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April 19, 2019 Comments (0) Views: 570 Art, Craft, Design, Illustration, Typography

Typographer Sabeena Karnik about handcrafted lettering and paper craft


Letter K for Le Klay Sports Club in Paris (2015)

Sabeena Karnik uses paper sculpturing to add character and depth to her typography projects

When, in your opinion, does typography become art?

When typography is expressed using a creatively artistic style it becomes art. Incorporating illustrations within the type design makes it art. When an illustrative word makes the viewer feel surprised, amazed and brings out certain emotions, you know it’s art. The letter could be made up of lines, dots, flowers, natural elements or just simple textures. The scope of creation is endless and never boring.

When did you first decide to put paper and typography together?

I was always into creating type and creating art with paper.I studied Applied Art at Sophia Polytechnic, Institute of Art and Design in Mumbai, where I majored in Typography. My first all-out creation with paper came for my final year advertising campaign in 2005. I created an entire series of paper sculptures of animals and birds to advertise for a paper store. That gave me the confidence to pursue a career with paper as a medium.


Karnataka Tourism advertisement (2014)

After graduating, I used creative lettering to design logos for clients, but somehow I wasn’t enjoying the process of using computers and software for everything.I always loved creating with my hands and one fine day I thought of making letters with paper. I loved how it evolved and the suspense of the outcome.


Google Doodle commissioned by Google for India Independence Day 2017

A personal project in 2010 turned into a profession since it garnered interest from advertising agencies even before I had finished my letter series. They had the confidence in me to create commissioned projects even before I thought I was ready to do it. I had to take the plunge and before I knew it I started getting regular work from overseas clients.

Describe your style.

My style is quite basic. I start to create a particular letter or word or a line by thinking of what it signifies. It could be a form or
an object, or something abstract with texture and vibrant colors. For example, my single letters are always inspired by a word starting with that letter like Spring, Summer, Singapore, Swan, etc. I focus on
a characteristic from these words to create my letter. I sketch everything out with pencil and then start cutting papers into strips and different shapes for layering and bringing out the three-dimensional aspect of the medium. Once the design is complete, I have to shoot it in natural light or studio light with the right brightness and shadows to bring out the best effect. The papers reflect beautifully on white when the light is used well. It’s very tricky to get the perfect shot and ensure the image doesn’t look flat. My goal is to always communicate beyond what is visual.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by all things around me – colors, weather, architecture, people, but most of all by nature and space. How certain colors mix and look together in combination with forms is always fascinating. I always want to add an element of surprise in my works. There should be a unique aspect in every creation that sets it apart from all others. At design school I learnt that every creation should have an idea, be it very small or big. While creating a letter I treat it like one design and try to communicate through it.

Which have been your most memorable projects?

My first client project was for Tanishq. I worked with the Lowe Lintas agency to create a series of paper letters inspired by their jewelry pieces. Soon after the project was done I was on a road trip in the north
of India, and I saw the Tanishq billboards with my letters in almost every city I traveled through. It was the most special moment to know my work was visible outdoors, in magazines, in newspapers and other media all over the country.


In Touch magazine cover ‘CONNECTED’ (2017)

Two years ago Instagram commissioned me to create two pieces to celebrate a milestone they had reached with their users. Those original artworks now hang in their headquarters in San Francisco. Last year I was one amongst five artists Instagram chose from all over the world to create an artwork which depicted what ‘love’ means to us. These five pieces were published and made into greeting cards which they circulated to industry professionals in every walk of life. The artwork for Karnataka Tourism was also extremely special. I had to create the Mysore palace in all its glory to promote Karnataka Tourism during the Dassera festival. It was published in all airports in India as well as in international in-flight magazines.

The Google Doodle I created for Independence Day was the highlight of
last year. It was a moment of immense pride and emotion to use just paper to represent India and what it stands for. I have just recently finished an artwork for the 25th anniversary of Adobe Acrobat. I am really looking forward to it being released.

As a freelancer, how do you normally function?


VPRO GIDS Dutch media magazine cover (2015)

Since all my clients are overseas, most of the communication happens
over email and sometimes via telephone. I have to keep in mind our time difference and also work in their time zones at times. Once the idea for the brief and expectations of the job are known I start creating rough sketches and share them with the client. This process can take a few days or a few weeks. Once the design is approved I start the final execution with paper. Generally a piece takes about ten days to complete, working for 10- 12 hours every day. There have been times when the deadline was very tight and I had to complete a job within four days. In recent months clients have wanted a time lapse process video to show the creation from start to finish. I’m still finding my comfort zone with this new feature. It’s quite daunting to reveal the process of my work and at the same time manage lights, camera and gadgets. Each client and project is a learning process. The journey is always exciting.

What challenges have you faced so far?

Working independently is very hard in the beginning. There can be moments of self doubt and wondering if you are doing the right thing. Patience and faith in your own abilities is extremely important. When you are starting something new it requires a risk-taking nature, hence the outcome also needs to be faced with the same approach. Self belief is paramount. For me encouragement has always come in the form of new work. Appreciation/criticism is so important when it comes to any kind of art. When a creation is appreciated, it is the best validation of your work.

The hard part about working alone is juggling more than one project at one time. There are times when I have turned a client down as I was working on two other projects at that time. There have been few issues with potential Indian clients. They don’t understand the fact that all my work is hand crafted and takes time to make. They expect a big finished piece in a couple of hours and are surprised to know it takes a few days to execute. There are also instances when people think that since my work is done only with paper they can have extremely negligible budgets.

The long working hours (sometimes all day and all night without a break) do take a toll on the spine. I need to take extra care of myself at times.

What has been your experience of working with brands?


G for Vancouver Magazine, made with Canadian currency (2018)

Working with brands is a much longer and a far more organized process than say a magazine or publisher. There is a lot of planning that goes into it and the ideation starts almost six months in advance of the launch. I worked with an American cosmetics store chain called ‘Ulta Beauty’ in the US last year to create their Holiday designs.


Little Do We know’ book cover for Disney Publishing Worldwide (2018)

They have more than 200 stores across the country. I created imagery featuring snowflake patterns with swirls of ribbons. Their logo and tagline had to be recreated in my paper style. There were so many rounds of approvals and it was my longest working assignment till date.

What’s next?

I wish to continue what I’m doing and make it a little bigger in size. At present my works are quite small. I would love to use different mediums and replicate what paper does but on a much larger scale. My head is always full of ideas and I’m always looking to recreate the vision in my mind into a piece of paper art. I need time to pursue more personal projects. Hopefully I can soon exhibit all of my paper creations under one roof.

This story was originally published in POOL 96.

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