It’s great to hear from many up and coming illustrators, I genuinely appreciate your questions and thank you for your support. This post is for you and anyone who values ideas and unique, hand-crafted illustration. I believe it is important for young artists to develop their abilities and listen to that intuitive voice-the one that compels them to make images for a larger audience. Popular culture is bursting with the power of visual thinking. Drawing and painting is a way to communicate, to deliver messages and I can’t imagine anything more exciting or rewarding. I’ve been working at this now for 25 years and in that time I’ve learned to never miss an opportunity to re-invent myself.

I was fortunate to teach for the Art Center at Night program mentoring young illustrators. I’m not afraid to share techniques and tricks because I know that anyone who learns them will apply them in their own way. If they do rip me off I remind myself to work harder and stay a little ahead of them. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to teach workshops to children and students because I learn so much from them. Most of my conscious effort is pushing myself to draw more intuitively, to try to solve visual problems like a child. Kids haven’t developed timidness in their approach to drawing and I find that so refreshing.

While discovering yourself, study but don’t copy other people’s style. Usually by the time you master their “look” they are miles ahead of you and their style has already evolved. You can’t go looking for style as true style finds you and comes from the inside out. Keep listening to that inner voice- the one that reminds you of your passions and the things you love. Be patient, create a plan. It is so important to keep your mind and eyes open. I’m greatly inspired by the history of art, design styles and illustration. If you take a look you’ll find some great approaches there to add value to your thinking. Start with the Surrealists whose work is filled with illogical juxtapositions and the element of surprise. Then check out the Expressionists who mastered distorting reality for emotional effect. In this post I decided to use some of my work to show you how to look at historical style and apply the concepts of these great painters and thinkers to your own illustration.
What has always fascinated me as an artist and illustrator is concept, the idea, the content and that is followed by style and technique. I have chosen to be a conceptual illustrator so to keep things fresh, ideas need to come from my head.
1. Play with scale, shape and composition.

In this recent poster for Bird notice how the bird in the middle is much larger than the kids. I enjoy throwing reality out the window, if it helps me communicate the emotion and excitement of discovering birds. The shapes are essential to the composition. When building the layout I keep a close eye on the negative spaces to make sure they are working. I sketch on tracing paper as it allows me to tear pieces, move and juxtapose elements in the design stage. It’s like arranging furniture in a room. When you find the right place for everything and put it there it just feels right.

2. Search for visual metaphors to express an understanding of one idea as it relates to another idea. I look for some similarity or correlation between the two.

Here the teacher is represented as a strong tree who inspires, motivates, and provides shade [a safe environment] to help students reach their potential. Those branches grow community. In this image I’m connecting the concepts of nature and nurture.

It’s important to do personal work whenever you can as it pushes the boundaries of your thinking. It’s a chance to explore ideas and stay in touch with what makes you tick.

I often create visual metaphors to articulate my emotions.
In this case, the man in the boat finds a safe harbor with the woman he loves.

3. I look for ways to represent the emotion or spirit of the text or idea.

Pat Mora’s text said: “Our families tell us stories while we listen and play”. I remember the magic of my parents storytelling. We read with our son every day and sometimes when the story or image is compelling he gets a dreamy look in his eyes. I wanted to capture that emotion with this concept. As an illustrator you have the opportunity to expand on an idea and take the words to unexplored places.

4. Giving inanimate objects personality.

A great exercise I’ve done with students is to drop a bunch of adjectives written on slips of paper in one hat and inanimate objects in another. Then draw an adjective and object and connect them in your illustration. The randomness of this process pays tribute to Dada. You might end up with a shy shoe or an obnoxious wire whisk. It’s great practice for putting emotion into your work. You can give personality to anything.

In this poster for jazz radio station KSDS I’ve created a trumpet that can sizzle like habanero chile or give wings to the sweet song of a nightingale.
5. Distort reality for emotional effect and use symbolism.

Read a novel by Franz Kafka, or think of Edvard Munch‘s figure running in agony against a blood red sky. In his diary Munch wrote that he “sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”. The expressionists found a way to distort color and form that tapped into the viewer’s emotions.
I paint directly on wood but sometimes use the computer to scan in my work then experiment with color shifts or textural effects. If I find something I like better I will go back to my painting and change it. This piece for Amnesty International calls attention to their work to win release of prisoners of conscience around the world. Notice the figure bound by barbed wire holding the flame of hope. That wire changes to a growing plant as the prisoner attains freedom.

6. Don’t forget to add an element of surprise.

My son Santiago believed that paintbrushes were magic wands. In this illustration for Book Fiesta the submarine has mechanical arms and the anglerfish serves as the reading light. I’m very inspired by indigenous peoples of the world. The painter Paul Klee achieved that naive quality I keep reaching for. He was left-handed but could draw with both hands. He said that a clumsy hand is often more useful for drawing than a skilled hand. I gave the fish a primitive style, a tribute to the petroglyphs of indigenous groups.

7. Add humor and shake vigorously.

Laughter strengthens your immune system, pumps energy and protects you from stress. I used the window here to introduce humor as there is something funny about the cow having a conversation with the goat while being milked by the maiden. Perhaps it reminds me of the multi-tasking we do to get by.

8. Illusion: Overlapping objects and mixing scale.

Tipping my hat again to surrealists like Salvador Dali who used illusion. Here is a concept I use frequently in my work. In this painting I’ve got a larger hand reaching down into the earth. The shape of the hand creates a painting within a painting. There in an interplay of color and illusion where the shape of the earth eventually becomes the shape of water with naive looking fish swimming by.

9. Put the familiar in an unfamiliar setting- juxtapose unrelated objects.

In this first illustration from ¡Yum!¡Mmm Qué Rico! America’s Sproutings you see a red-headed girl enjoying chocolate. There’s a chocolate castle and a cup of cocoa floating in the clouds. You see children literally diving into chocolate cake and pie. Surrealists like Rene Magritte explored putting unrelated objects together in such compelling ways. I like to make word lists and force connections between unrelated objects. For Book Fiesta! three kids and their dog [who thinks he is a pirate] are off on an adventure. Now they could be reading while sitting on a couch but a more playful idea is to put them in the mouth of a happily spouting whale. Sure you could do this in photoshop but it might be scary for kids. As an illustrator you can tell the story with visuals that send the right information to a child’s imagination. It’s all about having fun.

10. Mix and match ideas

You can use more than one approach at a time.The smaller figures communicate the power of collaboration and teamwork. I’ve incorporated the color switches and overlapping from the illusion technique. In this illustration I’m also mixing scale and metaphor to illustrate how the writing of one person could motivate others to reach for the stars, or the moon or the sun.