Posted on : 04/03/2018 06:53am
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Please tell us about yourself
A graduate of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Janine Shroff moved to London at the age of 18 to pursue a B.A., and ended up staying in the city for all of 11 years. Janine currently works for Katana London as a digital designer and is perhaps best known for her surrealistic, fantastic illustrations. Read on for excerpts from a conversation with her about her early years, her love of drawing nudes, her romance novel and MAD magazine collections, and her advice for aspiring designers.
What were your formative years like in Bombay and what prompted the subsequent move to London? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I grew up in Bombay in a small tin roof shack near Juhu Beach. I went to Jamnabai Narsee School (it’s a mouthful) and then later to St. Xavier’s College. National Institute of Design (N.I.D.) rejected me, after which my parents took me to an university fair in Colaba that was showcasing U.K. art colleges. I managed to get put into a foundation course (I wasn’t good enough for a B.A.) and so I went. I ended up staying for what has now been over 11 years.
What did you study?
I did my B.A in Illustration and Master’s in Communication Design from University of Arts London
So your parents were supportive of your decision to be a creative professional?
My parents were very supportive. Both of them are creative individuals. My dad used to be a thespian and my mom a painter. Many of her paintings are hung in our house and my grandparents’ house.
Were there any incidents or experiences from early on in your life that helped shape you as an artist?
I loved comics and mythology and collected MAD magazines from the second-hand book shops and raddiwalas. Finding an issue of MAD in good condition was the highlight of a week if you were rummaging around some bookseller and found a stash. There used to be an excellent second-hand book shop opposite Vile Parle station.
I also drew on the desks during all my classes [in school] and the art period was my favourite. I think if you enjoy doing something enough, even if you are rubbish at it, at some point you are bound to improve.
One incident I do think about sometimes, especially when I’m asked why I draw so many nudes is this: when I was 13 or 14, and in school, this girl in an adjoining class drew a nude man and woman standing in a garden. I remember thinking it was really good at the time. The art teachers saw it and started screaming at her (especially this one old art teacher who always painted busty apsaras in thick, creamy pastel shades): “You shameless! How can you draw things like this? What would your parents say? Besharam! Go to the principal’s office!” I think they even suspended her for it.
I really resented the teachers for doing that. Teachers should encourage creativity, not stifle it. I think that was what initially made me want to draw lots of inappropriate nudes like a besharam. A sort of mental “fuck you” to all of them.
So did you begin thinking of it differently than how we were taught in school, when you went to the UK to study art when you were eighteen?
No. Originally I just rejected them. I still didn’t like the way they taught. And I liked drawing. I was always drawing anyway. Like in class, I would be drawing in class while they were teaching economic theories… it was just my go to when I was bored. Which was why I went to art school. But the first course I did wasn’t a really considered course – it was just a BA, so they’d set you projects, and yes you had to think about them. It was really basic. They don’t push you to do anything, it’s all self-initiated (which is pretty good in a way). But there was no “this shouldn’t be done”. You could draw as provocative and offensive things as you liked, and then speak about it in class.
What was the M.A. at Central St. Martin’s like?
JS: The course I did at St. Martin’s College was far more serious. Like if you draw something provocative, you needed to know why you draw it, the reactions people would give you – even if they were negative. You needed to be critically aware of what you were doing. And we had a couple of excellent teachers. They were really on it, they really cared about the class, and about your work. They engaged much more than the teachers on the BA. So if you have a Crit (criticism session) you do your work at home, and you present it in class. In the BA, you’d put it up on the wall, and everyone looks at it and says ‘Nice!’, but there’s no discussion on it. No constructive criticism. We’d get critique like ‘maybe you shouldn’t have done that’ or ‘you could’ve done this’ or ‘you should’ve gone big’ – a very general critique. But the M.A. took it much more seriously. It was much more intense – I mean there were people crying in class going ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’… But I think the whole class did leapfrog from where they were in the beginning to who they were going out. That course really changed how I thought, and how I put that in my work, fundamentally. I did a lot of handdrawn illustrations for instance, which take a really long time. So one of the critiques was why don’t you find ways to work faster? How do you work faster? Why you need to look at different techniques etc. They’re not going to teach you the techniques though, so you needed to figure that out yourself.
Were you taught a particular style of art, like say sculpture, or design or illustration… that you had to major in?
JS: No, it was more open, and self-initiated. And with figuring out the new techniques, you could figure if you, for instance, wanted to work with etchings or silkscreen. So we had a girl in our Illustration class who did video… it was totally open like that. And what was really cool was the course was split in four sections, and you could pick a pathway, but within that pathway you had freedom to explore. One of the pathways was Design, then there was Typography, Media (there was a lot of tech involved in that one) and there was our Illustration group, which did a lot of weird drawings. And of course you could hop across the pathway. It was a really great course but they I think ‘broke’ it. Now it’s only Design, which is basically cost effective.
How’d you end up going from illustration/fine art to design?
Well I needed a job. I really needed a job (laughs). I mean illustration is the worst paid job ever. Also, if you’re going to stay in London, it’s really difficult to be an illustrator unless you have a base. Like in Bombay you know you can stay with your parents and work for very little money, build your way up. That wasn’t an option for me realistically. I wouldn’t have been able to work in a store or something similar unless I had a UK passport… so it was mostly necessity. And I love design. I really enjoy the various kinds of outputs that come out of it. I really love good, clean and engaging design. I love beautiful typography. I think Sagmeister and Walsh do some really interesting things. I really love the 40 Days of Dating Project by Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman. Personally I think they’re both batshit crazy. On a human level I found it odd that the only time they can schedule to date someone is when they make a project out of it, but as a voyeur looking at a project, it’s really interesting! Of course I haven’t been doing design as long as I have illustration, so I learned it as soon as I left my course. Slowly, the hard way, on the job. I didn’t even know Photoshop. I mean there’s classes but you don’t learn anything until you learn to apply it to something you’re making on your own, as opposed to recreating something that already exists. I was so surprised I got hired, but it was a new company, so they knew they had to train someone up. But I love my job, and it funds my illustration practice so I don’t have to be a slave to the gallery system.
Do you still have all those collected issues of MAD?
Yes, most definitely! I could never dispose of them. When I’m dead, the raddiwala will get them back and perhaps some other person will find them and read all these baffling ’80s American references.
I have a comic book library at home in Bombay. In London, I need to be very strict about books I keep due to space restrictions. However, I started a collection of Barbara Cartland novels a couple of years ago and now I have 430 in all. I vowed to collect them all, not realising how expensive, time consuming, or mental that task would be.
Wow, that’s quite a collection. Have you read all 430 novels?
I have read most of the Barbara Cartlands, although it did get to a point where I lost interest in them but was collecting them just for the sake of it.
What do you think about people who look down on mystery/thriller and romance novels?
I think people are right to look down on romance novels! Barbara Cartland is amazing rubbish. I mean, even as a collector, there is no getting around it. Also they are so utterly politically incorrect and 100% sexist in every way. Sex before marriage is wrong and godless, women should stay at home making babies, mentally ill people deserve to die, foreigners are usually evil, rape is worse than death, etc.
I started reading them at 13, when most girls start reading romances and I think they are subtly toxic, which is also what makes them bestsellers, especially in third-world countries.
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