Sunday, October 30, 2011

Searching for the hidden power of ideas

Here's the second installment of a dialogue started last July called thinking your way around the concept. There is much to learn from looking and listening to the works of great artists, writers and musicians. Their journeys can add to your problem solving tool box. Through observation and practice many of these techniques and ideas started to appear intuitively in my own paintings. I long to spend an entire day-better yet two days wandering a place like the Chicago Art Institute. Great works of art reveal secrets that I often miss when looking at books or the Internet. Navigating through art galleries, literature and music is a method to record new observations and explore the twists and turns of conceptual thinking.

1. Hide a secret in your paintings.
Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte said "Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well". You have to admire the way Magritte embraced paradox in his works. I created this illustration for KQED in San Francisco and embedded a hidden bird in the collage of faces. That magical focal point serves as a sweet spot that symbolically connects the people together. Going a bit deeper Magritte's technique is like a whisper that you strain your ears to hear.
It engages the viewer.

2. Add a dose of raw emotion.
A form of German expressionism, Der Blaue Reiter was an impassioned style that challenged the passive notions of history with intensely emotional, brighter colors and shapes. These artists recognized the communicative power of primitive, folk and children's art. We Mexicans have a passion for masked heroes of the vox populi. I find it fascinating that cultures around the globe that are considered primitive or very civilized use masks in theatrical, ceremonial, religious and magical rites.
Masks both hide and reveal.
When I was 5 years old my mother used to dip my finger in a bit of tabasco and put it on my tongue. As time went on I began to crave that intensity of flavor and now work to channel that raw emotion into my paintings. When looking at what you are creating, challenge yourself to turn up the volume and see what happens.

3. Explore Allegories and Myths
An allegory is a story with a meaning partially hidden somewhere in the narration. Myths help explain rituals, natural events and why people believe what they do. As a child growing up in Mexico City, my family would throw parties with music and invited poets who would recite their work and tell stories. I remember Carlos Jaso who painted vivid pictures with both his words and voice. In my opinion, when you want to move your audience you have to weave a tale that is full of magic. Whatever you do-don't be literal but take the viewer on a visual journey. Thanks to the quests of my 9 year old son Santiago, I have once again become enamored with the ancient Greeks. They know how to spark the imagination of children and adults with spell-binding stories that reveal something well beyond literal meaning.
In this poster for an International Chamber Music Festival in Mexico I fused the supernatural mermaid who lives beneath the sea with the ethereal wings of an angel. In the tail you see a Mexican calaca or skull and tear drop shapes in the wings. An eye floats in a cloud over the head of this other-worldly creature who enchants the audience with the haunting sound of her violin.

4. Find the hidden essence of an idea through simplification.
So much of the beauty and finesse of illustration is knowing what to leave out. Too much information, and unnecessary details cast a shadow over your composition and obscure what is really important. The great painter Joan Miró created childlike renderings and symbolic reductions of whimsical form with calligraphic strokes and pure color.
Think about what you are adding to your work and how it contributes to the overall concept and emotional response you want to achieve.
The roots and origins of Merengue are conveyed in this simple composition evoking a stylized African mask, with the essential instruments and dancers stripped of detail.

5. Unleash the narrative in your paintings.
Frida Kahlo's work was a fusion of folktales, fantasy and surrealism woven in a powerful narrative. Her own biography reads like an epic Gabriel García Márquez novel and the power of the narrative was evident in her work. I grew up close to her home La Casa Azul in Coyocan and together with my parents we would visit often. Frida is considered a Mexican Surrealist but it was never her plan to be part of the movement. She painted instead the story of her life in a way that expressed her own personal feelings about it. I am struck by her affection for retablos or laminas that tell the stories of miraculous healing and rescue. Often painted by untrained artists an entire wall of her home is covered in these narrative treasures.
In this spread for an upcoming children's book, My Name is Tito for Harper Collins the dress of Celia Cruz tells the story of her life and exile from Cuba in a rainbow of colors that will appeal to children and express the azucar in her spirit and voice.

6. Employ a visual synonym.
Aristotle said "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." Symbolists favored spirituality, the imagination and dreams. They believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly. Symbolist writers, poets and artists like the inspiring Austrian painter
Gustav Klimt used alluring metaphors that gave objects symbolic meaning.
In this illustration for the UTNE Reader I was challenged to convey the text of a complex concept. The antique dip pen became a symbol to express the angst of a blues songwriter and the ink is transformed into falling tears.

7. Scratching the surface
Texture is one of the most direct routes to the hidden emotions of your audience. Prolific painter Rufino Tamayo was influenced by Cubism, Impressionism, Pre-Columbian art and Fauvism. His work had an intrinsically Mexican style that ignited your senses. He left a rich legacy by expanding the technical and visual possibilities of arts by developing the Mixografia technique. This communicated the texture and volume of his designs and gave him the freedom to create strong identity in his work. In this personal piece Firedance I rely on tactile and visual texture to add a spark to the composition. I've collected a variety of tools including natural materials like shells, twigs, and feathers and also use pottery tools, masking tape and my xacto blade to give texture the surface of my paintings.


  1. Excellent post Rafael, I really appreciate that you take the time to share your experience with us.
    "Writers get the blues too" and "Firedance" wow, just blew my mind!

  2. Hey Oliver,
    Thanks for your feedback and I enjoyed checking out your work and great journal. I'm coming out of a busy time finishing up a children's book and it's great to have a moment to re-connect.

  3. I love these entrees.... please keep them coming.