Author Archives: Somali Roy

About Somali Roy

I love to tell stories, of places and people. And to do that I became a writer, sketch artist and illustrator. I have an insatiable appetite for travel and that doesn't always mean taking a flight or going on a road trip. I am also a compulsive reader and hoarder of books, a decent cook and a bonafide people watcher. I never leave the house without a sketchbook and a pen.

Flash Card Illustrations: How I did it and what I learnt

I rarely talk about the process behind a finished illustration but this particular project I recently worked on also turned out to be one of the most interesting ones! And besides the fun element, a given on a job like this, I learnt some valuable lessons along the way which in the hope that they prove helpful to someone, I am eager to share.

The project was called EREY, an up and coming language learning platform for English speakers who wish to learn ‘Somali’, the language of Somalia, an East African nation located in the Horn of Africa. To make learning fun and interactive, Erey makes use of flashcards, each having a Somali word, a pictorial representation of that word and its English translation printed on it.

My task was to create illustrations for five ‘Somali’ words and

the challenge was to create images that would best represent the country and its local flavours and embrace the client’s vision at the same time.

Here’s how I went about it.

Illustration for Bakhaarka (the store)Bakhaarka final copy

From my research I figured that stores in Somalia are essentially these one storey brick buildings with strikingly bright coloured facades that sometimes have hand painted images of the items sold in the store.

Forever the food lover I settled for a tan coloured fast food store for my illustration. The picture of a camel on the facade indicates availability of roasted camel meat in the store. The shop signage ‘Moos iyo Baasto’ translates as ‘Spaghetti and Banana’ which is also Somali comfort food.

What I learnt while working on this was how attention to details gives your work that extra edge. By studying tons of local Somali stores on the Internet, I was able to incorporate relevant architectural elements to my store illustration such as the wooden door, metal shade roof, the decorative air vents and the steps leading to the store with the ‘welcome’ sign, all of which increased the credibility of the final image.

Illustration for Dugsi (the school)Dugsi final copy

For Dugsi I wanted to show the interior of a classroom. Acting on one of the client briefs I drew some of the female pupils with head scarves and some without (reminiscent of the pre civil war and less conservative days). The co-ordinates on the black board are of Somalia itself and the motivational quote at the back of the classroom ‘Qoriga Dhig, Qalinka Qaad‘ translates as ‘Drop the gun, pick up the pen’.

What I learnt here was to make an effort in understanding the client’s vision for the illustration, which in this case was a stronger representation of women.

I wove that thought into my illustration by drawing a female teacher at the blackboard, taking the lead in teaching the class. I drew her in the foreground to draw focus and in a slightly larger size compared to the male teacher, who is seen helping a student in the background.

Illustration for Caanaha (the milk)Milk final copy

By illustrating Canaaha as such, I wanted to draw attention to Camel milk, a staple food of Somali pastoral communities and also to the traditional hand woven vessels they use to carry and store that milk.

I drew a traditional Somali rug underneath to bring the image together and add some colour.

The challenge while making this illustration was providing suitable context to the image of ‘milk’ which seemed tricky because milk looks exactly the same across the world! I could get my illustration to work by incorporating elements of local culture and lifestyle. Creative prop choices can make your image relevant is what I learnt here.

Illustration for Bilaha Sannadka (months of the year)Bilaha Sannadka copy

I had a few good ideas for this one but was also curious to know what kind of images others had when they heard this phrase. So I asked around.

And concluded that somebody’s mental picture of a personal planner one-upped mine of a date calendar. I provided context by writing the names of the months in Somali and personalised the planner by adding important events like birthdays of Aabe (dad) and Hooyo (mom). It’s interesting how the planner offers a peek into the person’s life and personality! Our planner owner does not want to miss cheering for Somalia at the Bandy World Championship in January and has plans to join a Somali Book Club later in the year.

What I learnt here was sometimes it’s worthwhile to look outside of your head for ideas and inspiration.

Illustration for Buug (book)book final edited

The brief for Buug was to create several shelves of books. I could draw a library or a bookcase but instead chose to illustrate my secret fantasy which as a book lover and passionate reader has always been to spend hours in a Victorian study, curled up in a plush armchair reading in the warm glow of a vintage lamp that overlooks a polished dark wood table and shelves upon shelves of gleaming books.

The table has a half read book by a popular Somali author and a loose sheet containing a list of Somali authors whose books the owner of the study plans to read.

Looking out for fresh ideas is worthwhile but what I learnt here is looking in and tapping into personal interests and passions for ideas is also invaluable.

Here’s how the final product looks with the illustration – Somali_Words_bakhaarka

You can see the rest of the flashcards in this slideshow-

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EREY is active on both Facebook and Instagram if you’d like to give learning Somali a go!


