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Sanjana Baijnath Illustration Essay

by K. Tempest Bradford

Sanjana Baijnath is an Auckland, New-Zealand based freelance illustrator. Born in South Africa, she immigrated with her family at age 12 and attended Auckland University of Technology where she graduated with a Bachelor of Graphic Design. Dissatisfied with just “shuffling page layouts according to client’s strict and prudent specifications,” she followed her passion for illustration and never looked back.

When I first came across Sanjana’s portfolio I was instantly struck by the faces looking back at me. The variety caught my attention, as I too often see artists who draw the same face over and over. Beyond that, Sanjana infuses her portraits with so much expressiveness. Just looking into the eyes conveyed volumes about what was going on with the women looking out of the images.

Of her artistry, she says, “The main reason that I was drawn into art was the lovely meditative feeling you get when concentrating on a drawing/painting — it makes me feel truly content and at peace. It’s like there is an inexplicable urge to create, and that’s what you’re going to do with the rest of your life (ideally). Trying to suppress that drive has very negative effects, spiritually, on a creative person.”

I asked Sanjana to tell me a little about herself, her process, and give me a virtual tour of her best pieces.

I started taking my first extra-curricular art classes, back in South Africa, when I was 6 years old. I had a wonderfully inspirational tutor named Celeste Matthews and she made me realize the importance of drawing from life and studying the human form. She’d encourage me to draw everything that I saw. I still have my old ink drawings of her house/garden and dogs from when I was a child.

Stormy Savannah

When I was young and first starting out, I was heavily influenced by the cartoon world, and spent many hours drawing characters from Disney movies. I discovered countless artists, galleries, and communities online in which to showcase and critique work. This proved to be an invaluable tool for young artists to grow and learn and is still very important today –- we can see it on forums such as Conceptart.org, with their Ateliers and CGTalk.com with their tutorials and such. During that time my greatest influences were the other artists who frequented those communities. These days I greatly admire Benita Winckler, with her skill for realism and exotic characters, Jason Chan, a master at capturing mood, expression and narrative, the wildly painterly style of Matt Dixon.

In the late 80’s, when I was about 8 years old, I first became intrigued by the digital medium. I fell in love with and truly realised what the medium had to offer when I discovered the Corel Painter software. The similarity to traditional media meant that I could combine and push the best of both worlds to their full capabilities — mixing the flexibility of digital and aesthetics of traditional. I still draw and sketch/brainstorm/do life drawing traditionally with pencils, and have many, many sketchbooks, but my painting process is entirely digital.

Lift Off

Digital is still stigmatized in the general art world, due to a lack of understanding, but the overall sentiment from digital artists is that an artist’s tools are a means to an end. So have fun, experiment, and use whatever tools you fancy along the way. There is no right or wrong or “list of rules” when it comes to the creation process.

There is a difference between my digital and traditional character’s faces — digital being closer to the image that I have in my mind, whereas the traditional ones are more a shadow if what I want to capture, or they sometimes reveal subconscious style choices. With digital, you have the flexibility to endlessly refine aspects of the characters face — to chop and change and try out many different variations without having to worry about messing up the piece. It is this ability to refine that really helps to accurately portray the vision of the face you have in your mind. I adore the versatility of the digital medium, and it helped me to accelerate my traditional approach towards learning figurative art.

From the Sketchbook

Conversely, I love the results and sometimes unexpected results of traditional media. The fact that you have to commit to what you sketch forces you to try and build up your initial concepting skills so you can nail it the first time! But for both mediums it’s all about what the character is feeling, which is sometimes a direct result of how I’m feeling that day, which surfaces in my sketchbook. I’ve yet to refine my facial/head anatomy technical skills, but I have invested more time in trying to portray certain emotions.

I’m a firm believer in being able to tell an entire story through one image. In the past (Renaissance, Baroque, etc.), artists would incorporate huge amounts of symbolism into their paintings and religious frescoes, through props and animals and such. Audiences looked at paintings differently back then, moving the eye around and effectively “reading” a piece as opposed to the static nature in which we take in pieces today. By including relevant props and clues, we can help the viewer formulate a storyline. In the end it is up to the viewer to piece together the story, and the artist can influence the direction in which the story unfolds.

There is a lot of open room for interpretation in one-off portraits where there is little going on around the subject. Take the Mona Lisa for example — the subject of her smile has been debated about for centuries! A certain amount of ambiguity with your subject’s face is certainly a lot more interesting as it encourages the viewer to think about what’s going on. This is the route I take with my personal pieces, as I like this degree of audience interaction. However, with my commercial pieces, my facial expressions are a lot more exaggerated because clients usually have a very set way in which they want their characters portrayed.

