Interview with Kenyan Illustrator and Visual Artist Ian Njuguna

Interview with Kenyan Illustrator and Visual Artist Ian Njuguna

Let us begin by getting to know you, can you please tell us more about yourself, where are you from and how did you begin your journey into art.

I’m a visual artist, born and raised in Nairobi Kenya, where i currently reside and weave stories from. I work in the areas of Illustration, Motion Design and graphic design, and I currently as a Senior Motion Designer, for the BBC in Africa. As far back as i can remember, i loved to draw, even though i never took it too seriously. I didn’t pay it much attention until when my mum and those in our household began to take notice and tell me that i can really draw well. I would then take any pieces of used paper and draw on the side that was plain, and sometimes i would get into trouble because that piece of paper was , as i found out, really important to someone *yikes* ! I was introduced to digital art, by a french volunteer computer teacher, who installed a copy of photoshop on some of the computers in the Lab, and when i stumbled upon the software and started playing with it, he encouraged me to continue, and even got me tutorials online that i could use to practice. Back then i was into elements for web design, and i still remember how to make a gel button, with lighting effects, very Web 2.0. Lol! After high school i would design as a freelancer, while learning a bit of animation in a college here in Nairobi. I then went to University to study Multimedia Communication, but my passion for art and design never decreased, and i would doodle in my note books, which for me helped me concentrate better in class. I continued to freelance in University, and would create posters for events, and other design needs for different people and clubs. When i graduated, i went into film and TV production for a while, then joined a design agency, working as a graphics designer and motion designer, before i went into freelancing again for a long time, before i now joined the BBC.

My style of art can be described as both whimsical and photorealistic at times, however, i like to infuse mostly fine art and cartoon styles.

Does your art represent something about you, does it represent a message about the world, does it focus on history or look to the future?

My style of art can be described as both whimsical and photorealistic at times, however, i like to infuse mostly fine art and cartoon styles. I can’t say that i have settled on a specific style as yet, because i like to explore different styles and experiment base on inspiration from the art i consume, and i feel like i would get bored if i stuck to one particular style for the rest of my life. However, i try to tell what i call ‘African’ stories, every chance i get. I like to think of my characters as living in the same world or neighbourhood that I am, with layers of personality, even though some of them have otherworldly qualities.

What inspires you? Can you share some of your favorite artists and why they have had a meaningful impact in your work? What connection do you have to your art? What do you want your audience to feel?

I’m inspired by Music, Nature, movies and stories.I love to create characters and scenarios i have either experienced or gotten from stories, into my art. My art sometimes acts as a journal for what I’m going through at that time, and sometimes it acts as a world in which i have control over all the elements in there.Sometimes, it’s just an image that has manifested inside my mind, and I need to put it out into the world. Later on, is when i get feedback from those who see it, and then i’m surprised by what they see.

I’m inspired by a huge number of artists, but most recently, Willian Santiago, Gyimah Gariba, Karabo Poppy, Terence Maluleke and the Italian Artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I love the way they infuse their personality in their art, their use of color, and shapes and the way an artist like Caravaggio has layers of meaning behind his work. I like how he uses his work to tell his life story and how he infuses those around him in the pieces.That link between life and the art thrills me.

I want my audience to feel whatever they feel, there are no rules, even those who don’t feel anything intrigue me, i think i like exploring the different reactions people give me, and that gives me a window into their minds as well.

Give us a behind the scene look into a favorite or typical project you are working on, what drives your art? why do you make this type of art? why are you drawn to this particular subject?

I’m currently working on a commission which allows me to incorporate different elements of what i like from other artists into my own piece. I’ve recently discovered that when i have a very clear theme or statement in my head, the image accompanies the message and it’s easier to develop from there. When i haven’t clarified what i want to say, the art rarely speaks to me, and i feel like i struggle to complete the piece. I’ve also realized that i also create better when I’m at peace, so i try as best as i can to make sure that I am. The pieces I’m most proud of, feel like a scene in a movie, or on going saga.Those ones inspire me the most, because i feel like the story is birthed and lives on the canvas.I think that’s why I’m into animation and motion graphics as well, i want to use them to continue telling those stories.

We want to know a little about the significance and scope of your work, Can you please share more about your process? How do you make your work? Are there particular tools/materials/software/technology that you use? Is there a connection between your process and your artwork’s message?

I always begin with a pencil and paper, i’m more comfortable that way, even when i could easily sketch using a wacom tablet or an Ipad. I like to thumbnail or story board my mideas, and write down small notes on things like the color or the execution style. i’ve started a new process of making thumbnails on sticky notes , and then a sketch pad for the more defined sketch. I then take photos of the sketches with my smart phone and then send them to my computer. I just got started on Procreate on the Ipad, so i still use Adobe products a lot, even though I’m slowly transitioning to using the Ipad more often. When it comes to illustrations, i refine the sketch, then start on the line work. Even for the pieces that will be mostly flat illustrations, i still try and do the line work well, because it creates the foundation of the piece. I then build up from there into flat colors, shading, texture and any other effects. I don’t think there is a significant connection between my process and the artwork’s message.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made? What have you learned from it?

Hoping on a project, based on financial reasons alone. I understand that we must take care of our finances, however, i’ve always found that whenever i pick a project out of the desire to make a fortune or easy money, it usually drains the life out of me, and the motivation to do it dwindles.


What does African art mean to you? Do you think African art is important? Do you think that Africa is reflected in your work? If/so how? why not?

I think life on this planet is an incomplete and inaccurate story without the African story and i believe that African Art of all forms is critical to telling the African story in its most complete form. The African story is at the center of my work, and i am always trying my best to make sure it remains within my work, whether personal or commercial. I am always trying to incorporate elements from my own experiences and encounters, or from stories of those around me, and i believe my experience,and life is one part of the African Story.

Where is your favorite place to work? Please share a photo.

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