Jesús García: I don’t see any difference between Art and Illustration

Juan Carlos Tellechea
lunes, 21 de junio de 2021
Gandalf © 2016 by Jesús García Design Gandalf © 2016 by Jesús García Design

The outstanding New York artist, graphic designer and illustrator Jesús García (born 1962, Bayamo, Granma Province, Cuba), still to this day recalls with great affection his childhood adventures living with his family on its sugar cane plantation in eastern Cuba. His mother, María, had divorced, and they went to live for a while together on that farm. 

I have so many wonderful memories of my childhood on that farm, surrounded by a big, loving family, sometimes riding on horseback, sometimes accompanying my uncles in the fields to taste the sugar right from the cane, recalls Jesús, full of emotion.

It was in 1969 that the young Jesús García emigrated with his mother to the United States, thanks to a 1961 program for Cuban refugees who were arriving in waves to South Florida.

We were sponsored by my aunt, who lived in New York with her family, and we lived with them till we were able to get situated on our own.

Jesús García owes who and where he is today to the great efforts of his mother, now 88. Jesús, who now lives and works in Manhattan, notes: 

I’ve never stopped appreciating the great sacrifices my mother made for me; a hardworking single mother, so dedicated to raising her child in a new land, not even speaking the language.

In 1982, Jesús began studying at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Towards the end of his fourth year, he had to abandon his studies in order to care for his mother following a medical procedure. He got a full-time job to help out and, after that, it was very difficult for him to return to his studies.

Jesús García is a self-made man, who has fought his way up and who, with his enormous experience, has given us a beautiful academic dissertation on his artistic creation. These are his comments, exclusively for mundoclasico.com.

Juan Carlos Tellechea: What thoughts do you have about this shutdown of cultural activities, in general, and artistic activities, in particular, due to the coronavirus?

Jesús García: The truth is, I have nothing new to say in that respect. Unfortunately, as we know, people involved in the cultural world, as well as the general public who enjoys the arts, have been devastated by the shutdown. So many artists, including some of our closest friends, have suffered financial repercussions, stress and frustration sometimes bordering on depression. The public has felt deprived of the joy, the satisfaction and even the comfort that art and culture can give them. Thanks to the creativity and generosity of many talented artists, we’ve had the opportunity at least to enjoy their gifts during this difficult time by way of the Internet. It seems like things are getting better. Let’s hope so.

What stock do you take (positive or negative) of the situation?

In an effort to manage the difficulties presented by the pandemic, I find it now more important than ever to immerse myself in my art. Not only does it give me enormous pleasure, it’s helped me achieve balance during all this global upheaval. I could say my art is like an oasis where I can find refuge.

What projects were you working on and how have you had to modify them, and which can you still undertake?

Jesús García en Nueva York. © 2021 by Jesús García Design.Jesús García en Nueva York. © 2021 by Jesús García Design.

When the pandemic hit, I was working on a few freelance graphic design projects. I appreciated having been able to continue working on them and, ultimately, to complete them. While I’ve been fortunate to have gotten other freelance graphic design projects, the pandemic has definitely affected the volume of work. With respect to my illustrations – my real passion – I haven’t aggressively promoted them simply because of the demands of my graphic design work. After all, one has to pay the bills, right?

Anyway, besides my freelance work, I’m the creative visual director of a web content and design company, HungryMonster.co., that I formed with two partners just prior to the beginning of the pandemic. Starting a new company is already, in and of itself, a challenge and even more so during a pandemic. Nevertheless, it turned out that the pandemic created greater dependence on the Internet, so our services ended up being more relevant than ever.

What are your areas of work (illustrations, advertising...)?

Some of my specialties as a graphic designer are branding and the development of visual content for websites and traditional media. My experience covers a variety of industries, such as financial, entertainment, tourism and health care. 

Aside from pleasure and love for what one does, what should an artistic creator or designer also contribute?

Everything rests in people’s appreciation. It gives me a great sense of gratification to create something worthy of their appreciation. Knowing I can reach people’s hearts fuels my efforts even more.

How, where and when did it all start, who were your teachers, what was your first job?

Consolation. © 2021 by Jesús García Design.Consolation. © 2021 by Jesús García Design.

I trace my artistic development back to my childhood; I was fascinated by comics, whose images I found captivating. They fed my imagination and awakened in me the desire to draw and create things that don’t exist in the real world but that, at the same time, have elements based on reality. Because I didn’t have any mentor or other person who encouraged me to pursue my art professionally, I went through a long period of time before finally changing my path. That led to my acceptance into Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where I studied illustration, fine arts painting and graphic design.

His teachers

Reflecting on my time at Pratt, there are two professors in particular who stand out for the influence they had on the development of my training as an artist. Kent Williams, a young professor who taught illustration, worked in the comic industry and was a fine arts painter.

His achievements and style of painting greatly inspired me. Furthermore, he dealt with the same subject I’ve always loved: illustration for fantasy publications. Professor Williams also had illustrated, among other works, a series of graphic novels entitled Blood: A Tale, that impressed me enormously.

Joker. © 2019 by Jesús García Design.Joker. © 2019 by Jesús García Design.

The other outstanding influence was that of Professor David Passalacqua, the illustrator of the book The Illustrated Manual of Sex Therapy, published originally in 1975. I clearly remember that Professor Passalacqua had an incredible ability not only as an artist but also as a “teacher.” In other words, he didn’t instruct us simply as a “professor,” but rather related to us speaking the language of an artist. He really knew how to connect with his students. He emphasized individuality more than anything, in other words the importance of having a unique voice. In reality, that was the philosophy of Pratt Institute itself and that’s why the school is considered exceptional. It was there that I learned the importance of following my own, unique style in my work.

Professional Start

Jesús García creando un diseño. © Jesús García Design.Jesús García creando un diseño. © Jesús García Design.

My first job in the artistic world was as assistant to a Spanish artist in his studio in Greenwich Village, New York. I worked there on projects with different advertising agencies, which eventually led to my being contracted by one of them to be their full-time art director. Later, in 2009, after more than 25 years’ working for a couple of other advertising agencies, I left that field to start my own freelance business, Jesús García Design. At that time, while I tried to promote my illustrations, the reality was that I needed to concentrate on graphic design. Nevertheless, illustration didn’t stop being an essential part of my life, as it continues to be.

My illustration likewise plays a vital role with respect to my graphic design work. They’re connected. Each and every day, I dedicate a certain number of hours to sketching, which serves not only to maintain my level of technical ability, but also to keep the creative juices – so integral to my graphic design work – flowing. Besides, of course, they feed my passion for illustration. More specifically, that passion is for concept art, in particular for the design of creatures and characters. My experience as an art director, along with a deep understanding of anatomy, allows me to conceptualize and execute unique and creative ideas, from quick sketches to full-color illustrations.

Digital or analog, pencil and paper or directly on the computer, and why?

With respect to my illustrations, the majority are done with pen on paper (in reality, it’s a common ballpoint pen, the BIC round stick). While many illustrators opt for the traditional use of pencil, in my case I never had any patience at all for dealing with certain aspects of using a pencil –– such as always having to worry about smudging or smearing the image. So, I started using a pen initially as a solution to avoid all that.

But, at the same time, the pen brings with it the inevitable challenge of having to make a commitment each and every time it comes in contact with the paper. Once that initial line has been placed on the paper, it can’t be erased or removed, so one really has to have a concrete visual idea or concept in mind before anything. With time, I acquired more and more control over the pen until I came to have the confidence of being able to work directly on actual pieces instead of having to create preliminary sketches. This became an automatic process for me, something instinctive and natural. It allows me to enter a zone of a mental state where the vision I imagined is able to flow directly onto the paper without any problem at all.

Red stairs. © by Jesús García Design.Red stairs. © by Jesús García Design.

My illustrations in color are done digitally on a Cintiq tablet, using a digital pen and Photoshop. While I also love traditional oil painting, and because I unfortunately don’t have the luxury of a studio, I developed a technique to create that same traditional style digitally. Digital painting is the industry standard and is in much demand for any commercial illustration work.

How do you see the difference between art and illustration?

I don’t see any. I think both are the same. Both intend to tell a visual story and guide the viewer through a journey of light and lines, shadow and color, with everything culminating in a message and evoking emotions. So if we think, for example, about the Mona Lisa, an oil painting that inspires the viewer to ask him or herself Who must she be, what must she be thinking, what must be behind that famous smile?, that, effectively, is what an illustration in a book does. The two tell a story.

What is the state of this artistic activity in the United States; and in comparison to Latin America, Europe, Asia and the rest of the continents?

