The Designer Who Traded His Camera Phone for a Pad of Paper

Shridhar Reddy Wanted To See More Clearly.

From a  John Muir Laws  tutorial.

From a John Muir Laws tutorial.

Shridhar Reddy

Shridhar Reddy was a colleague of mine. We always had great conversations at lunch. Afterward, I’d often find a mysterious book on my desk on a wide array of topics — from Winnebagos to UX design to nature journaling.

Shridhar mentioned he had stopped taking photos and started drawing on his daily runs. I wanted to know more. The shift felt like it could help others. It signaled creative regeneration. I asked if I could interview him on the topic, and he generously agreed not only to answer my questions, but to share his illustrations as well.

Me: You’re a designer and you’re married to a designer, so it might follow that you’ve always been interested in illustration. Is that true?

Shridhar: Yes. I actually was very attracted to my then-girlfriend because she was such a good illustrator. Growing up in India art, illustration and design were far in the periphery of approved educational pursuits. It was neither encouraged or even known as a hobby then.

Our Bay, illustrated by Shridhar Reddy.

Our Bay, illustrated by Shridhar Reddy.

When I graduated from design school in rather late in life, I had this gnawing complex that I couldn’t really be a good designer because I couldn’t draw and sketch like I saw some of my American class-mates do. Worse, thanks to a rather fatalistic attitude inherited from my culture, I also was convinced that I wasn’t quite “born” with that talent, therefore there seemed no point in learning how to draw. It took about a decade of living in America, before I finally realized that any limitation of skill was completely in my head.

Harbin Hot Springs. Illustration by Shridhar Reddy

Harbin Hot Springs. Illustration by Shridhar Reddy

Therefore, when I walked in to Argo cafe in Chicago on a first date to to meet a girl who is now my wife, I was absolutely struck to find her at a table doodling away in a little black moleskine. She showed me the sketches, and I saw a sunny little glimpse of our future. Surely, she could teach me to draw?

Me: Are you good at drawing? Be impartial. Most people think they’re terrible at it, but most people aren’t designers.

The Memory of Trees. Illustrated by Shridhar Reddy.

The Memory of Trees. Illustrated by Shridhar Reddy.

Shridhar: Honestly, I think I am mediocre, with a good chance at getting better. It is merely a matter of practice based on good inspiration and some tutelage.

If there is one fact about drawing that I would want anyone to know — it is that we are all equally good at drawing. It is our formal education system and our circle of friends/teachers/coworkers who ultimately might be the biggest inhibitors of our drawing. It has been lamented over and over that all kids are equally good at it until their middle school years and those that got good at it were those that continued drawing through their high school years in an unstructured way. The rest — just quit.

Me: How did you first come across the idea of nature illustration?

drawing trees.png

Shridhar: Landscape photography was my first introduction to the visual arts. It was a perfect complement to my motorcycle travels and i ventured forth with a camera tucked into my motorcycle luggage into many exotic landscapes that beckoned. However, photography is also equipment intensive, with a never-ending wish list of gear and gadgets. Over time, I noticed myself shooting too many photographs, too quickly, in too little time. I was not really absorbing the scene around me, just hoping for a few keepers, a time-stamp rather than a moment. It was the equivalent of fast-food.

It was after giving up on photography for a few years that I noticed an urge to get back into nature, but with the intent of simply recording it into my memory, and not the camera’s. I was delighted that by doing a quick water color sketch of a scene I was completely free from many of the rules of photography (light, color, composition). Here was a way to invent my own landscape, and yet never forget the landscape that I was in at that moment.

Me: You told me a little about John Muir Laws, whose gif I’ve put at the top of this piece. What is special about him?

Shridhar: John Muir Laws (may his tribe increase) is a rare individual in this day and age — his entire life’s mission is to spread the skill of nature journaling as a way to celebrate and preserve nature. He is a born teacher — no skill is too small for him to explain, and no subject is too difficult for him to deconstruct. Like a magician explaining his wizardry, he breaks down sketching into small, finite, easily learned and practiced skills. And of course, all of his teaching is free for anyone who comes to his lectures and nature walks.

Me: How does drawing differ from photography (apart from the obvious)?

Shridhar: Both are art forms, but for me, the differences that matter are:

  1. Temporal: A photograph takes less than a second to take. A sketch takes a minimum of 20–30 minutes. When you spend that much time with a single subject, you are guaranteed to never forget it ever. To this day, I walk around the park in my neighborhood and greet some trees like old friends because I sketched them.
“When you spend that much time with a single subject, you are guaranteed to never forget it ever.”

“When you spend that much time with a single subject, you are guaranteed to never forget it ever.”

2. Word and image: Photographs force words out of the image. At best, words survive as a caption and a line of description beneath. But with sketching, text is easily an integral part of the picture. I freely scribble my thoughts. They are a living part of my design. Sometimes as a scrawled texture, other times as a bold statement or quotation — therefore, a living journal of what i see and what i feel.

“[Thoughts] are a living part of my design.”

“[Thoughts] are a living part of my design.”

Me: Do you think this is something you’ll be able to continue and if so, what do you think will keep you going with it? What brings you back to nature illustration?

Shridhar: I definitely hope to continue this new found skill. As with many skills, it is essential to find the right sources of inspiration, the right venue to share it with and the right teacher/people to keep the inspiration loop tight.

drawing boats

Nature illustration is only a form of sketching. It could be any kind of sketching that i will be doing. A project that I am currently working on is to sketch all of my son’s favorite toys. Another project is to draw all the trees in McLaren park that grab my attention everyday. Yet another project is the idea of the 10 minute landscape painting on small sizes. There is no end to how many reasons there are to pull out the paper and pencil.

“Flowers that I’d bought for Jess 10 days ago.”

“Flowers that I’d bought for Jess 10 days ago.”

Me: Last question. Do you think I should try it? Seriously, my drawing skills are jokily bad. Like worse than my daughter at age 3 bad. What could I get out of it?

Shridhar: You practice meditation, right? Then you are ready to start drawing. It is by far the easiest and most rewarding form of meditation. The parallels between the two practices are striking — an intimate space, a mind focused intently for 20–25 minutes, the body relaxed and aware and at peace. The only difference is that at the end of a sketching session, you have a visual record of your practice on paper. Imagine flipping that journal and re-living each meditation?!

From Danny Gregory’s published art journal.

From Danny Gregory’s published art journal.

danny gregory

I highly recommend any of Danny Gregory’s books on drawing. He doesn’t teach drawing, but convinces you to try it. I leave it to him to convince you that the last thing you need to think of is how your drawing looks. What matters is that you felt compelled enough to mark paper with pen. Do it for a few minutes daily, and you have a practice, and not too much time later, you will surprise yourself that you actually happen to like what you sketched. And oddly enough, it doesn’t matter then either.

Me: I am inspired by you and this practice. Thank you for sharing it with me and others, Shridhar!