Part I: Early Life
When I was a child, I had asthma, chronic asthma, actually and it was the bad kind. And I couldn’t sometimes go to school for weeks on end, when I was already going to school and I had to stay home for many hours. So, it affected my health pretty badly. And there were a couple times where my mom had to save my life basically because I ended up in the hospital.
So it was bad. But, it could be considered kind of a blessing in disguise because I’ve heard that other artists, something like this has happened to them, [crunch sound] where an illness or a setback has led them closer to what they became, artists. And that happened to me because, I had the time to draw when I was feeling a little better, I wasn’t in school, couldn’t go, would take up my composition notebooks and draw. So I was influenced in that way.
Moving to Puerto Rico
My mom in many ways, thinking that it was better for me to be in better weather, which I don’t know if that was a great idea because humidity is a big enemy of asthma, but she decided that maybe it was better for me if I lived in a warmer place. And we moved to Puerto Rico, which is the place she’s from and my father too. And I ended up in an island after I had been living in a city for ten years.
And it’s a totally different experience, even though I lived in another city on the island, that’s where I started seeing more chickens, more trees. There was an avocado tree, for instance, in our backyard. Things like that, which you never see that in New York. And I also met my grandfather, who used to plant, you know, tomatoes and lettuce and things like that.
So it was a different thing, a different experience. And I went to see my cousins and they had a little farm up in the hills. A very small farm, not even a farm but they did have some animals like a pig, a cow, a few chickens and I learned a lot by observing how they lived. We, I even drank milk from the cow, I remember drinking milk that came straight from the cow. So it was a different experience and it enriched me in many ways.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actually seeing a completely different world which probably opened my mind to the way I am today.
Drawing in Puerto Rico
While I was in Puerto Rico, I never stopped drawing. I always drew, all the time, and as I got older. I remember one time I was playing basketball with some friends, and not that I was a great player, I was horrible. And the ball hit me in one of my fingers on my left hand, which, I’m a leftie. And it jammed my middle finger pretty badly and it got swollen and I couldn’t use that hand for a while. And I realized, “I can’t draw, my fingers are messed up or broken.” And I started realizing that I had to be careful with my hands because I did want to draw. So I always drew.
Bilingual in Puerto Rico
Yeah, when I went to Puerto Rico a lot of people thought, or the people in charge of the schools thought there was no way I understood Spanish, or let alone read or write it. And I came from the States, they were worried about that so they wanted to put me back a grade. My mother fought to keep me in my grade. Because when I was in New York, my mom made pretty sure that I was learning to read and write in Spanish as I learned to read and write in English.
And actually they gave me a test in Puerto Rico, they gave me a paragraph or something like that to read, and then write something about it. And when I did what they asked me to do, and I guess I did it well, they just retained me in my grade from then on. I’ve always spoken both and written both languages.
A new grandfather
When I met my grandfather it’s kind of an interesting experience because I knew about him but the truth is I didn’t know what to expect from a grandfather. I didn’t have any other grandparents. Well, I had a grandmother in New York, but I mean grandfather I didn’t. So I was already ten, eleven, he was different from what I knew. He was really a man from the country, you know a farmer, he had been a farmer, construction worker.
But I’ll say this, that I started learning about my grandfather. The man worked like crazy till he was seventy, almost eighty years old, I think that’s when he passed away.
And he was retired but he was always building stuff and he built himself a little home for himself. And there’s this man, almost 70 years old, carrying cinder blocks, getting up in a ladder with a hammer and strong as an ox, working all the time. And some of that I guess worked into me also, I think I work hard when I have to do something probably based on what I saw from my grandfather.
And my mother also, who is a hard worker herself. So he influenced me in that way. He also was kind of a musician in Puerto Rico. There was this typical folk music that was something akin to hip hop where you had to rhyme and do these little verses and they’re called aguinaldos. And my grandfather was always singing these songs.
And I think I always liked music myself and I’m sure that was an influence that came through the blood, through the genes from my grandfather or something.
Part II: Influences and Style
As a kid, my father for instance, would every Sunday was his big day off, basically. He would go to, in New York they call it candy stores. He would go to the candy store, which is like a grocery store, and he would buy these paperbacks where he would read all these novels he liked to read, and magazines. And my sister and I would go with him and we’d pick comics for ourselves.
My sister would read Archie and Little Richie, I think is the name of the other one she used to read a lot. But I would pick comic books like Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, Batman, that kind of stuff. And what happened is I enjoyed reading the comic books and I liked the art, especially those Marvel comics which had Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, Thor, because the art was great.
