Please tell us about yourself
As a kid I was encouraged to focus on studies only, so I didn’t draw much unlike other illustrators. I first started drawing when I was told that I was “too young” to carry around a camera. So because I could not take pictures, I started drawing the places and things that I wanted to remember. This is how I first got introduced to art. Eventually I got very interested in drawing but never thought it could be considered a career choice. In India, art as a profession is not encouraged. So fast forward few years, I finished my undergraduate degree in Computer Science Engineering and got an IT job at a major company in India. However, after working there for around three years I got very frustrated and realized that I needed to make a change. As I was still interested in art, I looked up online different creative fields and found Illustration. I spent a year in making a portfolio and applied to three art schools and got selected in the MFA Illustration as a Visual Essay program of School of Visual Arts (SVA), New York.
What did you do next?
Illustrator Shreya Gupta moved to New York City from India to pursue her passion for drawing. This lead her to a number of diverse illustration projects for high-profile publications and articles, including her Google Doodle celebrating India’s first practising female doctor.
After four years of working as an IT engineer, Shreya Gupta quit her job in India and moved to New York to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. A graduate of School of Visual Arts, she is now working with Google, The New York Times, Fast Company, and many other relevant companies. This is the fascinating story of an incredibly talented and hard-working artist.
Her illustrations visualise concepts varying from novel reviews and book jackets to articles about confronting sexual harassment, as covered in Scientific American(women in science come forward following Weinstein allegations).
She also illustrated a woman’s experience of coming out as bisexual at work, as covered in Fast Company.
Whatever the narrative may be, Shreya’s style remains beautifully rendered with textures, patterns and line work which always tell a story with thoughtful care and delicacy.
How did you get your start as an illustrator?
SVA invites many art directors as guest speakers to its programs. So back when I was a student, one of the art directors that came in was Florian Bachleda, Creative Director of Fast Company magazine during that time.
At the end of his presentation, my classmates and I gave him our postcards and promotional work. A few months later he contacted me to do illustrations for an online article for Fast Company, my first assignment that introduced me to illustration as a profession. He was the best first art director I could have ever worked with and also learnt a lot from that experience.
What do you do?
I am an illustrator based in New York. I make pictures that tell stories for books, magazines, newspapers and also for packaging.
Do you have a maxim that you live and work by?
“If someone else can do it, so can I”, inspiring words told to a very young me by my grandpa that I always held on to.
What are the three milestones that have led you to where you stand?
– Facing midlife crisis in my mid 20s because of my IT job.
– Rediscovering my love for art upon coming across illustration.
– Coming to US to study illustration and pursue it.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I am currently illustrating book jacket for a publishing house and have a couple gallery shows scheduled next year. There is another project that I will start working on soon, a deluxe vinyl album cover which I am very excited about.
What is your dream project?
As I progress in my career, my dream project changes. So the current one is to collaborate with an apparel or product based brand like ceramics, and illustrate for their products.
What places are important to you?
For me a particular place is important because the people there are important to me. Pune, where I was working before I came to US, is very important because I got my first job there, learnt a lot from it and made lifelong friends. I love New York City, because here I feel like I can be who I want to be and do the work I love with people who share the same feeling and passion for it.
What is the best advice you’ve been given, or wish you had been told sooner?
You don’t have to be a genius to come up with good ideas. Everyone starts at cliches. It’s up to you how much you can work on it to take it to an interesting idea- told by my teacher in my final year.
What is one facet of your field that you want to see change?
Definitely the pricing structure, which is so vague that sometimes it’s hard to even figure out if I am getting paid fairly for my job or not.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My undergrad degree is in Computer Science Engineering and I worked as an IT engineer for 4 years. I applied to art school while still working there. Made 21 illustrations over the span of one year, 20 of those were in my admission portfolio. Got selected in MFA Illustration program at SVA. Came to US just after a month from quitting my job in India with no prior formal illustration or art education. I hope this was surprising.
What do you want to be asked about that no one ever asks you?
I wish people talked about football (soccer) with me more. I love that sport!
Do you have a supportive female network in your field? Was it always this way?
My supportive female network are definitely my girlfriends. They help me out when I’m stuck or being indecisive, we do a lot of fun things together and they are also my inspiration. In my family, my mom and my sister are very supportive. Although they don’t quite get what I do, they are always there to listen to me complain when things don’t go right and always cheer me on. My mom even stayed up until midnight just so she could be the first one to see my Google doodle launch! Also back when I decided to quit IT and wanted to go to US to pursue illustration, although future seemed uncertain, my mom supported my decision because she knew that was what I really looked forward to do.
Can you share a creative experience that you have found defining?
