On the outskirts of Aurora, Colorado, an eastern suburb of Denver (now over half the size of Denver and like its more glamorous neighbor, over a mile high in elevation), in a modest bungalow, a young illustrator works to the accompaniment of music, with a large black-and-white cat for companionship.
Justin Renteria, 27, is soft-spoken and a bit shy until he warms to his visitor and the topic at hand. The majority of the art in the home he shares with his girlfriend Kayla and their four-year-old daughter Jayden consists of photographs of the young family and of Jayden’s colorful paintings.
Born in Torrance, California, Renteria spent his first six years in the sleepy California coastal town of Redondo Beach, before his family relocated to Denver in the summer of 1990. His parents divorced when he was in middle school, and his mother raised him, and his younger brother and sister off a modest income from Target, where she still works.
Moving from the city to a suburb surrounded by open land, with the Rocky Mountains in the distance, inspired Renteria. “Being from Los Angeles and not having any familiarity with nature, I often spent my entire recess watching the prairie dog colony behind my school. At this point, animals were all I would draw. It was dinosaurs before Colorado, and once we moved here, I was obsessed with drawing wolves, raccoons, deer and wild animals of all stripes. I was always the class artist, and got asked by my classmates to draw pictures for them any time an assignment required a visual aid.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but was naïve enough to believe there were still famous artists like Leonardo da Vinci,” he remembers. “My mom would make sure I was familiar with the term ‘starving artist.’ I think, like any parent, she just wanted me to have an easier life, especially when it came to finances.”
He had hoped to go to Art Center in Pasadena, but attending a school out of state wasn’t feasible. “I was fortunate because there was a scholarship program in the district, in connection with Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. I and a girl from a different high school both won, and I was able to attend RMCAD. Without the scholarship, and a lot of help and encouragement from my high school art teacher, I’m not sure I would’ve attended college,” Renteria relates. “I rebelled after my parents’ divorce, and got into trouble, and really didn’t even consider college until my junior year. Plus we didn’t have much money. Luckily, I cooled my shit, and got serious about my career prospects.”
He initially considered animation as a major, because he was a huge fan of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Tex Avery. “I ended up choosing illustration, obviously, because I was also such a big fan of old propaganda and social movement posters. I figured illustration was the best way to communicate to as many people as possible. That’s why I love editorial illustration so much,” he explains. “Every once in a while I get to do an assignment for something I feel strongly about. My first assignment for Wes Bausmith was for an Op-Ed by Gustavo Arellano. He told the story of his father, who came to the United States from Mexico illegally. It was a great article for me to be involved with, because my dad also came here illegally from Mexico when he was seventeen. Their stories were so similar it made the job really personal.”
“I’d had Justin on my radar for awhile before I gave him a call to illustrate a piece for the Op-Ed section of the Times,” says Los Angeles Times deputy design director Wes Bausmith. “I’m always looking at the promotional pieces that artists send me, trying to find people who have unique visual sensibilities, and Justin’s work stood out from the crowd. I liked his draftsmanship and his ability to convey a certain tone with each piece he'd sent me. It’s always fun to try out upcoming artists and see what they can do. Justin delivered the goods on that first assignment, and he’s done some amazing work for the paper since then. He did a great piece about ‘paper sons’ of Chinese immigrants, another wonderful and painterly illustration to accompany an ode to a mother's cooking that ran in our Food section, and a really compelling piece about living in one of L.A.’s tougher neighborhoods.
“I love the tactile quality of his finished pieces,” Bausmith adds. “It’s always such a pleasant surprise to see where he takes a concept, and he’s terrific in terms of taking art direction and moving the ball forward in the back-and-forth that goes into creating artwork for publication.”
Renteria received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2006, and has been making a living from his illustrations ever since. Even before he graduated, he began accumulating professional accolades, including honors in the Society of Illustrators New York Student Show in 2005. His work has been included in Lüerzer’s Archive 200 Best Illustrators Worldwide and it has appeared in CA’s Illustration Annuals 50, 51 and 52—a fairly rare occurrence for such a young talent. His clients include the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Weekly, Utne Reader, Adbusters and The Progressive, among other publications.
Renteria likes the graphic aspect of illustration and uses minimal color, concentrating instead on shape and texture in his work, using Photoshop to compose his illustrations after he has assembled the components. His subject matter is often gritty; one early student piece, Watts, shows a gang member surrounded by drawings of gang signs on torn cardboard, superimposed on a map of L.A., with a halo of bullets. While his current work is much different, he has long used collage in various ways.
“Many of my illustrations in school had a fairly heavy reliance on very technical drawing. I think I’m heading in a 180-degree turn—away from using my drawing and painting skills,” he says. “If there’s any detail in my illustrations, I prefer it to be from something I’ve collaged into the piece, or from texture that results from the printmaking process. If you look at illustrators like Ezra Jack Keats, or Eric Carle, the detail isn’t drawn or painted in, it’s achieved by the texture of the paint or ink, or of the pattern on decorative paper collaged into the work.”
He built his drawing table with one hand while his right hand was broken—lucky for the left-handed illustrator. The table sits in a small downstairs bedroom that he uses as his studio. Cut-out pieces of paper are littered around a computer. He has few examples of his work hanging in his house, but he digs through a pile of children’s books with enthusiasm, showing titles by Leo Lionni and Carle, whose simple, dynamic style he emulates.
Renteria is a handy guy, practical and industrious. He drives a 1952 Plymouth he has named Ramona; he keeps his vintage car running with ingenuity and elbow grease. He is also exceedingly modest, but not in a self-deprecatory way; he seems genuinely amazed and pleased that people relate to his art.
“I’ve always been my own toughest critic,” he says. “I usually like my work for a certain amount of time, then I start to hate it. I fall in and out of love with stuff really easily. I’ll get into a certain method of working, then I’ll get tired of it.” He enjoys trying different styles and approaches, and is always looking for something that excites his eye. He expresses the opinion that perhaps the most successful illustrators may be those with easily identifiable styles, but his graphic style, with its clever juxtaposition of news clippings, minimal and bold use of color and dynamic shapes is well suited to illustrating a wide range of subjects. The simple, graphic art that his daughter makes and the children’s books he enjoys sharing with her currently inspire him. Renteria will no doubt continue to express his enthusiasm and love of the natural world and human interaction with it, in his art and his life as both evolve. ca