Art and life

How to appreciate the small things in life: Lessons from cartoonist Ramya Sriram’s stick figures

Her minimalist characters also deal with weighty subjects such as women’s empowerment, depression and environmental conservation.

Cartoonist Ramya Sriram’s stick figure characters that populate her illustrated blog, The Tap, teach viewers to take a moment to appreciate the small things in life – sunshine, a cool breeze, the taste of coffee. TheTap is a calm space in a world of hyperactivity. While some of her figures are busy dancing like no one is watching, others are leaping into the unknown. Just like Sriram herself eight years ago, when the Hyderabad-based artist found a world full of meaning in dots, dashes and simple strokes.

Sriram trained as an engineer in biotechnology, then studied business administration and started worked in publishing. “While working in publishing, I started drawing stick figure cartoons and caricatures for my friends and uploaded these on Facebook for fun,” the 30-year-old said. “In 2010, a friend, who worked with Helter Skelter web magazine, asked me if I could start doing a cartoon series for the magazine. I thought why not? So, The Tap was all about slice of life things, like weekends and boring Mondays, music and travel.” She later started a dedicated blog with the same title.

Over the years, Sriram’s art has evolved, not only in how she tells stories but also in how emotive her stick figures can be. Yet, Sriram says she still cannot really draw. “TheTap is more about telling a story rather than drawing something pretty,” she said. “I can literally just do stick figures. If you ask me to draw a dog, it will probably look like a cow.”

No matter how her art has evolved, though, Sriram has never felt the need to move beyond her minimalist style of using stick figures. For her, simplicity is key.

“When I was in school, my mother got me this book on how to draw people and postures and I tried to break it down and started drawing,” she said. “Stick figures just seemed simple to draw and it was easy to communicate with them. It was later that I realised how much detail can be conveyed through these. I started paying attention to every little line, every little dot, curve, stroke. I take it as a personal challenge to be as expressive and yet as simple as possible so that when I draw something, people are able to immediately able to get what I’m talking about. I try not deviate from stick figures.”

Sriram learnt how to make shapes and pattern to not just portray activity, but emotions. Instead of just happy, sad, angry, her drawings can convey a sense of calm by drawing two plain dashes for eyes. Tilt each dash up a bit and these, coupled with a smile, become the eyes of someone enjoying a quiet, happy moment. Sometimes the face has no features at all. For Sriram, a figure looking sadly at a tree stump is more powerful than data about deforestation and the joy of travelling on trains is perfectly captured in an image of a character’s hair blowing in the wind as they stand at the door of a moving train.

In 2017, Sriram was invited to give a TEDx talk on the “power of simplicity”. She spoke about how shapes communicate. “What I have learnt over the years is that simplicity doesn’t mean dumbing down things, but using minimalism to make your story stronger,” she said in her speech. “Minimalism is about purposeful subtraction, not accidental omission. It’s not about forgetting to notice things, it’s about noticing everything and then consciously choosing what to leave out. The reason I think this works so well is because in this world where there is so much informational clutter…perhaps all of us are looking for this white space, that relief.”

In the last few years, Sriram has created works for “positive impact”, such as for promoting women empowerment, body positivity, dealing with loneliness and depression, and conservation of the environment.

Popular stick figure comic books such as Cyanide and Happiness and, closer home, The Vigil Idiot movie reviews, are about humour. But Sriram’s tone is more uplifting. “I started TheTap with pretty generic topics and these positive comics came later when I started questioning what I was doing and whether I was going in the right direction,” she said. “I would draw these to comfort myself as well. A lot of my comics are driven by an internal force instead of what people like to read.”

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