3 Trailblazing Homegrown Visual Artists Tell Us How They Create & What Shapes Their Work

With a discerning eye and an unbridled passion for pushing creative boundaries, these trailblazers have embarked on a captivating journey and redefined the landscape of visual expression.
With a discerning eye and an unbridled passion for pushing creative boundaries, these trailblazers have embarked on a captivating journey and redefined the landscape of visual expression. Khyati Trehan, Prateek Arora

In the kaleidoscopic realm of contemporary Indian art, three visionary artists have emerged as pioneers; skillfully navigating the intersection of tradition and innovation. With a discerning eye and an unbridled passion for pushing creative boundaries, these trailblazers have embarked on a captivating journey and redefined the landscape of visual expression. Their canvases transcend mere surfaces, ushering in a new era of aesthetics that weave threads of cultural heritage into the tapestry of modernity. In this exclusive exploration, we delve into the profound artistic narratives, the meticulous construction of a novel visual language, and the exquisite craftsmanship that distinguishes these artists as the pioneers of a transformative movement within the vibrant landscape of Indian contemporary art.

PhotographyKarthik Shetty

HG: The fusion of dramatic, ethereal elements in your portraits creates a cinematic quality that sets your work apart. Could you share insights into the thematic choices and storytelling techniques you employ to make your visual narratives not only visually captivating but also engaging and editorial for viewers?

Karthik: My artistic philosophy revolves around seamlessly blending dramatic and ethereal elements in my portraits, creating a cinematic quality that distinguishes my work. For me, each image is an opportunity to weave a compelling narrative, stirring emotions and transporting viewers into a distinct world or one they can relate to. To achieve this, I draw inspiration from cinematic techniques, leveraging the language of film to infuse a narrative essence into my creations.

Thematic choices play a pivotal role in guiding viewers through a visual journey. Deliberate selections of lighting, composition, and color palette help establish a mood that aligns with the intended story. Whether it's the strategic use of shadows to evoke mystery or the application of specific colors to convey visual intensity, each element contributes to the overall narrative.

In terms of storytelling techniques, I aim to capture pivotal moments authentically, favoring a candid, caught-in-the-moment style over posed compositions. Attending to subtle details that speak volumes about the subject's character or the overarching narrative, I strive to make viewers active participants in exploring the layers of meaning within the image.

Even when collaborating with brands, I emphasize fostering an emotional connection with their audience through a compelling campaign story. My goal is to strike a harmonious balance between visual allure and narrative depth, ensuring that my work not only captivates on a superficial level but also beckons viewers to delve into the underlying stories and emotions.

HG: Your work is known for its emotionally stimulating qualities, particularly in the realm of powerful portraits and cinematography. You have also mentioned before that people and their stories inspire you. How does that play into crafting an aesthetic language for each subject in context to developing your own visual style?

Karthik: At the core of my creative process is a deep connection with people and their stories, which serves as a constant wellspring of inspiration. Whether during an evening stroll or a casual commute, I keenly observe life around me, noting down intriguing characters and the narratives that surround them.

Translating these observations into my work, I aim to weave them into the fabric of my artistic expression, be it through abstract representation or cinematic storytelling. Crafting an aesthetic language for each subject involves a profound understanding of their individuality in real life. This ability to stay in the moment and draw inspiration from everyday life informs the visual choices I make—from selecting the right setting to capturing the perfect pose and expression.

The development of my own visual style is an organic and evolving process, shaped by each project's unique stories. Yet has distinct style that showcase a part of me. By immersing myself in the narratives of my subjects, I can tailor the aesthetic language to complement and elevate the storytelling. Whether employing specific lighting techniques to accentuate emotions or choosing a color scheme that resonates with the subject, my goal is to create a visual signature that is both distinctive and authentic.

In essence, the emotional stimuli derived from individuals and their stories form the foundation for shaping a visual style that is not only personally resonant but also invites viewers to connect with the profound human experiences portrayed in my work.

Graphic design
Graphic designKhyati Trehan

HG: Your 3D illustrations for science and nature-based projects are truly captivating, providing a unique blend of art and science. Can you delve into your creative process when visualizing complex phenomena, biological systems, and ecological intricacies? How do you aim to evoke a sensory and emotional response through your designs, and what challenges and joys do you encounter in translating scientific concepts into visually stunning and emotionally resonant 3D artworks?

