Colouring outside the lines | Moira Zahra

MaltaToday caught up with illustrator Moira Zahra, one half of the husband-and-wife team behind the ‘A Space Boy Dream’ comic and its beleaguered protagonist, to talk about her evolving style, working as a freelancer in Malta and what the future holds

Illustrations for SARTO
Illustrations for SARTO
Illustrations for SARTO
Illustrations for SARTO

When did you first realise you wanted to pursue visual arts? What spurred you on during those early days?

I always knew I wanted to pursue visual arts, though I didn’t always know which area of visual arts. In primary and secondary school I enjoyed writing stories and drawing, but drawing more so. I drew cartoons, comics, game characters and more. In secondary school in particular, art class was so much fun for me. I couldn’t believe this was ‘school’ and I remember enjoying it more than the mid-day break. So naturally I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

What led you to illustration in particular, and how did your current style evolve? How would you describe it, and what were some of your key inspirations? 

Being a Playstation kid, and being raised in a family who knew little about the arts, led me to study graphical art rather than fine art. Graphic Design, as it turns out, had little to do with games and character design, which is what I wanted to do, but it did lead me to illustration and it taught me a lot about the formal elements of art and design.

I like to think that my style is always evolving; otherwise it’s no fun. When I was younger, I was a member of the social media art portfolio site Deviantart, which was very popular at the time. I posted my work there, got negative and positive responses, looked at other work that was better than mine and slowly tried to improve. I noticed that the bigger the effort, the more positive responses I got in return. My aim at the time was to become a good digital painter. I wasn’t being particularly creative, but rather trying to improve my technical skills.

One day I posted some scribbled female figures that I had done in a few minutes, and an artist who I respected left me a comment saying, “I wish I could do these kind of quick sketches” or something along those lines. That sort of led me to understand that maybe I should stop trying to become a great digital painter and focus on my sketches and drawings. 

Later I decided to study for a BSc in the UK. I was bored of drawing and wanted to do something creative and visual, but different. During this time, I drew almost constantly. I obsessed with rooms and environments to avoid the usual characters and figures. I tried abstract, psychedelic drawings, experimented with lines and media. Prior to this, I was more interested in digital media, but studying multimedia and technology made me want to go back to the basics.

The older I got, the more I grasped the importance of context, composition, colour, and texture. My drawings became simpler, better composed, and I started to think before I draw. I now give myself more time to become inspired and to gather ideas.

I would say my style at the moment is quite minimal and flat but also decorative and playful. I do change it depending on the project but I try to give an identity to every piece of work. My work is often influenced by classic fashion illustrators like René Gruau, David Downton and Carl Erickson. I also like to play with social narratives that involve humour and wit, as in the works of Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar.

'This is Verde', a personal project of Zahra's
'This is Verde', a personal project of Zahra's
'This is Verde', a personal project of Zahra's
'This is Verde', a personal project of Zahra's

What are some of the challenges of being a freelance illustrator in the Maltese environment? 

Finding the clients when you’re starting out can be daunting, but this should be taken as the time to experiment and launch one’s own projects. If these projects are of good quality and are shared online, they are bound to draw clients. How to quote for a piece of work is something you learn slowly. One has to keep in mind the local economy when pricing. If you go online and see how much other illustrators ask for in the US for instance, it will not be very realistic. Having said that, the price you give your work determines the value, so one has to be very careful with this process! 

An often overlooked challenge is the determination to say no to projects that won’t pay, won’t do anything for your portfolio and that you don’t want to do. This often wastes a lot of time and can be to the detriment of an illustrator’s career. That said, so far most of my clients in Malta have been very easy to work with, so budding illustrators shouldn’t worry too much.

Lastly, an illustrator is sometimes caught in between the fine art versus commercial art world. An illustrator might not be invited to participate in exhibitions because they are not ‘artsy’ enough. In the same way, a more conceptual illustrator might find it difficult to get work with book publishers. Malta is very small, so one might feel like they are missing out on opportunities. While an illustrator can adapt their style to find more work, one should always stick to drawing what they love and what comes naturally to them. If the work is authentic and appealing, there will be a market for it.

Of your more recent projects, which are your favourites and why?

A very difficult question! Most of my projects are favourites because I refuse to work on anything that I will not enjoy. I did particularly like working on illustrating the menus for Flora’s Tearoom in Naxxar. I’m quite the foodie so when I can team up food and illustration I’m over the moon! I also enjoyed working on illustrations for SARTO, a multi-luxury brand. Fashion illustration is not a realistic career in Malta so this is the closest I could get to it! The ‘Indulge’ magazine illustrated covers I did last year were always a pleasure to work on. I had plenty of artistic freedom on every cover, and it’s always a nice surprise to see one’s work on the cover of a magazine!

What’s next for you?

This year it’s all about book illustrations for me. I’m spending the summer drawing, but I’m not complaining! Having recently stopped writing ‘A Space Boy Dream’, a weekly webcomic that I worked on with my husband, I am now writing my first superhero comic (with a twist), which my husband, Mark Scicluna, is illustrating. We plan to self-publish it later this year.

In the near future, I look forward to setting up a solo exhibition. I’m working on ideas and sketches, absorbing inspiration and observing the world around me.

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