Inspired by the flora and fauna of his home state of Chihuahua in Mexico’s northern Sierra Madre mountains, illustrator Raul Urias weaves together the colors, shapes and faces of his country into compelling images for advertising, clothing and fine art.
The 30-year-old Urias, who has called Mexico City home for the last seven years, has found success with his vibrant, symmetrical compositions, which have been commissioned for a large mural in Twitter’s Mexico City headquarters, for Marvel art licenses, for Nike clothing, for an Airbnb video, and for coffee and tequila packaging, among many others. He has been an illustrator for eight years, and is busier than ever.
From 2013 to 2016, he kept a separate studio, but now works from the apartment he shares with fellow illustrator Cesar Ruíz Canseco. His space is small but well organized into work and living areas, dominated by a bookcase full of colorful Japanese toys of anime and cartoon characters. Artworks by friends populate the walls, and the bookcase near his computer station is filled with titles he constantly draws from for reference materials and creative inspiration. He excitedly drags out several large art books and spreads them on the dining table, turning to certain pages to make his point about particular references, and pointing to some of his own beautifully printed silkscreens to show how he has incorporated them. He prints at the renowned 75 Grados, a 35-year-old printmaking studio, using up to sixteen colors for his vibrant silkscreens. We were scheduled for a print demo, but the day of our visit, the shop experienced a power outage.
Graphic elements appealed to him from an early age. “Every child draws, but people find other ways to express [themselves], like sports, like cars. I was one of those guys that never stopped drawing because I was so bad with sports, and I hate cars,” Urias says with a laugh.
In secondary school, at twelve years old, he wanted to be an artist. He didn’t know what type of artist yet, but he says, “I wanted to draw to live. When I was fifteen, I was super serious. I had my portfolio. I found out that one of my friends, Raúl Manriquez, was working for Marvel as a color artist. It was crazy for me because in my hometown of Chihuahua, you knew people who were mechanics, engineers or lawyers. But you never knew an artist—that blew my mind.” That exposure planted the seed of knowledge that being an artist was possible. “Every Saturday,” he says, “I went to his home. They had a lot of books of comic artists. They taught me a lot of anatomy. I was never a nerd guy. I never read comics. It’s all about the aesthetic: The style, the line quality, the characters. The style, for me, was an obsession. My goal in life was to be a comic artist, the first years.”
He pursued his dream and received a degree in visual arts from the Centro Regional de Estudios Superiores Palmore in Chihuahua. “The second year, I had a teacher that taught illustration history. For example, to draw for Marvel, you had to do the style of Marvel. You had to know how to draw muscles, to draw Wolverine and Cyclops, consistent and super fast. At some point, you are a robot. You are going to spend sixteen hours drawing something that people are going to spend five minutes reading. To be a comic artist is very heavy work, and I realized it was not for me,” Urias says. That knowledge led him to reassess his goal, and at 21 years old, he made a self-promotional portfolio on Behance of work he wanted to do, for clients like Nike and adidas. Google picked up works he posted, and soon after, Nike UK contacted him to design shirts based on these wishful designs.
In 2013, Urias moved to Mexico City, where he began to get work illustrating magazine covers and posters for musicians. He learned more about Mexican history when he moved to the capital, changing his style and adopting more Mayan and Aztec references. The oldest capital in the Americas, Mexico City was built by the Aztecs in 1325, known at the time as Tenochtitlan. In the ruins of the city’s Templo Mayor, the great Aztec temple, one can see the various strata of buildings, reflective of the rich history of successive civilizations that is still being uncovered today, and from which he continues to draw inspiration for his compositions.
Urias had the opportunity to move to New York City in 2017, spending six months working at design agency Vault49, living in Brooklyn and exploring the most populous city in the United States, where he haunted the Strand, a source of books that inspired him and elevated his business acumen.
He has always looked up the chain of inspiration, to see who guided those whose work he is drawn to. Urias cites graphic designer Milton Glaser as an influence, claiming, “With style, you can say anything.” He is deeply inspired by the work of Ernesto García Cabral, a prolific Mexican cartoonist and painter, best known for his contributions as a caricaturist to the publication Revista de Revistas. Romanian painter George Barbieri, art deco pioneer Erté, English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, Vienna secession artists like Gustav Klimt, the Mexican artist Saturnino Herrán and Mexican sculptors are also influential to his style. He eagerly shows off a book of surreal and psychedelic art by John Alcorn, and points to the American illustrator and designer’s use of contrasting colors. His inspirations have tangible evidence in the mostly blackwork tattoos that adorn his arms, including a tattoo of a man wrestling a snake, after a Cabral illustration.
