How Mariam Tafsiri balances her illustration practice with working in economics
Self-taught illustrator Mariam Tafsiri always loved to draw, but her busy lifestyle as an economist often left her longing for a creative outlet. Heavily inspired by her Iranian heritage, especially its history of art, Mariam picked things back up and began uploading her drawings onto Instagram. After landing on a signature style, and switching from graphite and paper to iPad and Procreate, she soon amassed over 12,000 followers and got noticed by the platform itself, who asked her to make stickers to celebrate the Iranian New Year. Having now found a workable balance between her economic work and illustrative practice, here, Mariam tells us more about her inspirations, the danger of falling into artistic tropes, and the power of the unibrow.
Artist and Illustrator
Place of Study
MSc Economics, University College London (2016-2017)
BSc Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Warwick University (2011-2014)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an artist and illustrator, creating digital pieces inspired by Qajar art, Persian miniature paintings and Islamic designs. My work is all done on an iPad which allows me to be flexible with my workspace, so I largely work from the comfort of my sofa or in a cafe. I actually work full-time as an economist, which is very far from my art, so I love having a creative outlet in my life.
If you could sum up your job in a GIF, what would it be and why?
I’ll go with a classic Bob Ross GIF (below) my artwork really is an escape for me and I’ve always found drawing the best way for me to relax and be happy. Running a small business can be stressful at times, especially when also having a full-time job, so I always try to focus on the joy of the process and what I want to get out of it.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now?
I’ve got a couple of big art books on my dining table – AKA my desk – at the moment and I really love two of them. One is an album of artists’ drawings from Qajar, Iran and the other is the complete illuminated books of William Blake, one of my favourite artists. I often look at historical paintings or manuscripts to get inspiration before I begin a drawing.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
My work is heavily influenced by my Iranian background so it’s particularly inspired by Qajar art and Persian miniature paintings. Qajar art refers to art created during the rule of the Qajar dynasty in Iran – it’s a really interesting period due to the way European influences were combined with more traditional Persian art.
My interest in it developed at an early age, taking inspiration from the unibrowed women who present a very different concept of beauty to that regularly portrayed in popular media. So my art is very much focused on women characters, black hair and thick eyebrows.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
I had the amazing opportunity to work with Instagram to create their first ever stickers to celebrate Nowruz. Nowruz is the celebration of the beginning of spring, and is celebrated by many countries and cultures mainly across Asia, including Iran, as the beginning of the new year.
It was incredible to see everyone using them and how happy people were to have the celebration recognised on a platform like Instagram. I also really enjoyed the process of brainstorming ideas and sketching loads of different designs.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
I haven’t had any training at all so I definitely think anyone can do it. There are so many wonderful illustrators creating work in hugely different styles. You don’t need to be trained in the one ‘right way’ of doing things. I think you just need patience and persistence to keep trying out new things and sharing your work until you begin to reach your style and artistic identity.
How I got here
How did you get into illustration? What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
I’ve always loved drawing but realised I wasn’t making as much time for it as I used to, so I started posting my art on Instagram as a way of encouraging myself to draw more quickly and regularly. I’d always drawn realistic graphite portraits which would take me hours and moving more towards illustration allowed me to fit art into my life more easily.
The more I drew, the more I began to develop a style and my account began to develop its identity. Taking the plunge into digital art was a big step for me and really allowed me to explore new styles and techniques much more easily.
How did you go about landing your first clients?
I started offering personal commissions, doing portraits of clients’ friends and family in my style. It gave me a chance to practice interpreting a brief and working with a client. The more consistent my style and artistic identity became, the more commissions I got - including editorial ones and eventually the Instagram commission.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Firstly I’d definitely say that other artists and illustrators on Instagram have been my main source of inspiration. There’s such a diverse range of people creating art and I found I really related to some accounts and their art made me feel comfortable in my own skin. So I really wanted to be a part of that.
Secondly I love going to art exhibitions. I really enjoy seeing something and thinking about how that could influence my own work.
Lastly, my work is very inspired by history so I’m always reading or listening to podcasts. I’m particularly fascinated by how artistic techniques or imagery is shared across cultures.
“I’m particularly fascinated by how artistic techniques or imagery is shared across cultures.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
For me it’s finding the time to focus on my illustration while also having a full-time job. Sometimes the business and admin side of being an illustrator takes up my time, leaving me little time to actually draw. The challenge for me is trying to balance everything, making sure that ultimately I put aside time to create the art, as that’s what I love to do.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Social media, specifically Instagram, has been crucial for me - it’s the platform where I share my work. I think it’s really democratised the creative industries because you can essentially reach your audience directly without needing a specific background or industry contacts. Since I never had any formal training or interaction with the industry, I wouldn’t be here doing illustration without social media.
In terms of tips for illustrators trying to promote their work: create pieces which your followers will share. A good way of doing that is creating works for special occasions or celebrations, or works with a message that resonates.
At the same time, it’s a balancing act because I’d strongly recommend staying true to your art and what makes you unique. It’s very easy with social media to fall into tropes or artistic styles that are very popular but barely differentiable. There’s no shame in wanting to be savvy about your work and career, but don’t feel you have to conform to make it work.
“There’s no shame in wanting to be savvy about your work and career, but don’t feel you have to conform to make it work.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I’m very fortunate to have a separate full-time job so I’m not totally reliant on my illustration work. But my main learning has been not to undersell myself – I sometimes find it very hard to price prints or commissions as I end up doubting how much my work is worth. A good way to stop this feeling is to look at what other illustrators are charging for similar products and work from that; your time is no less valuable so don’t feel you have to have very low prices to attract any customers.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
One office I worked in had a poster by the women’s network which said “If you’re here, you’re qualified”. This was just when I’d been promoted and started a new job; walking past that poster every morning helped me to put aside my imposter syndrome.
We tend to assume that others know something we don’t, or have some special skills that we don’t. It’s only when you actually go for it that you realise none of that is true. With my illustration, I haven’t had any formal training or qualifications but I create art and that’s all that matters.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Firstly, I would create an Instagram account to share your work. Start off small so that you can draw regularly and, importantly, you can experiment with different styles and subject matters.
Don’t worry at all about having a consistent style or account in the early period because otherwise you won’t get the chance to develop your artistic identity. Sometimes you’ll create works that you don’t particularly like but they’re just as important because you learn what you want to take forward and which aspects you want to disregard. Keep building on drawings and taking small things forward, and eventually you’ll converge on a style.
My other tip when trying out styles is to focus on which processes you actually enjoy. For example, I’ve always drawn with pencil and graphite, I’ve never been much of a painter. Digital illustration offered so many possibilities with all these cool paintbrushes, but as I created my pieces I realised I wasn’t enjoying the process, and I moved more towards pencils as that was much more natural to me. Never forget that the process also matters and your enjoyment can be a good sign of whether or not you should pursue something.
Mention Mariam Tafsiri
Interview by Lyla Johnston