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?
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.
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.
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.
I’ve noticed that you tend to seek out (and post about) a lot of work by other artists on Facebook. How important is that for you, to observe and record the work of other talented people?
I like to use Facebook as an art feed because my inbox tends to get too packed and I never end up reading any emails. Also, once you leave college you can become quite isolated, so it's nice to look around and be inspired by other creatives. But depending on my mood, it can also sometimes feel stifling — like all these people are doing amazing things and I'm so rubbish, etc.
Do you often feel insecure about your work? How do you address it if/when it happens?
Yes, I do [feel insecure]. Most of the time. There is nothing you can do. Suck it up, make more stuff. Do your best.
Tell me about people who have been mentors for you, or those you look up to.
I would say my M.A. tutors Andrew Foster and Gary Powell were hugely inspiring and informed my thinking to some degree. They are both also amazing teachers, artists, and painters, and really passionate about what they do professionally and their personal work. In fact, part of the reason I even decided to do an M.A. was because Andrew Foster did a brief tutorial at my B.A. college Camberwell and I really liked his class (even though he was very strict and scary, because sometimes it can get all a bit airy-fairy in art school).
Could you tell me about some of the jobs you’ve had (both design-related and otherwise)?
I worked all during college in a Bond Street menswear store called Beale & Inman that was some 200 years old; they were originally tailors to kings and Charles Dickens. Then I worked for a London events newsletter as a web monkey. Now I'm working for a design and branding agency called Katana London.
Do you enjoy working at Katana London?
I enjoy it. It's mostly design, campaign, branding, and digital (corporate mostly, sadly). I've done mostly digital and just a smidgen of branding. I really love apps for some reason. Designing for a restricted screen is challenging but fun.
Is there any particular aspect of the process of designing apps that you enjoy?
I'm not sure what I enjoy about it — just the challenge of the limited screen space. I've only worked on a few apps: Goop app, a 'template' iPad app for a shop, Parkview Green app (for a huge mall in Beijing), Panic Guard (a tracker and alarm system app).
Name a couple of apps that you think are well-designed.
It's hard to name an app design I like off-hand, because my memory is usually restricted to the ones I'm currently excited by. I like the game Dots: it's a super clean, very simple, fun game. I also like Waterlogue, which is an app that converts photos into pretty accurate watercolours. It's less the design in this case as much as how good the function is.
Outside of your job, you work on a lot of your own projects: your website features everything from illustrations and sketches to design and branding work. Where do you find the time? Or rather, how do you make time for everything?
I find that having a routine is very helpful. I'm a creature of routine, so one rule is no going out on weekdays. It just fucks the week up. I come home from work and try and squeeze in some drawing in-between life chores (dinner, washing up, bathing). I carry a sketch book with me to work and doodle during lunch for 20 minutes. I used to think these increments were not worth the effort, but over time you find you've finished a couple of pages in your sketch book just by scribbling during 'lunch break'. Having things ready and set up is also very helpful in saving time and getting into it, but this is a luxury very few can afford (to have a studio or desk ready and waiting for you). My partner sometimes will tolerate my art stuff lying around when I'm drawing a big piece, but it's a small space and I'm using half the coffee table, so I appreciate that this is annoying.
By no means am I as productive as I could be. I'm making effective use of about 1/3rd of my free time. I waste a lot of time online on social media and on games, so really those are killing me right now.
Which games do you like to play?
All the silly ones: Dots, Triple Town (love it), Whirly Word, Plants vs. Zombies, Where's My Water, Fruit Ninja. I also love old games — I found a Mac-formatted retro game pack — like Secret of Monkey Island, King's Quest 6, Sims, Minesweeper, and Mahjong.
Do you sketch every day? Are there certain things you like sketching more than others?
No, not everyday. I'm not as prolific as I'd like to be. But I'm trying to put pencil/pen to paper at least once a day. My go-to is drawing unrealistic female faces a lot. I need to start drawing more men and occasionally from life to keep me on my toes, but I tend to drift back into fantasy.
What advice would you give young/aspiring artists who are just starting out?
Advice is always tricky.
1) Don't work for free. Or if you are doing a bunch of free work, stop. Some people will say this will be good for your portfolio, blah, blah, but it rarely is. You will just have wasted your time for nothing. If you are good enough to get paid, you probably should be.
2) Don't sell your copyright. Or at least make sure you are properly compensated for this. (To buy the copyright is usually exorbitantly expensive because you sign over all ownership of the work or any claim to it.)
3) Make sure you have a written agreement prior to any work. Even if it's a casual email, make sure the payment, the usage, and the client's acceptance of both is in writing.
4) Make sure you are very clear about what you plan on doing. Send initial draft and final pencil sketches and take on board feedback without taking it personally.
5) Keep a sketch book. Make it beautiful and something that you love using.
The Setup / Janine Shroff
Laptop + Other Hardware
13-inch Apple MacBook Pro • Canon scanner
Adobe Photoshop CS2 • Adobe Illustrator CS2
Staedtler pencils, but any that are not too soft or super hard. HB or 1H is good. • Reynolds bold and fine ball-point pens (I have a supply from Bombay) • Caran D'ache hard tip water colour pencils • A mixed set of acrylic paints — no particular brand. I buy one tube at a time. (They are expensive!) • Letraset Pro Markers • Caran D'ache water colour crayons • Winsor & Newton and Daler Rowney inks — whichever is available • A large cutting board and a scalpel (no particular brand)