Transcript from an interview with Rafael López

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Rafael López. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Rafael López

An early start as an artist

I started in a pretty unorthodox way, which is drawing on big giant paper rolls. My uncle used to work in a, or labored in a paper mill, and then when I ran out of that paper, I started drawing on the walls with the approval of my mom and my dad.

First of all, both my parents are architects, so my first trials and experiences was helping at my parents' studio. You know, I was doing a lot of ruining their work. They had a lot of architectural renderings that they needed to present to their client, and I thought they'd like a little color, so I started adding suns and moons and things around them, to the dismay of my parents, because once they discovered it they had to work overnight to fix what I'd done and start all over again. So maybe that was it. My first trial.

How I decided that this was become a professional life and a career, was actually the job of a teacher. I used to have mild dyslexia, and really struggled through school, and I always saw drawing as my way of refuge, with my trouble with writing. And my mom was a little concerned that I was falling behind from the rest of my peers, and she came and talked to this teacher.

I was probably like in fourth or fifth grade. And she says, "I'm really worried about Rafa. Rafa's not catching up with the rest of the kids with reading and writing." And she looked at my mom, and she said, "Don't worry. You know, he's not gonna be a writer. He's gonna be an artist, so just go home, relax." So I think that that was the first sign that I knew that I was gonna end up doing some kind of art.

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Soaking up Latino influences

I believe that you don't have to force it. I think that it just happens naturally. I think that is so ingrained in who you are as a person that when you walk through your life and you're growing up, you're soaking all these things that are around you that… it is just naturally coming out when you're drawing, so I think you're not aware in the beginning, and then people tell you. They tell you, "Wow. You look so colorful, so vibrant. Or, you have this Latino thing." And then you realize that it's there. It's always been there, you know, it's always been your friend and companion through your career. But I think it's better not to force it, just to let it just flow and be what it is.

So what things influenced me that were pretty obvious from Mexico and the street life and everything, and my culture, I think were… there are many things. Obviously the color of my country. I think it's in some way, having this color. I mean, we don't have chromophobia in Mexico. We love color. And I think it's a way to preserve this spirit of childhood, you know, and the spirit of wonder.

So color is very important, and I think that's one of the biggest influences. Texture. There's a lot of texture in my work, and I live in a city called San Miguel de Allende and it's like a 17th-century, 18th-century city where you are surrounded by textures, beautiful old textures.

But also the work of muralists. I love the power of the muralists, like Diego Rivera, and Siqueiros and Orozco. So I think that I like to convey this feeling of this heroic figures in some way into my work. You know, I don't know how I do it, but I… they definitely influenced me a lot.

The colors that I use in my work are… actually, they come from Mexico. There's a little tiendita called El Pato that is just down the hill from my house in San Miguel de Allende, and I walk down there and I buy these big jars. You know, they could hold like medical specimens. You know, they're just gigantic. And the color's very vibrant compared to the color that I can get in the States, besides the fact that color in the States is really expensive.

So my backgrounds are done with this Mexican colors that are really, really strong, and some of the colors are very difficult to find, like the rosa Mexicano. Most of the color you get here in the States is just pink, but the pink from Mexico has got something in there, and they've got a little extra kick.

Just out of school, I started using different medias, media, and I finally decided that I feel more comfortable working with acrylics. I like them because I'm an illustrator, I needed to turn in things very quickly, so oil would take forever to dry. Pastel was too messy to ship and ship to the client. So I decided that oil was something… I mean, acrylic was something that really worked with me and my schedule.

So I worked with wood, because — especially old wood, beat-up wood — because it's got a lot of texture and that reminds me of those walls from Mexico. So I would say my media is acrylic on wood.

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Becoming a children's illustrator

The way I began illustrating books for kids was just a total call out of the blue. I'd been an illustrator for almost 15 years when I got the call from a small publisher, house publisher, that was called Moon Rising, that has been, since been bought by a bigger company, but they had seen my work, don't ask me where. They had followed my work. They've seen it a couple of times, and they thought that the subject that they wanted to color on this new book would be very fitting with my style.

So it was one of those calls that you get out of nowhere. I never thought that my work would really apply well to children's books, but here I am, seven years later, and I'm still busy, so it's great.

The way it's different from my previous work, the way books are different, is that you have to in a way tell a story and keep a consistency and produce more than one painting. So there lies the challenge, in keeping with this consistency lies the challenge of how do you do it? You know, so I was pretty terrified in the beginning. And I think that's the biggest difference, that you're not just saying something in one painting. You have to do it with 16 or 17 or 20 paintings.

