You intended to be a psychology major. What did you enjoy about it, and what made you realize that art was a better fit? To be honest, I went into psychology as a safe bet. It was science-y and had to do with writing, and I enjoyed research. As it turns out, I’m much too empathetic to manage other people’s problems.
Around the time I was learning that, I was working as a cartoonist. It was my then-boss Laila Alawa, founder and chief executive officer of media company The Tempest and now my good friend and mentor, who really encouraged me to take my work seriously. The final push came when Ms. Marvel, an ongoing comic about a Pakistani American superhero who also happens to be Muslim, dropped in 2014. It was the first time I’d ever truly felt represented in a story presented to me, and it helped me believe that there was a place for me in the illustration industry. I fell in love with all of it: the creative problem solving, the deadlines, the storytelling, pushing my technical skills. Illustration continues to be exhilarating.
How did you make the transition into illustration? I kicked down the door of my advisor’s office and asked how to switch majors. I had no idea what to expect, but I was hungry to learn and improve. It was terrifying, but I threw myself into the deep end anyway. My parents weren’t as thrilled by my decision, but they knew I am awfully stubborn when I set my mind to something.
Your work “focuses on the spaces where art and identity intersect.” What conversations would you like to see more illustrators having regarding these spaces? I want illustrators to be really conscious of the decisions they make and the influence they have. I’ve been veering away from the word diversity as it’s become an awkward stand-in term for what we really should be talking about: inclusion. Visible representation is incredibly powerful, and I always advocate for casual inclusion. As illustrators, it’s our job to communicate with our audiences. The first step to doing so is acknowledging the audience members you already have, and then making an effort in your work to let them know they belong there.
What has been lost now that the internet has bridged the gap between illustrator and audience? What has been gained? As of now, I am only 21 years old, so even my earliest memories still include dial-up internet. So I don’t know if I’m the best authority on what has been lost, but it’s something I think about a lot.
Artists have to do a lot more to be able to compete for work. While I just talked about all the virtues of the internet bringing creators closer to their audiences, there are serious downsides. It doesn’t matter how skilled of an artist you are—you still need some intuition for social media branding. It’s a popularity contest as artists end up juggling different platforms while trying to be as interactive as possible. It’s very draining to constantly curate your public presence for the highest number of clicks, follows and subscribers—but that’s the reality of it. Audiences want the artist as much as the art, and it’s a responsibility not many can handle easily.
What other profit centers could illustrators explore besides commissioned work? The same creative brainstorming skills illustrators apply to their work needs to be applied to their business practices. Through social media, artists have been capable of entirely redefining how illustrators can function as a brand. Artists create an entire community around their work on YouTube. Web comics have gained international followings. Patreon and Kickstarter prove that paying audiences are out there when they can access creators directly. All it takes is a plan and a couple of clicks online. There has never been a better time to be an artist.
Are there certain steps you take when you’re developing a character for an illustration? I don’t pick up my pencil or tablet pen until much later than most people expect. I will set some vague parameters for myself to get started and then dive into research. I scour books, illustrations, photographs and videos—just about anything I can get my hands on. I hoard references all the time. I start taking note of what details catch my eye. I do my best to be self-aware of why I am attracted to one thing and why I wrinkle my nose at something else. I figure out what the point of my character is—what I’m trying to accomplish in illustrating her or him. I then procrastinate by taking a long shower because I’ve convinced myself that’s where I get my best ideas. Only after all that will I begin sketching iterations.
When you’re out in the world, what captures your cartoonist’s eye? I live in Boston, so I take trains everywhere. I love people watching. Every type of person gets on the train, and it’s hard to not sneak a sketch in when I’m riding it. Often, these sketches will inform another illustration down the line. My favorite people to draw are old folks—all those delightful wrinkles, folds, surly expressions and saggy arms.
What advice do you have for an illustrator who’s just starting out? Fall in love with the process because you’ll hardly ever be happy with the final work. Do what you love, and the right people will find you. Look for friends and not industry contacts. Don’t be That Guy™. Find out how and where you work best. Drink more water. Read a book. Text your mum.
You also teach illustration. How has teaching influenced your work as an illustrator? There aren’t really right or wrong ways to approach an artwork, but there are certainly more and less efficient tools—both literally and figuratively. Once you give the right tools to people, they are then capable of communicating all their unique ideas that have been informed by their own experiences and influences. That, in turn, becomes a part of my experience, and will inform my work as well. Similarly, these kids teach me as I teach them. It all circles back.