I was basically influenced by comic books in the sense, well they were my first teachers is what I should say. Because in a sense I learned from these artists who were drawing these pictures in the comic books, like Steve Ditko was the original artist for Spider-Man. I saw how they draw the human figure, I saw how they drew movement, and I wasn’t analyzing it. But as a child I could see that I liked the way the figures looked.
And I tried to draw Spider-Man, flying in the air, jumping off a building, he’s upside down sometimes. I would see how a forearm was drawn, muscles were drawn. A leg, a leg flying in the air, that kind of stuff. So I started getting a sense of what the human figure looked like just from trying to emulate what I saw in the comic books.
Mind you that I know I wasn’t drawing them perfectly, but I also kept doing it. I wasn’t, I know sometimes children get frustrated when they draw and it doesn’t come out exactly the way they think it should. But I never saw myself doing that, I actually would just keep drawing. Do it again and again until I started getting it a little better each time.
I realized that I might want to do this as a career when I was quite young basically. I was probably nine or ten years old. Reading these comic books I enjoyed so much, there were these ads for a famous artists’ school that I would see. I would see it all the time. And I remember it had a list of names of the board members for this artists’ school.
And one of the names had written under it the word illustrator, and the name was Norman Rockwell. And I had seen Norman Rockwell’s work in Life Magazine, maybe even Look magazine, I can’t remember, he was in a few magazines. And I loved the kind of illustration he would do. So I realized for the first time that an illustrator did what Norman Rockwell was doing.
And that was the first time I started thinking, “This is something I’d like to do. I would like to have a job where I work and do these great paintings for a magazine like Norman Rockwell.” That was the first inkling I got.
Art courses in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, there was a time when I guess, and I’ll say this the federal government had some money I guess, and they had this special program when I was in high school, and they allowed students to take a course, kind of a craft, learn a craft, while they were still in high school. So I chose one of the courses which is commercial art, because it related to what I liked to do.
And for three years I studied commercial art in high school and I left with a little document, degree, saying that I had studied commercial art for three years and that was a great help because my first jobs in the graphic field were obtained because I had that degree. So high school really shot me out and I started working.
I think Puerto Rico influenced me in many ways because some of the colors I use are the kind of colors you would see in the tropics. Actually when I did a book, the book Sugar Cane, I based it a lot on what I saw in Puerto Rico. And Sugar Cane is supposed to be a story of a girl maybe from the Caribbean but more like Jamaica, not Puerto Rico, or some of the other Virgin Islands.
But I used, you know, they all look the same, the islands. A lot of blue water, you know blue-green water and palm trees and vegetation is basically the same. So I used a lot of what I saw in Puerto Rico and incorporated that into the book and those colors are part of it.
I used to go up hiking in, with my friends in Puerto Rico, by ourselves you know up the mountains, eating food as we went along. We didn’t bring any food or anything, we could spend the whole day from morning till evening up in the mountains just walking around.
So I knew what the rivers looked like, the rocks looked like, the woods looked like for that, all that tropical forest. I know a lot about it, and I incorporated that into a lot of my work. And the colors, yeah, you could say the tropics have influenced a lot of the colors I use. Plus the fact that I like the Impressionists and I did like Van Gogh and I did like Gauguin, so many times when I think of color those guys influence me too.
Training at a TV studio
After I had been living in Puerto Rico for a while, I did work at a college in Puerto Rico in the audio visual department and the graphics department. And eventually I decided to move back to the States and I had family in Florida so I moved to Florida. And I started looking for a job as a graphic artist in Florida. And there’s an interesting story there because I, sometimes you do the wrong thing and it turns out to be the right thing.
And I was looking for a job that I had seen in the newspaper, at a place called Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And I went to this building with my portfolio to apply for the job, and what happened is that I walked in, and I was in the wrong place. The receptionist told me, “This is not Nova University.” But what happened after that is interesting, because as I was walking out she saw I was carrying a portfolio.
And she asked me, “Are you an artist of some kind, are you a graphic artist?” And I replied “Yes,” and they were actually looking for a graphic artist in this place that I didn’t know about. And it turned out to be an educational television station, closed-circuit TV for Fort Lauderdale schools, Broward County schools actually. And that place was probably an oasis, the place where I actually learned the most about art, doing art, because we did animated films.
We worked with illustrations obviously. We put a lot of graphics together for television, we built sets, we worked Muppets, puppets that were as big as Muppets basically. And we designed them and we colored them, we did all kinds of different things that really prepared me to become what I am today.
