illustrationmusicrachael madduxsights & sounds

sights & sounds: divya srinivasan

by Rachael

Austin, Texas-based illustrator and animator Divya Srinivasan is the kind of artist who, after you learn her name and start digging through her portfolio, you might realize you’ve encountered all over the place without ever connecting the dots. In part, that’s because she’s, well, kind of just all over the place (I just realized I’ve had a birthday card she designed tacked to my old bedroom wall for years and years), but also because she works in a few distinctly different styles, ones that often seem like the products of two totally different artists. Srinivasan’s portraiture (which you’ve probably seen on the cover of Sufjan Stevens’ Come on Feel the Illinoise or as spot illustrations in the pages of The New Yorker) is on the whimsical side of lifelike, while her more cartoonish works (like the animation she’s done for bands like They Might be Giants and The Octopus Project) are full of figures with exaggerated, angular features — big heads, huge eyes, spiky noses, tiny bodies. Both styles are totally delightful, and we were so happy to email with Srinivasan (who’s currently prepping for the release of her first book, Little Owl’s Night, this October) about her work and its ties to music. — Rachael Maddux

Image above: Gig poster for musical comedy duo Hard ‘N Phirm

Tell me a little bit about how you started doing art. Were you a creative kid?
Divya Srinivasan: Growing up, I enjoyed making pictures and loved watching cartoons. I’m not sure I ever thought I’d be doing illustration and animation for a living. It feels a pretty lucky thing. I’d say I’m self-taught, other than the occasional art classes we’d have in elementary school. I used to get frustrated in those classes because I always had a hard time finishing the assignments in class like we were supposed to. I liked working on things at home, alone, which is how I work now, pretty much.

I didn’t take any art classes in college. The idea of drawing in a roomful of others, being critiqued — it was intimidating to me, and didn’t seem enjoyable. I just always drew or painted on my own, for myself for the most part. I did a comic strip for the University of Texas school paper. I self-syndicated the strip to about 20 other schools while I was in college. It was the first time that I knew so many people were looking at something I’d made, but I still got to remain pretty anonymous.

I was curious to take a class in the Radio-Television-Film department, especially to learn how to do animation, but again, unfortunately, I think I felt too intimidated. Instead, I did an independent study in animation with a friend I used to draw with (he was the only person I’ve been lucky to have that kind of collaboration with). We taught ourselves to scan in hand-drawn images and use software to color them, to make them move using what was essentially a digital flipbook. Slow lessons, slow-going, but it was exciting to give life to a drawing — to create something from nothing, all with our own vision for what we’d like a world and its characters to look like. I know somewhere in there we filmed about ten seconds of a stop-motion paper cut-out scene, too. The last five of the ten seconds got messed up because the camera had a glitch. It looked so rich but took so, so long for those few seconds that made it.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Diyva’s interview (and more of her work) after the jump!

Above: Inside album artwork for Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois (click here to see full size). Below: Unintentional prototype sketch of Abraham Lincoln (and “George Washigton”), one of school-aged Divya’s (very) early works.

When did you start doing art for musicians? What was the first band or artist you worked with?
Divya Srinivasan: I was an animator on the film Waking Life in 2000. The animation director, who also wrote the animation software, gave me permission to use it for a personal project. I had been animating the same two talking heads for nine months and was eager for the chance to work on images and scenes of my own choosing. I knew the band Spoon, and they were excited about my doing a video to go with their upcoming single. I sent the video out to a lot of film festivals, and it was well received, which was encouraging. Then I did a couple more videos — one using 35 mm photo stills documenting an Austin house party, and another that was live action with a bunch of effects. I learned a lot those two or three years, but didn’t make much money. My filmmaker friend who has always been really supportive (and also lent me his camera) would tell me to think of it as putting myself through my own private film school where I’m at least making a little money, and buying some time to learn on my own, playing around, trying things out with video.

Image above: Sufjan Stevens illustration for The New Yorker, 2004.

Many folks, even if they don’t know your name, recognize your work with Sufjan Stevens. How did that collaboration come about?
Divya Srinivasan: The New Yorker gave me an assignment to illustrate Sufjan for the “Goings on about Town” section. Sufjan had just started working on Illinois, and he liked the portrait I did of him, so he asked me about doing the album artwork. It was such a great project to work on. And I worked on it the one year I was living in Chicago, which made me feel super-Illinois-y. I’m so glad my art director at The New Yorker gave me that assignment! A year later, I was asked to do the artwork for a This American Life greatest hits CD, and it was because they had seen and liked the Illinois artwork.

