It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. But really, it was the most medium of times since we were already a year into Our Year of the Great Pandemic Time ™. The task in front of us this February-March seemed like a simple one: B.D. Somani International School asked us to create their annual yearbook, in a year where classes were held entirely online.

Now, our Bee is an old hand at yearbooks and the like, having produced the most enviable and vibrant of digital tomes documenting life at B.D. Somani before. But this year was different. We had to find ways to showcase a school year viewed entirely through screens – like some Trekkie school in the Delphic Expanse. Plus, a significant portion of yearbooks is devoted to traditional class photos. And in a year where no one went to school, and could not even for a day, how were we to represent a class?

The answer, when it did come to us, was inspired, even if we say so ourselves. We’d draw them. By hand, of course. Not entirely, but sort of. We created what we called hybrid illustrations. Illustrated classroom, illustrated bodies. Illustrated everything except for the actual heads of the students and teachers which we cut out of photographs.

Now in the interest of radical honesty, I (Pai) must explain that this project was a massive learning experience for me, in every single way. It was a MASSIVE, it was a LEARNING and it was definitely an EXPERIENCE.

First, we set about creating a style sample for approval – simple, textured watercolour illustrations of humans, attached, so to speak to a cut out of the person’s head and neck. This was quick and easy, I simply worked from a photo of myself and played with some brushes till I got the result we were looking for. Then it was time to scale up. After looking at several, sample class photographs from the school’s previous yearbook, Bee suggested that I collect silhouettes and stock images of various body types and poses that I could then draw from. For some unfathomable reason, this didn’t make sense to me, and I tried to draw the whole thing from scratch. As you can guess, it did not work. At all. In version 1, I drew one body from scratch and duplicated it all the way, and it looked, for lack of a better word, awkward. Version 2 was better, but the placement and poses still lacked something. Then I started collecting reference images and silhouettes and suddenly my life was a lot easier. And that was Learning #1 – always listen to Bee when she offers suggestions to make your life easier.

Over the course of this project, I collected a lot of reference images. A LOT. We were essentially looking for body types for a few different age groups – kids aged 3 – 5, 5-10, middle schoolers, and finally, high school students. And of course, the teachers. Here’s a snippet of my reference folder…

In retrospect, here’s where Learning #2 came into play – always plan and understand every single one of the steps in the task, so that you understand exactly how much time the project is going to take. This allows you to determine timelines that are realistic for yourself. While I knew it would be almost like creating an assembly line, I’d failed to realise just how many steps went into creating one classroom illustration. It went a little like this:

  • Draw outlines of all the body types
  • Accurately cut out the heads (there’s a Photoshop function for it, of course, but it can’t be automated so it still is time consuming) from the photos you’ve been sent
  • Pick the right bodies for the heads, put them together and colour them in if needed (this was only required for the higher classes)
    • Put it all together onto a new canvas, along with the teachers.
  • Tweak the position and the relative sizes of all the students and teachers.
  • Finish up with an appropriate background
  • There, you’re done.

That’s actually a lot of steps. And when you’re doing them repeatedly through around 60 classes with an average of 20 students to a class, they really do tend to pile up, which is how you spend your day speed-drawing. There’s Learning #3 – please take care of your back. I don’t really need to explain this one. It’s also tied in with Learning #4 – attempt to recognise when you need help, and ask for it. I’m still getting the hang of this one, honestly, but if it had occurred to me right at the beginning that it physically did not make sense for me to do all of this by myself… I would have executed this very differently. Well, we live and we learn, don’t we?

That said, this was a delightful project to work on, and almost nostalgic for me – I began to reminisce my high-school life while I sorted through photos of these students, and wondered how different their lives were from mine. And slowly, everything started coming together…

After three weeks of drawing, all the class photos were done. Bee and I spent a couple of days working on corrections; sequencing them all together to see if we had the effect we were going for, which was to see the kids grow from year to year. And finally, we were done! Then we both slept for a week each.

There are in fact many more random lessons from this project, but I wouldn’t have missed them for anything – I’m just SO happy with the way it turned out. I’m glad I documented everything I did learn so I’m more streamlined if something similar comes our way in the future. (Do your thing, Universe) The school loved our quirky Yearbook illustrations too, in fact they asked if I’d do one for the leadership team!


  • Shalaka Pai

    Illustrates. Animates. Photographs. Makes Films. Drinks Antimatter. Can either be found in her boxers, neck-deep in a stack of reading material or dolled up and dancing through the night at a live concert. In chaos she trusts. Pai Shalaka