Taking the leap to freelance
While I was working in this station, which actually was called the Instructional Television Center in Fort Lauderdale, I…we would receive these books every year, annuals from the Society of Illustrators and American Illustration and European Illustration. And in these books you had all of your artists, I’m talking illustrators, who did work that year, the best illustration, and you could see their work. And I always got inspired by everything I saw in these books.
So one time I decided, okay it’s enough, I’ve been working here almost ten years, I had been working like nine years at the Instructional Television Center. I still wanted to be a freelance illustrator. And I decided to put a portfolio together, printed some postcards, did some research where I could look for work, like The New York Times, Time Magazine and all that.
And I sent samples and eventually I quit my job, took a sabbatical basically, and moved to New York and got jobs. It took a while but I started getting regular work for the Times and New York Magazine, BusinessWeek. And then I did some album covers at the time, and took off from there.
Rediscovering New York museums
One interesting thing that happened, when I was a kid I lived for ten years in New York, I was ten or eleven like I said. And I left, but it never occurred to my mom or dad to take me to a museum because I was young, you know. So I never went to an art museum. I think I may have gone to a Museum of Natural History, the school took me there. But one of the most beautiful things that happened to me, when I went back to New York after many years, about 15 years, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And after reading and hearing and seeing pictures of this work, I finally saw my first Van Gogh right in front of me, in person. And I have to say, the eyes welled up. That was spiritual kind of experience for me. And I didn’t know I was going to react that way, but I did.
Starting as an illustrator
I did quite a few pieces for the book review through the years, The New York Times book review, I may say. And an editor from Simon and Schuster saw my work, her name was Anne Schwartz, and she decided to call me one day and offered me a manuscript. Asked me if I had done a picture book ever, I said, “No.”
But she said, “I like your work, I’ve seen it all the time in the New York Times so I’m going to offer you a manuscript, if you like it, I’d like you to illustrate a picture book for us.” And I agreed, and it worked out, that was my first job.
The good thing about working for the book review in The New York Times is that a lot of people see your work. Especially people who are into literature and into arts. So you’re exposed in many ways. The New York Times doesn’t particularly pay a lot for illustration, but it’s worth doing the work because you will be seen and that’s what happened to me, that’s how I got my first job doing picture books. So, sometimes you have to make a little sacrifice to get to the next step that you want to go to.
Raul’s special style
Concerning my style and the media I use, I learned to do this through the years, the kind of work I do now, the techniques I use. So it wasn’t something I learned one day and just did it. Through the years I experimented with different things, like I said, I worked with pastels for a while. I did ink drawings, I even painted for a while, I haven’t done it in a long time – using oils.
Acrylics was the one I used the least, the medium I used the least. But as time went by I developed this idea of using colored pencils. One of them, one of the reasons was safety. A lot of stuff was toxic. I used markers for a while once, and that was too much, got a little dizzy quite a few times, so it wasn’t a good idea. Pastels could affect my breathing maybe because of my asthma, in those days.
So I started using colored pencils, but eventually as I became more serious and started doing more work as an illustrator, I realized I needed to speed up the process and I started using watercolors and colored pencils. So, today the technique I use is watercolor as an under painting. I usually take a white piece of paper, watercolor paper. Usually I use Arches or Fabriano, an Italian watercolor paper.
And I do, I put a wash of aureolin yellow, and I hope I’m pronouncing it right. And it’s this golden wash on the whole paper, so it’s not white anymore, it’s got this gold tint to it. And on top of that after it dries up, I sketch whatever drawing I’m making. Eventually I use other washes, darker washes, for the shading and tones of the picture, half tones, using watercolor again. And it’s usually a monochromatic kind of feeling to it that I put into it.
So I use a lot of sepias and browns, for instance, to make the shading. So it’s all this gold and sepias and browns, and there’s the picture. Then I etched into the paper with an instrument I use called a scratcher, believe it or not, trademark.
And I etch different lines into the paper, and I scratch the paper sometimes with an empty pen by the way. And on top of all those layers of color, watercolor, then I start putting layers of colored pencil. And I have to do it in a certain order to get certain colors right. If you use all these colors the wrong way, you get mud. They get dull. So there’s a certain method to the madness where you put the right color, one on top of the other.
And the interesting thing is, the watercolors I use are translucent so the colors underneath show through the colors on top. And they even, the paper is very textured so it leaves enough little holes where the colors that are underneath show through the pencil colors on top. And the scratches you can also see the colors that are underneath through the scratches. So it makes the drawings look luminous. That’s basically what it turns into, that’s how I work.
