They say never judge a book by its cover and rightly so. But if we were to judge only the cover, there are no wise old English idioms stopping us. Speaking of book covers, I was recently spellbound when I accidentally discovered a children’s book, The Button Box written by Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani, and illustrated by the talented Harshad Marathe. The artwork is elegantly simple with a vibrant color palette. I went on to explore more of Harshad’s work and stumbled onto a treasure trove. Book covers are a subtle medium that entices readers with a single glance, inviting them into the world of the story. Harshad’s book cover illustrations are like a marvelous blanket; enveloping and complementing the stories within the pages of the books he works on. His artistic range is diverse, encapsulating a vast array of elements — from simple fictional settings for children to grand works that resemble something straight out of an ancient Chinese scroll.
Harshad is not a conventional designer. He enjoys bending the traditional frameworks of design and experimenting with his craft. The experiences he gained from having traveled extensively around the world are reflected in his artworks. His style is heavily influenced by folklore and mythologies from across the globe. With years of experience in the bag, Harshad has worked with notable clients like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins Publishers, Atlas Obscura, The Baffler, Nat Geo Traveller, and more. He is currently based out of Mumbai.
In a candid interview with Homegrown, Harshad spoke about his journey as an illustrator and storyteller, his designs, inspirations, travels and more.
At what point in your artistic journey did you decide to be an illustrator?
I always knew that I wanted to draw for a living. At 16 I started working at an animation studio and I worked there for five years. While I was there, I slowly came to realize that ideally, I’d like to create illustrations by myself or in collaboration with a small number of creative people, rather than worry about animation, special effects, dealing with advertising clients and long-term projects that require large teams to execute. It boiled down to what I liked and I decided to go back to the basics and see if I could do that for a living.
Tell us about your creative process and how you combine digital and hand-drawn mediums.
Commercial work tends to be mostly digital these days. However, occasionally I use custom-made hand-painted textures that I scan and use as digital layers in software. My creative process involves lots of research, gathering references, rough sketches and gradually advancing the approved sketch to completion. I usually decide on the final color palette at the very end, since that’s possible and easy to tweak when working digitally.
Every book is unique in its own right. Does your approach to each book cover design change to bring out that uniqueness? Amongst all your book designs, which one holds the most personal relevance for you?
I think the approach remains mostly the same, but every book has unique constraints and requirements. The genre of the book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, commercial or literary, and the age of the target audience can make a difference in how the cover should look. It’s difficult to pick one book cover that’s personally relevant. Several book covers like Ramrao, Hellfire, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Keeper of Stories get that distinction.
I thoroughly enjoy the depiction of mythology and folklore in your works. For example, the Fossegrim from Scandinavian folklore or the Nahuelito from the Argentine legends. Could you tell us a bit more about how global folklore influences your artistry?
Thank you! I’m glad you specifically referred to it as ‘global folklore’ instead of just folklore or mythology. Mythology has unfortunately been politicized, corrupted and turned shallow or literal in today’s times. For this reason, I avoid Indian mythology as much as possible. Global mythology, or obscure folklore has the power to be fresh and allows us to view the content objectively, without identifying with or against any of the characters or events. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
How have your extensive travels shaped your artistic journey?
That’s a good question! It’s hard to quantify this. When we travel, and especially when we spend several months and years living in different countries all around the world, it gives us a very unique perspective. I often feel like an outsider and an observer everywhere. Everything is so nuanced and complex and yet I see similar phenomena and patterns at work all over the planet. Additionally, artistically and visually, one sees so much and all of it informs one’s visual vocabulary. It helps us break out of patterns of thought that form as a result of small, rigid ideas that are a result of having limited exposure and a constricting identity.
Who are the most significant influences behind your artistry?
I thought of the great painter and educator Marshall Arisman as my mentor when I was studying for my MFA in New York. Other than him, I follow the work of many brilliant contemporary illustrators from all over the planet. I love old works like paintings from the Shahnama, Tibetan thangka paintings, and medieval European scrolls. Ancient South Asian, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American sculptures are of great interest to me. Impression and abstract art appeal to me a lot. Certain places and landscapes also have the power to inspire me very deeply.
What advice would you give to budding Indian illustrators?
I believe that to create unique, fresh and vibrant work that surprises viewers, we need to nourish our minds with rich, complex and nuanced content and ideas from all over the world, and wait for it to marinate and turn into fine wine in our subconscious mind.
Follow Harshad Marathe here.
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