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Hispanic Heritage Month Post by Pura Belpré Award-winner Rafael López
I’m writing to you from my art studio perched on a hill in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The church bells are ringing, and in the distance I hear a rooster crowing. Looking down to the zocalo, the main plaza, I see lava red roof tiles and warm hues straight from the earth’s core. What better place to celebrate the spirit of Hispanic Heritage month.
Traveling and speaking at libraries, schools, and conferences, I have met many people who are curious about the mysteries of making art. (My son Santiago believes paintbrushes are magic wands!) So instead of showing you finished work, I thought it would be fun to invite you on a journey through the process of children’s book illustration.
Color and texture are very important to my work. I like to wander the winding cobblestone streets of my town with a camera cataloguing the colors, textural history, and stories of well-worn doors and peeling paint. The skies, backgrounds, or the surface of the skin of a whale in one of my books will reveal the textures of places where I have been.
I’m grateful there is no “chromophobia,” a fear of color, in my native country. Perhaps color is our way of preserving the spirit of our childhood and to live a vibrant life full of wonder. In Mexico we have an expression: no dar color, literally the inability to give off color or emotion.
I buy my vivid paints from a little tiendita in San Miguel. They come in big jars that look like they should hold pickles. I paint on pieces of wood. For me, there are tactile emotions associated with cutting and sanding then letting the grain of the wood speak to me. I use spatulas and scrape the wood with pottery tools, shells and twigs to reveal secrets of the surface texture.
I look for references in the library, Internet, or order books that inspire me to research the subjects of my art. I might go for a walk and pick up leaves or rocks and bring them to my studio. I search for visual clues and paste them on mood boards that fill my workspace. These collages help me channel the right spirit of a drawing. I look for more than a visual likeness of my subjects and explore colors, wardrobes, decorations or the way a person or animal moves or laughs.
The text of each book I illustrate is creative jet fuel. I make word lists of key themes or poetic parts of a story and post these on my wall. My background as a conceptual illustrator helps me create symbols to represent emotions. I don’t like to be literal and mirror the text verbatim, but instead search for ways to communicate feelings or the spirit of an idea, like using a bird to represent joy in an illustration from “My Name is Celia” written by Monica Brown.
I have been fortunate to paint many murals with children at public schools. As the honorary co-chair of Read Across America, I have also had the great opportunity to read books with children. When I draw and paint, I think about what my young readers would like to see and do. In “Book Fiesta” by Pat Mora, I wanted kids to travel to faraway places in hot air balloons and submarines or be a pirate or mermaid. They could also ride on the back of a great purple elephant or sail away with their closest friends in the mouth of a whale.
I like to play with scale, color, texture, shapes and change an image's perspective to keep my pictures interesting. I think of each book as a treasure that children will open, so I want every painting to stand on it's own but still be part of the overall story. I work hard to not be repetitive and like to put a surprise on every page.
An important part of the illustration process is character development and giving the right spirit to each person, animal, or object. I believe everything should have a personality and that includes calaca cats or goat drummers. I love to travel and am most inspired by indigenous groups because they have synthesized the most important characteristics of living things in a simple, direct way. Communicating at this magical level speaks to children and so I sketch and sketch until my characters have an authentic voice that captures their imagination.
Thanks for the opportunity to share my illustration process and I hope you enjoyed the ride.
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