Khyati: First, I have to understand what it is I'm really making for. My science and nature-based projects have predominantly been illustrations for editorials publications like the WIRED, NYT and the New Yorker, which means they tend to support an existing piece of text. Sometimes the body of text has enough cues to inform the illustration. Other times, in addition to reading the content that’s handed to me, I look up the the visual culture in the world that the content belongs to for inspiration and context (like patent drawings, manual illustrations, textbooks, microscope photography etc), and identify what’s the one big idea we want the image to express. The art directors who reach out to me with the ask and their own way of working also impacts how I approach the project. Sometimes the brief is as specific as a single line from the article pulled out plus an existing piece from my portfolio as a visual reference. This process is a life saver when the turnaround is quick. The other, more enjoyable process, is where I'm granted a lot of freedom and time, and get no more details beyond the dimensions of the artwork and the article's intent. It gives me an excuse to do a lot of digging and spend some time in a world that I may have never learnt about otherwise. I religiously stay style agnostic, never make moodboards and let the context inform the visual. Somehow, most of my work in this category features organic elements as a result of illustrating articles about the mysteries of the human body and the physical world, that come to me because of my biomorphic style. It's a cycle I'm happily caught in.

I think editorial illustrations are most effective, and linger in people’s minds longest when they give people something to think about on top of communicating the core idea. Visually, that means treading the tension of figurative and abstract. The challenge is figuring out what qualifies as a good middle.

HG: As a type artist, your work goes beyond the conventional boundaries of text design, introducing a visual language that is both innovative and expressive. How does your background as a visual artist inform your approach to type design, and in what ways do non-text designs play a role in shaping a new visual language for type? Can you share insights into the symbiotic relationship between your artistic vision and the realm of typography, shedding light on how your unique perspective contributes to the evolution of design in this space?

Khyati: In my 3rd year at NID, Ahmedabad, I interned at the Indian Type Foundry. Those few months were a steep learning curve and the skills I picked have had an impact across my design career. I remember sitting to do my metrics and reaching this woozy state from looking at glyphs at a stretch where the letters lost the sound we attach to them and just looked like arbitrary forms on a screen. I literally forgot how to read in that split second. Jump cut to more than 10 years later, I'm no type designer but I have a lot of respect and admiration for the discipline. I work with typography like the next designer at my day job at the Google creative lab; setting layouts, building design systems, art directing animation, making film titles, setting type in product screens etc.

Outside of work, I've been making AI experiments and throwing type in the mix. My qualm with creative AI tools is that they don't make me feel creative. The text-to-image model is efficient but takes the joy out of the making. It takes spending time on a piece, sleeping over it, making mistakes, solving them, and tons of iteration to take it to a place where it reflects me just as much as it surprises me. My workaround to settle this feeling is to deliberately make a 'back and forth' between traditional tools and AI tools a part of the process, which makes for interesting workflow possibilities. I might start with lettering, use it to make a 3D animation, take the frames to an AI tool (Midjourney, Dall-e, Runway, Pika Labs, Stable Diffusion's illusion Diffusion etc) to augment it, and then bring it back into more traditional design tools. 

I'm still in the 'play' mode with GenAI, i.e., it makes its way into visual experiments and the process is more serendipity than control. All of my type specific outputs slot under the category of expressive typography, and are a blur between text you can read and illustrations you can see. To treat type as image, revisiting that disorienting moment at ITF comes in handy; I try to look at letterforms as sculptures and lines of text as building blocks to arrange in space. 

I expect models to get better at taking on some of the more practical tasks involving typography, like making iterative layout options, or scaling character systems. In the same way new UI typesetting paradigms emerged from the rise of app-populated smartphones, I see LLM formatting rules and best practices becoming the next place for typography to serve.

AI art
AI artPrateek Arora

HG: Your work within the realm of Indian science fiction/ horror/ and retrofuturistic narratives definitely fills a cultural void with the lack of South Asian representation within these genres. How do you ensure that the fusion of local cultural elements with futuristic themes resonates not only with your local audience but also with a global viewership?

Prateek: While visually I’m still crafting what I believe is a unique and rooted aesthetic for Indian Science Fiction and Horror, in my narratives I try to focus on universal themes and emotions that transcend cultural boundaries. It helps that most of my audience has “grown up on the internet” and understands that people are not all that different. We have similar aspirations and anxieties. Especially right now, when so much of the world is in political turmoil and technology acceleration feels overwhelming. So by embedding these themes within unique, visually rich settings that combine familiar Indian elements with imaginative futuristic concepts, I hope to create a narrative that is both specific in its cultural context and universally appealing.

HG: Your stories seem to play with both past and future elements, creating a dynamic fusion of timelines. Could you share your perspective on why you find the retrospect and the envisioning of the future so alluring? What aspects of these temporal realms, as opposed to the present, captivate your imagination, and how do they contribute to the richness and depth of your narrative development and world-building?

Prateek: I don’t think the future is only at some fixed point ahead in time that is yet to come - it is always happening. That’s where the power of science fiction lies. It’s a great frame to peek “5 minutes into the future” and how we got there and in that way make sense of our present. Right now is an especially potent time for such exploration. India is evolving rapidly on multiple fronts, with much of that evolution triggered by access to low-cost, transformative, networked technologies. I find it quite stimulating to explore some of that via visual fiction.