Oh yes! When I was in India and my peak of frustration was at its highest because of my boss at the IT job, I was browsing through random artwork and came across Yuko Shimizu’s work. I was so intrigued by her work that I spent 2 hours on her website! It was through her work that I got interested in illustration and later pursued it.
Please tell us about your work
After discovering her work, Google commissioned Shreya to illustrate a Google Doodle celebrating the life of India’s first practising woman doctor on her 153rd birthday.
The brief was to create a doodle on Rakhmabai Raut, and although she was also an activist, Shreya and Google decided to focus on her being one of the first female doctors in India.
“The art director, Erich Nagler, gave me the creative freedom to bring my own ideas,” says Shreya.
“After that there was some back and forth on the sketches. Also the feedback was not just given by the art director but the entire Google Doodle team. They were really nice to work with and the art direction was always on point.”
Originating from India herself, Rakhmabai’s legacy resonated with Shreya. Rakhmabai fought hard to stamp out child marriage and for equal opportunity of education for women.
“The need to have equal opportunity for women is still prevalent. Being from India, where many times a woman has to give up her dreams and ambitions because of societal demands, I could definitely relate to the subject matter,” says Shreya.
“Rakhmabai fought during 19th century when the women rights were almost non existent. So we decided to give her the look of a barrier breaker, an explosive look.”
Now calling the Big Apple home, Shreya says the creative industry is hugely welcoming to foreign illustrators. Although she says being a female hasn’t affected her work in any way, coming from India has landed her some specific assignments, purely because she can work on a project related to India “with more ease and efficiency than a non-Indian illustrator.”
Her illustrations contain patterns of lines and abstract elements that are always narrating a story – from how women in science are coming forward to confront sexual harassment to the tale of a magician fighting zombies while traveling dangerous lands. There are so many details in each picture that you can spend several minutes observing them without losing a spark of interest. Personally, I find captivating the usage of color in each of her works.
Shreya says that her stylistic approach isn’t hugely affected by her Indian upbringing, and that is evident. I would even dare to say that her work is somehow influenced by Japanese art – Yuko Shimizu, for example.
She has created visual stories for books, magazines, newspapers, as well as for packagings, and has recently signed with a literary agent with plans to start working on her own children’s book. It is impossible to know what the future holds for this artist, but whatever it is, I am sure it will be as brilliant and beautiful as her work.
How do you approach illustration?
For example, the Google Doodle on Rakhmabai Raut.
“After reading about her I found out that she was a Marathi, a culture followed in a certain state in India. India is a multicultural country and each state has its own language and different lifestyle,” says Shreya.
“So I knew that Marathi saree has a specific look which is characterised by a thick border and a repeated pattern. But Indian nurses wear different type of saree which is white with blue border worn with a blue blouse. So since I am from India, knowing about such details come naturally to me.”
Shreya is quick to mention – apart from her detailed and patterned work also popular in Indian art – her stylistic approach isn’t hugely affected by her Indian upbringing. Extensive travel has led Shreya to meet many people from different cultures.
“When they share their stories, it makes me look at the same thing with different perspectives,” she explains.
“I think through that I have become more empathetic and more accepting than I was when I was living in India and that reflects in my present work.”
Shreya begins her creative process for editorial projects by first reading the article she will be illustrating for. She reads it two or three times and underlines words that spark ideas, making notes of possible sketch options after that. Then she sketches thumbnails to try different compositions, beforing choosing her favourite to sketch in grayscale.
“I usually send three or more sketch solutions to a client,” she says. “I always send sketches that I like because the client can pick any one. After a sketch is selected, I draw the final sketch on paper using graphite and ink. The colour is always done in Photoshop.”
Shreya is experimenting with creating an image that is abstract but just legible enough to be understood. She loves to draw lines and patterns of lines, and has recently signed with a literary agent with plans to start working on her own children’s book.
Your style is very distinctive – how did you develop it? Was it conscious?
When I first started drawing, I didn’t like my work much. Then I realized that I need to understand why I like certain artwork and perhaps incorporate those elements in my work. A few things that I like are pencil textures, limited color palette, patterns and lines. For some odd reason I love drawing lines and love to look at patterns of lines too. So I experimented with those elements and developed my current way of drawing.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to become an illustrator?
- Work hard. This is a very common advice given for any field but illustration needs thrice as much or even more.
- Illustration is not just drawing, it is a small business where you need to constantly market your work and keep in touch with your clients. This will take almost 50% of your time. So it requires a lot of self discipline to manage your time.
- Be interested in things other than illustration. Because those things will inform your work and help you develop a voice.
- Be nice and help your peers, you will always gain from that.