A lot of people have asked me if other people are trying to imitate what I do, and I don’t know if it’s that I’m not good enough, but I don’t see it. And it’s, I think it’s hard to emulate something that is very spontaneous because the way I lay colors, it just has to happen as you do it. And if you don’t know how to do it, there’s no one, two, three, four, five, six steps you gotta follow and it’ll come out exactly the way you want it. So it’s just a matter of doing it over and over, and it’s almost accidental that it has to happen. So if you can’t do it that way, it’s very hard to imitate.
Inspiration behind ideas
Many times when I work on a piece, a picture comes to my head. Especially when I read a manuscript. And that’s the first thing I jot down, thumbnail sketch. And that becomes usually the final piece because it’s the first impression, first idea, and apparently the mind when it gets it right the first time, that’s the one you go with. Many times, I’ve changed some ideas as I go along but usually the best ones come right off the bat, first idea I get, even though I try to come up with other ideas.
When I work in concepts though, if I do editorial work, work for magazines, sometimes I used to do advertising, then sometimes you gotta try to go in different directions. You may get a concept later on that’s much better than the first one in your head. But generally, you should go with the first one, at least for me. The first idea I get, that’s the one that ends up on the page.
Researching a new book
When you illustrate a story, especially if it’s a little history involved, you have to do research. Thankfully, we have the computer now so you can do a lot of Googling, which is what most people do now and you can get a lot of information that way. But sometimes I even go to the library, I like to look at books, pictures, and if I’m doing something on medieval England for instance, I’ll go to the bookstore because I may find some nice interesting illustrations of knights and other painters who in the past painted, you know medieval things. And I can use those as reference. So you have to do research.
For instance, I did a book on a woman who studied the stars, she learned how to figure how to measure the distance of the stars from the Earth. And I actually knew that, I read an article in the New York Times that this woman worked…there were these women who worked at Harvard as astronomers and I decided to go to Harvard.
Took a trip up there and did some research and found the exact rooms they used to work in. I looked at all the instruments they used to use in the 1800s, 1890s, something like that. And they had them all there, so I just took pictures of them. I asked for permission, obviously, I made arrangements. And studied the whole thing, I studied her papers, I read some of their papers and the notes they took, how they measured stars in the 1890s using these giant telescopes. And that’s some of the things you have to do if you’re doing books to get the research correctly.
Using photos in research
While I was in Harvard, for instance, I took some pictures because there were some instruments they used that I just had to take a picture. They were made out of wood and glass, it was better to have a picture to have the exact copy of what it was. Other things I just sketched. Like there was this giant telescope in some old pictures I saw, and I just sketched the telescope and I sketched the rooms where they worked in, some of the details. Instead of taking pictures, because they were smaller tables in little corners here and there that weren’t going to show in a picture so I just drew them, did sketches.
Also for the clothes they wore at the time, I researched some pictures and look at what they were wearing, so I sketched in skirts, blouses and things, the kind of clothing they wore. And the men also, to get an accurate picture of what it was, so, it’s interesting, it’s fun. It was fun to do that.
If I do something different where I can’t travel and research it, like I said I’ll go to the library or Google it, or sometimes you read enough of the history that you can make it up yourself based on what you read and you try to make it as best as you can to make it accurate.
In a book I did on Civil Rights, for instance, I looked at a lot of pictures from the 60’s, which I had seen a lot of those growing up, and what people wore in the 60’s. Plus my own memory of, you know my uncles wore those clothes and pants so I had an idea of what they’d look like. And I’ve got to thank Mad Men on TV for bringing back some of the clothes of the time. So yeah, you do some research that way too. And some of your experiences, like what happened with me.
Not everything has to be the perfect drawing, the perfect face. A lot of times, if people pay attention, I don’t try to do a…draw a perfect face or person. They have a little style to them, so it’s not a realistic portrayal. But I want the feeling, and sometimes a line gives you that, the form, the shape, and the color. And that’s what I look for.
Well, the stories usually have to do with people being, yeah, brave. Taking chances or doing the right thing or going for a higher ground, that kind of thing. But so far, that’s the direction the career has taken so I’ve gone with it. And usually picture books are like that. If I do a graphic novel, it would probably be totally different.
