Indian-born illustrator – now based out of Canada – Devika Oza shares her own vision, insight and approach to illustrating as she goes into the finer aspects of the process.
With art running in the family, Devika Oza moved from Kolkata to Canada for her love of illustration. From tons of wedding cards to books, she’s illustrated extensively. More as she recounts her journey here:
CG. What’s your story? How were you as a kid and how did illustrating come into the picture?
Devika. My nana was a professional artist, so I think I was fortunate enough to have 10% of his talent trickle down to me. My mother made my brother and I take drawing classes from age 3 that I attended mostly every week till I moved to Canada. I wanted to be a doctor growing up but my mom always knew I’d do something with art. I was an extremely shy kid. I didn’t really talk to anyone apart from my elder brother but I’d draw a lot of books; scraps of paper and, to the dismay of my parents, the white walls of my home.
CG. What was your surrounding environment like and did it support your desire to illustrate?
Devika. My parents have always been super supportive of whatever my brother and I wanted to do. My dad always told us that money is not the primary goal, as long as you love what you’re doing. As an adult, I’m not sure how true that is but I definitely did end up doing what I love. I think my Dadaji was my biggest cheerleader, though. No matter how horrible my painting was, he would always use words like “Marvellous” and “Fantabulous” to describe them.
CG. What about formal education? How much of your learning was formal and how much informal?
Devika. I did a degree in Multimedia and Animation from St.Xavier’s College, Kolkata, where I met that one teacher who changed my life forever. Kaustubh sir introduced us to so many different styles and forms of art and knowledge. I couldn’t help but fall in love with illustration. He would always say, “Get your 10,000 bad drawings out of the way,” so that’s what I attempted to do. I would draw constantly but they never seemed to be anything but bad. Although I mostly worked on my craft on my own after college got over, the four years in college were mostly spent on doing adda, dancing and watching lots of films.
CG. How did your move to Canada come about and what’s it like being an illustrator there?
Devika. I was extremely thirsty for knowledge. I wanted to study further to get what I desired. I found an illustration course at Seneca College, Toronto, that was providing me with the exact subjects I wanted to learn. They had entire classes on colour theory, perspective, sculpture, life drawing, etc. that I knew I needed to become better at.
The course was a lot of work and it taught me a lot. My teachers were professionals in the industry and they gave us an insight into the mechanics of it. Being an Indian illustrator in Canada is a bittersweet reality. The living expenses are high and you’re away from family. However, the clients are really understanding and encouraging. They trust you to make it work with your imagination and creativity and it’s all very systematic.
CG. The simplicity of childhood seems to be the base of your works. What’s your approach or primary intent when illustrating?
Devika. I believe that art is a time machine that can take you through the precious moments in the past and simultaneously throw you into the magnificent dreams of the future. I know that sounds very cheesy but I have always wanted my art to evoke feelings of happiness and warmth. I want people to look at it and reminisce about the simpler times in life and feel how those ordinary moments are the ones that turn out to be the most special.
CG. Please highlight the various projects, collaborations, commissions and clients you’ve worked for.
Devika. My career started off with wedding cards for family and friends. So it’s safe to say that I have done a ton of wedding card illustrations and designs for clients along with personalised commissions. I’ve also done some packaging designs for On the go, That’s food, Cafe Totaram and the likes. I’ve worked on children’s books for self-published authors and customisable books for Binobooks Inc. Canada. Additionally, I am represented by Analyze Cervantes at The Harvey Klinger Literary Agency, New York. Currently, I’m working on some exciting projects including a children’s book for a new up-and-coming publisher called AdiDev Press.
CG. What all, mainly, does one need to keep in mind when specifically illustrating for children?
Devika. As an illustrator, I think the key is to be aware of your surroundings; notice the uniqueness of your often ‘mundane’ situations and be curious. You aren’t just an artist, you’re a storyteller. However, it’s the illustrator’s ability to walk in their shoes and imagine their world through the art. Kids are also really smart, so they pick up on the smallest things they observe. I think it’s important to draw the things you believe in to try to bring about the small changes that will hopefully lead to significant changes. There also comes a sense of responsibility for being an illustrator for children. The hope is that I will be successful in instilling some of the values I believe in and inspire the next generation.
CG. Please tell us about your work process from scratch to the final result through the example of a project.
Devika. The customisable book I made for Binobooks, “Humans can’t fly but they can…” was an interesting project for me. I always start with a few conversations with the client to get the feel of their thoughts on the project. After reading the manuscript, I start to play around with the character design, exploring the different aspects of it, and using colour to see what works. Once we have characters sorted, I do a lot of research and create mood boards. Usually, while reading the script, I have an idea of what the illustrations will look like, so I start researching for reference material to help me.
This book was about kids visiting the zoo, so I had a lot of animal references in my folder. I work on the storyboard, starting out with rough thumbnails and moving on to full-size sketches that I show the client. Once they’re satisfied with the changes they want to be made, I like to do the line art and present a colour key to show them what the mood of the book is going to be. It also saves me a lot of time while doing the final render since I know what colour goes where. We have weekly meetings on the pages I’ve submitted. Once the final book is complete, any small changes that need to be made are discussed. For this book, I had to make the character in 8 skin tones with 8 different hairstyles in four colours. Diversity is an important topic and this book has helped kids feel included in a world where they feel different.
CG. Which of your works are closest to your heart and why?
Devika. The works I do for myself are closest to my heart. I am really big on family and friends. In my free time, I love to draw moments I’ve shared with them over the years. I think that has increased after coming to Canada because I tend to miss them constantly.
CG. What’s the difference between illustrating for children and illustrating for adults?
Devika. Illustrating is mainly about relatability. You have to draw what resonates with people. When you see an illustration, whether you’re a child or an adult, you want to feel as though it’s you. So the only difference, in my opinion, is the subject.
CG. If a genie gave you three wishes, what would they be?
Devika. The first would definitely be to eat without getting fat. I absolutely love food, especially desserts, and that would be a dream come true to not worry about that. The second would be to be able to travel with a click of a finger – if I could just hop from my bedroom in Toronto to a sunny beach in Ibiza, how cool would that be? Third and not least in any way, I wish Harry Potter and the Wizarding world were real. I’d love to be a Gryffindor but, unfortunately, I’ve been told I’m a Hufflepuff.
CG. What’s your word of advice for those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Devika. It’s the same annoying advice that everyone is going to give you i.e. you have to keep at it. Keep practicing your craft but don’t do it blindly. Try to figure out what you want and keep building on that. Make mistakes; learn from them and move on to the next. I don’t think the journey ever ends; it’s the greatest adventure you’ll ever have, so don’t let it scare you. Be excited! It’s the best job in the world.