Marcelo Elizalde was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1953. He is a self-taught, dedicated children’s books illustrator.
At school he considered his drawings as average, but his peers and professors saw a difference that he hardly acknowledged. What really differenciated him from other children was his rather excessive love for cartoons and picturebooks. Pictures, especially those intended for children, made him dream of something that he could not fully understand.
In Argentina he contributed to the most important publishers of books and magazines, and after the year 2000 he started to work for abroad. He began by Spain, but soon he added clients in the USA, Korea, Sweden, Canada and other countries.
A few years ago, he started teaching Children’s Books Illustration at the main art school in Buenos Aires, what made him review all he knew about the craft and conceive a conceptual basis for a criticism of the images intended for children. He is nowadays writing a book about the subject, that has his mind in a state of continuous bubbling, which he says, “makes him look a little absent-minded, or deranged, if you will.”
HERE IS MARCELO:
I work with an iMac 21.5″, 8Gb RAM, OS Mavericks; an Intuos 4 graphic tablet, and an Epson V500 scanner.
The application is Photoshop CS6
I very rarely draw directly on Photoshop. I feel that the tablet has this limitation and that I cannot move my hand with grace to set the first ideas on paper. There are some illustrators who do not start in paper, to whom I strongly recommend to use the pencil. The sketch comes out faster and dances better.
I sketch on a light semitransparent paper that lets me trace and refine the sketch. When I have it as I wish, i.e. precise where I need and loose where I am more confident, I scan it to 300ppi.
I always work upon the very layout, to be sure that the image is always in place in relation to the whole graphic space. When needed, I do it on the spread, so that both pages talk smoothly-or at least not fight to death. For that, I open the PDF of the layout as individual PSD files and save them in this format. I paste the scan of the sketch and put it in place and resize it if needed.
I open a new layer, fill it white and reduce its transparency to a value that lets me trace the drawing with a black common round brush.
I put a special attention in refining these lines so they have movement and profile and they don’t appear blunt or clumsy. I think that every bit of the illustration must have a beauty of its own and not depend on fellow sectors to look good.
When I´m done with the black lines, I open a new layer below this one and set a background. It can be any color, as long as it is dark enough to be visible when I “paint” the subject. I prefer dark blue, or red, or an earth hue.
In the times when the capabilities of Photoshop to build brushes was very primitive, I made this one up for very general painting purposes. And albeit I now have a box full of gorgeous brushes, I still use this one from time to time. I named it “Ancient” in the brush presets box.
Between the blue Background layer and the black line layer, I open a new one and I paint a background that will belong to the subject and that will give it the desired general hue. I chose a brownish color and set the layer to 50%. This I do so as to help the image have a chromatic coherence, as if working with washes of paint.
I start the always uncertain process of applying color in steps, using the Ancient and varying the transparency with the pressure of the pen. First darker colors, then the lighter.
I keep on applying layers of “paint”. You can see the blue background a little through this layer. It may not look like very important, but try otherwise and the difference will be huge.
The application allows me to go back some steps and retry and again and so forth. Luckily, you can’t see my doubts here. See that the borders f the paint are slightly loose with respect to the outline.
I apply the lighter color in the illuminated parts. By default, I make the light come from above to the left.
I continue with the other subjects and objects of the scene.
Added the color to the ground that the subject is standing on. I apply, always in a separate layer, the highlight, generally in white.
I do it in a separate layers so as to control the intensity by varying the transparency of the said layer.
I open a layer above the blue background and, using again the Ancient, I proceed to “smudge” it to produce a soft, textured new background, suited especially for illustrations that either don´t need a scenery or are requested as standing alone in the blank of the page.
Finally, I apply the heavy Shadows layer. For that, I open a new one and set it in Darken mode, 25-30% opacity. Then I (usually) draw flat shadows with blue C100 M100 Y0 B0.
I set it in Darken mode so the details underneath are not painted over but are modified as if under a shadow. I change the transparency according to the color of the subject and the need of stress or character.
This is the final picture as I give it in. CMYK, 300ppi, TIFF format.
I hope you like it.
How long have you been interested in art?
I was the “artist” of the family, albeit no one knew what we actually meant by that. It was easy to see that I would drop out from any technical career, which I did.
Did you study art in college? If so, what college did you attend and what did you study?
I assisted for less than a year to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes (National School of Fine Arts) in Buenos Aires. In those days the syllabus was very good but rigidly classical, and Illustration was a very, very bad word. Everyone liked what I produced, but it was just illustration or it looked like such. Nobody knew what to answer to the question “So, what?”. I dropped out and went back home to teach myself.