Part III: Books
Always My Dad
My first book, picture book that I illustrated was Always My Dad, that was the title. And it had to do, it was kind of a strange book in a way because it wasn’t a fun, happy, little dog story kind of thing. It actually had to do with a child whose parents are divorced, or separated. And it was about a little girl who only sees her father every summer when she visits her grandparents.
The father goes and visits the grandparents too, and that’s when she sees him and it’s on a farm. So they have a great time on the farm. But then after the summer’s over, Dad leaves again. So she has to go back home. So it was kind of a strange story but it was also a touching story and so I wasn’t sure that should be my first book I’m doing. I thought I would have loved to have done, like I said, a doggy story or something like that.
But it turned out great because it challenged me, once again, using the ideas, the concepts, very important. And I started illustrating the book in a certain way that I thought was showing the positive side of the little girl and the relationship that she had with her father. And her brothers, who were in the book also. So I tried to work that in, and they liked it and the book did very well and it won a gold medal at the Society of Illustrators for one of its, the illustrations. And after that, the floodgates opened because I got a lot more offers for other books.
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart
The second book I illustrated was an offshoot of the first in the sense that it was about a girl and her mother and their relationship, and how they loved to dance through the seasons. So the story takes place during four seasons – summer, spring, winter, and fall.
And they’re always dancing in these different seasons, different dances. And it was great, that was a fun book to do because there was a lot of movement and it was a happy kind of poem. And that book also did great, and that was my second book and it made it to the New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year. So that was another great experience.
A Weave of Words
Now, here’s the funny thing. After I did those two books, one about a father and one about a mother, both with daughters, I started getting manuscripts, which is great, you get work, but they all had to do with mom and dad and daughters and sons, sometimes grandmas and grandpas. But it was all about family.
And somewhere in my mind, something inside of me told me, “I don’t know, I should try something different.” And lo and behold I got this manuscript which was great because it was about a monster, a dev, and a princess and a prince. And the nice twist in this story was that the princess ends up saving the prince from the monster, which is the opposite of what we’ve always read.
And it was based on an Armenian tale, and so it was fun to do because the princess dresses up like a warrior and she gets on a horse and she fights this dev, and destroys it and rescues her husband the prince. So it turned out to be a great story to illustrate, and totally different from the first two books I had to…and this one did very well too so I’ve got to thank Robert San Souci who was the author for writing this interesting Armenian tale.
Illustrating scary scenes
Sometimes you have to draw scary figures, like A Weave of Words, the book, the dev had to be scary. Yeah, I’d seen a lot of movies and I’ve seen a lot of you know, graphic novels, where the monsters can be really scary. And I also know that as a kid, and I know that kids today also, love to be scared. Love that scary-looking monster, even though some may be really scary.
But most kids enjoy it. So I decided I wanted to go scary, and I’ve done scary monsters when I need to. And fierce-looking, and I try, definitely try to go as far as I can go – see if I can get away with it. And so far I have.
I’ve done some books on mythology. Pandora is one, Hercules is another. I have to say the Hercules was influenced a lot by movies I’ve seen. Something like what happened with A Weave of Words, the book about the princess, the princess warrior. Hercules, I used to watch these movies, Italian movies that were produced in Italy but they were spoken in English – bad English, but still.
And Steve Reeves was one of the actors in it and he was Hercules and I based Hercules a lot on this actor that used to play Hercules, 1960s, something like that. They were color films and they wore these nice, you know, uniforms, the Greek soldiers and all that so I was influenced by a lot of that so I based it a lot on that.
In Hercules, there’s one point where there’s like these prints, yes, like on the wall, made out of stone or something. I did look at the vases and all that of Greek art to come up with that. But I also stayed away from the black and red Greek colors that usually were the basic colors. And I did my own version of it, so it looked like a flatter illustration, a little more graphic but I put my colors into it, my own influence. So that may have given it a certain look.
Once I did Pandora, I also was influenced by books I had seen about Greek mythology and movies and gave it probably that kind of look, maybe subconsciously because of what I’d seen before.
I’m not a great dancer, even though I’m Puerto Rican descent, I was more the guy who wanted to be playing the music. So, my parents though can dance. My sister can dance, all my family can dance, they’re great. So, I always saw how, especially in Puerto Rico, when I was in Puerto Rico, how many people can dance almost like professional dancers that you may see on TV and they’re not professional, they just know how to do it. I never got that good at it, so. But I did see it, and I did see the movement, I did see how you’re supposed to move and how people move their hips and how they move their arms and so, I used that when I do anything with movement or dancing.
