An Illustrator's Journey



An Illustrator's Journey

By : Ashok Rajagopalan  /  Nov 2010

To become a successful illustrator, one has to know the right people. The right people in my life were my parents and later, teachers. My father taught me to draw and kept up a constant feed of pencils and paper, and my mother absolutely liked everything I scribbled. Smiling at my stick figures, a kindergarten teacher told me, ‘Ashok, you are an artist!’ I still don’t know if she really thought my art was great or was just being her natural encouraging self. I have been drawing since then, the child in me also trying to draw smiles of appreciation from kind grown-ups. And I picked up skills all these years to make their smiles bigger and bigger. That is why I draw.

In hindsight, I realize that my illustrations are professional because I started my working life as a salesman, not an artist. Illustrations for stories, text-books, posters or whatever, have to perform at least one of three duties: they decorate the page, they dispense information, or they give pleasure to the reader. They are pieces of communication, not fine art. That is the key. One illustrates to communicate information and feeling to the reader. My communication skills developed in my early jobs—marketing medical and later, metallurgical equipment. Those helped in two aspects when I went around trying to get work as an illustrator. One, my drawings did the job they had to, and two, I knew how to get appointments, work and payments.

To be good at illustrating children’s books, one needs to be in touch with one’s own childhood, and with present-day children. I am happily eligible for my profession, since my maturity level, ask anyone around me, is that of a twelve-year-old. Sometimes, they say, only that of an eight-year-old. Seeing the world as a child sees it helps. You look down at them patronizingly and they run away; you look up to them worshipfully, they sneer at you; you play with them and they play with you. Good illustrations are playgrounds where you and your readers share space and spend time.

My work, by the way, is also play, since this is what I had done before without pay. The challenge is not in executing work but mostly in finding work, and only in the initial years of setting up shop, as work will find you after a few years. Other challenges are technical. Will this print right? Is this margin enough? It helps if you are in touch with technology. Good artists have always known how to get the best of their tools, and today’s tools are hi-tech. When I started out, I used paper, inks, pastels, watercolours, pens, pencils and brushes; I am almost paperless now, working with a digital tablet and stylus.

Work, for me, those days, used to be tasks given to me by publishers or other clients. I have illustrated text-books, picture books, comics, magazines, posters and films. After more than 20 years and 500 books, I have decided to become a creator and source of my work. A manufacturer, not a vendor. I became a published writer in 2007 with Witchsnare, published by Penguin India, and recently Tulika published Gajapati Kulapati, a picture book both written and illustrated by yours truly. I aim to do more of that. After creating the content for a book, I plan to approach publishers instead of waiting for them to give me work. That way lies happiness!

Ashok Rajagopalan is an illustrator with more than 500 books to his credit. He also dons the hats of an animator, graphic designer and writer!