This conversation was earlier published on Katha by Katha.
Taking inspiration from Indian folk art and intricate patterns, Boski Jain is a Visual Designer and an Illustrator who loves drawing for children. She takes a special interest in illustrating animals, an interest – which is beautifully reflected in many of her works.
Having illustrated a plethora of children’s books, she recently illustrated our brand-new book, ‘Millions of Cats’, an award-winning American Classic which has been widely read and appreciated by people across generations around the globe.
We got a chance to speak to Boski about her illustrations and her latest illustrations for ‘Millions of Cats’.
Interviewer: A lot of your art draws inspiration from folktales and animals. How did that come about?
Boski: I hail from the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Growing up in this town full of museums displaying local tribal art, I was in perpetual awe of the bright colours and bold figures. Historically, tribal art forms like Mandana, Pithora, Gond, and Madhubani have been used to illustrate folktales with lots of animal characters. Hence, the love for drawing them, again and again, kept growing.
Interviewer: What motivates you to take an interest in the choices and styles you pursue as an illustrator?
Boski: My education in design has made me pay more attention to people who are likely to appreciate and admire my designs and illustrations. It has also made me well aware of what’s happening in and around my domain. Illustration is not just about finding a style and practicing every day.
It is also about being aware of the new tools, trends in colours, styles that are being widely adopted for cross-cultural platforms, etc. Same stories may be told and re-told over generations, but the media keep evolving. Hence, as storytellers, we never rest.
We need to keep up with changing media, shorter attention spans, and the flexibility of adapting the same design across platforms. There is so much happening around us! Studying these changes keeps me motivated and pushes me to explore new ways of adapting them in my work.
Interviewer: Tell us about the different things that inspire you. Are there artists, designers, or illustrators who have influenced your work?
Boski: I keep taking inspiration from various art forms: paintings, digital art, movies, crafts, textile prints, etc. Social media is a great platform to get a glimpse of the work of other illustrators around the world. I have recently started following the work of Gosia Herba, Christopher Corr, and Chaaya Prabhat.
Different kinds of Indian folk arts continue to remain a major inspiration. All of this contributes while working on any illustration. It is also one of the reasons my illustration style keeps evolving. Sometimes, the subject inspires new styles of interpretation and depiction.
Interviewer: How would you describe your own work and style? Let’s talk about favourites. Do you have any favourite or memorable illustrations? Could you share the experience of illustrating your favourites or those illustrations, which stand out in your mind?
Boski: 10 years ago, I had illustrated my first children’s book. That was a kick start to my career as a professional illustrator and hence, remains close to my heart.
First attempts at trying out a new style or medium have become my favourites over time. I feel non-commissioned work has more ownership, and I do take more liberty with it. I have done lots of experiments mixing black ink with digital and physical collages. Some of those pieces are my favourites.
Interviewer: You worked with us on ‘Millions of Cats’, an American Classic that has been read and relived by people among many generations across the world. How was your experience working on a Classic for children? How similar or different was it in comparison to some of your other artworks for children? Considering that the story had been written by an American writer, what were your initial thoughts and vision for your illustrations?
Boski: When I first read the story of ‘Millions of Cats’, it did not occur to me that it has been written by an American writer. The story is simple, easily relatable, and if broken down, each part is full of delightful surprises. I did feel a little nervous when I realised that the story is a Classic.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about taking a story and making it your own. There is not a lot of setting, surrounding, or context described that links it to a particular culture. I feel this makes it possible to re-read and relive the story by a large number of people across the globe.
This also gave me a lot of freedom to interpret and bring my Indian context to it. A lot of stories and artworks that I had earlier worked on had defined settings and, therefore, provided limited scope to experiment.
Interviewer: Have you ever faced a creative block? What was the experience like? How did you handle the same? Could you share your experience? What would your advice be to artists who might face a creative block?
Boski: Creative blocks are part and parcel of the process. Even though every time it hits, there is an abundance of self-doubt that makes it worse. My work as an illustrator means a lot to me, and to not be able to perform starts making me question everything else in my life, which is unnecessary.
Over time, I have learnt to not fret over it. I take a break from my current work and try making something else. Typically, when working on books, if I can’t figure out one spread, I go ahead and start working on others. And when I revisit it, things usually fall in place. This helps me keep a consistent pace of work as projects are usually tightly scheduled and they don’t have the scope of having those days filled with the ‘creative block’.
For me, illustrating and doodling are important both as hobbies and professional work. They keep me motivated to try new subjects and media. This process also helps in overcoming creative blocks because I am not afraid of entirely changing the elements and showing things with new perspectives.
Interviewer: ‘Millions of Cats’ also talks about loneliness on many levels. How important do you think illustrations are for addressing mental health and well-being in children’s literature?
Boski: Any message needs a good medium to be conveyed. Children are naturally drawn to illustrations and so illustrations can be an excellent medium to have conversations with children on topics that are less talked about. Illustrations help children make instant connections to a story and encourage them to interpret it according to their context.
Seeing the characters in shape and form makes them more relatable. As a species, we like listening to stories. Across cultures, we grow up listening to stories that teach us many things about life. The scope of illustrated books for teaching kids is thus, immense.
Interviewer: Did you always want to be an illustrator? Were you interested in drawing or illustrating when you were a child? Please tell us a bit about your journey as an illustrator.
Boski: Throughout my childhood, I have been fascinated by drawings of all sorts from the big wall art or murals seen in museums to picture books, newspapers, and magazines. I have always enjoyed drawing throughout my childhood. As a kid, however, it never occurred to me that I could consider illustrating as a career. I have studied Graphic Design which combines everything from illustrations to identity design.
Interviewer: What do you like doing when you are not illustrating?
Boski: I am fond of reading fiction. I also enjoy filling scrapbooks with old tickets, bills, tags, etc. I love watching historical dramas and biopic documentaries on Kings and Queens. Recently, I have found a new interest in watching travel vlogs with my husband since the lockdown.
Shamefully admitting – sometimes just browsing the work of other artists on social media eats up the empty time I have in between bigger tasks of the day! I also strive to go for a short run every day. It always refreshes me!