Chaaya Prabhat finds that working independently allows her to make best use of her distinct illustrative style
Drawn to design
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, and have always been passionate about it. As I became more and more interested in digital art and typography, I knew I wanted to pursue illustration and design in a professional capacity. I went on to pursue an MA in Graphic Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in Hong Kong. SCAD really helped shape my overall design and illustrative style and my approach to project work.
Before I joined SCAD I knew how to draw but didn’t have a definite style. I also didn’t have a lot of experience or knowledge in applying it to professional work. I was lucky to have professors who pushed me out of my comfort zone. During my time at SCAD, I worked on a typography project for which my professor encouraged me to experiment with hand-lettering and it was then that I discovered that hand-lettering was something I really enjoyed. I published that project in 2015 and it still attracts a lot of queries for professional hand-lettering related work.
Hong Kong hues
Hong Kong is an incredibly inspirational city for a creative person. From the outside, it appears to be a largely financial city with skyscrapers and bankers, but there’s also a thriving creative community within Hong Kong that’s very encouraging of art and design.
I worked for a year as a graphic designer and graphic recorder in PwC Hong Kong. My graphic recording job involved me sitting through lectures and conferences, and live-scribing or taking notes of the talks that were happening in the form of drawings/engaging typography. I would either do this in real-time on a whiteboard/large foamboard so the audience could watch while listening to the talk, or I would scribe digitally on an iPad, which would be projected on a large screen for the audience to see. I got to travel quite a bit to China in order to be at various events to live-scribe. This was incredibly challenging as I would have to quickly translate whatever was being said into engaging visual metaphors in real-time, and also be quick in terms of picking up the subject matter of the talks.
Around last year, I joined a local sketching group in Hong Kong and we would meet every Sunday at a different location and sketch whatever was in front of us. Around October last year I was commissioned by a local cafe/bar to paint a mural on the walls of the streets of one of Hong Kong’s busiest districts. In a strange coincidence, I recently discovered a picture of the late Anthony Bourdain leaning against this mural during his time in Hong Kong.
When I realized that I wanted to start working independently it made more sense to quit my job in Hong Kong and move back to Chennai so I could focus on it full-time. My experience with design in Hong Kong was very corporate and due to the nature of my work I would often have to downplay my illustrative/ design style to fit different corporate briefs, whereas since I’ve started freelancing in India I find that people are more willing to accept my style for what it is and specifically come to me for my illustrative style.
One big challenge as a freelancer is having to handle everything myself. When I worked as a part of a company it was comforting to be able to bounce ideas off other people and other designers. I’ve been lucky to have coworkers in the past who have been very honest with their critique and have taught me how to do things from scratch when they saw that I was doing something wrong. While working by myself, I do have to rely
a lot on my own gut on whether something works or not. But this is also one of the perks of freelancing since I get to take the final call on everything. Other than this, of course a challenge that so many independent freelancers face is invoicing and contract- writing, which I’m slowly picking up!
My process is quite straight-forward and systematic for a professional project. I find that asking the client as many questions as possible really helps. Once I’m on the same page as the client in terms of what they want, then I know what to do. I make mood boards, create roughs, brainstorm on a color scheme and then create the finals. For personal projects or self-directed work, the process is quite haywire – there isn’t too much planning and mood boarding, and I usually get right down to making. Often personal projects completely change halfway through into something else, colors change, and my overall approach changes. I think that’s why they’re a lot more fun and challenging because I don’t know what I’ll end up with in most cases.
A project that’s fresh in my mind is my most recent self-directed project ‘A-Z of Mythical Creatures’. I did this as a part of the annual ‘36 Days of Type’ Instagram design challenge. For this project, I explored and illustrated mythical creatures from various cultures and parts of the world, from A to Z. A few months before the 2018 challenge dates were announced, I happened to be reading about mythical creatures and legendary monsters from various parts of the world, and as I read more, I realized that there were just so many interesting ones. I loved each culture’s approach to myth and their treatment of legends, and immediately wanted to draw all of them. So I thought this would be a perfect theme for 36 Days of Type.
I’m inspired by the books I read, which is evident in the literary theme that comes across in a lot of my projects (such as ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe and the poem ‘Ozymandias’ by Shelley). I love creating fan art for books, movies and TV shows that inspire me. I’m inspired by animals, and I am a self-confessed crazy cat lady. I love a good color scheme, and I’m always on the watch for new ways to use color in my work. Above everything else, I’m inspired by other artists and designers who are constantly creating and getting their work out on social media.
I am currently working on some Indian folktale illustrations for a textbook to be published by a well-known international network. I am also working on a couple of picture books for children, and an illustrated biography of the famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau for a Spanish book publishing company.
As of now I’m taking it one day at a time, I’m still getting used to working independently. I hope eventually to be able to work on more projects with bigger brands, and do more mural work and projects that force me out of my comfort zone.
This article was originally published in POOL 97.
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