Drawing deep from a well of rich art and heritage, the contemporary visual art coming out of Sri Lanka glows with a palette of hues that are subtle, warm blends; tones of brown to our own more garish reds. Having embraced a range of influences beyond just the subcontinent, while the art styles of ancient Lanka were strongly influenced by the different ages of Indian history, with the passing years they have also absorbed Dutch and Portuguese influences — over the island nation’s periods of colonisation — to make for some sumptuous artwork.
Even as the digital artists and illustrators of Sri Lanka dabble in styles from all over the world, especially Japanese manga and anime art, they retain their traditional roots aesthetically to create a vocabulary that is entirely their own, and authentic to the core.
Here are some Sri Lankan visual artists to keep an eye on:
Akiel Surajdeen first began drawing at the age of five, when his parents let him scribble on their walls, after teachers raised concerns about him showing a complete lack of artistic initiative over the first two years of school. He hasn’t stopped since — and suffice to say, he’s been making up for lost time.
“I truly love illustration and animation and have spent several years, and hope to spend several more, honing my skills in them,” the Colombo-based artist says. “It is my greatest goal and passion to create delightful images, some of which move, and to use them both to tell stories.”
HG loves that Akiel’s storytelling style is voluptuous — with a lot of billowing imagery — both aesthetically, as well as with substance. While working on themes ranging from environmental design to comic con posters to (much fewer) minimal posters, he’s developed a voice that has a great sense of layering and visual metaphors, and can be startlingly profound.
It’s also interesting to see him with play with his aesthetic, from the video of a traditional Chinese melody ‘A Bit of Gold’ for which he drew inspiration from traditional Chinese ink on silk landscape art, to his animation accompaniment of assorted interviews of musician and trans activist Laura Jane Grace (of Against Me!) discussing gender dysphoria. (Note: You can also embed one of these.)
[Follow him on Instagram]
II. Udara Cinthaka
Working as a digital artist, illustrator, and matte painter for games and websites, Udara Cinthaka lives and works in Colombo. His works spanning digital paintings, pencil arts, illustrations, matte paintings, typography and icons, are all neatly segregated on his website, with a style that’s deeply rooted in Sinhalese culture and history.
“From the initial years, the art and the style I have used is mainly from the Sri Lankan style, which you would find in historical artwork; which is still used today. This style is found at the core of my work,” explains Udara. Throw in his childhood influences and years of watching anime, manga, and cartoons, including Japanese examples, and you’ll have the unique final product that is Udara’s layered work.
“In terms of technique — I would, as any artist or illustrator, begin with by sketching out a rough idea on pencil and paper, and then bring it to life with colour and perspective using digital tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator,” he explains his process. “Taking this as the base of my art, I’ve mixed the form or approach of Western art and illustration to bring my art to a level that I’m pleased with.”
HG loves that even though Udara knows where his various influences lie, he’s steadily been working towards achieving his own style of illustration while drawing on the colour schemes of his Sri Lankan heritage. His pencil arts section is brimming with portraits and old buildings with an intuitive shading style that gives away his keenly observant eye; his matte paintings are also definitely worth checking out.
Also interesting: While his art generally portrays the Sinhalese people, and the culture he grew up immersed in, he does not tend to use colour differentiation in skin tone to define the race of the characters he paints.
III. Isuri Dayaratne
Colombo-based Isuri Dayaratne is an illustrator and comic books artist who creates quaint ‘cartoony’ characters that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
“I’m a bit bored by realism. I like to see humour in things and that comes out in my drawings,” she says. Armed with a degree in illustration from the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ohio, under her belt, she’s now moved back home and started working at a new job.
“I’ve been drawing for the last 6 years, but it was only after I graduated from art college back in 2012 that I began to experiment more with my artistic voice,” she says. “Finding my artistic voice has been an ongoing and continuous process of learning, failing, building and developing the way I draw and make art, and seeing how it evolves with time. It’s the same with colouring; it’s something that I’ve always loved experimenting with, and hope to develop more with time.”
HG loves how Isuri’s work is reminiscent of the fantastical, and how open her approach is towards evolving and diversifying. Her adorable, cartoon-ish works represent an amiable perspective of the world, and her comic series ‘Podi’ is probably going to win you over the way it has us; a ‘tropical shrink-fiction adventure comic’ written by Deshan Tennekoon and Navin Ratnayake, and illustrated by Isuri.
After accidentally shrinking themselves, two bickering sisters must find their baby brother and escape a ‘moonlit, perilous jungle, ruled by giant beasts’ by dawn, or remain trapped forever in miniature — due to be published by Oni Press (who have published the likes of Frank Miller, Kevin Smith, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Gail Simone, Paul Dini, and Lea Hernandez) in 2018.