Can you tell us a little bit about the classes you liked?
I liked especially Sculpture and Engraving, partly because the professors were very talented and open minded, and were of the idea, which I learned then, that you must try to master the technique to liberate yourself from material burden as much as possible. Their message was “do what you want, not what you can“. I forgot about Gravure, but Sculpture is still a blissful place where I want to get someday.
What was the first painting or illustration that you did for money?
The very first were a couple of single-panel cartoons for a sailing magazine. They were funny and I still like them.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
I did not graduate, as I said, and the things that I did one can hardly call them a “job”. My career started out in the wilderness.
How and why did you start going digital with your art?
In the 90s I contributed to a magazine –that was the dream-come-true of my childhood– and for production reasons they encouraged us illustrators to switch to working with computers. I like gadgets, so I bought a Mac and all the peripherals one Friday, a friend helped me plug everything correctly on Saturday and Monday evening I was giving in my first digital illustration. I felt like I had been illustrating in Photoshop for years and that I could finally perform things that were impossible with traditional materials.
Have you always lived in Argentina?
Yes, except for a 6 month stay at Bogotá, Colombia. I moved with the idea of settling there, availing a publishing boom, but I soon found out that it didn’t smell like books but rather just like paper. That was a vaccine against any will to migrate.
What do you think influenced your artistic style?
I have a straightforward and humorous approach to my subjects, and that I learned from Sergio Aragonés, a Spanish/Mexican cartoonist that did the little drawings in the corners of Mad magazines. He knew everything about producing funny situations in black and white ink thumbnails. I also learned a lot with Richard Scarry, who conveyed humor and expression to his very simple animal characters. And for the image itself, I always loved and longed for the illustrators of the 50s and 60s, like the Provensens or Celestino Piatti or my compatriot Ayax Barnes, among many others.
What was your first big success in illustrating?
In Colombia I illustrated a cookbook for children produced by Nestlé (the swiss dairy company) to be distributed to supermarkets that sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But this I learned when I was back in Argentina, so nobody even patted my shoulder for that.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for the children’s market?
Nearly always, or at least since I was 17. The trouble is that I didn’t know then that that was called illustration and that doing it for children was a specialty in its own right. I always wanted to produce the kind of images that I saw in the books I read.
When did you do your the first illustration for children? And what was it?
In a sense, when I was 17, an age that I mentioned before, and it was in the most direct and brutal manner.
How did that come about?
I assisted to a secondary school where they thoroughly taught us English language, and the last year we had to make teaching practices within the school, to primary pupils. My first assignment was a first grade, Friday afternnon, last hour; the worst possible combination. To make things harder, the teacher was very beautiful and we were all in love with her.
The subject was The Farm. I could neither refuse nor desert so I produced a series of cutout animals and people and farm objects that the little demons had to stick to a big paper with background field and sky. Though I made this up the night before, the lesson was such a success that I could have the children quiet for 15 minutes. The cutouts were much admired and I thought “Where did this all come from? How could I do it out of nothing?” It took me ten more years to find out.
Do you have an agent to represent you? If so how did you connect? If not, would you like one?
I did have one in the UK, but it didn’t work. I would like to have one. There should be agents to get you an agent. An Uberagent.
I see a few pictures that look like you sculpted a character. Is this something new you are trying out?
I started that back in 1995, blending my untested talents in sculpture and my profession. I did some works with clay, and I even took my models (yes, the very models) to the Bologna Book Fair in Italy, where I got much praise, but no assignments. The market for such technique is very, very small, as one can see in any bookstore. Anyway, my models availed me interviews at Aardman, the makers of the Wallace and Grommit series, and in the Spitting Image studios, both in the UK.
Have you published with any USA publisher? If so, who? And how did you get the contract with them?
I attended the SCBWI’s Winter Conference in 2001, where I made good contacts, particularly with Don Curry at Mondo Publishing, from whom I got my first assignment in the USA. Then came Innovative Kids, MacGraw Hill, Scholastic, Meredith, Klutz, and some more. I was assigned very interesting projects that I enjoyed a lot.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own book?
Are you open to illustrating a picture book for a self-published author?
As long as they pay me my fees, yes, why not. I stumble from time to time upon a request of this kind, but I couldn’t so far find out why these authors assume that you will do it for free, for the glory of it or for an uncertain future reward.