The world’s awareness of art and the artist is made easier now thanks to theavailability of online platforms and artistic communities. People can access art on a much wider scale throughout the entire world. There is so much talent to see and appreciate out there beyond the gallery and brick-and-mortar museum, although these will always continue to be very important. More art is recognized more than ever now through the Internet, due in part to the pandemic but even more so due to technology. <i don’t know much about the state of art in the rest of the world, but I imagine it’s more or less the same.

Is there some subject or some area that particularly interests you and in which you’ve specialized?

Sirena. © 2018 by  Jesús García Design.Sirena. © 2018 by Jesús García Design.

Yes! My love for everything related to science fiction and fantasy is always a driving force, particularly with respect to the creation of creatures or characters that transmit an alien strangeness but, at the same time, have qualities based on the familiar. For example, in my work entitled Sirena, inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, the creature is part woman, part octopus. The two exist separately in the real world but, obviously, not in combination (well, at least as far as we know!)

Is there some object or subject that’s very difficult for you to work on artistically, perhaps for emotional reasons?

That would have to be any representation of violence, including anything related to war; in other words, images of the real world, be they of suffering or injustice. At the same time, if I knew that drawing something of that nature could have a positive impact and help to effect change, I could do it.

What is the process of developing an illustration like?

Mt. Rushmore. © by Jesús García Design.Mt. Rushmore. © by Jesús García Design.

My passion is in transforming reality into fantasy. My years of study in traditional painting and drawing techniques, including a focus on anatomy, give me the liberty of expressing my visions based on reality and transforming that reality into surrealistic/fantasy images and themes. I continue to be inspired by artists of the Renaissance such as Caravaggio, fantasy artists such as the great Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, as well as contemporary illustrators in the concept art and graphic novel industries.

I constantly observe the world around me, whether it’s on the street or in the subway, the movie theater, etc. I ask myself, How can I transform what I see into something different, something unique, awesome and believable? I begin saying to myself, Okay, this exists in this way or in this specific environment and, then, I begin to imagine it in a different way. The question, What can I do to convert this into something unique and strange?, sets the creative process in motion.

Fantasy beyond reality

Once I start to develop a concept, and after it begins to define itself more and seems to have potential, the investigative phase begins. I consider all the individual components of the concept to ensure there’ll be a realistic and enduring element that gives it credibility. In other words, I want someone to look at it and think, Wow, this really exists!, when, of course, it doesn’t.

[FOTO: Poster for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” ©…]

Cartel de la película «The Shining» de Stanley Kubrick. © by Jesús García Design.Cartel de la película «The Shining» de Stanley Kubrick. © by Jesús García Design.

For me, one of the most important elements necessary to give life to any of my creatures is to create the feeling that they’re alive. To achieve this, I dedicate a greatdeal of thought and time to the planning of each facet of the subject. The gestures, the body language and the gaze are only some examples of the numerous details that are carefully addressed as I try to capture the essence of each creation, that is to say to give it life. I always enjoy hearing my partner say she thinks the eyes of my characters and creatures look like there’s a real, living (and sometimes creepy) being inside. (She’s nicknamed them García Eyes.)

As a fanatic of science fiction and fantasy films, my dream is to actively participate as a concept illustrator for movies, video games, graphic novels, etc., creating works of realistic fantasy. My objective is to create art that’s unique and emotional, art that tells a story, art that inspires and moves the viewer and transports him or her to a place beyond reality.

How would you define your own style?

Realism with a touch of strangeness!

What is freedom for you?

In general terms, liberty is the ability to be able to express yourself and live a fulfilled life, provided, always, that you don’t hurt anyone in the process. Art is simply another form of expression to which we have a right. It’s part of how we’re all connected and how we grow as a society.

Have you ever experienced a funny or difficult situation in your work that you can now relate with good humor, with sadness or with nostalgia?

Pieza enlazada

Some years ago, having worked long hours without a break, I began a job for a financial institution that needed a brochure for one of its departments. I’d had the idea of designing a group of individuals in silhouette that cast long shadows. Unfortunately –and something I later attributed to my fatigue and perhaps my passion for science fiction– I didn’t realize that I’d created the effect of some zombies walking towards the viewer.

The matter didn’t become evident till I presented the design to the client, who said, laughing, If we’d wanted a brochure for The Night of the Living Dead, this would be perfect! Finally, years later, this story ended up having an unpredictable and very special ending: That client is now my beloved partner, Mallory, who came to love me, zombies and all.

Translation by Mallory Stevens
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