IV. Asad Farook
25-year-old Asad Farook is a Sri Lankan artist highly influenced by manga and anime art. While he has been drawing for a long time, it was only in 2012 that he started colouring his sketches in. He admits he has several inspirations including other artists, photography, media, music and, especially, crushes that he has had; one of his biggest inspiration is Japanese artist Redjuice.
On his creative process, he says, “I usually scan a pencil sketch and then add colors on Photoshop / paint tool sai. I keep the dirty scratches and mistakes most of the time — I try to keep it as part of my style.”
In the future, Asad hopes to sell sell prints and make illustrations for magazines, books etc., as well as influence his country with manga.
HG loves the time and dedication Asad puts into his work, and that he is pushing quality manga in a country whose traditional aesthetic is quite different from the form. His portraits, in particular, are exquisite.
Irushi has been doodling ever since she can remember, and her mother apparently testifies to this, fondly recalling her baby doodles as ‘really expressive egg-shaped people or animals, with stick hands and legs’. Isuri traces her passion for drawing back to her love for children’s literature, though.
“Even now, I’d prefer reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh or a story by Roald Dahl. I’ve been influenced by so many artists and writers, inspiration is everywhere; you just need to look in the right places” she says. Citing Quentin Blake and Sybil Wettasinghe as her core influences, she has also drawn from the works of comic book artists and illustrators such as Beatrix Potter and Lemony Snicket, to create a style — evolved from years of doodling — that is uniquely hers.
What’s interesting is that Irushi initially started a Facebook page for her illustrations just for kicks, to share her own stories and comics, but skyrocketing social media popularity buffeted her along to go on to illustrate children’s books, work on the World Conference on Youth in 2014 and eventually go on to balance her full-time job as an English lecturer by moonlighting as a freelance illustrator.
HG loves her playful illustrators that are joyful and remind you of a simpler time. Her work is pretty varied, too, between personalised gifts (Christmas cards, t-shirts and printed mugs), larger projects for some companies in Colombo, commercial exhibitions illustrating children’s books, one of which was for a noncommercial cause to help raise funds to educate kids in the North, self-published in 2013.
VI. Rommel Arumugam
Rommel picked up the pen early; as a four-year-old tot, he was ripping through 80-page exercise books that his parents would buy him once a month, filling them with his cartoonish drawings. He kept the cartoonish look as he grew, and at sixteen, he tried his hand at digital illustrations; today, he’s grown into a designer whose work frequently dots the landscape of Colombo. He also broke new ground by becoming the first person in Sri Lanka to create a Manga comic (Wings over the Bridge) back in 2007.
“I like to think it’s my own style because it always has its root in storytelling” Rommel says. “It’s difficult for me to come up with something that doesn’t have a back story and thus you can’t be emotionally invested in, in some way. But there are technical things that I’m constantly trying to adapt to like subject matter, design trends and visual communication.”
Rommel’s worked on a range of projects, with his work exhibited at the The Melomanic Sessions, Colombo Design Market 2015, Adfest 2013 (Thailand), and he was also commissioned to create the official artwork for Tuktuk Quest, a card game based on Tuk Tuks.
HG loves this designer’s pioneering spirit, and the range of his work. He’s also a musician, having been a part of bands such as Spitty Angel Fire and String Theory, where he wrote songs, played guitar and vocals; we suspect the music connection is probably why his artwork featured above for the Melomanic sessions (‘a community of indie musicians and artists that meet periodically just to chill, perform and enjoy pure unplugged goodness’) is spot-on.
VII. Ruwangi Amarasinghe
Currently living and working out of Colombo, artist and illustrator Ruwangi Amarasinghe is a part of the artist collective Bang Bang so many of the Sri Lankan musicians we admire are also a part of. Since obtaining her Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University of Northumbria, she has been working on a freelance basis and has been commissioned to produce illustrations for a range of projects from children’s books to video-games, record labels, advertising campaigns and publicity design projects, as well as product design, book covers and guide books, to name a few.
Curiously, it was Saturday visits to the Dehiwala Zoo as a child where she received what is her only formal artistic training, as a member of a Young Zoologists group. “We would learn about the animals, and every Saturday we’d have an art class on how to draw them. So you could say I started with that,” she says. She also hails from an artistic family, her grandfather being Ariyawansa Weerakkody, the sculptor; Ruwangi fell in love with drawing at an early age, and worked with her uncle, another artist, to hone her craft.
HG loves that her work radiates a sense of non-conformity. A casual scroll through her blog is enough to show you how it is vibrant with colour and personality without ever seeming garish, and light and shadow interplay in interesting ways in her art.