Art doesn’t need to be learnt, it just needs to be felt, and everything falls into place. History is filled with similar examples too—self-taught artists like MF Husain or (this example might be a little extreme) Louis Armstrong for that matter. While gaining technical knowledge is important, it’s not the higher truth, it can also be broken.
On that note, is it really important to understand the meat and potatoes of a craft? Or should we just let the heart do the talking? Well, let’s find out. In this article, we look at illustrators who are actually self-taught.
Singh was born and brought up in Raebareli and she lived there until she went to Mumbai to peruse fashion from National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). As a kid, she was always encouraged to practise art and craft by her parents. She recalls her mother giving her tasks like decorating her room, planting, designing clothes and much more. This way, she was always creating something or the other. While her brothers were more inclined towards sports, she was fascinated by the arts. “I still remember the day when I was watching an old (the film was called Safar) film starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore with mom and dad. In the scene, Rajesh Khanna paints a portrait of Sharmila Tagore’s eyes (if I remember it correctly) and it influenced me so much that I practised making the eyes the whole night,” she reminisces with a laugh. Since there was no Google to assist her in her endeavour back then, she tore pages from magazines for reference. She never took any formal education in the arts, but as a child, she got all the support she could ask for from her parents.
When she grew up, that passion took a back seat, while she got busy with jobs and responsibilities. She even started her own store of designer products and it was only when she lost that business she found her calling in the arts.
The year was 2011 and an owner of a New Delhi-based café (Cafe Delhi Heights) saw her painting while shopping at her store, and months later when she closed the store, he approached her to paint a 45 feet wall at his cafe. She wasn’t confident enough to do that job, but a little convincing and need for money made her say yes. Soon after that, she started getting projects, mostly through word of mouth, and rest, as they say, is history!
But good things are often challenging, and Singh has similar experiences. The biggest challenge for her as a self-taught artist was that the progress was often slow. “Being a portrait and figurative artist you need to know the basics—proportions, shading and all that jazz,” she clarifies. Also since she was a self-taught artist, she had no other artist in her circle who could show Singh the ropes. So to keep herself in pace with others, she started interacting with international artists on social media. It helped her learn a different approach and various painting methods they follow. She still starts her day interacting with fellow artists worldwide.
“I recently took a few sculpting classes and I realised that most students end up copying existing designs and they follow techniques blindly, while I try and use my own techniques. I often find myself asking questions on different routines and I think that is the best quality of a self-taught artist. We are forever learning and experimenting. When I paint portraits, even if I am painting realism I try to loosen my grip on accuracy because I have no rules to follow and that’s the fun,” highlights the New Delhi-based artist. Adding, “Creativity can only come from within. I think being a self-taught artist allows for a freedom to move between mediums without knowing traditional techniques which can lead to creating something truly special. To be formally trained is to have the danger of someone else’s influences stagnate your creativity. I don’t think a formal education makes for a better artist. It’s up to the artist to bring their own passion and creativity to the table. Taking classes is fun though and it can connect you with people with similar interests, can spark creativity, and can teach you the history behind the medium. It provides you with an environment that favours creativity and of course, your learning process is comparatively faster. But, being self-taught means finding your own path, and that, I would choose over anything else.”
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Das, on the other hand, had something different growing up. Further, his story as a self-taught artist started with the obvious—comics and cartoons. As he tells us, Das has been drawing as long as he can remember and he was passionate about it from the get-go. “Comic books and cartoons… these two things were the strongest influences. The first comic book I ever got was probably Tintin and it just blew my mind. After that Cartoon Network happened and it changed my life forever. I sucked at studies, to be honest, and my parents knew that very well,” he states with a smile. Most of his time was spent with a box of chalk and a slate that was gifted to him by his father, and like every other child, Das too loved to sketch his favourite cartoons. He usually drew animated characters on the back pages of all his notebooks and (sometimes) that escalated to his classmates’ notebooks as well. In fact, he was a well-known figure amongst his seniors for his sketches.
“I always knew what I wanted to do in life but I didn’t quite know how to channel that and reach there. After completing my (12th) board exam, my uncle told me about an animation institute in Kolkata (Webel Animation Academy). I enrolled myself there, did a diploma course for one year on 2D animation and started working professionally in Mumbai,” he clarifies.
As they as ‘Practice makes perfect’… well, this is a phrase Das takes really seriously. “For illustrators practice is not only a way to learn different illustration techniques, but also an opportunity to polish existing skills, to become more popular and to attract more clients. I tend to concentrate, in my own work and with others, on positive reinforcement and growth through envisioning possibility,” he illustrates.
As a self-taught artist, do you look at art different, than many who have degrees in this field? “No, not at all. Look, art is art, whether you have a degree or not. I think it’s challenging and rewarding being a self-taught artist. I (and many like me) didn’t earn a degree doesn’t mean I haven’t studied how the artists who came before us did it. Creating without earning a degree hasn’t negatively affected my career or the careers of other artists who believe as I do. Art is visually stimulating and a great social tool.”
