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Finding Beauty in the Everyday: Illustrator Sukanto Debnath

By Robert Ordona

Sukanto Debnath says his art doesn’t focus on important matters. Heavy subjects don’t interest him. “There’s nothing deep about my work,” insists the Indian-born illustrator, who currently lives in Hungary. “There’s nothing to intellectualize.” His aim is to find the magic in “trivial, true moments—people dancing and having fun, or even just walking. I want to capture the most lighthearted parts of life. I want to capture what’s delightful.”

This love of the lighthearted things in life began when Debnath was a boy growing up in West Bengal, in Eastern India. As a child, he was fascinated by Disney movies, especially The Lion King. His talent for drawing and painting led him to study art after his graduation from high school. “I had no choice,” says Debnath. “I wasn’t good at anything else.”

illustration of Hungarian folk dancers, by Sukanto Debnath
illustration of Hungarian folk dancers, by Sukanto Debnath
illustration of Hungarian folk dancers, by Sukanto Debnath

Illustrations of Hungarian folk dancers, by Sukanto Debnath.

An illustration from the series Couples and Cell Phones, by Sukanto Debnath.

A FOUNDATION IN FINE ARTS

Debnath attended Visva-Bharati University, where he studied painting. He worked in watercolors mostly, but in his final years at school he dabbled in collages using acrylic and oils. After earning his bachelor’s degree in fine art, he thought he would continue his studies and become a traditional painter. He traveled south to Hyderabad and explored graduate programs there. But he hadn’t shaken the animation bug that his beloved Disney films had infected him with. So while he was considering graduate schools, he was also studying animation and looking into work at animation studios.

An illustration of monkeys singing karaoke by Sukanto Debnath

Karaoke, by Sukanto Debnath.

“I was getting a bit bored with fine arts,” Debnath says. “There seemed to be a lot of vagueness in it.” And he craved a wider audience for his work. “You paint something that’s going to be hung on other people’s walls, and you never know if they actually like it,” he continues. “I chose to go into applied art, which seemed to be more direct and seen by lots of people.”

FROM BOUNCING BALLS TO IMAGINING DRAGONS

During Debnath’s initial exploration into animation, he studied Preston Blair’s book Cartoon Animation—“a bible for many beginning animators,” he says. He started as many animators do—with a lesson on animating a bouncing ball.

Using the bouncing ball as a model, Debnath created his first animation: an animal jumping on a trampoline. “It came out good,” he says. “After that I gave up painting and never looked back.”

Debnath created a portfolio of his animation work in 2000 and shopped it around to studios in the area. He worked as an animator for several companies before landing a job at DQ Entertainment, where he rose through the ranks to become its animation director. His favorite creation there was an animated series called Potatoes and Dragons, which was produced in partnership with the French company Alphanim.

Illustrations from People Walking, a series by Sukanto Debnath—these illustrations were inspired by his observations of passers-by.

Having been raised on Disney and DreamWorks, Debnath was excited by the French style of animation captured in Potatoes and Dragons. “It was different from anything I’d ever known,” he says. “Its aesthetic was easy, snappy, and happy”—all qualities he now infuses into his illustrations.

FROM ANIMATOR TO ILLUSTRATOR

At DQ, Debnath met his wife, a production manager at the company, and after a couple of years the pair left India and moved to her native Hungary.

Though Debnath still takes on occasional animation work, he’s concentrating on his illustrations, which he creates in Adobe Photoshop CC. Being in Hungary has given him fresh eyes to view the world. “I had become so used to everything that I had stopped observing. Everything is new here—I’m more curious about the world. Here, I feel like I actually see people.”

He’s constantly intrigued by daily life in his new home. Debnath says that “regular things” capture his eye: “Like people skating or talking on their cellphones. People here are very different—some are tall, some are very large or very small. They’re good to draw because everybody is so different.”

Illustration the series

Debnath says he enjoyed illustrating this diverse group of Hungarians: “‘Important people’ and ‘less-important’ people, and some people dressed in dark clothes,  and some people dressed elegantly, But I rendered them in a way that makes the image look old.” Debnath used a muddy treatment and a sepia-like tint and playfully manipulated the structures of the subjects’ faces.

He admits he did have regrets about leaving his job when he first moved to Hungary. For a moment, he says, he thought it might have been a mistake: “I liked my job in India and had a good position. I had been with the company for 12 years and had some command,” he says.

But in Hungary, he began illustrating the life around him and posted his work on Behance—something he’d never done—and the assignments started rolling in. His clients these days include companies like Facebook, Penguin Random House, Coca-Cola, and Disney.

So Debnath began freelancing full-time. “I enjoy freelancing for now,” he says. “I love that my time is mine.”

An illustration of street musicians by Sukanto Debnath.

An illustration of street musicians, by Sukanto Debnath.

THE DELIGHT IS IN THE DETAILS  

Debnath describes his work as simple—“I use simple shapes and simple contours, but I render parts of the image with more detail.” For instance, he says, “I may leave a face simple—sometimes without even a mouth—but I may give detail to the legs or even the knees.”

He enjoys catching people casually navigating their daily lives. One of his illustrations from his series People Walking was inspired by a photograph he snapped while in Rome of “people just trying to get somewhere.” He says he had taken a photograph of his son on a visit to Rome “and these people were just walking by in the background.”

An illustration of a woman smoking, by Sukanto Debnath

But, Debnath says, though some of the characters in his illustrations may have been inspired by real people, they aren’t literal, photographic images of people he’s seen. “I may change the dress they’re wearing or the way they walk. I change their hair if I don’t like it, and I often draw just from memory.” Certain details stick with him: “People’s jaws, the clothes they wear, things like their hair…I’m not inspired by much more than that.”

Illustration is a relatively new endeavor for Debnath, but he’s enjoying it immensely. “It’s something challenging and interesting,” he says. “It’s not as tedious as animation, where you have to do the same thing over and over” until it’s complete.

“Illustration is fun,” says Debnath. “I’m a fun, easygoing, lighthearted guy. I’m not serious. And I get to bring all of that into the work I do now.”  

Sadhus, an illustration by Sukanto Debnath.