Raul’s Degas phase
I went through a Degas phase for a little while. I used pastels and I did these ballet dancers. Actually there’s a story behind that too. I had the audacity once to go to a ballet school, now I didn’t study ballet, it wasn’t to study. But I wanted to draw the dancers as they practiced, just like Degas. And I actually went to the director, like I said I was naïve, and said, “You know I’d like to sit down, I know how to draw. And if you would give me a chance, I’d like to draw the dancers, ballet dancers, rehearsing.”
And she was nice enough, the director, to allow me to sit in the corner for a few weeks, I went to the school, and watch the dancers and I tried to, you know, sketch as much as I could. And they moved quite quickly, you know, they’d do their stances, so I had to sketch really fast to get the feel. And it helped me a lot because I did a book on ballet, Alicia Alonso is a book I did, she was a famous ballet dancer and all the stuff I had done helped me when I did that book.
I did an interesting book named, titled Buoy, and it was fun to do because there were these characters of a sea eagle, a buoy, and you know it wasn’t the typical book I had done. And there wasn’t even a dog in it, these were animals that are not typical picture book animals. But it was told in almost like in a young adult way.
So it wasn’t a story necessarily for kids, children so for an older crowd. And they thought that it might be a crowd that might like a, the crowd might be more adult also, adults might like the book too. So it was an interesting book to illustrate. Buoy was influenced a lot by Winslow Homer because I went through a lot of his work and the way he painted the waves, the ocean and I took a lot from that to do this book.
One interesting thing about this book, and this happens to illustrators once in a while, they lost the cover art, so that piece was lost forever, nobody knows what happened to it. And I always say this because artists should realize that their work has value and the company had to pay for the art that got lost. So, it was unfortunate that I don’t have all those pieces but it still was a great experience doing the book and it’s one of the few books that was totally different from other books I’d done.
My wife, who came from Cuba and had to leave in very dire circumstances because it’s when Fidel Castro took over Cuba and Mom and Dad were in the States visiting when the flights were cut off from Cuba to the United States, but his daughters were still in Cuba, including my wife.
And she was probably four years old, something like that. It was a crazy experience when they had to figure a way to get them out. But finally she made it to the States, and my editor from one of my publishers, this was Paula Wiseman, heard her story and she told her, “Why don’t you write it?”
My wife is not a writer, she’s an ESL teacher. So, she took the offer and she decided to try to write her experience when she left Cuba. And that’s how the book was written. She knows how I work, she knows what it takes because she’s seen me do this for many years. So she actually just wrote it and my editor and I worked on the rest of it, and she never asked me anything about it. I worked downstairs in my studio and she never came over to give me any suggestions, she just let me do the work.
So she was great. She just let me come up with the work and didn’t ask me any questions or question anything I did. And it turned out perfect, so it went smoothly that way.
Drawing your in-laws
What was interesting is trying to illustrate the in-laws, yes. But I have to say my mother-in-law is a very good-looking woman, so that wasn’t hard to do. And Dad, her dad was a handsome man, so they had some nice pictures that I used as reference. But, once again, I didn’t not illustrate it with a picture perfect, realistic feel to it.
So I could work looser and just, what we call, make a likeness, of both of them. Or anybody in the story, because the grandma is in it too. And I just based it on their looks and their likenesses and didn’t have to worry about getting it perfect, so it worked out fine.
When I was working on the Roberto Clemente book, we did some black and white illustrations based on, I know it was just during, to make a different, give a different feel for different times in his life. And I decided to go with ink, pen and ink for some of the illustrations and the color for the bigger moments in his life.
Love of baseball
I’m a baseball fan, I used to go with my father to baseball games. I saw Roberto Clemente play actually. He was, the thing about Roberto Clemente which I liked was that, it wasn’t that he was just a great ball player, he played beautiful. He played like Jackie Robinson played. There’s a certain beauty to the way he moved, Michael Jordan has the same way, the basketball player.
When they, when he jumps and leaps he looks different than other players because it looks like he’s actually flying in the air. And Roberto Clemente, when he fielded the ball was very different from any ball player by the way he looked, and the way he moved when he was going after a ball. It wasn’t just speed, it was certain grace to it. And when he ran the bases, for instance, he had this little quirky look in the way he ran. But it was a beautiful thing to watch.
It looked like the man was running from a fire or something, like his life depended on what he was doing, and that’s what made him an exciting player, so yeah I was a big fan because of that. And I used to go to baseball games since I was a kid, and I think it’s one of the most original games man ever invented.
Dona Flor was a lot of fun to do, it was one of the books that I had the most fun. I’ve had a few books that are a lot more fun than others. Like I said, A Weave of Words was a lot of fun. Dona Flor was the same way because now this is about a giant woman, it was fun, it was fun. And the pictures came to my head very easily because the story was fun to read and imagine.
And a lot of the sketches I did, didn’t take me long to come up with a lot of the ideas because it was so much fun to think of this giant woman. You know, carrying children on her back, carrying animals in her lap, you know, sleeping in the clouds, on the clouds actually. And you know, over mountains, she’s walking over mountains, singing with birds flying above her head.
There’s all these images, all this imagery that Pat Mora put into it that made it very easy to illustrate, and a lot of fun to illustrate.
Working with Frank McCourt
When I worked with Frank McCourt, here’s how that worked – usually an artist is offered a manuscript and you either take it or not, but if you do most of the time you never meet the author. You just illustrate the manuscript, the editor is in between you and the author, they’re the go-between, the editors.
So you don’t have to meet the author. In Frank McCourt’s case, the man had enough power that he could choose whom he wanted a book illustrated by. Because it’s the editor who chooses, not the author. And Frank McCourt had that kind of power, because he was a Pulitzer Prize winner and you know, there was a movie made of one of his books, so you know, he was a well-known writer.
And he was offered a few illustrators and he chose a couple of us. And I was one of them, I was lucky. So, I remember when I finished everything for the book, all the illustrations were done, Simon and Schuster invited us to a meeting on their 17th floor which is supposed to be the meeting place for the big events, the special events, and that’s the first time I was going to meet Frank McCourt because he was going to be there.
But what they did was, they took all the artwork and displayed it for Frank McCourt to take a look and approve. So I was going to be there at the same time Frank McCourt was looking at all the work and giving his approval. It was kind of scary to have Frank go in there, look at your work while you’re looking at him looking at your work. And Loren Long was the other illustrator that they used for another version of the book, so we were there like, fingers crossed I guess, hoping to see what he thought. And Frank was a great guy, he just loved everything.
I did a book signing with him, a couple of them, and the man it’s all a great loss, because as well as he writes he was a better speaker. He could motivate anybody, adults, children, he’d take over a whole room just by himself. He was a great talent. Sorry, he’ll be missed.
Working with Dr. Jill Biden
I did a book with the second lady, Jill Biden, Dr. Jill Biden. It was interesting because I was working on another book by the same company, same publisher, and they asked me to stop and they wanted me to do this other project, that was, by the way, at the time very secretive.
I couldn’t divulge to anybody what it was until there was a press conference and then it was allowed that Dr. Jill Biden was writing a book, a picture book. And I started working on sketches and illustrations right away. So it was an interesting experience, plus the fact that I got to sign books with the Second Lady, and it was a great experience doing that too. All in all, it led to an invitation to their Christmas party a few months ago, so I got to go visit their house near the White House and it was a great experience being there with the Vice President also.
Illustrating YA book covers
Sometimes what you try to do is pick one big scene that happens in the book, pivotal scene, but you illustrate what’s about to happen, not necessarily what happens so you don’t give away the story. The…other times what you do is you take, make a composite of what happens in the story and put different elements of the story together into one piece. So that’s two approaches I use. A big scene that leads to something even bigger, I pick that. Or a composite of different events in the story, and put that together. Sometimes you can go even smaller, you go for a detail in the story. A hat, a table, a chair, so you can do that kind of thing too.
My next project, I’m working on my own book again, another book I wrote. But this one is wordless picture book about a boy who likes to draw animals, that’s one. And he’s in Africa drawing these animals, so that’s the next book that I hope to finish soon. I’m just finishing one now titled Abuelo, for Harper Collins.
And it’s about a grandfather in the Pampas in Argentina who likes to ride horses and you know, takes his grandchild, grandson, out to the mountains and they have these adventures riding in the mountains on the horses. Eventually the child has to move to a city, and leave Grandpa behind I like drawing people riding horses, I get to do that a lot in this book. Those are the two projects that I’m finishing right now.
Part IV: Art and Kids
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of visits to schools and done art projects, workshops. I’ve done a lot of talks about how I work, but I’ve also had kids do art with me. I’ve sat down and taught them how to draw a face using proportions. Very simple, but done it and they, at first they start telling me, “I don’t know how to draw a face.” And by the end, they’re coloring hair, and putting, you know, eyebrows and coloring the lips and they’re into the face completely. So that’s one of the things I try to do with children, I love doing that. But I also emphasize they have to read, that the reason I can do this is because I learned a lot by reading. And using my imagination, and reading is the number one thing that opens up your mind. So I try to emphasize that.
I also teach undergraduates sometimes, in the School of Visual Arts in New York, and that’s a different type of work. These are older kids now, they’re adults basically, 19 years old, and older sometimes. And that’s a different way of also teaching how to see, look. And I also make them read books and I also make them write their own picture book, so there’s many ways I interact with young people to help them imagine things and read.
Keeping arts in schools
I think children today should have the chance to, well, learn as much as they can about art. Why? Because you learn one of the most important things, like I said, I teach a class at the School of Visual Arts, or I’ve taught a class. And critical thinking is one of the most important things.
Like I told the students and I mentioned before, in the world today, they don’t buy that you are a great artist, that you can draw. What they buy is the idea. And only when you have arts in the schools,
Art touches things that are abstract, and I feel the arts should be emphasized because of that. So our thinkers become better thinkers, our inventors become better inventors. It’s not only about picking up a paintbrush and just painting, it has to do with thinking. And I think, especially our politicians and people in charge do not get it. They don’t realize it. And it’s important that we emphasize what art really does for people.
When I was a kid, I remember one day my mom received this, my grades at the end of the school year and one of the notes said, “He’s too distracted, he seems to be a daydreamer,” I think it said something to that affect. As a kid, I’m not sure I knew what that was, daydreamer? And my mom didn’t either. What does this, “What does this mean, ‘daydreamer’?” is what she said. And I don’t know.
But as I grew older I realized yeah, I probably was daydreaming, I was seeing things in my head, stories, things going on that captured my imagination. So anytime I draw children imagining stuff I think I know what that is, I know exactly how it works. And probably that’s why I like to put those imagines. Like, I wrote Orson Blasts Off, based on a kid using his imagination because that’s what I did all my life.
And, I’m not sure if kids today do it enough. Kids today depend too much on the visuals of others, on the games and things like that. And I have to say something about picture books because a lot of people could say, “Well, pictures books are somebody else’s imagination, you know, in the pictures.” But here’s what happens with pictures. When you see a lot of pictures, especially done by an artist, it teaches you even though you don’t know it at the time, how to look at things.
It teaches you how to see things. So when you use your own imagination, then you know how to put a picture together in your head. And that’s where picture books are great, because the word and the picture help children start using their imaginations. When they get older and they read a novel, they make their own pictures, thanks to the fact that they learned how to put pictures together by looking at actual picture books when they were kids.
When I’ve done some talks or presentations for children in schools, sometimes parents have been there. I notice that the parents get very interested, and I think schools should emphasize maybe on those nights when its parent’s night or something or any event when they invite parents to have an author or an illustrator come in and actually talk to the parents, not the kids.
Because I think if you get the parents involved, they’ll get involved with bringing and buying books for their children. Because they do get inspired by what they see, from what I’ve noticed. So illustrators should be out there, invited by schools, to talk and show and do presentations for parents. Not only the children. And I think you’d see more involvement by the parents. From my experience, I think that happens a lot more.
Advice for young artists
What I recommend for a young artist today is that their work has to be really good. And another thing that I’m noticing because of the internet is that a lot of work looks like everybody else’s. Even if you’re a good illustrator, and a good artist, there has to be something distinctive in your work for it to be sold and used.
One thing I always tell, I used to teach a class, School of Visual Arts in New York City, and I would tell the students – in the art illustration field, they don’t want people who can draw well or you know, can paint well. A lot of, you know, talented people.
What they actually buy, because there’s thousands of people who can draw well. What they actually buy, what they want, is ideas. So if you do good work, but your ideas are great, then you’ll do well. So what I recommend to young students is that their conceptual work, their concepts, their ideas, they have to be out of this world. So you can draw well, that’s nice. But that piece better have some good idea behind it, then it it’ll be distinctive and you may get a shot at, you know, working as an illustrator for a good time.
Colón was born in New York City in December of 1952 and moved with his parents in the 1960s to Caguas, Puerto Rico where he studied commercial art. In 1978 Colón made Florida his home, working at an educational television center designing everything from puppets to short animated films. In 1988 the artist settled with his family in New City, New York and began a freelance career. Today, Colón continues to be a versatile and acclaimed illustrator whose work has appeared in important national publications. The industry has recognized Colón with a Golden Kite Award, a Pura Belpré Award, and both a gold and silver medal in The Original Art show.
Read the complete biography of Colón on the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature website.