Growing up in Nepal, Gaurab Thakali was more interested in outdoor activities than pursuing artistic hobbies. He would more likely be found running or swimming before taking up skateboarding, and later played a central role in bringing the first fully fledged concrete skate park to Nepal.
Yet his everyday surroundings left a mark on him. “I was always drawn to the traditional carvings, paintings and architecture that scattered the streets of Kathmandu and I think that was enough to subconsciously influence a lot of decisions that I still make in my art,” he remembers. “After living in London for so long now I have the perspective to see elements within my work that are inherently Nepali, whether it be a stronger sense of colour or how I interpret natural landscapes.”
Art turned into an outlet for him. “Like many artists, academia didn’t fit well with me so I became more obsessed with drawing,” he tells us. “At college my art teacher encouraged me to pursue it at university. I studied illustration at Camberwell, where I found my feet in terms of what I wanted to do creatively as a career. I also feel that learning different print techniques helped steer me towards where I’m at now with my practice.”
Today, he is known for creating rich, dense illustrations packed with colour and warmth, in particular his vibrant interpretations of live music settings and the pioneers who changed the game, from John Coltrane to Sun Ra to Sonny Rollins. His route into music illustration came organically. “At one point it was the only thing I was sketching and recording,” Thakali remembers. “I was simply drawing things that I was interested in and living with friends who were musicians pushed me into that direction for sure. We’d spend a lot of time in the living room where they’d be practising or rehearsing and I’d sit in and draw them live.”
His illustrations perfectly capture the intoxicating buzz of these spaces, but also the element of seriousness or isolation that comes with the job, with his performers often bathed in shadows and distinct from the crowd.
The vibrancy and energy of Thakali’s work is infectious, earning him commissions to work on promotional posters as well as create work for the likes of the New Yorker and the New York Times. Over the course of his career, his illustrations have also turned up on record sleeves, clothing, skateboards, packaging and even a turntable.
“The colours and lines I use are heavily influenced by a combination of traditional paintings from Nepal and Tibet called Thangka paintings, Japanese artists like Hasui Kawase, and painters like Maurice de Vlaminck, Alice Neel and Philip Guston.”
His instinct for colour is the result of years of collecting and archiving palettes that work harmoniously and that he also feels represent him. “I love finding new combinations, taking inspiration from my surroundings, and of course great artists from movements like Fauvism and Impressionism,” he says.
Naturally, there are a whole host of genres, labels and figures that stand out to him in terms of visuals, including jazz records from the 1940s, plus soul and funk releases during the 70s and 80s.
He counts Strata East, Blue Note, Verve and Prestige among the labels that have had an impact on him in particular, along with artists known for creating pivotal album art such as David Stone Martin, Lemi Ghariokwu and Mati Klarwein. “Visually they were so strong, sometimes people probably relate to the artworks as much as the music behind the record sleeve,” he says.
One of his closest collaborators is London is menswear designer Nicholas Daley, who is known for his fashion presentations which encompass music and culture. The two met at a gig several years ago and since then, Thakali has created promotional artwork for a number of Daley’s shows, as well as illustrations used directly in the collections.
“I think we have a combined effortless understanding of how a project should go just because the way we approach our respective creative practices is quite similar,” Thakali says of their relationship. “We both use music to enhance and express what we do as well as creating work inspired by our cultural heritages. Working on some of the newer projects like his new collection Stepping Razor was particularly interesting because we had the opportunity to experiment with animation which is a skill set that I’m still learning, and just having that room to try it was great.”
Despite limited access to live cultural events and music settings over the past year, Thakali has still been approached by musicians to work with them on various projects, which has helped him to stay inspired.
The kinds of scenes that have inspired him have evolved in keeping with these times too, with more of his work showing natural landscapes or reflective moments at home, as seen in his recent cover illustration for the New York Times. “It’s been great to connect with my natural surroundings here in the UK and expand and learn,” he says.