I thought I'd do something different this week. Instead of reviewing a book, I thought I'd interview a person. Authors become well-known in the literary world, but what about illustrators? In the case of children's literature, it is most often the illustrator's work that makes or breaks a publication. Irushi Tennekoon has been at the forefront of Sri Lankan artwork, and although hers may not be a household name, the chances are you would have seen her work somewhere. Her signature style is easily recognizable, and she has a wide social media presence on multiple platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
So, read on to learn more about this talented individual...
So, Irushi, tell us something about yourself. What's your day job, when you are not involved in illustrating a book?
I am a full-time illustrator. When I am not involved in illustrating a book I am usually busy with other corporate or personal freelance projects. I’m a self-taught picture book illustrator and animator, so I spend a lot of time reading or watching online tutorials to keep getting better at what I do.
My academic background is in English studies and I am currently completing my masters at the University of Colombo. I used to be a lecturer of English language but these days my time is essentially divided between illustration work and writing my master’s thesis.
I know you've been illustrating for years. Can you share with us some of the books you have worked on? And the organisations or authors?
My most recent work was a picture book titled Rescue Mission written by Ellan Pushparaj and published by Room to Read in 2018. The story was about a young deer trapped on an island during a flood, and how his animal friends plan a mission to save him.
In 2018, I also illustrated a series of short stories by award-winning author MTL Ebell. The stories were based on real adventures from her neighbourhood in Nawala. This book will be published by Vijitha Yapa Publishers later this year.
The very first book I illustrated was in 2012. It was titled Pestering Annie and written by Marianne Johnpillai. It was based on the stories she used to tell her children when they were growing up.
I remember buying Aunty Marianne's book to use in my classes! How would you say your style of drawing has improved or changed over the last decade?
That was my first book project, and it was a challenge because I was determined to use watercolours. It was the first time I was using the medium and had a lot to learn about kinds of paints, papers, and markers that work well with each other. I was also very new to the concept of scanning and digitally editing images and adding text.
Over the years I have spent more time experimenting with different mediums and become more confident in using them. There has been a lot of trial and error and I still have a lot to learn and a lot to discover about my own style. My early drawings were influenced by many of the American and western children's books and comics I've read. In contrast, in my recent work, I have made a more conscious effort to identify my work as South Asian and Sri Lankan. I have explored cultural aspects like traditional rituals and masked dances, and traditional musical instruments.
Yes, I've seen how different your work is now, looking at the awesome pictures you post... What do you enjoy most about the process of creating your drawings?
My process includes a lot of initial research – I’ve made myself a mini library of picture books that I have collected over the years. I love going back to these books for inspiration. The next step is characterisation, where I spend days sketching what the characters in the story would look like. Then I draw rough sketches of the story board to decide which images would end up on each page.
I think my favourite part of the process is sketching characters. In my last book, I decided that I wanted all the characters to look like they were origami animals made out of folded paper.
I saw those pictures! And the origami is such an original and unusual idea! I know you do a wide variety of work. Could you tell us about any special projects you are involved with right now?
I’m working on a few big projects this year. The most interesting of these is an art class manual I am compiling with a friend in New York which will be published later this year and distributed for use in children’s centres in underprivileged communities in Sri Lanka.
I am also currently working closely with the British Council on their Creating Heroines program which empowers female illustrators, animators, photographers and film makers to use their creativity to recognize oppression and challenge harmful gender stereotypes. I will be revealing more about this project on social media in the coming months.
That is inspirational... You've achieved so much in such a short period of time. What advice do you have for those who have a talent in art who would like to branch out into book illustrations?
For me, being a good illustrator is similar to being very good at any profession. Much like a writer or a musician or a sports player must practice every day to excel in what they do, art also takes lots of learning and practice. Once you have discovered the talent and passion for book illustration within you, it’s important to keep learning. It’s wonderful if you have the opportunity to study illustration in school or university, but even if not, there are so many resources out there for self-learning.
Another bit of advice for aspiring book illustrators is to become known. Have a dedicated social media platform or website to showcase what you do and ensure that you have a good portfolio that shows off your best work.
Let's move on to some general questions... Who is your favourite Author? What Illustrators have influenced you?
My favourite authors range from writers like Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton who have written primarily for children to writers like Neil Gaiman, Albert Camus, Chimamanda Adichie and Arundati Roy. The list is inexhaustible.
My favourite Sri Lankan illustrators are Isuri Dayaratne and Sybil Wettasinghe. They have both played a huge role in my journey to becoming a professional artist. Some international illustrators include Quentin Blake who illustrates Roald Dahl’s books, Dr Seuss, John Klassen, Oliver Geffers, and art icons like Frida Kahlo.
You obviously have a very eclectic appetite for literature! Now, my last question may also appeal to your inner English graduate... What do you think makes a good story?
A relatable and likeable main character is always important. Even in stories where the villain is the main character (like in the Despicable Me movies) a lot of energy is spent on making these characters lovable.
When creating a setting it could be far removed from reality, like in another galaxy or an imaginary world. A good story will always have you engrossed and believing that this imaginary world exists.
A good story should also have a real problem or challenge that the heroine or hero must overcome. I always feel I’m drawn to stories with more dire challenges and smarter resolutions.
Thank you Irushi, for taking the time to share your experiences with us. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours, and look forward to more awesome artwork!
You can find Irushi's work on these platforms