You’ve also done a lot of animation, including several videos for They Might Be Giants. Tell me about how that relationship formed. When you do those videos, do you work with the band directly, or are you given free range?
Divya Srinivasan: I had always been interested in doing animation and illustration for kids, so when I got a call from John Flansburgh to animate music videos for children’s songs by They Might Be Giants, it was a dream. John knew an animator I’d met briefly when I was living in San Francisco. He told her they needed more animators for the videos, and she told him about me.

There were some songs where John told me what energy they were going for, but for the most part, their lyrics were there to guide me, and he wanted me to do my thing, have fun with it, and I’d show him when it was finished. I feel really lucky to have worked with such good people who are so amazingly talented, and so respectful of the work of others.

Animated video for They Might Be Giants’ “Alphabet Lost and Found.”

I love the portrait work you’ve done for The New Yorker, spot illustrations of movie stills and theater productions but also musicians. When you’re assigned a portrait of a musician, how do you approach it? Do you work from an existing image or use a composite?
Divya Srinivasan: I always try to base my illustration on a composite that I make beforehand. How much I can extrapolate depends, though, on how many good images I can find. Luckily, with bands, there are usually plenty of photos to use as reference, from the publicists and online.

I prefer using my own photos as reference, and there have been times when I’ve snuck my family and friends into illustrations where there needed to be people, but no specific people. That’s pretty fun for me. (I even used my parents as models for an illustration of Percy and Mary Shelley embracing each other. My parents are the least PDA people you can imagine, but since it was to help their daughter with an assignment, they let me take photos of them acting like romantics in love — my dad getting dramatic and my mom breaking into shy giggles. Those photos are some of my favorite by-products of any assignment.)

Illustration of Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric, for The New Yorker, 2005.

Can you think of anyone who was particularly tough to paint? Who has been the most fun?
Divya Srinivasan: I have a tough time drawing older people sometimes because it really is a matter of one facial line making someone look like a crone or just a mature beauty. There was a film director who was wearing sunglasses in every source photo I could find, so I had to draw him with sunglasses. It made me nervous because I love drawing eyes and I felt the illustration was a little boring. I love drawing close-mouthed, pensive expressions, but when I get to add a bloody bruise or cut to the mix, that might be the most fun. That possibility usually comes with film assignments. Drawing pretty faces and hair is a complete pleasure, so I really enjoyed Catherine Deneuve and Faye Dunaway, for example.

Illustration of Swedish rock band The Ark, for The New Yorker, 2005.

When you’re working on something for (or of) a musician, do you listen to their songs? And when you’re working on non-music-related projects, do you play music? If so, what are some of your favorite records to work along with?
Divya Srinivasan: When I’m starting, I listen to the music to get a sense of the musician or band that then determines what the tone of the illustration should be. When I work, I’m usually listening to the classical station or an audio book. My eyes are so occupied most of the day looking at the computer screen that I’m not able to get much reading in. There’s a point after I’ve figured out the composition of an illustration or the way I’m going to animate a scene when part of my brain is freed up for taking in stories while I work. So, this is a way. Some of the audio productions have such noteworthy performances, they can keep me working when I’d otherwise want to stop.

Animated video for The Octopus Project’s “I Saw the Bright Shinies.”

What are some bands or artists you’d love to work with but haven’t yet had the chance?
Divya Srinivasan: I haven’t thought of it that way. I still can’t believe some of the people I’ve had a chance to work with, people I’ve admired for years who then contacted me (They Might Be Giants, Al Yankovic, Ira Glass), people who weren’t on my radar before (Sufjan Stevens, Chris Hardwick, The Octopus Project) but who I am so grateful to have been able to meet, work with and get to know. I never would have expected or hoped for this kind of luck. I honestly just hope to keep working with good people. Some of my close friends are also incredibly talented musicians, filmmakers and writers. I’d love to someday be able to hire them to work on a project of mine, whatever that might be.

What are some big dream projects you’d love to tackle eventually?
Divya Srinivasan: I had wanted to make a children’s book for a long time, and last year it was getting me down to be only creating images for other people’s words and ideas. I hadn’t worked on a personal project in a while. I sat down and got cracking, and this October, Viking Children’s is publishing Little Owl’s Night, which I wrote and illustrated. I really hope to be able to make more books.

There are a lot of things I imagine it would be a dream to do — creating an animated show, making a film, writing a book — but it’s all talk until I do it. And I’m wary of being one of those who’s just big talk, no walk. So until I have a concrete idea that I’m committed to and working on, I know I might sound pretty wishy-washy when it comes to these kinds of questions. Overall, my work goal is to keep my head down and make things I’m excited about, that I’m proud of, and that other people can also relate to and enjoy.

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