I tend to have plain backgrounds because I’ve spent the last couple of years focusing on my figure/portrait drawing ability. There is so much to learn about the human head/figure/skin tones that at times it seems overwhelming to tackle the complexity of background material. I am currently working on a book cover that calls for a landscape which features a dark mansion against the moonlit sky. It certainly is challenging. In time, I definitely want to dedicate more of myself to learning landscape painting and such, in order to become a well rounded artist.


Vex Harrow – Autumn

I had a very good time collaborating with the author who came up with this character, and the whole process went very smoothly. It uses my favourite colour scheme of oranges/purples and I simply love the dress. It was great fun to portray a Goth-type, and overall the composition, outfit choice, and magic effects were a combination of happy accidents that worked together well.

Vex’s face is based on reference and the description which the author gave me. I tend to use reference to get things such as lighting correct, as I am a big believer in using it for realism pieces to get a convincing result. In this case I used myself in the mirror, with a lamp beside me for the lighting. With regards to facial features, these were determined not so much by the author’s physical description, but rather the description of the character’s personality traits. If you feel what the character feels, the physical aspects of the face will fall into place as a result.

Poetry in Motion

With this piece I was going for an Art Nouveau look — the style that was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century and then later recycled in the 1960s with psychedelic imagery — with its languid lines, patterns and beautiful ladies. I created it for my partner’s birthday. It articulates my feelings, as I am not an eloquent person in reality. I feel that I can say things better through my art, and this piece symbolizes the way he makes me feel. I seem to experience feelings visually in terms of colour and pattern, and it’s easier for me to put them down in my sketchbook as opposed to talking or writing about them.


This piece represents the gestational period of a fairy. I feel that fairies are similar to insects in that they start off as wingless young creatures, then they spend a period of time in a cocoon where they develop wings and become mature, thus emerging as fully fledged fae. I wanted to make the piece look natural, as if the viewer has just come across this cocoon on the side of a tree trunk. Subdewed started off as a little pencil doodle, which I scanned in and worked on digitally in Painter 7.

Jamaican Fantasy

I created this one with acrylic paints on a huge 2m x 2m canvas. It’s a direct result of me being frustrated at the lack of women of colour in the popular “trendy” art movement that is prevalent in today’s editorial and fine art world. Upon completion, I asked for a very trendy and busy café in central Auckland to display this piece. This café displays the work of many up and coming local graphic artists. It was all about getting my message out there about having all types of women present in the art world’s subject matter, and the piece received very positive feedback. You could say that this piece reflects my personal little crusade. I certainly would like to make it into a series, as I enjoy painting with traditional media from time to time.

Browse Sanjana Baijnath’s portfolios at SanjanasArt.com and DeviantArt.

Tagged as:art

Sanjana is a freelance illustrator who works out of her tiny studio in Auckland. Having graduated from Auckland University of Technology with a Bachelor’s degree in graphic design, she worked for a couple of years in a graphic design studio before taking the plunge as a full-time freelance illustrator.
‘Like most other artists, I found myself thinking onto paper from a very early age. Lingering over lavishly illustrated children’s books was a favourite pastime, and the narratives that could be conveyed in one simple illustration or character design captured my imagination. I knew I wanted to do art for a living when I realized that someone had to come up with those illustrations, which sucked me into their make-believe worlds with such solid clarity.’
Sanjana is a product of the hyper-plastic radical pop culture world of the 80s and 90s. Saturday morning cartoons, Sega games, Mad Magazine, Disney animations and ‘My Little Pony’—these things flavour her work with a manic cartoonish vibe. During her nine years as a freelancer, she has also lectured part-time at Auckland University of Technology.
‘Working at AUT had a profound effect on me. I absolutely love working with students and sharing my passion for illustration with them. I feel that teaching really helps to keep you on your toes, as you have to be up to date on everything in your industry. Having to convey certain concepts to others helps to strengthen your understanding of the subject. Lecturing in this creative industry was a two-way street, as I learned a lot from the students as well. It’s amazing how every illustration student had a unique voice and it was a thrill to nurture that voice and help them build up the skills needed to convey their vision.’
After lecturing, Sanjana was inspired to come up with a series of colouring books that had simple guidelines on how to work with light and form. ‘Colour Zone stemmed from the need to share the “creative zone” with others. As an illustrator, a large part of my job is spent lost in the act of painting, what creatives refer to as “being in the zone”. The zone is where your brain is focused entirely on the task at hand, on shapes, colour and light. What if I could help other people experience this peaceful meditative state of mind that artists experience while working? The huge colouring book craze that is taking the world by storm shows that many people are using it as a way to relax and destress.
My book is a bit different in that is has some basic instructions on how to shade and render form, so that non-artists can gain the confidence to build up each template into a fully resolved illustration.
These instructions were inspired by the most common questions asked by my illustration students – how to shade, work with a light source etc.’

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