Sunday, April 21, 2019

Portraits and the Matter of Thoughtful Illustrations

This is a portrait of Greta Thunberg, a remarkable 16 year old schoolgirl who has managed to mobilize support for climate change in just 8 months in a way that no one else has quite managed to do before. Her story can be found here>

Why have I chosen to portray Greta Thunberg now? The reason has nothing to do with climate change but everything to do with illustration, good illustration, the kind of illustration that has some substance and integrity, and which has an image that says something. Sometime ago, a fashion site decided to put up pictures of women achievers and changemakers on their instagram feed. Instead of using photographs, they decided to use illustrations. To make the illustrations, they did what is mostly palmed off today in the name of “illustration”, they acquired photographs and used digital means to make bright, colourful images of women of substance sitting in the centre of a halo of psychedelic dots and rays with their faces looking as if they had a bad case of Vitiligo.

Of course whoever did this meant well,they always do, but watching one gruesome woman after another make its way into my feed during the run up to Women’s Day simply got rather much for me. It was kind of like sitting in the waiting room of a mad plastic surgeon and watching her mutilated results emerge one after another. I couldn’t take it anymore. I sent a thunderbolt of accusation in the comments section. I don’t remember what I said but it was something to the effect of: You have done nothing in your illustrations to show the achievements and character of the women you have portrayed!

Much to my surprise, I got a polite and civilized reply from HR in my messages later that day. They said they would “keep my points in mind”. I immediately felt guilty. I offered to do an illustration for them. No fee. Just getting my point across of what an illustration can be kind of thing. I didn’t make it in time for Women’s Day, there was other work on my desk, but after some thought given to what I wanted to portray, I chose Greta Thunberg.

I have shown Greta Thunberg sitting on this globe of black, patched up destruction that we have reduced our planet to. Beside her is her now powerful sign declaring School strike for Climate Change. The hope that is growing and growing and gathering momentum is shown in the shoots and leaves emerging tentatively but rapidly from her and her signboard and which will hopefully encompass the entire world in its growth, bringing about the change that is needed so urgently.

I have made this illustration in my large Moleskine sketchbook. It has a raw, textured feel to it that is very different from the clean, polished digital images that are so popular these days. This is what "real" is, it is messy and exhausting and intensely satisfying in a way that the Undo and Redo buttons of a digital device can never emulate. 

I hope that this, this portrait of a remarkable young woman that I have made, has beauty, substance and integrity to make it memorable for you. I hope it makes you pause for a moment and I hope it makes you linger over the image as you scroll through your feeds. I hope it inspires you and reminds you that it is the small choices that you make every single day that bring about the larger changes that you yearn so much for.


Another case of quick, thoughtless ineffective illustration would be this poster that was doing the rounds some time ago to mobilize people for support against cutting trees for an elevated corridor.

The generic conceptualization of the image in this poster simply makes me yawn. Tree cutting? Show a chopped off tree trunk and bung an axe on it, that will stir up enough indignation among Bangaloreans to read through two entire columns of text about the subject. This poster is as much an eyesore as an elevated corridor. 

Instead what if the designer of this poster had used an illustration of a TREE, a tree shown in all its glory and symbolic of what Bangalore was once famous for? What if an illustration of a tree like the one below had been used for this poster instead? 

Would not an image like this have been far more memorable for people looking at the poster? 
Would it not have struck an emotional chord in the audience and thereby made the cause more powerful? 
Doesn't it simply make more sense to show a tree rather than a chopped off one when you talk about Saving Trees? 
Are our creative people really that dead inside themselves that they create messages which have no beauty whatsoever so that their images simply add to the visual garbage that we see everyday online in the name of illustration? 
The answer is Yes to all these questions. 

It makes me really sad to call myself an illustrator because most people associate illustration with trashy images that keep doing the rounds everywhere, online, in picture books, in magazines, in posters...
There is the proven fact that the more trash you see, the more rubbish you produce so it seems that the circle of producing visual garbage is recurring and endless.Think about that before you click the LIKE button on an image as you rapidly scroll through your feeds.

Saturday, April 6, 2019


Accept who you are and revel in it.
               ~ M. Albom