Key to his aesthetic approach is the use of shapes and colors, and icons with cultural power clad in authentic dress. He does many preliminary drawings and spends a lot of time on color studies, balancing warm and cool shades and drawing his palette from nature, like the unique color of the sky in Chihuahua. He strives to harmonize colors and moods in his work, like sweet and savory in food, and to contain a surprise element. In addition to Mayan and Aztec references, his symmetrical style has echoes of Indigenous art from the Pacific Northwest tribes as well, with the use of ovoid and repeated shapes.
Cameron Hamlet, copywriter in the art department of Airbnb, says, “We hired Raul to create a suite of illustrations for a project documenting Quetzalcoatl’s Nest, a work of organic architecture by the Mexican architect Javier Senosiain. We were seeking an illustrator that captured the vast and colorful culture of Mexico and presented it in a contemporary way. His complex yet approachable illustrations did exactly that.
“In the clothing, ruins, gods and art of Mexico, there’s a history of bold colors and bold shapes brought together in vibrant ways. Raul’s work seemed to capture this aesthetic with an added shot of energy. He merged the ancient, not only with the present, but with the future as well. It exploded out of the confines of our little computer screens, and he immediately became our number one choice. He was also a perfect match for Javier’s bold and vibrant architecture, maybe because both of their oeuvres grew out from the same roots.”
Urias’s illustrations decorate packaging for Tequila Mi Campo as well as other Mexican-centric companies. His style is uniquely suited to his home country’s businesses, but roughly 80 percent of his clients hail from the United States, Asia, England and India.
“Mi campo means ‘my field’ and also means ‘my area of expertise,’” explains Steve Sandstrom, executive creative director and founder of Portland, Oregon–based brand design agency Sandstrom Partners. “We developed the label concept around the passion of making tequila. Although its main focus is for the American market, it was important to the client that the brand is authentic to Mexico. The illustration was to include references to the distillery and the distiller’s unique process as well as Mexican culture. The montage of elements was elaborate and required an artist who could compose them beautifully.”
Sandstrom adds, “Contemporary Mexican fashion designers, artists, chefs, bartenders, musicians and craftspeople are no longer looking north of the border for inspiration. They are using their own distinct and rich history, heritage and culture and reimagining it for today. So we searched for an illustrator in Mexico that we believed could not only compose the art, but could bring to the project a fresh experience of contemporary Mexican maker culture. In addition to the label art, he created a series of small spot illustrations we could use in multiple applications for promotional items, point of sale and a brand launch brochure that featured several talented individuals from Mexico City, including himself. He also designed and printed a limited edition fourteen-color screen-printed poster.”
Jim Zimmer, partner and creative director of Zimmer-Design in Louisville, Kentucky, commissioned Urias to illustrate packaging for Dark Matter Coffee, which has since garnered several design awards. “We are always searching for singular illustrators, people that have a style that is unique to them alone. Raul’s refined and thoughtful approach to his work sets it apart and made it perfect for our client. The results of working with him on packaging projects have been amazing.”
Today, Urias lives in the Escandón neighborhood of Mexico City, a more family-centric one than the Roma Norte, where he lived when he first moved to the capital. Eventually, the noise and tourist traffic got to him, and he sought a place where he could live and work while being within easy walking distance of his old neighborhood and the surrounding culturally rich neighborhoods and ubiquitous parks that transform the high-density city into delightful outdoor spaces where throngs of dog walkers congregate.
Over time, his client profile also changed. Now, he says, he concentrates on clients whose projects fit his style. He must be comfortable with what he likes to draw. His creative philosophy can be summarized as be fast, do quality work, be professional and functional, and move with the flow of the market. During the last two years, Urias has worked with bigger clients, collaborating with Marvel and Disney on character design and expanding his work from concept art to packaging and advertising. “In comics, you are a storyteller; in illustration, you can also be a storyteller, with elements in your compositions,” he says. The self-promotion move that brought him the clients he desired has now come full circle, and he is just getting started. ca