Interview with Artist-Illustrator Niloufer Wadia

Every week through the Tamil Language Month celebrations, EliPuli will be interviewing one illustrator to find out more about their work and experiences. Why you ask? Because they bring to life the picture books that our little ones love so much! Your child may not be at the age to read words yet, but what draws their attention anyway are the vivid images on the page and these illustrations lay the seed towards passionate readers in the future! EliPuli would like to give thanks to them for the amazing work that they do. Tamil has not enjoyed a very wide range of well illustrated picture books, so it is important to celebrate the artists who are helping us on our journey as parents and educators to make reading in Tamil fun, enjoyable and mesmerizing!

Eli Puli’s really proud to be able to feature artist Niloufer Wadia’s interview today. Ever since we started, we’ve met uncountable artists who have only responded to us with kindness and encouragement for the work that we do. Niloufer really took the cake when she went out of her way to make us a beautiful coloring sheet (click to see) for all our little kutties out there in celebration of Tamil Language Month. It was a gesture in pure kindness and really, our interactions with Niloufer have been nothing short of wonderful. We really enjoyed reading her detailed answers to all our questions and whether you’re a budding illustrator or a parent, you will certainly find some useful insight here. We’ve provided links to a large selection of her books that are available in Tamil (click on the images), we hope you’ll take some time to check them out. Your kids will LOVE the beautiful pictures and will certainly sit still to listen to the stories!

If you had to choose a nursery rhyme to illustrate, what would you choose and why?

Sing a Song of Sixpence.

I think because I can immediately imagine each character, – A snooty, ‘upper floor’ serving man taking the cover off a pie which had blackbirds with big yellow beaks singing, their skinny necks sticking up. A fat, robust King in his counting house. A prim, plump Queen with a snooty look, eating bread and honey in her parlour with her pinkie finger sticking out like English Royalty supposedly does, and the scrawny pretty maid in the garden.

Spread from the book Kanna Panna, published by Tulika

How do you find inspiration when you start a new project? What is your process and how much research is involved?

Usually when I read the story, if I like it, pictures start forming immediately in my head; characters, how they’ll look, faces they’ll make, whether they’re skinny or plump, even an overall colour scheme perhaps etc.

Sometimes, rarely, I don’t really find the story that interesting, but to be honest, I have 20 years’ experience in advertising. We didn’t always agree with or believe in everything we advertised. I couldn’t afford to be a moody artist waiting for inspiration. We just had to get the job done on time, so we created our own magic till we actually believed in it. That’s how it has to work on the books too then. I start doodling, scribble characters, make them funny, make them exaggerated, until I fall in love with my own characters, then really the story doesn’t matter too much.

In terms of research, if the characters are human, I don’t need research, drawing people is my thing, though of course I might look up a particularly difficult posture. If however, the story is about animals, – I’ll let you in on a secret, o dear, I’m absolutely terrified of drawing animals so I have to search and search for references. The same animal in different positions, and then sketch it again and again till I can actually do it without looking at the photo reference. And then I start adding expressions.

The first book I did about an animal was When Bholu came Back. I had just finished my first book with Tulika Books and when they offered me another book immediately after over the phone, I never thought to ask about the subject matter, just accepted excitedly.

When it appeared in my mailbox, I discovered that the hero was a camel! I was terrified. I spent almost a month trying to think of excuses I could make to get out of it without seeming unprofessional. Then I told myself I was really being silly, began my research, and I’m so glad I did that book because I think it’s one of my best so far.

Spread from the book Adil Ali’s Shoes, Published by Tulika

Do you have a secret hotline you can call where kids help you with expert feedback on your characters and art design? How do you decide if your creation will speak to the young reader?

Hahahaha, I wish I did.

Well my daughter is 12 years old so, though she would never give me clear feedback on my drawings – (you know, your own mom being an artist is really no big deal!), I know the books she loved. And more importantly, I myself was always force-buying her books with wonderful, quirky and unusual illustrations even at the stage when all she wanted was more Disney princesses. You can guess who they were really for!

So you could say I have a lot of good influence, but feedback on my own illustrations – I guess I leave it to my editors who are very experienced and very encouraging.

What was your childhood like? Was illustration always your passion?

My childhood was in Pune, simple and uneventful, and filled with lots of lucky opportunities, and for that I consider myself truly blessed. My parents were very dedicated doctors – my dad still works at 83; but they never pushed either my brother or me into medicine. I always drew, everywhere, in school books and newspaper edges and on backs of discarded envelopes but mostly it was pretty women. In fact I was always told, “very nice, but why don’t you try drawing something else.”

Art was almost an automatic career choice for me, but I did advertising – not Fine Arts, (I think I didn’t even know till I reached the second year that I was doing advertising!) where very soon – after college, illustrating anything became a lost art, – everything was slick photography or classy graphics.

I painted on canvas occasionally, always beautiful women, but it was only much, much later that thanks to the internet and seeing so much wonderful work that I actually began to see commercial illustration as something that excited me. You’ll recall I only considered myself good at drawing women, so I didn’t really think I could manage anything else!

