Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 20, 2016

Illustrator Saturday – Rafael López


The work of Rafael López is a fusion of strong graphic style and magical symbolism. Growing up in Mexico City he was immersed in the rich cultural heritage and native color of street life. Influenced by Mexican surrealism, dichos and myths he developed a style with roots in these traditions.

His illustrations for Book Fiesta! written by Pat Mora were the recipient of the 2010 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award given by the American Library Association to honor work that best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in children’s books. In 2014 he was awarded the Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration for Tito Puente Mambo King, written by Monica Brown. In 2012 he was selected by the Library of Congress to create the artwork for the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. That same year he received the Pura Belpré Honor for illustration with The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred written by Samantha Vamos. His artwork for Yum! Mmmm! Que Rico! America’s Sproutings by Pat Mora won the Américas Award for illustration in 2007. He received a Pura Belpré Honor and the Américas Award for illustration with his first children’s book My Name is Celia written by Monica Brown in 2006.

His work on the Urban Art Trail Project transformed San Diego’s blighted East Village with colorful murals. This was the catalyst for development of a graphic style giving children and families the opportunity to paint large scale murals with the artist. These murals can be found in California, Colorado, Illinois and Washington.

Rafael divides his time between his studios in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and a loft in downtown San Diego where he works and lives with his wife and son.

You can work with Rafael at the Children’s Book Academy.


Here’s a demonstration step by step on how I create a final illustration from an early doodle, using mixed media.

One of my regular clients is Scholastic. They have seen the poster I created for the National Book Festival in Washington DC a few years ago with all the animals and the kids reading. The Art Director wanted a similar concept that would include a possum, monkey, sloth, snake, bath and iguana and 2 kids hanging upside down from a tree. That was quite a challenge considering all the elements and the space I had to leave for the masthead. While I am on the phone with the Art Director, I begin to doodle.

Image 1

The next step is to do the research and familiarize myself with all the animals I will illustrate. Once I have several photos I begin the process of drawing giving them a personality and an attitude. The challenge here is to give them certain human qualities such as them reading books, I need to blend the way an animal moves with the way human anatomy works and try to find a balance that makes the character believable. (See the next 4 images)

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The next step is to sketch our two heroes. The Art Director requested they would be around 10 years old. One Afro-American boy and a red headed girl to show diversity. We wouldn’t see their faces as a giant book will cover them. The purpose of this giant book was to have an area for extra text.

Image 6

Some early drawings are eventually edited from the final illustration as you can see with this hanging iguana. It didn’t feel right and there were already too many animals hanging upside down, however I wanted to incorporate a snake that would have a certain Aztec quality to it and did some research to create my character. I want to make sure none of the animals look threatening so I exaggerate their friendly expression.

Image 7I then make a second sketch where I think I need to have all the elements positioned.

Image 8

One thing I find very useful is to draw my characters and elements on tracing paper so that I can move them separately from each other, flip and change directions and allow me to consider the best composition. It’s like playing a game of chess.

Image 9

It’s time to create a final drawing making sure all the elements fit nicely around the copy and masthead, making sure no important element is cropped or hidden behind it.

Image 10

The next step is to create the shapes of the animals and the 2 kids. I talked in the interview about not letting technology define you but rather using it as a tool to create your own personal style. I made the decision to not use the “curve tool” on Photoshop. Instead I prefer to cut my shapes giving them a “hand touch” quality,  where the lines are not perfect but reflect my personal style. I use black construction paper and #11 x-acto blades to cut my shapes and then scan them. (the next three images)

Image 11

Image 12

Image 13

Using Photoshop I introduce a texture from my collection I have created with paint or photography. In this case I used a piece of old paper I Here’s the step by step progress while creating the possum character.

Image 14

I begin by scanning the cutout paper shape, crumpled and scanned that reminded me of animal skin. I use either the “lighten” or the “screen” mode on the layers section to combine the texture with the paper shape.

Image 15

I draw the possum fur and features on either tracing paper or vellum paper using black Prismacolor pencil and scan it.