Have you worked with educational publishers?
Yes, and I particularly enjoy illustrating impossible books, like math books, and make of them a thing worth seeing. So much so that educational publishers in Argentina used to call me when they had one of those unillustratable books. This is where I apply what I learned from Sergio Aragonés.
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?
Yes, and I am currently contributing to one. But for many years I illustrated for the magazine that I (and everyone else in Argentina and the region) read when I was a kid. That is a badge that still makes me proud. I also worked for newspapers, both for children and adults. I particularly enjoy this kind of quick, concentrated effort, where you have one or very few shoots to make a story. You have to be very efficient.
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
My repertoire is a little limited. I have a subscription to Children’s Illustrators, and I mail the news about my recent work to clients. In fact, I concentrate my efforts in keeping my clients rather than go hunting new ones. That’s not for mere conservatism but simply because I don’t have a bold strategy to do otherwise.
What is your favorite medium to use?
Apart from the computer I love gouache. I started my career with that medium and it made a deep impression in my style. If you look at my pictures you will see that many of them imitate that juxtaposed color planes mode, as if it were gouache. I like the smell of it, too. And I have an unconditional love for the common, old black graphite pencil of eternity.
Has that changed over time?
As I said, I started with gouache, but then I tried everything else. Watercolor, acrylic, color pencils, pen & china ink, crayons and pastels, paper cutouts, plasticine, collage and I even tried baked dough (It didn’t work).
Do you have a studio in your house?
Yes, habitually. Not in this very moment. To have the studio at home is both a blessing and a curse, but I have decided long since that it is much more the former than the latter.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
No, I’m not that disciplined. I am a very curious person and i have a lot of interests that claim for their share of my time. I am disciplined to meet deadlines, though. As writer Douglas Adams said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
Yes, but to a certain point. My style does not support much documentation. It becomes very evident when I stick too much to researched images. Anyway, I do google my subjects, be it a rhinoceros or an airplane, but I usually make it just to avoid horrible mistakes or pick features that will enhance the result.
I have very seldomly taken photographs as documentation. When there was no internet, I used to go to the zoo and take some pictures when I couldn’t find the angles that I needed. Now you type “mouse-deer” and you have loads of photos to choose from.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
Not doors but gates! I could write an essay on the favorable changes that the internet brought to my work. It added extra dimensions to the creative process, the professional life, the research, the relation with colleagues, the access to other illustrator’s work, which was very limited before; the delivery of the pictures, the invoicing, the wiring, the meeting of new people from everywhere. I just cannot remember how it was to finish the work, tidy myself, dress up and go bring it to the editor. Do you remember?
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
Yes. I love it. They made it thinking of me. Anyway, I would love to meet the crew someday and tell them a couple of things!
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
After my first month struggling with the mouse, my Mac dealer called me and said “You should try this”.
First comes my right hand, second my Wacom, then my left hand.
What do you think is your biggest success thus far?
I didn’t have any big successes that I can think of.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I am currently finishing the research for a book I want to write about illustrating for children. Not about technique nor professional development, but about the essence of what we do. I want to give an answer to the question “What is it that we do? For what?”. I never heard of a good answer to that. I think that in reality nobody knows. Well, I think that I am slowly coming to the point and I will struggle to publish it. That is my dream.
What are you working on now?
I´m illustrating the second batch of a series of books whose translation would be The Jungle Gang, obviously about the adventures of a group of animals. They are coming out funny.
Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.
Always buy the best material that you can afford. Saving in this matter is like bandaging your fingers, or maybe banging on them.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
I use to say that I had to navigate my profession looking at the stars. Now, the young illustrators have their GPSs –the internet is one of them– and there are tons of advice everywhere. But there’s one thing that I try to never forget, and that is the children; the children that see my pictures and incorporate them along with the story, and feed something into their minds, or hearts, or souls. In many parts of the world (not in the USA) the child as a viewer is being neglected and the images are becoming cold and distant, as if intended for adults, more concerned about the aesthetics of the matter than the emotions one has to help express.
To say that I mind the child within me is too commonplace and expresses nothing. I’d rather say that I work for the real, average child out there.
Thank you Marcelo for sharing you process, journey, and expertise with us. I know you will have many more successes in the future and we would love to hear about all of them, so please drop me a line when good things happen.
To see more of Marcelo’s illustrations you can visit him at: www.marceloelizalde.com.ar Please take a minute to leave a comment for Marcelo, I know he would love to heard from you and always appreciate it. Thanks!