Happy New year (of the dog)

I didn’t really have a reason to draw cute dogs.

But when the Internet has fed you pictures of dog-themed street lightings, of parties, and events, of wine bottles with dogs on their labels and dog shaped ornaments, handbags, and chocolates for over a month all in the spirit of ushering in the Lunar Year of the Dog, you reach a point when there’s nothing much to do except regurgitate all that information.

Only slightly differently in my case and with my own creative spin!

Here’s 6 hand drawn portraits of random dogs, fresh from my sketchbook –

Dog 6

Dog 4

Dog 5

dog 3

dog 2

dog 1













Three seasons, one sketchbook

When I finished my latest sketchbook, it struck me how this particular set of drawings reflect changing seasons.

The initial pages were drawn when the weather was still warm but not hot. People were romping about in shorts and light coloured tops and ordering cold citron tea, but Bingsu was on its way out from the menu and dainty looking Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)-themed goodies were filling up the shelves.

Mid-sketchbook you see traces of fall – sketches of people facing or with their back against cafe windows that frame trees ablaze with the most brilliant shades of yellow and red. Temperatures drop but those in denial keep their hemlines low. The rest of us take refuge beneath light coats and wrap scarves around our necks. Hot chocolate drink starts to look tempting but is definitely a good fortnight or even a month away from being the undisputed object of desire.

In the last couple of pages, winter arrives, but in phases. It starts innocently when a few woollen hats pop up on people’s heads here and there. Then with the first snowfall, out comes the cable knit sweaters, duffle coats and hooded parkas and finally on a day like today when it is -12 degrees outside I see people milling about in overcoats, oversized down jackets with faux fur trims, striped woollen mufflers, fitted cashmere blazers and distressed leather boots. And this is only the outermost layer.

Some cafes have their heating so high that it prompts people to peel off their winter clothing layer upon layer as soon as they get seated until everyone has a small pile next to them or on the chair while others have the temperature setting so low that it makes sense to have everything on your body, even the backpack. See the last sketch.

people 101

A lot on the mind and on the table

people 102

Five friends and a conspicuous bag charm. Seen at Alver Cafe, Seoul

people 103

Office meeting in progress. Seen at Angel-in-us cafe, Seoul.

people 104

(L) I once saw the most dedicated, zesty, sincere and patient tutor trying to teach the most distracted student who kept texting the entire time.

people 105

Sipping the last dregs of Summer. Seen at Paris Baguette cafe.

people 106

Seen at Paris Baguette Cafe, Seoul

people 107

Fall colours outside the windows of Gontran Cherrier cafe, Seoul.

people 109

(L) Fall colours vs furrowed eyebrows (R) This guy’s winter jacket looked like a satin and velour Tudor robe fit for Henry VIII’s court. Seen at cafe TerraRosa, Seoul

people 110

Together yet distant. I drew this couple from the most coveted seat in Alver cafe, which is against a beautiful vertical garden. You can see some of it behind the lady.

people 108

Interesting woollen hats seen at Paris Baguette cafe

people 111

Winter brings out the puffy down jackets.

people 112

(L) This lady bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls! She had the same hairstyle, identical gait and spoke in similar staccato sentences.

people 113

Keeping the backpack on for extra warmth.



Furrowed eyebrows vs Fall colours

I saw this guy at a cafe yesterday in the CBD. Dark coloured tailored suit, slicked back hair, serious looking glasses and still like a statue with his nose buried in a book on finance and investing. And just outside the cafe separated by glass windows were trees in the deepest shade of red and in the brightest shade of yellow, branches swinging in the breeze and leaves flying around like confetti.
It was such an interesting contrast and I was glad I had my sketchbook to document that moment!

Tera Rosa sketch

The Back alleys of Insadong

are becoming a favourite place of mine to not just sketch but to hang out as well.

What draws me to these narrow and winding cobbled streets is the errant undisciplined, out of control commingling of the old and new that you see every step of the way.

Insadong backalley

My take on Insadong 14-gil, Seoul

From my corner on Insadong 14-gil, I see two conspicuous and ugly looking air-conditioning ducts slapped across the face of a hanok (traditional Korean house) which I assume like all hanok houses had once looked regal and in tune with its centuries old surroundings.

The rest of the house’s facade is mired in electricity cables, wires, switchboards, gas pipes, drain pipes and commercial signages which cumulatively seem to be swallowing the house bit by bit. Its original tiled roof and sturdy wooden beams are still intact but I doubt their fate. A satellite dish pokes its head from the roof of a jerry-rigged laundry room upstairs, another add on, exhibiting a colourful range of towels and lingerie. Outside, a trashcan stands guard like a dutiful sentry.