Image 16

In Photoshop I blend the 2 layers together using the “multiply” mode on the layers section.

Image 17

The rest is adding final touches to the character, adding eyeballs, changing the color of the tail, darkening the legs and adding the book. He is ready to go and hang upside down!

Image 18

Now it’s time to create the background and environment. In this case they are in a jungle. I use an old piece of wallpaper and by copying and pasting it I created a larger background with green leaves. Using a brush I painted a black silhouette of branches and leaves for the foreground where the animals and the kids will be hanging. I then scanned a texture I painted with watercolor to resemble the texture of tree trunks and superimposed it on the black painting. This took the most time.

Image 19

The next step is to use the approved line drawing as a guide to make sure where to position all the finished animals and the 2 kids. This work is done in Photoshop using layers. I use the “warp” mode on the “transform” section to do some fine-tuning of all the shapes and elements, making sure they all fit and wrap nicely around each other.

Image 20

Almost there! This is the final illustration without the copy and masthead. All the layers have been flattened, color corrected and ready to go. This is the file I send to the Art Director. As you can see I give him extra room for cropping around the edges.

Image 21

And here is what the final product looks like. The Art Director was very happy, I found it to be a fun challenge considering all the elements they wanted, allowed me to experiment with mixed media and I hope the readers enjoy the next cover of Scholastic Storyworks!

Image 22

Here are two videos where Rafael talks about his process:

Here is number two.

Some Book Covers:



Maybe something beautiful

Another one


Another one

Tito Puente

Horn Book Cover

Horn Book Guide

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve worked professionally as an illustrator since my graduation from Art Center College of Design in 1985.


Have you always lived in California?

I was born in Mexico City and continue to be influenced by the colors, textures and street life of my native country. At the age of eleven, I had the chance to live for a short time in Exeter, England with an artist friend of my family. Now I split my time between San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and a loft in downtown San Diego.


What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?

The first thing I remember painting was a parade of Mexican skeletons on a giant paper roll my uncle who happened to work at a paper mill gave me as a present. My mother helped me clear the furniture from the living room and I rolled the giant tube from one end to the other. Inspired by the engravings of Guadalupe Posada I included skeletons of dogs, cats, roosters and donkeys in the parade. Every skeleton was having a great time and playing some kind of instrument. There were at least 30 figures and had a blast doing it although it required to paint laying on my belly for long hours, something I might find difficult to do now. When my Uncle saw it he gave me 20 pesos and hung it up at the paper mill.

book festival

What made you choose to attend Art Center College of Design?

I was lucky to take an art class at the University of Texas taught by a recent graduate from Art Center. He saw my work and told me I belonged there then followed up by bringing me a catalogue. When I opened the pages I was hooked! The work seemed to have been created by highly trained and talented instructors but my teacher reminded me that it was student work. I couldn’t believe the level of professionalism. I credit the unique and inspiring instruction, friendly yet intense competition there as formative forces during my education.

sun moon stars

What did you study there?

My major was in Illustration and my minor Graphic Design.


Do you feel College helped develop your style?

No, but it exposed me to many different styles and techniques. ArtCenter didn’t encourage young students to develop a style but fostered more the curiosity to explore and experiment. They correctly believe that style develops with time and practice. ArtCenter put more emphasis in conceptualization, teaching you to think outside the box depart from thinking literally to problem solve and discover the solution in a conceptual way. This opened many doors and opportunities for me once I graduated because I established myself as a conceptual illustrator. This is something I still apply to my illustrations for children’s books.


Did art school help you get work when you graduated?

My first professional job was given to me by one of my teachers. She worked for a video company and asked me to illustrate one of their video packages. For this project I implemented a Western Style which led to meeting another person who worked at another video company who gave me additional work. (cont.)

sleeping on a drum

ArtCenter’s well deserved reputation opened many doors for me giving me chances to show my portfolio around. This gave me a shot and made it easier to get through the door of many designs and advertising companies.


Have you seen your work change since you left school?