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Bringing Celia Cruz to life on paper

My first children's book was the life of Celia Cruz, and it's called "Azucar, the Life of Celia Cruz." And it was a book for kids that were between four and seven years old, telling a little bit about the biography of the great singer, Celia Cruz, from Cuba.

So the way I approached the story was pretty much make up as you go. I mean, I never really met personally anyone that was a children's illustrator, although I admire many people. I never had the opportunity to really talk to someone and say, how do you do this? So I understood who my audience was, even though at the time my child was just a baby, but I knew I have cousins and nephews and people so I had the experience of being with kids.

I needed to find the… I would create a character that would convey a lot of the characteristics and personality of Celia Cruz, and then just let it roll and have fun with it, and sort of like describe what the — in a visual way — what the text was saying.

So, to describe how I start with my next, or any topic when I do a book, I create what I call the mood boards. And mood boards are things of photos and reference of the life of the person or the subject, the subject that I'm covering. So I go down to the library. I download things from the internet. I search things I already have about the people that I'm gonna be coloring or painting. And I create these giant pieces of paper that I put all around my wall.

And of course, the most important thing if you're covering a musician is to put the music they play. So once you get in the mood, it's a lot easier. Things flow a lot faster.

Cruz was a singer, and she spent 70% of her life onstage. But, you know, you don't wanna make a book where every page she's on the stage singing, even if the copy says that she sings a lot. So I believe that kids are, I'm sure of this, kids are very, very sophisticated with their minds, and you can be a little more poetic with the visual description of what's going on, and besides, don't you like sing when you're in the shower, or you know, jumping in a field of flowers? So she doesn't necessarily need to sing on a stage. She could be singing in her dreams, you know. So I thought once I made that decision, it was gonna be very easy to put her in different scenery, and do this poetic approach to it.

We had a challenge where the text described her leaving Cuba just before the revolution, and one of the things that we agreed to do was to not show violence, or show things in a very graphic way or literal way. So again, I go back to a way of doing things a little more symbolically or poetic or conceptually. So what I did is I decided to have her sort of like float, and leaving this field of sugar canes, and leaving a lot of her papers and song writings behind.

They stay in Cuba, basically saying my spirit stays with my land and my country and my motherland. But I'm moving on. So I think it was a very effective way of saying that it was a painful moment, and it was a hard decision, but she had to do it. And I think it came out in a very effective way.

Well, you know, to convey that she is finally passed on but her spirit lives on, I think birds, every time you… I see a bird, I think of people's spirits hanging out. I mean, even when my father-in-law passed away, before he passed away, he said every time you see a crow, think of me, 'cause I'm gonna be in your presence. So I see a lot of crows, and I see a lot of my father-in-law, someone I really admired and loved a lot.

So portraying her flying away in this bird was my way of saying she is gone physically, but her spirit lives on.

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The author-illustrator collaboration

It's interesting to describe how an artist and an author collaborate, because most people think that there's a lot of conversation going on, and there's a lot of exchange of ideas, but… basically, we don't really talk much to each other. Perhaps there's a few e-mails just letting you know that you're doing great, or in this case, fortunately, I haven't had the other side of the conversation, where they're hating your work.

But I think that most of it comes directly from the editor and the art director, and they are the ones in charge to make sure that they're doing this orchestrating of both ends, the writing and the paintings. But I knew a little bit about (Monica Brown's) work. I did a little research on her. I wanted to know who I'm working with. And once I understand a little more about them, I think it's easier to try to produce something that you'll like, and more importantly that they'll like as well. I think we have a lot in common, and I admire her greatly. And it was a great opportunity to work with her. She was very supportive of everything I was doing, even though I thought that I was pushing boundaries that I was not too experienced in, and perhaps I…because of my lack of experience, was sort of, I think that I took advantage of when I was able to push things a little too far, perhaps. But she was there 100%, all the way, backing me up, and I think it was a great collaboration that really turned to be successful.

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¡Yumm! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué rico!

My next book was ¡Yumm! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué rico!. And it was a collaboration with Pat Mora. And what was great, and I was really looking forward to was to try to visually represent these great haikus that Pat has written. And because I come from a conceptual illustration background, it was a welcome challenge. You know, I thought this is gonna be great. So rather than trying to describe the food itself, I was trying more to visually represent these haikus.

So it made it a lot more fun, 'cause it was… they were very poetic, so there was a lot of room for me to move around and try to do interesting imagery.

