Interview conducted by Yuko Shimizu.
1) You had studied fine art and graphic design at Pratt Institute and Hunter College. What made you decide to go into the field of illustration and how did you start?
I majored in painting at Pratt Institute and Hunter College. I learned most of my graphic design skills at a job I had at the Pratt school newspaper for three years. When I left Pratt, I approached galleries as well as magazines and newspapers. I got a much warmer reception from the editorial art directors I met with. The response was also much more immediate and I began to do work for them right away. Gallery relationships take a long time to develop and I can be a bit impatient about that. I just wanted to get to work. Once I had a few images printed in The New York Times I was hooked with the idea of illustration and the number of people that were being reached. I really got a kick out of seeing my work in print. Galleries are fairly cloistered and don’t reach as many people. It was also great to feel that I could make a living from my work, I didn’t get the same feeling from my experience with galleries at that time. I decided to focus on illustration work and see if that led to interest from galleries. Some gallery shows have come over time so the thinking has worked out to some extent.
2) I always think of you as like Superman. You became one of the busiest illustrators, and yet you have kept your job as AD at TIME for 13 years until last year. I just wonder how did you manage to do this? Now you are a full time illustrator, how does the extra time off from the office work helping you develop your work and/or projects? Also, how does your experience as an AD help you as an illustrator?
I was an art director at TIME magazine from 1994-2008, all while having a busy illustration career. Both were wonderful opportunities and it was hard to choose one over the other, so I did both until I started to burn out. My wife helped out enormously over the years by taking care of our home and daughter while I worked, I think it helped to have a great partner. I did most of my illustration work at night or on weekends. I worked on sketches on my commute and even wrote and illustrated much of my first children’s book on the way to work. I come from a family of very hard working peasants and farmers, so I don’t think office work or drawing is hard labor. I laugh at it sometimes. There really isn’t much physical exertion when you think of it, one mostly needs to deal with the stress of deadlines or lack of sleep. But it’s nothing compared to what my parents or grandparents have done, so this keeps it all in perspective.
Being a full time illustrator is great. I now have time to develop projects that I didn’t have time for before. I used to be running from one deadline to the next, but now I have time to do some personal work and write and develop children’s books, illustrated novels, and so on. All of this takes time and free “mind space”, which I have a bit more of now.
I learned a lot about illustration by being an art director at TIME magazine, especially in the beginning. It was great to work with the best artists and see how they solved problems every week.
3) When I look at a body of your work, they are very consistent, yet each one is very different at the same time. Some look like they are drawings, some prints, some painting, some pastel… Can you explain to us about the process and medium you work in? If you change medium according to each image, how does the subject matter affect your choice of medium?
I get information about a project or assignment and try to figure out what is the best way to communicate what it is about. I develop a lot of these ideas in my sketches—should I be subtle or blunt, direct or coy? These words translate into graphic marks, so I might have some work that is very linear, soft and subtle, and other work that is bolder, graphic, with thicker lines and blocks or shapes. When I first started, I wanted to be able to do different things within illustration. Fortunately, the people I work for understand where I come from and hire me to do that. They call me for my ideas and not necessarily a specific style.
I do work in a number of media as you mentioned—paint, printmaking, pastel, drawing and digital. What I do is combine these mediums in my own way. I may do a part in paint and then lay a monoprint on top, or do a pastel and overprint oil ink through stencils that I cut out. Sometimes I scan the original art and separate the lines and colors and create a separate and new digital piece, which becomes the final art that I submit to the client. I’ve always mixed media in my paintings and I do the same with illustration. It’s very intuitive and I’ve found unique ways of working as I experiment. It sounds complicated but makes perfect sense to me!
4) Your family immigrated from Cuba when you were 9. Do you think your childhood in two completely different cultures affected your work as an artist? If so how?
Yes, I think it has. I grew up around Communist revolutionary images and posters, images of tanks, guns, Ché, etc. There were two channels on t.v. in Cuba in the 70s and a lot of the time they showed military parades and revolutionary, nationalist, anti-American propaganda. When I was a kid I drew a lot of tanks, missiles, and portraits of revolutionary heros. I then arrived in America when I was 9 years old. I was immediately taken with all of the new imagery I saw around me—Coke and Pepsi logos, advertising billboards on highways, graphics and illustrations on food packaging, characters on cereal boxes, etc. I was always interested in visuals and these two cultures, communist and capitalist, clashed when I was a child. I think the combinations of the two cultures still show up in my work to this day.
5) You had worked on children’s books before, and your first children’s book series as an author, Sergio series, just came out. The images feel new to us who are used to your work. Are they intentionally targeted toward a lot younger audience? I was wondering if your experience as relatively new father of two young daughters inspired you to come up with the series. Can you please explain a bit about it?
I got involved in children’s books about 10 years ago, before I had kids. I did three books that were stories about historical figures. Several years ago I wanted to illustrate something more fun for a younger audience and started writing and developing the story which became my first Sergio book. We then had our first child and I wrote the second book, and it was a lot of fun to show her what I was doing while I worked. The biggest highlight of my career so far came one day when I heard our four year old daughter reading my book aloud to herself as she sat in a corner of my studio.
Writing and illustrating children’s books was a new challenge for me. I’m always looking to experiment in new areas and develop as an illustrator. I know what I can do and after a while things get too comfortable. I’m more interested in trying to figure out things I haven’t done before, I like to surprise myself. Regarding the look of the Sergio book, the first thing that came was the idea, and the look and feel of the book followed after that. Form follows function, I suppose. I like to follow through on ideas and see where they lead and don’t get caught up in the trappings of ‘style’ and what I’m expected to do. One of the things I don’t like about both art and illustration is the lack of freedom to explore. Visual arts are supposed to be about experimenting and trying new things but many times artists get caught up in doing similar work their entire lives because they feel the marketplace requires it. I got into art to experiment and discover and I plan on continuing on that path. Half the fun is not knowing what’s next.
6) What’s on the horizon? New exciting work or personal projects?
I’m really excited about doing an illustrated memoir about my family’s life in Cuba and America. There are a lot of good stories there. I want to develop something different from a standard graphic novel approach, maybe essays with full page drawings, some panels, photographs, and documents. I’ve written some of it and a lot of it is in my head. I’m just looking forward to figuring it out and showing it to publishers. I have some ideas for limited edition packaging and so on, we’ll see how it goes.
I also have a number of preliminary story ideas and sketches for a few children’s books, which I’m developing with one of my publishers. I’ve recently started a book for Simon and Schuster that I have to finish by August. A very tight deadline for a children’s book but they want it out by the Fall.
I keep working on my own drawings and paintings and might have a show coming up next year, trying to figure it out with a gallery right now.
Beyond that, I plan on enjoying the free time I have with my family, it’s the best part of being a freelancer now.
Thank you thank you thank you.