Duration: Five years.
Location: Turin, Italy.
Education: MFA in architecture from Politecnico di Torino, Turin, Italy; BFA in architecture from Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas, Venezuela. I am a self-taught illustrator.
Career path: I have always been a kid who spent all his time drawing. However, In Venezuela, there were no creative careers related to drawing and illustrating, so if you had any interest towards creativity from a young age, you were pushed to study architecture—and I did. But life changes continually. After a few years of living in Italy and working many horrible jobs, I took a pencil and a piece of paper and began to draw again—it felt so natural! It took a few years of hard work, but I became a professional illustrator. I’m self-taught and very proud to say it. It’s been a long and slow process, filled with countless hours of practice, and many moments of both frustration and happiness, but I wouldn’t change a thing!
Artistic influences: I was born and raised in Venezuela, a country with one of the most complicated social, political and cultural contexts on the planet, which has touched me and influenced my practice. The fact that I left Venezuela with a one-way ticket, only returning a few times in the last ten years, has made me an introspective, nostalgic person. Looking back, I think that the aesthetic intimacy and delicate use of black and white in my works are all direct reflections of this melancholic baggage that I’ve carried around.
That being said, I feel lucky to have been enriched by the experience of living in two completely different countries. In Venezuela, I studied for four years at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, on a campus full of incredible artworks made by renowned national and international artists, such as Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and Alejandro Otero. This exposure fueled my attraction to art and aesthetics. On the other hand, during my life in Italy, I’ve been inspired by the high level of contemporary artists and illustrators, such as Guido Scarabottolo, Elisa Talentino and Olimpia Zagnoli.
Favorite works: Bologna-based publishing company Zanichelli’s campaign #ciboperlamente, which consisted of illustrating 21 words and their etymologies—one for each letter of the Italian alphabet. These illustrations were printed on one million postcards, which were then distributed freely to people in Bologna, Cagliari, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Rome and Turin. It was incredible to translate these words into images and have complete creative freedom doing so.
I was also commissioned by coffee manufacturer Lavazza to create a series of illustrations to promote the United Nations’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The topics included gender equality, good health and well-being, climate action, and economic growth. This provided me with a great chance to use strong visual metaphors.
Last but not least, my self-published book Sono qui (Italian for “I’m here.”) Taking the stories of ten immigrants living in Italy today, the book is a manifesto that pays homage to the country that made me the person I am today. I did the project to celebrate my tenth anniversary of living in Italy, and it was so well received that I am now working on its second edition.
Approach: I find it important to create empathy with the observer, and one good way to achieve this is by representing their points of view as best as possible. When I need to illustrate a determined action, thing or scene, I try not to do it literally, but instead, substitute some elements with others that are more figurative, creating a symbolic transposition of imagery. This exchange of concepts brings a surreal underpinning to my work, which may be perceived as dreamy by the viewer.
I have a certain weakness for projects that require me to use my emotional intelligence and creativity. Many times, magazines and newspaper articles have given me my favorite commissions because they require a high capacity for empathy—given that the majority of topics covered by both involve difficult issues that I’ve never experienced.
Aspirations: I’d like to create a 20-meter-high mural. I’d like to make small wooden dolls. I’d like to illustrate a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. I’d like to illustrate a character using ceramics. I’d like to know what my characters would be like with open eyes. I’d like to illustrate for The New Yorker. I’d like to make a portrait of my grandmother. I’d like to illustrate an album cover for Tame Impala. So many things to do! Fortunately, life is full of possibilities.
Philosophy: Creativity is nothing if you don’t have a strategy. If you ever want to succeed as a freelance illustrator, you need to be disciplined yourself. Organize your day. Get up early. Fulfill the activities you’ve planned. There’s no end to all that we can learn as illustrators—and we are truly lucky for that—but having so many possibilities can be overwhelming. That’s why strategy and organization are both key to a healthy professional life.
Anything else? I think a lot about the story of the characters I draw. Not their names, where they live or what they do in life—I think about particular situations like, for example, what they’re feeling at the exact moment they’re being drawn. Are they shy or extroverted? How much energy do they have? The answers to questions like these are key for me when I’m illustrating, and really determine the body language of the characters in the final product. It’s like getting to know new people every time I pick up a pencil!
Fernando Cobelo is represented by Purple Rain Illustrators.