Illustrator Maithili Joshi on making picture books, compiling a portfolio and how lockdown refined her art
Born and raised in India, artist Maithili Joshi now finds herself in New York as she pursues her love of illustrating picture books and following in the footsteps of her idol, Quentin Blake.
A recent graduate of the BRA illustration programme at the School of Visual Arts, Maithili has always known that she wanted to make picture books. In fact, she made her first one out of paper and staples when she was six years old, and she's continued making them by herself ever since in her pursuit to learn the craft.
"I've been drawing since I was very young," she tells Creative Boom. "My pictures would always be narrative-based. I would make up stories in my head and go page by page, drawing them out." The goofy fun of Roald Dahl's stories was an early inspiration, but the accompanying pictures by Quentin Blake appealed to the artist a lot more. "I knew I wanted to 'do what he did' when I grew up; I just didn't know what it was."
After her early homemade efforts, Maithili began stepping things up by making illustrations for her school's newsletter in the fifth grade. Here, she hatched upon the idea that if she could make a career out of illustration, she'd be all set.
Upping sticks and moving abroad to follow your dreams is never easy, though, and it was the same case for Maithili. Besides the tedious paperwork and the US visa preparation, her biggest challenge was developing a portfolio for her college application.
"I had a ton of loose sketches and thoughts but no body of work as such," she explains. "Nothing felt truly 'application material'. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd like to put out there and finally gathered my ideas and built a portfolio.
"It consisted mainly of picture book dummies and illustrations of my more personal experiences, which came naturally to me since I'd been doing it from a young age. Simply put, I put work in that I'd want to be hired for in the future."
Besides this challenge, Maithili was also worried about the more abstract concern of living abroad. "I was afraid I was being too crazy by travelling halfway across the world to pursue a career commonly known as 'unstable'. I didn't know what a degree in Art could lead to, but I wanted it so badly. With these bittersweet emotions, I took a chance, hoping for nothing but the best."
It was a gamble that paid off, though. Despite only graduating four months ago, Maithili is now a junior designer at Scholastic and handles picture book projects as her freelance job. Even though she's still anxious about where her career takes her next, she's more excited about it than nervous.
"Book design is something they don't teach you in school," she says. "It's a craft that, in my experience at least, is learnt on the job. I interned at Macmillan for over eight months with the amazing Samira Iravani, who taught me the craft, setting me up for my full-time role.
"As for my freelance side, new and unexpected projects are always popping up. When the manuscript lands in my inbox, I print them out and read it several times. Every time I do so, the visuals in my head get a little more concrete. Concrete enough for me to draw them. It's fascinating how the authors' words can stir up a whole picture on a page that was blank before.
"As I did from a young age, I go page by page drawing out what the words say, and it's super meditative. Most of the projects I'm currently working on are to be published in 2023 and 2024, and I'm excited to see them on the shelves when they are."
Speaking about the appeal of her art, Maithili refers back to the South Asian upbringing she frequently draws upon. "I wouldn't say my work's subject matter is always drawn from my culture, but it's more so prevalent in the way that I work, my 'style', if you will," she explains.
"Three things that stand out as being drawn from my culture are the rich colours, textures and intricate line work. Naturally, it was all I saw growing up. It's my perception of beauty. I see how it reflects in my work. India's rich colour, our fabrics heavily textured, the swaying dance music and the landscapes where I grew up, all dense and lush green. All of this trickles into my artwork more than I think it will."
One hidden peril of Maithili's move to America was the timing. There was no way for her to predict it, but when she arrived, she was only six months away from the start of the pandemic. How did she get through it? "Thankfully, I was able to move from New York to the suburbs to stay with my family and was following a reasonable time zone to attend my online classes," she reveals.
"I took each day as it came and hoped for the best. Some benefits came with being at home, I had far more time for personal work than I did before, and I went hikes and strolls thinking about what I would do with this degree in Illustration that I'd have by 2022."
When spring 2021 rolled around, Maithili moved back to the city, and that's when the real work began. "In a way, quarantine was more like a creative retreat for me. I now feel a lot less scattered and a lot more 'yes, we can do this'. I would love another creative retreat in the next decade, but hopefully, not one triggered by a pandemic.
"Given the slowness of my pandemic days, my work became less rushed and more sensitive. It used to be 'go, go, go', but during the pandemic, I drew every line carefully because I had more time to. I think that stillness of time has helped me be able to concept more thoughtful imagery."