Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Rafael López designed the “One World Many Stories” 2011 Collaborative Summer Library Program’s (CSLP) poster. Listen to Rafael speak about this artwork and then enjoy seeing how he does his work in his post below.
Rafael López on Stirring the Pot of Color
by Rafael López
Growing up in Mexico, I learned to speak the language of color at a very early age. “No dar color” is a popular expression that, translated, means an inability to give off color or emotion. Using color and texture helps me to express my identity, my heritage. I’ve also learned that color is the most direct (emotional) route to the children (and families) who turn the pages of the books I’ve illustrated.
I buy vivid paints from a little tiendita in San Miguel; the paints come in big jars that look like they should hold pickles. There is no such thing as chromophobia in Mexico, which makes it the ideal place to shop for the essential ingredients of my art.
The force of these intense colors is like sampling an authentic, but unique Mexican chile: like the flavors of that dish, tints and shades are blended in a painting in different combinations to create a specific result.
For the past 20 years I’ve been painting on wood. There are emotions associated with finding and selecting the right piece, sanding it by hand, and letting the grain speak to me. That tactile experience is an important part of my work.
I’d like to share my illustrative process with you; below you can see the evolution of a painting that I worked on for Monica Brown’s Tito Puente, Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo due to be published by HarperCollins in 2013.
When working on a book, the first thing I do is make a mood board. These collages help me to channel the right spirit for my paintings.
I’m always searching for something more than a visual likeness of my subjects. I’m exploring patterns, decorations, clothing, or the way a person dances or makes music—like in the case of Tito, how he beats his timbales.
Next comes character development. I want to be exactly right in capturing the spirit of each person, animal, and object, so, putting pencil to paper, I make boatloads of sketches.
I believe everything has a personality and that if I work at it, I’ll find that personality.
Next I create gestural sketches to help me make decisions about where certain elements should go. In this phase, I consider the direction of objects and motions and use arrows and scale to create a focal point.
Then, I refine my drawings to evoke the character. I refer to my mood board to develop the details.
The next step is a miniature book with all my drawings. This helps me visualize the flow of the story and look for inconsistencies in the visual storytelling.
After making a collage, sketches, and a mini-book, I get ready to create my paintings.
To do so, I prepare my boards with a surface that will receive the carbon. This allows me to transfer my sketches from the tracing tissue to the wooden boards.
I mask areas with tape so that I can work on selected sections of the composition.
Referencing colors and textures I’ve photographed around my urban landscape and on the winding cobblestone streets of my native Mexico, I apply colors to the board randomly, but intuitively.
I use spatulas, pottery tools, shells, and twigs to scrape the wood and to reveal the secrets of the surface texture.
I keep painting with a variety of brushes to bring in the details and to add flavor, color, and texture to the story.
In my artwork, I strive to communicate on a magical level. I believe such a level speaks to children in a clear voice and captures their imagination.
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Rafael López.
Hear Rafael discuss his illustrations for Book Fiesta! (HarperCollins 2009).