What’s life like for an illustrator in today’s world?

Sandhya Prabhat is an independent artist who finds creative well-being in 14-hour work days and long hours of painting whilst listening to entire movies.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Sandhya Prabhat

Sandhya Prabhat has always been drawing. From a very young age, through school and college, to this day as she expertly struts the life of an independent animator and illustrator with the ease and gravitas of an artist who’s honed her own style and has a stellar portfolio to back it up.

From animating videos for the American football team Carolina Panthers to illustrating numerous children’s picture books and so much more, Sandhya has created a space for herself in this very crowded space in the quickest of times.

But she strongly believes that time and circumstances have been extremely favourable factors for her, allowing her to discover her passion so early on and to have the support of a family who helped her figure out what to study and how to develop her skills from a very young age.

From drawing to getting paid

Sandhya, after completing her BA degree in Literature from Stella Maris College in Chennai, moved abroad to Singapore where she pursued an MFA degree in Animation and Digital Arts from NYU Tisch Asia.

She still remembers the first time she got paid for her work, an opportunity that came through a friend while she was still doing her BA degree in Chennai and doodling her time away on lecture notes “One of the first paid projects I got was illustrating a column in the newspaper The Indian Express, back in 2008. A friend of mine from college was interning at the newspaper office and took the initiative of introducing me to the editor, who gave me the opportunity to illustrate three issues. Back then, I didn’t know to draw digitally. It was in that newspaper office that I saw the graphic designer use a digital drawing tablet, for the first time.”

I take calls at odd hours. I drink coffee. I write lists on post-its and take great pleasure in striking things off the lists.

In the last ten years, she bid goodbye to Chennai, moved to California and built herself a steady career as a freelance animator and illustrator. As someone who loves to apply her talent in various contexts and media, a full-time job was never an option, explains Sandhya.

“A full-time job invariably required me to choose one thing I’d want to specialise in. I want to continue drawing for children’s books, publications aimed at adults, animating for TV and movies, making content for apps and developing my own content. Staying independent has given me the freedom to explore these and more, and remain the master of my time. I enjoy being my boss and my employee.”

When asked about her distinctive drawing style, Sandhya says she’s completely unaware of how it came about. “I can’t claim to understand it. I didn’t know it was coming. It just happened, over many years of drawing, I guess. I think it’s still evolving. ”

The official cover of ‘Tsingory’, a picture book based on a beautiful folktale from Madagascar. © Sandhya Prabhat

Coffees and post-its

But it is obvious that she has put in the work over the years. And, for someone who works from her own home, Sandhya is extremely disciplined, “I am someone who has to work hard to limit my work hours to a healthy 8-10 hours a day. I work from home so my day is sometimes, speckled with small chores. I, however, try not to have too much disruption during work hours. Home functions exactly like an office during office hours. Since I work on projects with clients all over the globe, sometimes I take calls at odd hours. I drink coffee. I write lists on post-its and take great pleasure in striking things off the lists.”

I like to listen to entire films while working for long hours. The disengagement works like a charm.

She is also someone who loves to work on multiple projects at a time and across various platforms as she feels it keeps her on her toes, “One project feeds the other creatively, in my case. I love working on multiple kinds of projects at a time. It’s particularly exciting to work on one static or print project while creating animation for a video project. When I’m fatigued by one, I switch to the other and come back to the first with a fresh perspective.”

Something she hates about her work? “Payments not coming in, on time, or EVER.” But that is something you have to work through, says Sandhya. She has her own work routines which help her stay calm and focused. “I like to listen to entire films while working for long hours. This helps me stay put for a long time while also being engaged in a story. It also helps me disengage slightly from painting. When I focus too much on the painting, I become too involved and anxious about getting it right that it does not result in the best design. The disengagement works like a charm.”

‘Just keep swimming’

Sandhya also manages to find time to work on personal projects such as the #36DaysofType series she did on Instagram last year, where she designed A-Z and 0-9 Female Characters in Literature, “I find that I most enjoy taking inspiration from literature, for my personal projects. To my pleasant surprise, the Female Characters from Literature series started conversations about literature with 1000s of people all over the world via Instagram. I thoroughly enjoyed this period. I hope to create more work this year that would improve my reading as well as help me engage.”

I’m not too wise, so here are the wise words of Dory, from Finding Nemo: ‘Just keep swimming.’

She is currently working on a few children’s picture books which will all be ready by mid-2019 and is hoping for more projects like the Carolina Panthers Christmas video in the upcoming year. Mostly she wants to just continue drawing as long as she can and she hopes to find more time to create original content.

When asked if she had any advice for budding animators and illustrators, she had this to say. “I’m not too wise, so here are the wise words of Dory, from Finding Nemo: ‘Just keep swimming.'”

Illustration of an Edward Lear classic. © Sandhya Prabhat

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