Tag Archives: illustrator

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!


A little victory and the big win

Two kinds of people attract unwarranted attention at cafes.


Out of office but chained to work – I saw this guy sitting at our neighbourhood Starbucks with one hand on his head and the other checking emails on the phone oblivious of the beautiful breezy evening, the sound of  birds and music flowing in the air. 

One, babies because they are tiny, cute, cuddly and non-judgemental humans who if you happen to catch after a recent feed-poop-nap session will bear smiles that will warm the cockles of your heart. From what I’ve seen one doesn’t even need to know the baby. It is perfectly acceptable to nod, wave or point at them from your table  without offending anyone around.


(L) How many ways are there to hold a pen? This girl was wielding it like a dagger! (R) Here’s a elderly woman seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a short polka dotted dress and red lipstick( with matching nail polish!) rocking her wrinkles and laughing with wild abandon. I never liked the phrase – ‘twilight years’. This is how you turn it upside down.

The other kind is me. I have nothing in common with babies. But I still get pointed out, fussed over and smiled at by strangers. Shy reluctant children have been shoved in my direction by mothers with utmost urgency.”Go kiddo go, see what she’s doing!”. And then right behind the kiddo you find the guardian standing at a safe distance peering at me with equal interest.


Spotted at Coffee Academics on Scotts Road. This guy demolished a heaped plate of food in mere seconds and left. I had a really hard time keeping up!

The sight of an adult playing with crayons and watercolours in a room full of adults doing adult stuff like buying bread and drinking coffee is often met with the same amount of incomprehension as is reserved for all kinds of anomalies. What’s interesting though is how people react to this anomaly!


(L) Even though it’s difficult to hold a large baguette sandwich in one hand and eat, do not ever, not even for once free the other hand by letting go of the phone –  that kind of guy.

That same reluctant kid would turn around chuck the phone, notepad or whatever he was being engaged with and demand a sketchbook pronto. If not that day, I will see him or her appear the next weekend armed with a colouring book, efficiently applying a green crayon over a lion’s mane. Little victory!


(R) Quick sketch of my husband eating his free birthday cake (from Starbucks), reading Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy on kindle and watching the 5th One Day International : India vs NZ on his phone, all at the same time. Indians beat the kiwis by 190 runs that night. 

Adults on the other hand need an acceptable reason for doing something they were weaned off in fifth grade. “You must be an architect/ engineer/designer.” – I am not asked this but told. Only then can they explain to themselves why I have the permission to sketch or paint and they don’t because they are none of these things.


A passionate speaker seen at Starbucks who used her hands much more than her voice to get the point across. I was very convinced even though I don’t understand a word of Malay.

I do it for fun, I say and am met with blank stares. Even an year ago I’d have been uncomfortable with such attention and would have looked up Craigslist for a cloak of invisibility. But not anymore. I’ve been sketching rather feverishly over the last couple of months to know that practice not only makes perfect, it also makes courage and confidence in reasonable amounts.


(L) This guy had a laptop cover that looked exactly like a shiny marble countertop! I had a teeny weeny urge to chop vegetables on it but it passed very quickly. (R) This lady was eating alone at the table next to mine and before taking each bite she’d hold the sandwich in front of her with both hands and contemplate.

So now I hold my ground and sound convincing not to defend my actions lest I am adjudged frivolous but to get at least one of them to pull out the child that got buried under years of adulthood. And sometimes it works.


The most common sight at our neighbourhood Starbucks is that of students of all ages studying alone or in large groups.

I am plied with questions starting from how expensive my sketchbook is to what paints I use to where I bought the paint box from. And then I’m invariably told how much each one of these people loved to draw when they were small.


(L) Girls in cropped halter neck tops, nose rings, green hair highlights and beaded bracelets. The cuddly soft toy didn’t seem to fit in but it was trying very hard. (R) Stripey here had little hope of getting his assignment done that night coz he constantly looked up to check out every passing girl. 

I don’t see them wielding a sketchbook the next day or the week after but the stares become infrequent. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of them absentmindedly picking up a stray pencil and doodling the coffee mug they’ve been drinking from on the back of a receipt. What a big win that would be!


Behold the rare sight of a man holding and reading an actual newspaper, turning pages instead of scrolling up and down or zooming in and out on a screen. Sorry about the morbid headline but that’s what he was reading.


Two random people eating and drinking at the same cafe, minding their own businesses, oblivious of each other’s presence but united on a double spread.  I like when that happens.


This lady looked like someone who’d look fabulous in a mid 19th century Victorian gown complete with a flowery hat, silk gloves and a parasol! 

These sketches above are from my latest sketchbook of random people I’ve seen in various cafes in the city along with my observations. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed drawing them!

Guess who was in Singapore?

Stephen Wiltshire!

Or the human camera as people like to call him. On the occasion of Singapore’s 50th birthday next year, this British savant, also an architectural illustrator was invited to work his magic, a.k.a sketch the Singapore panorama on a 4m x 1m sheet of paper over 5 days, from memory – which was made during an hour long helicopter ride viewing the skyline.

This intensive drawing didn’t happen from the comfort of a private studio but live in front of an overwhelming audience of veteran fans –  admirers who knew of his work and came to support, on the spot converts – those who read about him in the newspaper and came to douse their curiosity and lastly clueless saunterers – flittering shoppers (the event was held at the atrium of a shopping mall on orchard road) who came to check out what the fuss was about, lingered and took abundant photos.

Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed with Autism when he was just three.

Stephen Wiltshire was diagnosed with Autism when he was just three and is known for his ability to draw astounding cityscapes from memory

Stephen was propped up on a dais from 10am till 5pm, working nonchalantly with music plugged into his ears, while the crowd hung on every stroke that he pulled out from that brilliant mind of his. With hundreds of eyes watching anybody would deflect, but not this guy. He couldn’t have cared less – zilch performance anxiety. He was in the zone, doing his thing without a worry in the world. Right in front of the dais were a set of chairs where his sister was seated along with art school students who were sketching Stephen sketching Singapore. Photographers were tirelessly clicking the same static subjects from various angles – the students, Stephen, and the crowd which was huddled right outside the cordoned off area, containing the dais and the chairs.

The Human Camera

The Human Camera

About quarter to 5, Stephen would check his watch and start wrapping up. He would then get off from his bar stool, fresh as a daisy, wave to the crowd that would start clapping and hooting, even to those cheering from the floors above and then sign autographs and smile for selfies.

I am not good at battling crowds, so I didn’t indulge in either. Instead, I took pleasure in the second best – observing the ecstasy on the face of every admirer who had his or her brief moment with the world’s ‘human camera’. It was quite the thing!