One of my favorite scenes is the one with the chili, because obviously it came from Mexico, and loving chili. I love chili. I like that image. I like what the haiku said about the fire in the mouth. I thought, great. You know, I'm gonna have to have this dad almost look like a flamethrower. He just took a bite, and literally the flames coming out. But also subliminally, there's this volcano in the back, in the background erupting, the daughter is peeking over his shoulder, and she's fascinated with what's going on. And in a way, I'm sort of like relating to a lot of moments in my life where I see my cousins of my family members doing the same thing. And I think I literally saw fire coming out of their mouths.

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Our California

My other book, and it's one that was a really, a great experience and a favorite of mine was Our California, another collaboration with Pam Munoz Ryan. And this is actually a redo of something she had already done before. And the first thing that I thought was, okay, I don't wanna do another tour guide of California. And I don't wanna physically or visually repeat what other people have done very successfully.

I decided that it needed to be more of my representation of how I feel about certain places. And of course, I tried to make my approach more personal, where I do more primitive paintings, versus trying to literally describe what's on every one of these cities or states, or parts of the state. And… once I make that decision, that it was not gonna be a repeat of another tour guide, then everything was just great.

So one of my favorite scenes that I painted was the Channel Islands. I really love../I think that in this piece a lot of things came together, the way I'm thinking is the textures were there, inspired by the town where I live in Mexico. I wanted the main character, the whale, to be very primitive, very childlike. And in a way, I wanted the whole book to be perceived as someone that was… like children drew this thing. This is children's memories and remembrance of a trip to California. I didn't want this to be perceived as being painted by an adult. Mostly like, we were children that went to the state, and these are our memories.

The swallows when we cover San Juan Capistrano were fun to do, because I mean, my swallows don't really look like swallows. They actually have eyes that are very human. So I wanted to have this, kind of a combination of a human/swallow thing, and of course you can see Mexican and Latino influences with all the decorations and the wings. And you know, kids are so sophisticated. They don't need to see a real swallow. They understand that we're interpreting this bird that comes back, year after year, to the same place. So I think once you understand that, you have… there's no limitations to what you can do and create. So I like my swallows. They're pretty interesting.

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Book Fiesta

The next book I worked on was Book Fiesta, and that's the one that I'm receiving the the Pura Belpré for. What I like about Book Fiesta was that every, I didn't have to have this story being told. Every scene was very different. It was all about showing how fantastic it is to read. That you can have books and read any time, anywhere, and you don't have to limit it by the constraints of reality. I mean, when you read and your imagination is going somewhere, you can put yourself in many different places.

So it was again an opportunity to create the wildest things you could do, and follow these beautiful words by Pat Mora.

One of the images in Book Fiesta is actually a vertical versus a horizontal traditional way of flipping from right to left. And I think that, again, it's maybe my lack of experience as a book illustrator, but the first time I tried that was with Our California, where I thought of the scene that we covered, and I painted in a vertical form, it was El Capitán, the Yosemite, the El Capitán is actually pretty tall. I couldn't really convey the greatness of Yosemite in a horizontal way, so I had to do it vertically. And I thought that it was so successful that I wanted to try it again, and finish the book in some way about having the kids flipping it, and turning it, and open it up like a poster. Have this big giant moon. Just to have some variety too. I mean, kids don't necessarily to read from left to right, they can read also up and down. We do it all the time. And a lot of people like that, maybe I can do it one day where everything is upside-down. I don't know. We'll try that.

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Upcoming: Tito Puente

My latest and most current project is gonna be sort of like what I've done with Celia. This is gonna be now the story and biography of Tito Puente, another great… hey, he's the the Mambo King, I guess, or you could say he was the king of the timbales.

I need to create this simple character that personifies Tito in personality, perhaps also in the way he looks. And that's what I'm trying to do and I think we're working on it. So I'm about halfway through that, having a great time. I'm leaving the most challenging pages for the end. I don't know why I do this, but it's gonna be great. So it's coming along really well. I'm doing something that is very similar to what I did with Celia, because they were both singers, so there's a lot of poetry that I'm gonna try to convey in these images.

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Oprah's school

Last year, I had the opportunity to make, to meet Oprah, and I mean, Miss Winfrey is a champion of books, you know, undoubtedly. I had the opportunity to create three paintings for her schools in South Africa. I believe she has two schools. And it was a highlight to actually have the opportunity to create three paintings that were very personal to me, with themes that were obviously very personal and close to me, which is the joy of reading, and books.

