Poonam Mistry is a freelance illustrator living in the UK and graduated in 2010 with a degree in Graphic Design and Illustration at the University of Hertfordshire.
Her style incorporates her love of nature and her Indian roots and explores the relationships between pattern, shapes and colour. Poonam’s upbringing and childhood have heavily influenced her work, in particular being surrounded by Indian fabrics, paintings and ornaments. She loves folklore tales and stories of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and these have been a rich source of inspiration in a number of her illustrations.
Poonam creates her beautifully intricate images by hand using fine liners and then digitally alters them.
Poonam and I have worked together on two books and I wanted to ask her some questions on everyone’s behalf. So here is my interview with Poonam.
This is your first illustrated book. How is it different from creating your own artwork?
It wasn’t so different actually. I think this was because I tried not to approach the project as a children’s book. I didn’t want to ‘dumb’ down the images just because it was aimed for children. With ‘You’re Safe With Me’ I wanted the artwork to feel more like art/wallpaper rather than your standard children’s book and the pages to reflect the metaphors and imagery conveyed in the text rather than just illustrating the actual narrative. The illustrations were made to appeal to both children and adults. The story is so beautiful it was important for me to focus on that and really get that across. I think it was a case of trying something new too. The great thing about working with Lantana was the creative freedom they gave me for this book. It was such a natural enjoyable process so it was like working on my own personal work.
There were just a few things I had to take into consideration unlike my own art. I think the 3 biggest differences were size, the amount of pattern I used and of course time. With my own art I have no deadlines or guidelines really. I allow myself the freedom to let the art take its own direction and natural course which is exciting because sometimes I haven’t even sketched out or planned what the final art will look like. With ‘You’re Safe With Me’ the rough sketches are similar to the final pieces. I can go quite crazy with the amount of pattern I draw in my own work. I don’t think that’s a bad thing but with this book I tried to get the balance right.
What is your process for interpreting the text into spreads?
First of all I read the text multiple times so that I knew the story well. I then went through each spread and highlighted anything that I thought visually summed up the key elements of the text. I sketched out multiple ideas for each spread in pencil and then narrowed these down for 2/3 ideas for each page highlighting my favourite ones.
Alice Curry then picked the ones she thought worked well. I sketched these out neatly in pencil and drew over them adding details and patterns on thick cartridge paper using black ink pens. I scanned these in onto the computer and added colour and the final details on PhotoShop. My process is a mix of hand drawn elements and digital work. Ideally I would love to do all my work by hand but it is time consuming and would take months.
Does your art follow a traditional folk art pattern?
Not necessarily. I love folk art. It is a huge source of inspiration for me but I am fascinated by many types of decorative arts celebrated across the world. I use a lot of dots in my work, which is taken for Aboriginal art. I also adore African masks and totems, Scandinavian art and design and ceramic tiles. It’s a combination of lots of things really.
Mostly I take inspiration from Indian folk art. It is stunning and something that has had a huge influence on my style. Kalamkari textiles are the biggest influence in my work and the patterns I use. I would love to try this process one day or have my work applied to this. So much craftsmanship and skill goes into this and I am just in awe of it.
What do you like drawing best? What do you find challenging?
I love drawing birds and rabbits. They feature a lot in my work, especially my personal work. Animals in general are fascinating to draw, especially strange unknown ones. I loved drawing the pangolin for ‘You’re Safe With Me’. It was something I had never heard of before and it was fun to try and translate it into my style.
I confess my strength has never been people. I remember once drawing my Dad and he asked me after I had finished it if he had a big nose. I think that completely put me off! Strangely I find Hindu Gods and Goddesses easy to draw in my style. Recently I have introduced human figures into my work and surprisingly I feel I have found a way of drawing them that doesn’t scare me. It’s quite exciting now. I have always been so comfortable drawing animals but I feel that drawing people and adding them into my patterned landscapes has added a new dimension to my work. It could be something seen more in my illustrations in the future.
You’re Snug with Me, the second book in this series is out on November and is available to pre-order now. Please find out more here.
The event started with a short intro about our growing up with photos and a little taste of our Indian influence and in Mehrdokht’s case her Iranian upbringing. We also talked about whether we had started writing and drawing at an early stage.
Alice asked us questions about our books – especially about the setting. While You’re Safe with Me is set in an Indian forest, Nimesh the Adventurer is set in a London neighbourhood similar to Southall. We talked about how creating books for western audiences differ from writing for an Indian audience. We also discussed the benefit or hindrance of labels and being known as “Indian” creators, rather than creators who happen to be Indian.
It was wonderful to see so many friends, well-wishers and industry peers and professionals who attended the event. Apart from signing books, we also had the joy of enjoying the art gallery currently on display at Nehru Centre.
Here is a quick preview of some photos…
The highlight of the evening was of course illustrator Sarah McIntyre drawing us as we spoke. You see above the panel in her artwork. And here below is a very accurate picture of me, in my new sari from India.
Many young families with babies to 10-year olds were present, eager to listen to a story and talk about empathy. I started the session asking about the difference between sympathy and empathy.
It was easier for some 8-year olds to explain sympathy to me. And then slowly we discussed the concept of empathy. Find out more here. As I explained the various elements of it, even five year olds could relate to it. One child put up its hand to explain how she knew a friend of hers was hurt in the playground the previous day, and how she felt sorry.
Then I told them the story from You’re Safe With Me. We had one avid listener who was fascinated with Mama Elephant and he was so worried why she didn’t appear in every spread in the book. The new animals they had seen in the story – loris and pangolin touched their curiosity. And when I explained about pangolins and how we need to save them – one child remembered and asked about it during the activity time we had.
The hall was full of young children who were fascinated with the story of thunderstorms, thunder, lightning, the hungry river and the loud wind. They actively participated.
And then came the activity. We had Empathy postcards (check out the resources on the Empathy Lab website) and I explained to the children that we are going to make a wish for someone else.
Here are some of the wishes they came up with during the session:
My Nan, because she needs an operation in her eye and she needs to get better to look after Grandpa.
My grandpa because he is on a stretcher and he needs to get better.
My teacher because she spends a lot of time preparing for class.
My friend – I want her to be my best friend forever.
I want my friend to have a pedal bike too because I have one.
I wish for David Attenborough to save more animals
Here are some hilarious ones!
I wish Donald Trump would not be President.
I wish Prince Harry a happy honeymoon.
Joanna, write a new book. (On asking who Joanna was, of course it was J K Rowling! Duh!)
And this one broke my heart – I wish my friend would be nicer to me. I spoke to this little girl and we talked about how she could find out more about why her friend might be rude to her. And maybe she should also say how she feels like, to her friend.
After that wonderful time writing wishes for someone else, they did colouring in and made masks (you can download them here). Towards the end of the session, one child had a tantrum when he had to go home. “I don’t want to go!” he declared. Another came to me and said, “Thank you for the story.” And her little sister, perhaps just four, said, “I loved your story, you made my day.” And she gave me a hug.
It’s my privilege to be able to write and tell stories to children. And when I know I touched a few hearts and helped them to discuss the thoughts behind the stories, it makes all the trouble worth it.
When I write a new story, I might know who might like it or what ingredients should go into it. Even when the book is out there, you don’t know who it’s going to reach. But when it actually connects, the circle is complete and that’s when the book is truly an agent for change.
Follow Empathy Lab on Twitter here. You can follow me on Twitter here and on Instagram here. From now up to 12th June and of course after that, we will be discussing empathy, recommending books and sharing ideas, experiences and more.