Aysha Tengiz uses colour and whimsy to reflect on the human experience

From joy to loneliness, Aysha Tengiz’s illustrations tackle the whole gamut of human emotions through a bright and bold visual language

Like most children, London-based artist Aysha Tengiz grew up on picture books. Most say goodbye to them in childhood, but her love of these illustrated stories remained well into her adult years. The influence is clear to see in her kaleidoscopic palettes, her use of block shapes and loud patterns, and the cast of unique, cartoonish characters she conjures up in her mind.

“I think that our surroundings and experiences constantly trickle down into the work created, consciously or not,” the artist tells CR. “Lots of things have influenced my work over time, from traditional Turkish paintings and weavings through to the shape of tiles on the Underground or a wacky looking duck I might spot in the park.”

Animation by Aysha Tengiz of a creature in a chequered suit running as it cries

Just like a growing bracket of poignant children’s books, Tengiz also uses her typically colourful creations as a canvas to reflect on the human condition. “I definitely love work that hints towards potentially more macabre or serious themes, but that also presents itself in a light-hearted or playful way. I think when working with these two elements, it gives the reader access to something that might be harder to consider or talk about in an easier way,” she explains.

This comes into her work organically, rather than by force: “I think I just enjoy playing with fun characters and bright colours but also love using art as a tool to talk about harder subjects or feelings.”

Growing up, a career in the arts felt like an unlikely prospect given the stories Tengiz heard from others. “Even as I child I have memories of people saying how fierce the competition is and that you make no money,” she recalls. Nonetheless, she went on to pursue art from GCSE all the way through to a BA in Illustration at Camberwell College of Arts, graduating “without a real clue of how to navigate working as an illustrator, flung out into the ‘real world’ after living in a cosy student bubble”. To this day, her best advice for budding illustrators is keeping up with the admin: “Emailing, managing money, taxes and running an online shop make up a huge amount of my time. Happily for me, I’m disgustingly organised and methodical so I actually enjoy this just as much as drawing!”

Photograph of an illustration by Aysha Tengiz on the cover of Anorak magazine
Anorak magazine cover
Illustration by Aysha Tengiz featuring a character in a tree surrounded by flowers
International Women’s Day

After graduating, Tengiz eventually picked up enough commissions to pivot to a full-time career as an artist working across illustration and textiles. Since then, she’s made award-winning personal projects, including her picture book about loneliness through the lens of Fil the elephant, as well as commercial work for brands like Bombay Sapphire, Stella McCartney, and Facebook, and editorial commissions for publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The latter was a commission to accompany a round-up of the best books of 2020, combining her two favourite things: illustration and reading. Working with art director Joanne Lee, she had the “freedom to go bananas” with the illustrations, which featured a spectrum of quirky, book-loving characters across the cover and the inside pages.

Illustrated cover showing characters reading books for the Washington Post by Aysha Tengiz
Cover of the Washington Post’s Art and Design section

With time, Tengiz began to “see the importance of animation in modern illustration”, particularly when it comes to commercial work as clients increasingly look for moving editorial illustrations or gifs for social media. She introduced animation into her practice a few years ago, picking up the basics from her best friend, Caitlin McCarthy, who luckily happens to be an animator.

In 2020 she was approached by King’s College London for her first animation commission – a pair of short films narrated by Rob Brydon and Sharon Horgan called Families Under Pressure, which was aimed at helping families to cope during the pandemic. Tengiz relished the challenge: “It reminded me how important it is to give something a go, even if you might have to learn how a little bit on the job!”

Seed and Bloom

The relationship between her commercial and personal work is a symbiotic one. She’s found that too much of either side isn’t good for her – resulting in work that’s either overly corporate or gets stuck in a creative rut. “I love and hate them both equally and so it’s really finding the balance to enjoy both aspects,” she says.

Of course, like every artist, she can still find herself in a rut from time to time. “I think this is a really consistent feeling amongst creatives and it’s this sensation to force yourself into a wave of inspiration,” Tengiz says, “which generally means that you get frustrated and upset. I definitely base a lot of my work’s worth on this idea that I have to constantly be creating something new. Feeling stuck means that I’m failing. Which, of course, is ridiculous.”

The best method for overcoming the “horrible illustrator’s hole of doubt” is taking a step back and going outside to stretch her legs – and her mind. “This is usually when a new idea will come crawling out of the darkness!”

Illustration of a bird bending over to kiss a snail on the ground by Aysha Tengiz
Photograph of an illustrated travel guide by Aysha Tengiz
Travel Guide
Illustration by Aysha Tengiz of a mouse-like character standing above a reflection of itself
Upside Down
Illustration of a cloud raining on a person by Aysha Tengiz