Yes! Several times. I now make conscious changes in my style to reflect who I am and stay in touch with what the market is demanding. I always stay true to what I connect to emotionally. I caution young artists to stay away from imitating the latest “hot” style in demand but instead listen to their own inner voice. This will help them connect to a style that is truly theirs and they will discover a lifetime of passion for making art. True style doesn’t come looking for you but comes from the inside out.

hot air balloon

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

One day I got a phone call from an editor of a small publishing company in northern Arizona. She had been following my work as a conceptual illustrator and told me I was the perfect guy she had in mind to illustrate a story on her desk. I thought she had the wrong guy and reminded her that I painted Mexican diablos, flames and skeletons. She calmly reassured me I was the guy she had in mind. My first book was My Name is Celia and it received a Pura Belpré honor and won the Americas Award back in 2004. That was how I got my start and thankfully other books followed.


Can you tell us about the book your made when you were eleven?

I was living in England at the time with a friend of my parents, the painter Felipe Ehrenberg. He lived on a beautiful farm in the southwest of England. This was back in the early 70’s and many people lived in a communal way, raising their own chickens, planting and growing their own food and milking cows. Coming from Mexico City this was all very fresh. At the end of my stay he encouraged me to create a small book illustrating some of my most memorable experiences. Being an artist he had a studio with a small hand press. I learned every step of the process and the result was my very first book at age 11. We created 50 copies that I gave to family and friends on my return. I still keep 2 copies at home, one that I will give to my son Santiago.

moon gazing

kick up your heels

Did you do other types of illustrating before you got the Celcia book contract?

Yes, mostly conceptual Illustration, annual reports, posters, book covers and magazine articles. I still spend 50% of my time doing commercial illustration as I like to diversify and have the opportunity to take other challenges.

dog cat girl book

How did you get involved with Murals?

In 1997 my wife and I bought an old warehouse in the East Village of San Diego that we converted into a live/work home and studio. After fixing up our place we realized the neighborhood needed our attention as it was impacted by blight and crime. As I come from Mexico City, I connected to the impact murals had made in my own hometown. To really create change we knew that we had to engage our community so I developed a large scale mural style that could work like a giant paint by numbers.


Did that work lead you to getting the contract to illustrate Maybe Something Beautiful? Did you know the author?

The editor that gave me my first opportunity to illustrate a children’s book is the co-author of Maybe Something Beautiful. She was contacted by Isabel Campoy and both were very enthusiastic to create a story inspired by the work we had created through the Urban Art Trail in the East Village of San Diego. We coordinated a visit and I took them to see in person some of the projects that included murals, sidewalk poetry, benches and painted electrical boxes. On our return to the studio I saw in their eyes the determination that this would one day become a book. It was inspired by the real story of people from many different walks of life coming together to create a sense of community through art. (cont.)


Yum!, Mmmm Que Rico was a Blue Bonnet Book Award winner, Américas Award for Children’s Literature Award winner, Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Book Award winner, an ALA Notable Book, the Great Lakes Great Books Award, and Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year. That is a lot of awards to win for only your third book. How exciting was that when it happened? Do you feel it helped get you more work?

First of all I have to admit that I really didn’t know it had won so many awards. Much credit goes to the amazing writer Pat Mora and the excellent job Lee and Low does promoting their books. I do believe winning awards has helped me to get more offers and select exciting stories that I really connect to.


In 2015, Drum Dream Girl won a ton of awards. Do you have someone who submits your books to get them in front of award committees?

Publishing houses have a department of very skilled, committed folks who make sure books get the best exposure and get to where they belong, in libraries and hopefully into the hands of children. It is always a good idea to stay up to date with the deadline for submissions and check that your books have been submitted.


How many picture books have you illustrated?

9 books so far and working on 3 new books projects including my very first book written and illustrated by yours truly. A scary yet incredibly exciting challenge but I know in my gut I have what I believe is an important personal story that needs to be told.



How did you meet Mira Reisberg, founder of The Children’s Book Academy?