Back alleys of Insadong, Seoul

It is not pretty in the conventional sense of the word but the bare-all, guileless stark honesty of it all is what’s endearing to me. It’s sort of like an in-between place. It’s neither derelict or in squalor without electricity or cable nor is it a picture perfect painstakingly refurbished ‘heritage district’ where everything is made to look and feel exactly how it was 500 years ago.

In the Insadong back alleys, you get what you see and you see everything, hear all and bump into everyone. Nothing is staged.

Insadong backalley bnw

Insadong 14-gil sketched using dippen and ink

For the short while I was there, sketching this view I tapped my foot to a peppy Korean song someone was singing in the shower, got soaked with the plants someone was watering next to me and stopped the traffic when the trash collector parked his cart by me to a take long look at my drawing.

All in a day’s work!










Same same but different

While working on this particular set of drawings sitting at cafes, eateries and subways around Seoul, it dawned on me, especially after having moved countries recently, how different we are as humans irrespective of our similarities and how similar we are irrespective of our differences!

When we first moved to Seoul (and in the subsequent months) I was fascinated by the large groups of elderly people kitted out with serious hiking gear riding the subways on weekends, by the fearless ‘Ajummas‘ (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) in identical solid perms, sun-visors and windbreakers, by the mini portable fans everybody carried in their hands all summer and the copious amounts of Bingsu (a lip-smacking Korean dessert) they consumed; or how most women would pull out a mirror from their bags and freshen up their make up every once in a while, by the raging red lipsticks and round framed Harry Potter glasses worn en masse and how clothing and preferences changed with season.

On the other hand these days there’s hardly anything novel about a couple sitting together, in silence, glued to their phones; or someone taking a picture of their food first before starting to eat! Don’t we all have that one friend who can’t stop talking, so much so that we mentally check out after a while, maybe doze off in the chair even? Look out for that person in this collection.

And a lady with a fetish for polka dots.

And two ‘rubik’s cube’ lovers.

People 88

Guy with trekking poles and hiking boots, seen on the subway

people 89

My husband on a late night conference call becomes an easy target.

people 90

Ajumma on the left in sun visors and lurid pink jacket, drinking coffee

people 91

(L) Sketched this lady on a hot summer day. She was wearing white, and carrying a matching white purse (R) Two ladies eating mango Bingsu. This was common sight all summer

people 92

(R)From her polka dotted top, hand fan, umbrella and backpack, it was safe to assume that she really liked ……

people 93

(R) This guy in green GAP t-shirt was a one man show. He seized every conversation and talked so much that one of his mates dozed off!

people 94

people 95

(R) A lot of thought and effort goes into appearance and I see most Seoulites dressed really nicely when out which means I feel underdressed half the time.

people 96

(L) From my table, it looked like a “It’s not you, it’s me” kind of conversation. Don’t miss the bright red lipstick on this woman, rather on every woman in these drawings.

people 97

(R) Mini portable fan= most seen summer accessory in Seoul. (164,000 of these were sold in South Korea this year!)

people 98

(R) Couple that plays rubik’s cube together stays together! These two were relentless in a ‘coffee be damned, let’s solve this thing’ kind of way.

people 99

(L) Make-upping should be a word here.

people 100

I often see business meetings being conducted in cafes. Here’s one in session. Attendees – 3 feisty women and one man who squirmed in his chair every time the discussion heated up.

The two of us

Canada sketchbook 1st page


I made this illustration on the first page of my Moleskine Japanese album, a 48 page concertina sketchbook I am taking with me on this trip.

This is just a warm up drawing before the real travel sketching begins which would be quick and messy, sometimes drawn in comfy chairs inside nice cafes with a fascinating scene unfolding outside the window or sitting on hard ground in a really uncomfortable position under the midday sun or in a breeze so strong that you have to use binder clips to secure the pages so they don’t fly away and with people gathered around and watching every stroke you make.

In short my travel sketches are nothing like this illo which I patiently created in the comfort of my studio! But that doesn’t detract from the fact that I love travel sketching.

I love its ‘unfinished’ nature and its immediacy. I love that I am able to pin down a moment, a scene, a season, a dialogue, a trend or say an emotion I witnessed on paper using hasty lines and scribbles.

But what I love most is cracking open my travel journal long after the trip is over.

Sure you remember the rice paper rolls and coffee you had for lunch at Melbourne’s Federation Square three Christmases back because you drew them but the joy of remembering how warm the sun felt on your face is unparalleled and the scores of seagulls hopping around begging for food and that the staff at Starbucks who got your name right the first time. It all comes back!

So here I go again for two weeks touring Vancouver, the Canadian Rockies, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto and I am planning to sketch as much as I can and when I am back I hope to eventually share the drawings here on the blog.

By the way, you couldn’t tell that we love playing Scrabble, could you?