A man falling through paper planes against an azure sky, moldable orange pencils, bright coloured tangerines, a giant skull on a small cross-legged body, a coy moustachioed man, Vishnu M Nair’s art, like a pirouetting ballerina, moves gracefully between the goofy and the sombre. The illustrator and graphic designer who has been in love with art since he was a little boy, has a penchant for creating illustrations that are not only striking but also invoke an array of emotions usually manifesting in a chuckle, warm fuzzy feeling, or deep reflection. His ability to weave magical stories that are in equal parts metaphorical and witty led to his works being featured in the prestigious Verve India magazine. He has also collaborated with the famous Kokaachi comics to create pictures for the heartbreaking graphic novel, 405, and illustrated a children’s book called Gappu Gola for Pratham Book’s story weaver initiative.
In conversation with Cindrebay, the 27-year-old Thiruvananthapuram born, Kochi and Delhi brought up artist speaks about his eternal love for art, an ever-evolving inspiration list and plans for the future.
An everlasting love affair with art
Vishnu’s need to bring alive his unfettered imagination is not new; it is as old as he can remember. “Art has been a constant since childhood, starting with drawing cartoons that fascinated me. A promising career in art along with an avid interest in the medium of visual storytelling spawned what would become a life and career in the field,” says the New Delhi based artist.
“I think barring a two year break to attempt science during my 11th and 12th; it was fairly obvious – based on the voracity with which sketchbooks and paints were consumed – that I would end up in the visual art field.”
Vishnu studied Applied Art from College of Art, Delhi and did his Master’s in Graphic Design from NID, Ahmedabad. He has been working as a Senior Graphic Designer with a branding studio called Codesign, based out of Gurgaon for the last four years.
Artists look at the world, the culture they were brought up in, and people’s quirks, among others as a bazaar from which they pick their inspirations, communicating their findings in a way befitting their unique narrative. Vishnu is no different. Among the illustrator’s eclectic mix of artwork, one can find Malayalee themes – Vallam Kalli (boat race), and big moustachioed man – reflecting both a sense of tribute to his heritage and commentary on the same from an outsider’s perspective.
“The sights we absorb and grow up with lay ground for the visual library we pick from as adults consciously or subconsciously. That may be the case in many illustrations, but over the years, most of the Malayalee motifs that have shown up are because those were an intrinsic part of the story I was telling. Then again, if I were to illustrate – for instance – a space drama, I would use a Malayalee there as well. Maybe because the imaginary character would be familiar and therefore easier to portray or the fact that I find the Malayalee culture fascinating both as an insider and as someone who has spent quite a few years living outside of Kerala.”
More metaphorical than Surreal
Going through Vishnu’s work one may sense a strain of Surrealism, but the artist quickly thwarts any references to the genre. “I am a fan of certain kinds of Surrealism – Magritte’s everyday Surrealism over Dali’s fever dreams any day – but I wouldn’t describe my work as Surreal. The illustrations are often metaphorical, if one had to describe them. Many of my creations, like the man falling through paper planes, depict a certain feeling like listlessness or implies a moment from a story. The intent is never to confuse or shock the viewer, but to invite them to interpret the metaphor as they would like.”
Another riveting aspect of Vishnu’s work is the ease with which he commutes from muted tones like light oranges and blues to the more dramatic almost kitsch like art. The key to such a multifaceted approach towards art is indulging in a process where the mind suggests a story for the hand to take over and depict it, says Vishnu. “Or – very often – the hand constructs an image and the mind completes and builds a story around it. It is, in many cases, a play between making and breaking a sense of what I am creating.”
The colours often compliment the story I imagine in my mind, he adds. “For example, the cartoonish and bold ‘No Cable Yet’ demanded bright palettes and bold lines – as if it were taken from a comic about my life – while certain sketches have muted watercolour tones capturing a moment of silence, or light I could be trying to portray,” explains Vishnu.
Tryst with comics
Those who love Indian comics might be aware of Vishnu’s artwork; he played a crucial role in making Kokaachi’s soul-stirring graphic novel 405 even more captivating. “Kokaachi – known back then as MantaRay Comics – had put out a call for collaborators and I had sent a sample of my work to them. Pratheek, the founder, got back to me promptly and asked if I would be interested in working on a script called 405 that his friends Mural and Krithika had written. I read the heartbreaking story multiple times, each time to equal anguish, and was fascinated enough to jump on-board immediately,” says Vishnu.
The script was written for a short film that wasn’t made due to logistic issues, so the scenes and locations were described in great detail to the artist. “There was technically no brief given; I was allowed to experiment with styles or media I thought would do justice to the story. We spent a lot of time brainstorming the sketch of the central character and worked on some drafts for other pages of 405. Then we fleshed out each character and parts of the story, which included re-reading it several times, ensuring a smooth narration and placing emphasis on important moments. We wanted our readers to be as moved as we were when we first read the script,” says Vishnu.
Ever evolving list of inspirations
Artists and things that inspire Vishnu is as unpredictable as the illustrator’s art. “The list keeps evolving and includes people, particular events or even the mundane minutiae of daily life. For example, during this lockdown, my father has been writing and recording stories about an imaginary village and how the virus is forcing the villagers to cope and innovate. He shares these on WhatsApp, and one of his stories about a Gangadharan Nair who was bitten by a dog was extremely inspiring to me. Some days ago, I was inspired by a short account about photographer Henri Cartier Bresson and days before that a manga I read called One Piece by Eiichiro Oda moved me. I also find inspiration in the sketches done by my brother, who is a fantastic artist.”
Consistency and robust utilisation of social media help in creating awareness about one’s work, adds Vishnu. “I think the key to getting my name out there has been consistency over the years. I rarely made efforts beyond sharing work I had done for fun or as commissions on social media for friends. Some of the first projects I received were through this network of pals. Social media has helped in making my name and art popular and finding newer audiences/clients who gravitate towards my work and storytelling,” says Vishnu who is currently working on some personal artworks.
Advising up and coming illustrators, Vishnu says, “Stories are what make illustrations powerful. So work on yourself and on stories that captivate you, for those will enrich your artwork. And when you feel stuck, keep reminding yourself why you started drawing in the first place.”