I believe she had become familiar with my work on children’s books and we have several common friends including Isabel Campoy. She is one of the most important scholars in the industry and has done a great job creating scholarships for young writers and illustrators. I was honored to have her name one of the scholarship in my name. I have been a teacher and believe strongly in education. I still love to teach workshops and speak to young students at every opportunity. It’s a chance to share the love and passion I feel for telling diverse stories.


I know you contributed a video interview for the Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books where you shared about your art techniques. Could you give a brief description of the materials that you use and what it was like doing the interview?

Talking to Mira was like having a chat with an old friend who shares similar interest and the same passion for children’s books and literature.

She wanted to share with her readers as much information as possible about me, my art and what makes me tick and inspires me. The conversation was very casual but hitting some very informative points. (cont.)

oprahWe talked about my technique and how I have been using wood panels to paint and take advantage of the grain and texture. This is what has given my style a certain recognizable “look” if you wish. I explained how I use masking tape to create sharp edges and use tools I find in different hardware stores and antique shops to scratch and create different textures dragging the tools across the wood surface while the paint is still wet. The interview took place before I starting experimenting with more mixed media and doing more digital work which is what I do currently. I still scan my traditional acrylic paintings done on wood and then apply other techniques such as Prismacolor pencil, cutout paper and watercolor washes. It allows me to do things faster and give me more flexibility to change things in Photoshop.


Finally, how did it feel being honored for your art and social activism with their diversity scholarship?

Naming one of her scholarships after me was a great honored. I’ll be honest, I was a bit surprised and humbled to find out that people knew about my work and have been following it all these years. I thought only my family was doing it. I believe she wanted to not only recognize all the years of illustrating especially children’s books but recognize my engagement in social activism. I do community murals with kids of all ages around the country in areas that have been affected by blight or neglect. These murals and the participation of the community is one of my most rewarding experiences I can think of. Using art as a tool to make positive change in the community is a very powerful thing and a collaboration kids will remember for a very long time. Doesn’t get any better than that!

everyone painting

What do you think is your biggest success?

Other than raising my son and trying every day to make him a good person and world citizen I believe I have had some moments that have defined my career. One that comes to mind is the creation of a poster for President Obama in his first term. I originally created it in a grassroots way to bring attention to the Latino vote hoping to help bring attention to a candidate I believed in. Friends helped me post it on the internet and immediately it went viral. This image was very effective in reaching this demographic and field workers brought it to the attention of the national campaign. Before I knew it, I became one of only eight artists to create an official poster that was used to raise campaign funds and awareness.


Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how did you connect?

I did have an artist rep for many years while my name and my reputation was evolving. I made the decision to go at it on my own several years ago as the Internet and my two websites were keeping me busy without a rep. I do think it is a good idea for young illustrators who are starting their careers to look for someone to represent them and instead spend their time more productively in the studio making art. A good rep that respects and likes your work will be a great ally looking for good job opportunities and bring the best price for your talent. (cont.)

reading in the clouds

I am with Full Circle Literary and absolutely believe it is vital to have a literary agent. She has been a great friend and we knew each other before she started representing me. She does a much better job that I could ever do with book contracts and royalties.


Do you illustrate full time?

Yes, knock on wood! Paint on wood too.

music lesson

Do you have a favorite medium you use?

I have been painting with acrylic on wood panel for many years. Recently I started experimenting with more mixed media that includes construction paper, digital art, pen and ink in combination with my acrylic paint.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

I do take lots of pictures of textures, walls and peeling paint that find their way into my work. I take photographs of things I find interesting and feel that will help me with the project but I draw from my mind as my illustrating style is not realistic. It is more interesting to me to speak to my audience with drawing that represent a memory, a feeling instead of giving them a realistic representation. (cont.)

paint brush

However I do believe in doing research. It is one of the most important steps in the creation of a project. To become familiar with your subject, to look for imagery that will inspire and trigger an idea, looking for the spark that will initiate everything. I create what I call “mood boards” and plaster the wall of my studio with this boards that help me get in the mood and surround me through the whole process from beginning to end. I always play appropriate music as well.

picking produce

Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?

