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Illustrator Justin Renteria was born in the sunny South Bay of Los Angeles, where he lived until he was six-and-a-half, and later moved with his family to Denver, Colorado. He currently makes his living by drawing pictures for people in exchange for cash. He's been awarded by the Society of Illustrators Student Show, the Society for News Design, Luerzer's Archive 200 Best Illustrators Worldwide, and has been featured in the past three Communication Arts Illustration Annuals.

05.24.11

A Chuckle and A Cringe

If you have a degree in what field is it? I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration.

Have you always been able to draw or was it a skill you learned in college? Yeah, actually I’ve been drawing since I was three or four. Of course my drawings weren’t terribly different from those of other four-year-olds, but by the time I was in kindergarten, my mom says she noticed a vast difference between my dinosaurs, and the dinosaurs that other kids drew. It’s sort of a joke in my family, because neither of my parents can draw much more than a stick figure; I think my ability came from a great-great uncle, who actually illustrated magazine covers.

What was your first paid assignment? My first paying gig was for Steph Glaros at Utne Reader. I was nervous as hell and turned in something that I look back on today with a chuckle and a cringe. Steph, if you’re reading this, thank you... and I’m sorry!

Which illustrator (or fine artist) do you most admire? There are a ton of illustrators whose work I see and am just amazed by, but for inspiration I look more toward artists working in previous decades. I love old poster artists from Europe, from Pedrero to Roman Cieslewicz. I like Stuart Davis, Ezra Jack Keats, Leo Lionni and a lot of children’s book illustrators from the ’50s and ’60s. There are way too many to choose just one...

What would you be doing if you weren’t an illustrator? I think if I had been able to afford college (I was only able to attend art school because I received a substantial scholarship), I might have gone into paleontology. I was obsessed with dinosaurs growing up and would scour fields looking for the bones of dead animals; I know it sounds creepy, but it was a lot of fun. I probably could have assembled a nearly complete prairie dog skeleton from the bones I collected.

From where do your best ideas originate? Sometimes they occur to me in the shower or when I’m dozing off... but usually after thinking about concepts I’ve brainstormed in my sketchbook for a long, long time.

How do you overcome a creative block? I wish I knew a surefire way to do it. Sometimes exercise helps. I like to look at work by artists and designers I really admire. Sometimes seeing how another illustrator solved a completely different problem jolts my brain and knocks something loose.

In one word describe how you feel when beginning a new assignment? Focused?

Do you have a personal philosophy? As far as illustration goes: Do your best on every assignment, no matter how small the exposure or fee, and always push yourself to be a better artist.

Do you have creative pursuits other than illustration? Raising my four-year-old daughter. That takes creativity. And Tylenol. She's really becoming quite creative herself. She absolutely loves to do what she calls “crafts” that consist of drawing, coloring, cutting out shapes of paper, gluing, painting and then hanging it all up on her wall. I’m really enjoying seeing her blossom—although I don’t know whether I would wish for her to become an artist; it’s a tough gig.

What music are you listening to right now? Just heard “TV Party” by my hometown band Black Flag.

What’s your favorite quote? I liked this quote from Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, so much that I wrote it down: “There are plenty of good reasons for fighting... but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive. It’s that part of an imbecile... that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Be absolutely certain that you want to be an illustrator—that you must be an illustrator. If you can handle the days and weeks and months without a commission and the desperation that comes when your last job was a month and a half ago, and it was only $400, and rent’s due next week; and if you don’t mind the feeling of rejection and self-doubt that gnaws at you during sleepless nights or working the graveyard shift to make ends meet, while feverishly working on self-promo projects during the day; if you’ve got the marbles for all that and more, welcome aboard!

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Whatever style you “find” after graduation, probably won’t last very long, so don’t stress about it.