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Interview with Paula Barrágan

Paula Barragan

Nikki: What was your first artistic experience?

Paula: I was born into an artistic family, and that was lucky. My dad was a sculptor and an architect, and my mom was a ceramist. They were always working at home with clay and all kinds of materials. Since I was a baby, I was given clay to play with. In primary school, I remember practicing painting in class and making a drawing that later won a prize. Being surrounded by art led me to enjoy making art.

N: When did you start creating art professionally?

Paula: I would say after I finished university at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Although I had little jobs before that, like working on the school newspaper, creating posters for school events, etc. Later, after I graduated, I worked in a textile design studio. I really liked it, because I was in charge of producing the colors to paint the textiles. My boss would say, “We need this yellow.” She would give me a little paper with the specific yellow that they needed, and I had to mix the tempera that the artists would later use to paint the designs. During the day I would mix about 10 different colors and match them perfectly. I learned how to combine the primary colors to make a very specific tone. That was very fun, and that was my very first real job.

N: When did you start creating your own works of art?

Paula: After I worked in New York for two years doing freelance and textile design, I came back to Quito and got a job in my brother’s graphic design studio. I was working full-days, but I realized that I really didn’t like routine. To start work every day at 9:00 AM and have a very strict schedule, wasn’t really working for me. So, I asked my brother if I could just work 3 hours in the morning. Then I rented a little studio for myself apart from my house, which was very small but had a beautiful view of a valley.

There, I installed my printmaking press, and I started making my own creations. So I wasn’t really working for anyone else, like I

from Spicy Hot Colors

was in the graphic design studio where we had clients, and we had to respond to a theme or a logo type. In the afternoon, I would go to my studio and do whatever I wanted. It was fun, but I didn’t know if I was going to earn any money from doing that, so it was an experiment. Slowly things came together, and I had a show of my printmaking prints, and I was able to begin making some money.

N: How did you get into illustrating children’s books?

Paula: The first book I illustrated was Love to Mama. Christy Hale, who is one of my favorite illustrators, was my very good friend in the Pratt Institute in New York, and I was always in contact with her. One day she called me and said, “There’s a book they need illustrated by a Latin American person or someone that speaks Spanish and knows Hispanic culture. Why don’t you send them a portfolio?” So I sent a little portfolio and they agreed to work with me! I was really happy because that was my first picture book.

N: How does the Latin American culture influence your style?

Paula: I think I’m very influenced by my own culture and personal history. Here [in Quito, Ecuador], I’ve been watching and working with indigenous culture. It is very rich visually, the colors and I guess the light in the Andes contribute to that. The combinations of colors that the indigenous people use and wear were always stuck in my head. The colors, the forms, the designs and my roots here, all influence my creative work and impact my style of art.

from Spicy Hot Colors illustrated by Paula Barragan

N: What is your process like when beginning a new creation?

Paula: When I’m doing my own art, it’s very free, and I don’t really plan a lot. However, when I work on graphic design or illustrations, I study what I’m doing. For example, if I’m going to illustrate a children’s book, I review the text, read it multiple times, and then I try to really get a feeling of the rhythm and a sense of the story. At the same time, I write down a lot of notes about ideas that come to mind.

Slowly, I start sketching: first, in pencil in my notebook. Sometimes I will investigate and Google things, which is a great tool to get creative ideas. I usually start the real work on my computer, using Adobe Illustrator. For Love to Mama, I started creating the illustrations using gouache (tempera paint), by hand. It was a very nice experience, but at the same time it was very difficult to send for reviews. I was working in Ecuador so I had to send my sketches to the states. Then they’d email me and say, “We received the art! It looks good! You only have to change this little thing.” Finally, I decided to sketch in Adobe Illustrator to show them what I was going to do in the gouache. The art director said, “Why don’t you just do it in Illustrator? This is perfect!” I never thought I’d be illustrating on the computer. When I first started, I was a little scared of using the machine.