Many, I made a conscious effort many years ago to change gears in my style as the Silicon Valley bubble was bursting in the end of the 1990’s. At the time I was working on mostly annual reports for financial companies and saw the end coming. I switched gears and started developing a style and imagery that the educational and healthcare industry could relate to.

music waves

Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

Yes, sometimes but carefully as I don’t want it to have a digital style but rather still give the feel that it was hand done.

riding the bird

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?


book feista

Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

Yes, for many years.

Talent Show

Do you have a studio in your house or do you do everything at the college?

I have 2 studios. One in my loft in downtown San Diego and one in my home in San Miguel de Allende Mexico.


Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?

Music! I need to have music to create. I believe they go hand in hand. I listen to an eclectic mix of music but my favorite has to be Latin Jazz. Just love the beat and makes me happy.

on stage

Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

I believe the moment of inspiration can strike at any time so I don’t limit myself to a routine but I try to find balance in life and spend a good deal of time exercising. I swim and bike and many ideas have come to my mind while biking down the hill or being underwater. (cont.)


It’s always good to strive to be better and push yourself with the next assignment but that only comes if you feel love for what you do. I never considered what I do a job but rather feel blessed I was given this opportunity in life to create something out of nothing, on a blank piece of paper and perhaps this creation will inspire someone in a positive way. To be curious to learn something new every day even after illustrating for almost 30 years is a good start to help you achieve your goals.

music crown

Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?

Yes, the Internet came to change the game and make it easier to expose your work to a larger audience in real time. You can paint something, scan it and put in in the internet immediately for the world to see. How can you beat that?

night music

What are your career goals?

Continue to create quality work and collaborate with writers I admire. I want to continue creating community murals and develop diverse books for young minds. I guess I’m already doing what I love to do.


What are you working on now?

My own story plus a new story written by Margarita Engle and a new book about free libraries.

making music

Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

Don’t be afraid of a blank piece of paper. Start instinctively to draw and let the hand and the mind wander and you wonder. You may not end up with the final piece but at least you get started. Experiment with different techniques and make them your own. Never stop being curious. Visit as many museums and hardware stores as you can. I usually come out feeling incredible inspired and ready to go back to the studio. (cont.)

alligator with a tail

Try to give your work a personal touch, don’t let the technique or the technology define or limit you. Instead make it simply another tool or instrument to help you create your own voice, vision and viewpoint. Use this technique or technology in a different way than most people do. I use Photoshop but refuse to learn the “curves” tool because it look too digital and perfect. Instead I create my shapes by cutting construction paper that I later scan. It looks more hand made, therefore I’m using the technology in my own way rather than having the technology define me.


Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

Feel the love for what we do. We are so fortunate to make a living striving to create beauty in a world full of imperfections. Illustration is a beautiful trade that goes back for centuries and continues to be an essential part of what we are. Celebrate and learn about the legends and encourage young illustrators finding their way. (cont.)

haning artwork

Make a plan for what you want to achieve and remind yourself of those goals. Tape it to your studio walls. Travel as much as you can, experience different things and be open minded to discover fresh ideas and images every day. Listen to a diverse repertoire of music, thoughts and opinions. Be true to yourself and stay away from the temptation to copy or imitate styles that are in vogue at the time. Remember that by the time you are going there, the people that created that style are miles ahead of you and on their way back. (cont.)


An illustrator friend of mine told me many years ago something that stuck with me all this years. “you will have a huge stack of rejections and a small stack of successes, focus on the small stack.”


Thank you Rafael for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Rafael’s work, you can visit him at website at:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Rafael. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. LOVE the colors! Very nice.


  2. I love Rafael’s work so colorful and lively and full of fun!


  3. Very inspiring interview! Love Rafael’s work and attitude.


  4. Rafael, your work is so stunning. Thank you for sharing your process. It’s fascinating! And I love the story behind your mural work 😀


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