Even children’s book illustration happened completely by another happy chance when I took part in a competition run by Pratham Books, as recently as 2015.

What advice do you have for parents and children who feel strongly about a future in art but are worried about whether they would be good enough? What steps can they take to keep progressing?

First, I believe anyone can draw. Kids do it automatically and some only stop liking it because we adults start enforcing the rules, stay in the lines, colour only like so, draw only as we say they should. And of course, unfortunately, I was shocked to find out recently that schools remove it from the curriculum by the 8th standard if not earlier.

Second, art is really a very wide field. At one end are the Fine Arts – Artists who paint on canvas or paper, or now, digitally, or sculpt, or create installation art. Yes, you need to be really good, very lucky or have great marketing skills to make it really big. But it’s no longer a case of hungry artists living in garrets. The internet has opened up a huge playing field, and it’s possible to sell your art to people across the globe without having an agent or entering a gallery. There are also several sites that allow you to apply your art onto products so people with small budgets can also enjoy your art or use it in their communication.

Then there’s also Applied Art, which is art used commercially. Graphic Designers, Interior Designers, Textile Designers, Surface Design, Fashion Designers, Product designers, Photographers, Movie makers, Animators, Web and UI Designers, Illustrators for children or editorial material… and several more fall into this category. Architects are also at least partly ‘artistic’. They are all professions for people who have retained their love for art.

And finally, things have changed so much; people are leaving perfect careers midway and very successfully starting new ones which reflect their passions.  I think our generation has got to open its eyes to the fact that it’s very unlikely our kids will be in one profession their whole lives.

So, I think it’s better they are well trained at something they have a passion for. They’re more likely to persevere. I’m really just talking off the top of my head without any research done. There is now so much available to kids, and so many super-specialisations, this is just the tip of the iceberg, – the traditional ones.

When you’re having a dull day is there something you like to draw that instantly cheers you up?

I’m always doodling mindlessly, even when I’m taking my daughter’s homework (she hates it) or even sitting in front of the TV, I find it soothes me.

In the last few years I’ve been sporadically keeping art journals, which are basically like keeping a diary but with drawing and sketches. And I am part of a group called Urban Sketchers (click here to see her sketches) – people from all professions who meet every Sunday for a relaxed, non-judgemental couple of hours to sketch on location in different parts of the city.

These two have combined to teach me to observe, and sketch just about anything no matter where I am. I no longer say, “there’s nothing to draw!” Getting lost in the details is very meditative. So even if I’m at my desk, really stressed, or distracted, I just put a paper over what I’m doing and start sketching whatever is in front of me, which can be a huge lot of stationery, my easels, my window sill with several plants that catch the sunlight beautifully, and then the trees beyond. Or just anything from imagination. Most of it goes into the dustbin, but it sort of centres me and I can continue what I was doing after about 10-15 minutes in a better mood.

This sketching while observing is very good practise, by the way. You’ll be amazed at details you discover that you hadn’t noticed before.

What was the first thing you remember doodling as a child?

To be perfectly honest I’ve no idea, but I can be pretty sure it was women with large eyes.

What was your experience like drawing for When Bholu Came Back? Did you run into roadblocks along the way?

Ahhh, well I’ve mentioned that earlier. So, I’ll add to it. So, first I spent hours thinking up all the silly excuses I could make to not do the book. I don’t recall making up so many excuses since I was in school, and that was a long time ago!

Then I finally psyched myself into beginning work. First looking up various camels photographs. I hadn’t realised how many different types of camels there were in the world; the ones from Rajasthan is quite different from the others.

Then I looked for cartoons of camels but believe it or not I could find nothing I found remotely likable. All this while, even though I still hadn’t taught myself to draw a camel, I could already imagine all the funny expressions he was going to make, the big drooping lower lip chomping sideways, the huge teeth and the great, droopy eyelids that absolutely needed to have raised eyebrows.

And then finally I found myself creating camel faces I loved. But the body was quite a challenge. If you look at photos you’ll see how skinny and long the legs are compared to the body and neck and I often found it hard to figure realistic positions for those legs in a fun childish drawing. Certainly the whole book took a lot of work, but I’m so glad I persevered.

Drawing Beni Ram on the other hand was no problem at all, I had already pictured him a bit goofy, with a tiny head and a huge turban.

We asked our little readers: Have you ever ridden a camel? What do you think a camel ride would be like? What is your answer to this question?

O my Goodness, I have ridden a camel. It was totally frightening at first because until you’re up there you don’t realise how tall they are, and unlike on an elephant who sways slowly side to side, camels jerk forwards and backwards rather fast and you’re sitting on a much smaller, rather hard saddle. I thought I was going to fly over his head!

It takes a while but then slowly you get into the rhythm of the movement and you can relax and begin to enjoy your surroundings!

Announcing the winners of the book giveaway… DRUM ROLL….

Congratulations Kaavya, (Age 6), Methra (Age 3) and Likkitha (Age 5)!

Click on the following links to follow Niloufer Wadia’s work:

Instagram | Facebook

Profile images the property of Artist Niloufer Wadia

Book illustrations/covers have been taken from the respective Tulika Publishers and StoryWeaver websites

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