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A message for Latino families

My message to Latino families is, you know, keep that beautiful element of the family around you. Keep it strong. It's very important, especially in the challenges that we face today. I think family is very, very important. Reading to your kids at a very, very early age is important. Even if they are not still understanding the words, they fall in love with books. I saw it in person with my own child. You know, he was a baby of months, and he would, he learned how to flip those pages, and he was fascinated with the, not the words, but the images. And I believe that it's incredibly important to keep that.

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The true source of inspiration

All right, they want to know where I get all my great ideas. So, they come from my son. A lot of them do. He's a great artist, a natural, and Santiago is only eight now, but he can draw like he's 17. I mean, his amazing ability to capture details, and understand perspective, even though he's never had a class in perspective. It's just amazing and mind-boggling. So, you know, he's gonna keep me coming up with very fresh ideas.

Perhaps not too fresh because they're coming directly from him, and then I'll try to make it mine.

He has created a couple of characters that I really like, in his drawings, and I changed them a little, but I loved the beauty of him capturing just the basic elements. He has this ability to capture in a few strokes the character of, and the personality of many of the creations he does. It's amazing.

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School murals

Another thing that I do a lot, and I enjoy greatly, is doing murals. And most of the murals I do is through schools, particularly in my kid's school, and what I love about it is that it's a collaboration with parents, and especially with the kids. And what kid doesn't love to paint, especially on a wall, right? So I that's sort of like now my job at my kid's school, is design a mural every year.

And I do this with another, different places, where I design something very simple, very graphic. I have a few people help me put it, trace it into the wall. And then we create this event on a weekend where we invite families and kids, and we invite them to just go ahead and paint it, and fill in the spaces. We bring sometimes music. We have food. We have drinks. And we have a great weekend together.

And it's great how kids and their parents take ownership and pride on the work that they created. It's just very rewarding.

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Art in schools

It's a shame. It's a shame that because of the economy and so many budget cuts, we're losing so many art programs. Particularly when I see kids like my son. My son struggles with other areas, and art for him is very strong, and I believe that many kids are like my kid. That a lot of them, for them science or mathematics or business is not their strength, and we are leaving a lot of people and a lot of kids behind, and I think that's very dangerous.

And I think that art, not necessarily means that you're gonna become a starving artist. Art teaches you to be sensible and observant to the world around you, which is very important to shape up your personality and who you are, and your place in the world.

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Celia emerges from the jungle

So this was one of my first scenes ever, that I ever drew as an illustrator of children's books, and this is where I apply my conceptual background. Basically here it says: "Open your eyes and see, this is emergence of Celia Cruz, as a singer, as an artist." No one knows who she is. This is her introduction to the rest of us, to the world. And obviously in real life it happened on a stage. But who wants to see her emerging on a stage? It's kind of boring, right? So, why not emerging out of these beautiful tropics of Cuba? So I see her emerging out of this, like this goddess that comes out, from the forest and the jungle.

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Celia leaves Cuba

This is the scene where she leaves Cuba behind and this is during the time of the conflict and the revolution. Obviously we didn't want to portray violence, this is our audience: kids between 3 and 7. Being a conceptual artist I thought there are many ways that we could do this. As you can see, I represented her floating, and leaving her writings and her songs behind in the beloved Cuba. Her heart stays behind, but she has to move on.

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Eating chili

This is from ¡Yumm! ¡Mmmm! ¡Qué rico!, another collaboration with Pat Mora. And this is one of my favorite scenes, because this is how I feel when I eat chili, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. You became kind of a flame thrower. I like the amusement of the daughter behind, but I also like the way I subliminally just show fire too with the volcano in the background, so this guy could be me, because I love eating chili.

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A California whale

So this is a scene from my third book, which is Our California and, as I mentioned before, I wanted this to be sort of a visually…a description of what a child would remember if they travel through the state of California, which is my adopted land. So you can see that the main character, the whale, seems to be painted in a very primitive way, as if a child had written it, or drawn it, as well as some of the textures and characters that surrounds it. I wanted to keep this child-like sprit over the whole book. So this was so much fun to draw.

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Reading from top to bottom

So, this is an interesting image because obviously as you can see it reads top to bottom. And a lot of people find it really amusing, and they think that is great.

I tried this approach before with Our Californiawhen we cover Yosemite because of the tall mountain, I thought it's just make sense to do it this way. And I believe kids can read top to bottom, you know, as well as left to right, and I am sure that they are capable to doing it upside down, I am sure that's pretty fun. So this is one of my interpretations. I think it also adds to the variety and to the entertainment of the kid, to be flipping things around, as well as the amusement of the parents.

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"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass