot of goodness in it. The artist should, as far as possible, try to accentuate the inner beauty in the macabre, make it more human. Don’t make a child develop a hatred for something. Now look at poor Surpanakha (in Ramayana). She might have genuinely fallen in love with Laxman, but what does he do? He goes and cuts off her nose. And why? Because she is portrayed as ugly, dark… There is colour discrimination. I certainly don’t remember having seen a fair demon.
Publishers should return our original work and we should hold the copyright to our work. There are no royalty statements. Often, they don’t give us our dues. Unless they make it a lucrative profession, the best talent won’t come.
Suddhasattwa Basu, painter, illustrator and animation filmmaker interviewed by Ayesha Banerjee