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How I Became an Illustrator

Sonal Panse,

I've been fascinated with pictures since I can remember. Chalk was the best discovery of my life and when I was two I was using it to decorate entire floors and walls. Long before I could read I would gaze with deep admiration at the illustrations in books, magazines, cassette covers, posters, and so on. After I learned to read, the illustrations remained a big draw. I would attempt to copy the ones I liked, or to draw originals of my own to illustrate texts I particularly enjoyed. I would also draw out of sheer compulsion. My school textbook margins were covered with drawings, and I filled up several sketch books every month.

It became evident that I was more suited for an artistic career than anything else, and eventually I did go to art college. The curious thing though is that it never occurred to me to consider illustration as a work option. I studied fine art, portrait specialization, and I entertained vague and not very enthusiastic ideas about working in an advertisement agency or in an animation studio. Those were the only two options people in my college discussed. The third one – of being a full time artist – no one seriously considered. One had to make money, you know, and at that stage, most of us didn't have enough faith or – to be very frank – the artistic vision to go forth and build a successful art career. 

Anyway, the idea of becoming an illustrator – inspite of growing up with books - was not even on the horizon and seeped in indirectly. I lived as a paying guest in Bombay and the living arrangements were almost always problematic. So, to stay out of the way of the people I lived with, I would set out at 6.30 am, reach college by 7.30 am, and then sit in the library, looking through the books, until classes started at 1 pm. I studied the illustration annuals, and, very impressed, it occurred to me for the very first time – yes, I was a strange one – that actual artists had done this work, and that here was a career I might actually enjoy diving into.

Then, one night, I saw an interview on BBC Hard Talk. I don't remember the name of the interviewee; I've tried researching online, but I haven't had much success. Anyway, it was a burly, bearded man with a cheerful attitude and a delightful laugh. He talked about his long and varied career as an illustrator. He had had a very interesting life. He had traveled practically all over the world and seen a lot. He had been to India during the Freedom Struggle, and to Spain during the Civil War. A publisher had once sent him to the Bahamas for three weeks, all expenses paid, for the sole purpose of doing a book cover. He had explored deep jungles and wandered to places far off the beaten path. He had met many fascinating and creative people. He was 86 at the time of the interview and he had a totally refreshing outlook. I want to be like that, I thought. This man was really the main catalyst. I had to be an illustrator after that.