Further, Das concludes that being self-taught is another road altogether, different than those who have had the nurturing and encouragement of art school. Not to mention the skill base. Neither road is the right one. Both have its advantages and disadvantages. He feels that he has had to make up for not having a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) with 20x the hard work in production, focus, exhibitions, reading, networking, marketing, skill, perfection, dedication, art history, theory, awards, collections, and tenacity just to be taken as seriously as his competitors. Also, he doesn’t believe anyone is ever 100 per cent self-taught ‘unless you live on an island in the middle of nowhere with no exposure to anyone but yourself’. “Even if you go out and do the legwork yourself, you will still be learning from others around you. You still have to work just as hard with a teacher— Sometimes, even harder,” ends Das.
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Kapoor started making art since she was just three years old. She started off by copying images from books, which soon turned into drawing classes during the summer holidays. But, she took a temporary break from drawing after her 10th board exams, to focus on various engineering entrance exams. Funny enough, her relationship with art changed after she was admitted into one of the top engineering colleges. “During the second year of B Tech from NIT, Bhopal, I was recruited as an illustrator for the editorial board. For the next three years, I worked with a team of talented editors, illustrators and designers to publish the annual magazine,” accounts Kapoor.
After her marriage in 2012, she moved to England. Here, she started to polish her skills drawing and painting alongside a full-time engineering job. Finally, in 2015, she decided to become a freelance illustrator. “Though I was comfortable with traditional media, becoming a professional illustrator meant I had to learn technical skills via softwares like Photoshop and Illustrator. I also had to figure out details like how much should I charge for my work, how to draft contracts and marketing. All of this involved learning through YouTube videos, informal online courses and a lot of trial and error. The progress was slow but steady,” enthuses Kapoor.
The challenges? “In self-guided learning, the first drawback is the lack of networking in your field. I tried to overcome this by connecting with fellow artists on social media and attending art fairs. The second issue self-taught artists come across is the lack of feedback. To this end, I joined some artist groups on Facebook.”
As a self-taught artist, do you look at art different, than many who have degrees in this field? “Not really, because at the end of the day whether you are self-taught or have a degree, your success relies on your dedication, honesty, and discipline towards your craft and these are the skills which cannot be taught in any Institute nor can these be learned by watching YouTube tutorials. Further, when you are creating art for yourself, the technique may not matter that much. But when you start creating work for others, then technique becomes important for two reasons—to meet client’s expectations and to stand out from the rest.
She also senses that over time self-taught artists become more and more aware of their surroundings as they are constantly learning by observing. For example, last year she wanted to improve her skills in drawing plants so she found herself just looking and taking notice of the different shapes, colours and style of plants and trees around her.
“When learning something new, you are bound to feel stuck at times. In such situations, the self-guided process can get extremely frustrating as the necessary help isn’t that quickly available. But at the same time, once I have resolved the problem I don’t forget to do a little happy dance and pat myself on the shoulder,” exeunts Kapoor.
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“I remember being introduced to art at a young age when I used to see my father sketching. I got acquainted with pens, markers and basic tools when I was barely in first grade. So I always tried to ape him, and make doodles of cars. My first formal training began in seventh grade when I attended the intermediate art examinations. The lectures were mostly dry and I managed to sleep in all of them. I didn’t enjoy the subjects and I never cleared the examination and I never took a formal training in art post my failure,” states Yadav, who now has her own art platform called Mechologue. “But I never thought of turning into an artist until the day I posted a random doodle on my social media page and got an order to customise it. From that point, it only grew. People started asking for my art/consultancy and I have never looked back,” she adds. She holds an MBA, FYI!
Further, her challenges are more to improve herself (as an artist) than watching what others are doing. Although, she does look up at other artists for inspiration and feels that every artwork is correct. “There are no rights or wrongs. It’s just someone’s imagination flowing and that is highly subjective. I personally don’t feel degrees are needed in this field. But, I would like to add that dedication, patience and vision make you a great artist.”
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For Pandya, life was pretty good growing up, although, no one told him the complications attached to it back then, he says with a roar! Like most artists, Pandya too was introduced to art at a young age, probably when he was four or five. Although, he does remember actively drawing since he was six. “My dad is an artist (graduated in Commercial Art, from JJ School of Arts) and it’s from him that I have received the artistic genes that I now follow as a profession. Around the age of 9 or 10, I started drawing various cartoon characters on the walls of my house. And I used to do it when my parents were out for the day. I was ready to face the music for the same, but they were happy to see what I had drawn and that encouraged me to draw more. I ended up drawing on all the walls of my house. I also remember visiting these elementary/intermediate class events with my brother. Though I was under age, I took part in them for the sheer joy of drawing. I have represented my school for art competitions and have finished countless drawing assignments of my classmates during school days. I guess, that just gave me more practice with the subject,” illustrates Pandya with a bright face.
Pandya started drawing and doodling for his college in the later years, and the highlight was the Amul poster series that he developed during 2012. The anthology focused on the issues and events happening in and around his campus. “This series was loved by many, including the Dean and other professors, and that encouraged me a lot. This particular series was campus-specific, but it fetched me similar illustrative works from friends and it just took off from there,” he attributes. Since Pandya was a student of architecture, he tries and involves his architectural learning’s into his drawings.
