The Shahnameh is a thousand-year-old epic that tells mythical tales of ancient civilizations. It’s an often-overlooked seminal work of world literature. Its 62 stories are told in 990 chapters through 50,000 couplets of poetry that took 30 years for its author Ferdowsi to complete.
The Shahnameh is written in modern Persian, which makes it understandable in spite of its age. I remember as a young boy spending hours at the library reading through its many magical stories, marvelling at its fantastic creatures, and feeling proud of the fact that I could understand its poetry with little help. Reading Shahnameh formed a big part of my childhood identity.
Ever since I started dabbling in illustrations almost two decades ago, I had the goal of illustrating all the characters of Shahnameh. The trouble was, I wasn’t a natural illustrator. So for most of those years, I was paralyzed by the desire to figure out the perfect illustration “style”, before embarking on the project.
I would feverishly follow the work of illustrators who were immensely more talented than I was. I would look at their well-established styles in awe and seek out ideas and inspiration. Every now and then I would try to draw up some of the Shahnameh characters, experimenting with different styles.
And every time, the end result just didn’t feel ‘right’ to me. I would get disappointed and put it aside for months, sometimes years, and the cycle would repeat. Until it didn’t. Eventually life seemed to get in the way, my day job as a UX designer took me farther away from any artistic ambitions I may have had, and I stopped working on the project entirely.
Then my son was born, and I started to realize he LOVED books more than anything else. Soon, looking for beautiful books for him from all over the world became one of my favorite things to do. His library had books from places like Japan, Portugal, Spain, and Korea. (his books have their own Instagram now). Thanks to his mom who is an artist, he had a Persian alphabet book, but absent from his growing international library were books about Shahnameh.
So I decided to pick up my old project again. Rather than trying to establish the perfect ‘style,’ I just started with what felt most comfortable and natural to me; drawing characters by hand, and then creating simple vector art in Illustrator.
It was a slow process; For each character, I read the original poems and looked at archival paintings from old manuscripts in order to capture their true spirit as best as I could. After a few months, I had enough art to create the first volume, and ordered a one-off board book for my son.
The project now has a name, and I’m continuing to illustrate new characters faster than ever as they appear in sequence in the Shahnameh. There’s an incredible cast of female characters in Shahnameh that I’m particularly looking forward to illustrating.
I am excited not just about sharing these characters with my son, but with others who may like them as well. I’ve created an Instagram account where I’m posting my process, all the artworks, and the characters’ stories. One day I hope to publish the book(s) so that Sivan isn’t the only boy in the world who has one, but for now I invite you to follow my journey at instagram.com/ShahsOfLegend.
About the author
Pendar is the Design Lead for Google Translate and lives with his wife, son, and two cats in sunny California. In a previous life he blogged as legofish and achieved notoriety for running a couple of viral cultural campaigns.