Sheena Deviah, illustrator and art director at Pratham Books, has worked on picture books like ‘When I Grow Up, I’ll Have a House’, ‘Kuch Gadbad Hai’, and ‘Incredible Insects: A Counting Book’, of which she is also the author. She welcomes readers into her artwork with a pop of colour, the detailed and quirky illustrations on every page telling their own stories. To learn more about her creative energy, we had a chat about her growing relationship with colours, and her approach to illustrating for children’s books.
When I Grow Up, I’ll Have a House is simply bursting with details and Easter eggs. How do you decide how much detail goes into an illustration?
I don’t overplan, but looking at the illustration again and again helps. When I start, I keep it very bare-bones, just to get an idea of the composition and how the story will flow. If there’s text, how it would work with the illustration, how the page works on a double spread and the spread as a whole. Then I start work on the roughs. Here I flesh out the drawings more, adding details. By the time I start colouring, some time has passed and I’m looking at the illustration in a somewhat new way. So then I’ll add more details, little jokes etc.
Describe your creative energy in one word.
Loosey-goosey. I like to be in a relaxed space and not over think, instead just enjoying the process of making.
How would you describe your relationship with colours? Would you say all children’s books have to be colourful?
I’ve always had a somewhat non-existent relationship with colours, finding comfort instead in the starkness and pure high-contrast impact of black and white. But I’ve since grown to appreciate how colour can be used to tell a story, to convey emotions and make the reader feel things in a visceral way. A lot of children’s books tend to be colourful, and colours can do a wonderful job of getting a child to pick up a book. But they can also be used as an effective storytelling tool. Like how Aindri C uses the colour green in Shoecat Thoocat to create an eerie atmosphere. And in Bow Meow Wow, Priya Kuriyan cleverly uses a limited palette to bring the reader’s attention to the colours only.
Should children’s book illustrations be detailed to aid imagination or have blank spaces to leave some room for imagination? What do you prefer?
Both, actually. Some stories benefit from fully detailed illustrations that are able to transport you to new worlds when you look at them. For example, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak allows you to go on a mad ride with Max. Whereas others, like The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld have used empty spaces beautifully to allow the emotions in the book to shine.
A few illustrators you admire?
Oh, so many! I love the works of Carson Ellis, Jillian Tamaki, Norman Messenger, Dave McKean and more.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
From many many places. Our natural world and strange incidents, how people behave when they think no one is looking, how objects feel. I’m drawn to oddities.