“Being self-taught, I take references when it comes to drawing things, especially with something which I am not familiar with. Nowadays, it’s easy to look for references from so many artists across the globe, who post awesome stuff on Instagram and Facebook. Even though there is competition, as it is in all fields, the challenge really is to create your own niche of designs and artworks, and not get carried away with what other artists are successful with,” he points out. Adding, “It’s important to believe and have confidence in your skill and style and explore it to such an extent that it becomes a trend in itself. And when I mentioned referencing, it’s to actually ‘refer’ and not copy. There is a fine line between those two.”
As a self-taught artist, do you look at art different, than many who have degrees in this field? “This is a tricky question. Since everyone has a different perspective when it comes to art. A layman might dislike something which others might highly admire. Critiquing is also an art and when I look at any art, it’s the energy that emits from it that attracts me. In other cases, it’s the simplicity and boldness of colours/strokes or the portrayal/clarity of an idea.”
The Mumbai-based illustrator also believes that being technical is important. “If you do not know the process of how an art is created, you would not value it as much or might just overlook it. Art is primarily and aesthetically dominated. If it’s not visually appealing, then it doesn’t really attract a crowd. (Here is where an art critique that has a technical knowledge of the subject would be able to judge better). We have seen many artists who are natural at illustrating wonderful pieces and they have a technique of their own to bring out the visuals of their mind. So, technique ‘is’ important, be it self-discovered or institutionalised. In the end, it’s how one uses this technique to represent their ideas visually. The technique also determines the process of making an art.”
“Art is a wide field and a delicate, yet powerful one. A piece of art can start/support a revolution, even bring alive a dull space. Art in India is still pretty undervalued, especially when it comes to younger/individual artists who are starting up the ladder. Art is more like an after-thought rather than it being consciously involved in a project. And since ‘art’ as such does not have a ‘price tag’, it’s easy for someone to bargain over it shamelessly, which for many is disrespectful. As simple as it might look, there is a lot that goes behind making a good (even great) piece of art, and that is what one needs to understand,” Pandya exists on a powerful food for thought.
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Tell us a little about your journey as a self-taught artist—how was life growing up, how were you introduced to art, how and when did you take up art as a profession, and what are your qualifications? “As I remember I always loved drawing and watching cartoons as a child. When I grew up and wanted to choose my career path, I choose architecture over Medical Sciences. Long story short, the moment when I was choosing a career, I was only exposed to two career options—medical or engineering! This is when someone suggested that ‘you draw well so why don’t you opt for architecture?’ So architecture it was. After completing my course in architecture, I got into the Industrial Design Centre (IDC, IIT) for my further studies in animation. While working on concept art I realised my passion for illustration and this is why I made my illustrative work my medium of communication. With great admiration from my faculties I went ahead and illustrated my first Children’s book for Scholastic called Rapunzel, Rapunzel Let Down Your Hair!
Since you are self-taught, what are the things you did (and still do) to keep yourself in pace with other artists out there? Your challenges? “It was child’s play in the beginning; I started writing the stories from my childhood and spent hours trying to understand the concept of storytelling. Going ahead with the passion I choose to create my own illustrated world by storytelling and drawing. I admire great work done by various artists. My inspiration comes from small day-to-day things or incidences around us. Animation taught me a great deal of understanding for the process, which helped me improve my skills in illustration.”
“Being a self-taught illustrator it was a big challenge for me to keep myself in pace with the current trends. And there are three things which have helped me to improve my skills, there are—explore, experiment and practice. Since my first break as an illustrator, I have been practising drawing almost every day.”
What are your views on art from a technical and a degree aspect? How do these things hold up in your roster? Are they important? “When I was learning animation, I was (one of the students) from a non-art background who struggled a lot while drawing characters with so called ‘realistic and perfect anatomy’. I always preferred drawing cartoons, abstract or stylised doodles. Later, I realised that there is nothing inferior in not being able to draw something realistic! Thanks to my guide who encouraged me to practice and develop a simple drawing style which can be easily repeated in order to complete an animated film!”
“Personally, I think those who learn art with a technical aspect, for them it is a little difficult to go out of the way and try something new. For me, every new illustration project is an opportunity to learn new techniques and experiment with drawing style pushing my limits.”
Things and perspectives a self-taught artist sees that a taught artist does not. “After completing my masters in animation, I really wished to pursue masters in illustration, but I could not. Now when I look back, I find nothing that I have missed in my journey of being an illustrator. Illustration has to come from within; it’s an art form, which requires great imagination power, patience, practice and consistency. If one could accumulate all these qualities he/she can become an illustrator. In fact, no one even knows or doubts that I am from a non-art background self-taught illustrator,” Gunjal ends giggling.
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What are your thoughts on this subject? Are you a self-taught artist, or do you know someone who would fit the bill? Let us know in the comments below.
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