N: Did you also use Adobe to illustrate picture books like Spicy Hot Colors and Cool Cats Counting?

Paula: Yes, I do have a lot of sketches that I created by cutting out paper, but the final illustrations were created using Adobe Illustrator.

N: What were some of the challenges of transitioning from painting by hand to using software when you create illustrations? Was it difficult to get comfortable with digital tools?

from Cool Cats Counting illustrated by Paula Barragan

Paula: In the beginning I was not very comfortable. I loved working with glue, scissors, ink, brushes, etc. Getting involved with the texture was very important, and I liked getting dirty!

When I won a computer as a prize for a poster contest, I was obliged to use it. It was a big challenge. Using the screen as a surface and the mouse as a pencil was not easy at all! Slowly I learned the great advantages of the digital tools, and there were many! I still don’t know them all. Everyday I learn something new.

For example, the short time it takes to fill in a color in a space, the magical way in which one can reproduce a form many times or change the color until it’s exactly what I want, all of these wonderful things could only be done by the computer and Adobe Illustrator. With time, I have learned to love it and understand that a computer does not replace my other tools, it’s just a new addition which has so many tricks it would take two lives or more to know them all!

N: You travel a lot; do you pick up a lot of techniques and expressions from different destinations?

Paula: I love traveling so I try to travel a lot, but it’s not that easy. Usually it is because there’s some kind of work to do. Just recently I was in Madrid because we were invited to go to a printmaking residency, and we had to produce three prints in two weeks. Since these trips are usually about work, I’m surrounded by people who are deeply involved doing creative work.

Also, wherever I travel, I try to visit the bookstores. Sometimes I always see new styles in unusual places. For example, in Madrid, the sewer covers have beautiful designs and typography on them! I was taking pictures of them the entire time. When I travel I come back with a lot of new ideas, more visuals that influence me than techniques.

from Spicy Hot Colors Illustrated by Paula Barragan

N: You work in quite a range of media; is there a specific medium you prefer to work? Why?

Paula: I try to choose a medium that will reflect what I’m trying to work on. For example, right now we have a group of 20 artists who are working with sewing and textiles to produce a jungle. Everything has to be sewn, embroidered or weaved, and nothing can be glued or painted. Another example, I have a show about drawing in large formats coming up so I have to put the canvas on the floor and walk around working on it or sit on top of the drawing to work, because if I hang it on the wall, the ink drips.

Usually when I illustrate, I prefer to cut paper out and use Adobe Illustrator. I get a little more texture when I cut paper, as opposed to using the computer. Although the computer can be difficult to use at times, it is an incredible tool! With the digital aspect of my art, I work with a printer, and I always make sure to share my discoveries with him. In creating art, there is always a lot of discovery and experimentation in order to get the results you want.

N: Where do you draw inspiration?

Paula: I love looking at books! I have a big collection of books in my studio: art books, photography books, magazines, and even newspapers. Now, I also use my computer to Google things. Visually, I try to sit down many times a week to look at books. I’m not a very heavy reader; I would say that I always choose books that have pictures in them.

I also share my studio with a lot of people. We own a house that has three floors. Many people have classes there, older people and kids. Kids are very inspirational to me. I’m not the teacher for these classes, but I like to visit, and I always insist that there be a recess for kids to play. They show me their work, and it’s very inspiring to see what they create. They’re so free when they do things.

N: What is your favorite picture book?

Illustration by Miroslav Sasek

Paula: There are so many beautiful books, it’s difficult to say. I don’t have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, and I’ve always read books to them. One of the books that we love is one of Christy Hale’s books, Elisabeti’s Doll. I love it, because the story is a beautiful, African tale, and it’s illustrated with African motives and textiles.

N: Who is your favorite illustrator and why?

Paula: One illustrator that I’ve loved since I was a kid is Miroslav Sasek. He illustrated those books called This is Paris, This is New York, etc. The illustrations are beautiful! Christy Hale is another favorite of mine.


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