Discover the potency of reinterpreting the past for contemporary audiences with Madrid-based master illustrator and graphic designer Helena Perez Garcia.
Bringing her fantastical, surrealist style to a range of projects for high-profile clients including The Body Shop, Penguin Random House, Tate Publishing, The Financial Times, and Il Corriere della Sera, here Offset artist Helena shares the secrets to her success.
We sat down with Helena to talk about how she finds creative inspiration in Pre-Raphaelite and Medieval art, how she approaches the process of illustrating for commercial campaigns, as well as how she navigates running an illustration business. We also discuss some of the exciting book illustration projects she has in the pipeline.
Where did you grow up? When did you decide you wanted to pursue illustration as a career?
I grew up in the city of Seville, in the south of Spain. I always loved art and drawing since I was a child so for me the decision to study Fine Arts was a natural one. So I decided to become a designer because I wanted to work in the creative industry and graphic design, to me, seemed to be the best choice. It was later on that I discovered illustration and decided that I would work as an illustrator as well. I realized I could make a living from a subject I was passionate about.
Your illustrations often feature whimsical, surreal concepts realised with rich colors and detail. How did you develop your signature style, and what are your key influences?
It took me a few years to develop my style. It was quite different when I started working as an illustrator—I used pencil and just a few touches of color. At a later point I felt that I needed to add more color to my illustrations, so I gradually began to cover the whole surface of the paper with color.
I’ve always been inspired by art, so my work is influenced by the paintings of great artists and artistic movements, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, Sandro Boticelli, Fra Angelico, Marc Chagall, and René Magritte, among others.
You describe yourself as an illustrator and graphic designer. How do you think each discipline informs the other in your work?
For me illustrating gives me more freedom and allows me to create more personal work as it’s much closer to art than graphic design. It’s also a way of expressing myself creatively.
A requirement of illustrating for graphic design projects is that illustrations have to follow certain rules, so having a background in graphic design really helps me to understand the project and the medium on a deeper level.
You created bespoke illustrations for The Body Shop’s holiday campaign in 2019, which also included designs for a festive advent calendar. Can you talk us through the process of working on this project?
I was contacted by The Body Shop team because they liked the vintage vibe that my illustrations have. Their creative team created the concept for the campaign—last year was all about women’s and girls’ rights, so they wanted to create a feminist-themed campaign.
The style was inspired by vintage illustrations from the 1950s, but given a modern twist. The style felt quite retro, so it was a fun reinterpretation with the modern twist we added (such as featuring LGBT couples and challenging traditional gender roles).
I worked on around three or four drafts for each illustration. The Body Shop team paid a lot of attention to ensure every detail was perfect and I was very happy to be challenged to get the best results.
Has this project given you more exposure to the experience of working on packaging and commercial design practices?
Totally! It’s the first time that I’ve worked on such a big project. I created illustrations for wine labels before, but never for such a complex packaging project. I’ve learned a huge amount during the process.
You have an envious client list, with some of your past work being produced for Penguin Random House, The Body Shop, Tate Publishing, and The Financial Times. Do you find working on your own personal projects to be a more creative and fulfilling experience, or your work for commercial clients?
I would say both. It’s very satisfying when a client challenges you and forces you to step out of your comfort zone, which prompts you to find a solution you would not have found otherwise. However, personal work is also important to allow you to explore new languages and mediums.
Do you have any marketing or business tips for aspiring illustrators?
The first thing to do if you want to find potential clients is to have a website that looks professional. Only show the work you’re proud of and projects that you enjoyed working on—clients will probably commission you to create illustrations based on what they can see in your portfolio.
I have an accountant that helps me with the financial side of the business, so I can focus on the creative side. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made, as I don’t have to worry about finances.
Self-promotion and finding clients is also very important so I try to dedicate time to it, but sometimes I struggle when I’m very busy with work. I try to post images on my Instagram account every week to keep it updated. I think that Instagram is a very important marketing tool and potential clients use it very often.
Do you have some projects you’re working on right now?
I’m working on two books for children that I’m very excited about, both of which are going be published in the United States. I love illustrating books for children, so I always look forward to this type of project.
I’m also working on some fashion illustrations for a Japanese magazine. It’s the first time that I’ve worked in a project related to the fashion industry, so I’m very excited about it. As a teenager I loved drawing fashion models and clothes, so this project brings back some good memories.
Do you have any sources of new inspiration which are keeping you excited about your work?
I’ve been very inspired lately by Medieval miniatures and tapestries—I love the details and floral decorations!
Do you have any advice for creatives looking to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t get discouraged if you find it hard to get commissioned in the beginning. Some illustrators are very lucky and can make a living out of illustration straight after leaving university, but it’s not like that for everyone.
It took me a few years to make a living from my illustration work. I didn’t get distracted from my goal and kept working hard. Everything works out in the end!
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