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Illustrators interview: Jose Rosero

28 May 2015

We are back to America once again for our interviews to illustrators, but this time we are heading to Colombia. We had the great pleasure to talk with Jose Rosero, one of the most active illustrators in Colombia and also part of the team behind CasaTinta and Congreso FIG. As you will see, the interview got highly interesting and Jose does not bit his tongue when expressing his views on the illustration and publishing sectors.

How did you got into art and illustration?

Since I was a kid I had some inclination towards art, but I oficially began studying Visual Arts at Universidad Javeriana at Bogotá-Colombia. I liked the syllabum because it opened the art field a lot and had a graphic emphasis, which I was very interested in. During the degree I began distancing myself from plastic arts, which I consider a bit obscure and disattached from everything. My interest is definitely on communicating.

Jose Rosero

My approach to illustration was a bit of an accident, as it happens with all good things: on my second year at college I made a big format anatomy drawing. I liked a lot the process of creating this particular piece: while my peers where creating nature studies of bodies and gestures, I spent time on reading and investigating how to communicate something more. That's why I decided to base my image on a Jorge Luis Borges tale called "La trama": a short, two-paragraph story that talked about 19 centuries of treasons between human people.

When the jury looked at the piece, they said the bad thing about my piece was that "it looked more like an illustration". That made me think about the creation process that I had enjoyed so much, so I decided to get into every illustration subject my degree had and also to attend to illustration workshops from out of college. I got myself into the illustration world that way, and I made my final degree thesis on illustration to solidify all the concepts I had learned. I also want to say that it was a spanish proffesor who ultimately got me into illustration with his book "Illustration as category": Juan Martinez Moro. He is a brilliant, but little known in his home country. Years later, I would invite him to the first International Illustration Congress we organized in Bogotá.

You got some experience on the publishing world, but we know you have kind of a love-hate relationship with it. Which is, in your opinion, the problems of this sector?

That's right, I have worked with a number of publishing firms, magazines and newspapers. And I felt deeply dissapointed most of the time. They see illustration as a decorative "nice-to-have" and not as a complex thought process that ends on a series of pictures. I had many problems with publishing firms because of thoughtless, absurd changes requests, low retributions and unfair terms. After being in conflict with most of them, I got to the conclusion that most of publishers or art directors don't have enough knowledge about visual arts to make precise or informed requests. That's why they will demand unpaid concepts from you, or may think a black & white image is less valuable than a full-colour one. These and other ignorant attitudes make them to impose their own taste and remove artist's own voice. This way, a vicious circle of low-risk publications is born, with little or no creativity, that drives illustrators to become plain replicators of styles (we are now in the bad-drawing and expressive-stains era). Of course, there are brilliant exceptions to all of this, who maintain the ship afloat.

What qualities does a publisher and project need to have for you to feel comfortable and motivated?

There's a beatiful quote from Angeles Mastreta: "books are conversations". Both publisher and illustrators need to have the gift of dialogue and understanding. A project has to have some challenge and risk of failure. Easy things becomes boring, don't you think?

Aside from your work as illustrator, you act as coordinator of two great projects: FIG Congress and CasaTinta. For our readers outside Colombia, could you tell us more about them?

Of course I can: CasaTinta is placed on Bogotá, and is a space devoted to illustration and graphic arts. It goes up three storeys with gallery, library, design shop and workshops, which we use for a whole events agenda. A component of thought development, critique and profession is always found on what we offer. We have been growing steadily and this year we are on a new building, which evolves our ability to launch things, but also comes with greater responsabilities. We recently won the independent spaces award given by the Ministry of Culture at Colombia, and that gave us a lot of fresh air to go on.

Jose Rosero

Nothing was free or easy, though: this is an space slowly built step by step. We began on a small apartment room teaching illustration workshops, and with a lot of persistance and work from the team (Miguel Bustos on the graphic area and Diana Arias, the other project support) we achieved to grow and evolve.

At the same time, we've been feeding the International Illustration Congress FIG wich has reached its fifth edition this 2015, and where we had forty illustrators from fifteen countrys and hundreds of attendants. They are four days each year full of conferences, talks, workshops, contests and more. What I love from this event is how much value we were able to give. Something unmeasurable.

We see more and more business and projects appearing around illustration. Do you think this will continue to grow, or is it just "the heat of the moment"?

I do believe there is a "media boom" around illustration and design. Internet has helped a lot to this, and there are more events trying to approach it from different perspectives. I attended some of them myself: three in Spain, and one in Italy, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Brazil.

Democratizing illustration is great, but I found a dangerous edge on it: a lot of events are born with a kind of shallowness or triviality, trying to fit on something easy and new to reach more public and get better results on networks. But such events end being a series of plain activities, an appetizer of sorts for less demanding consumers. Conferences can be reduced to a walk by the portfolio from a fashionable illustrator (who will probably have a lot of likes on facebook) with some anecdotes and no real value; workshops become light creation spaces with lots of mutual applause; and the rest of activities are very social but not challenging at all.

This can be found also on new spaces: decisions are taken in favour of appealing to a more broad public, and little is offered in the end aside from free beer.

Spanish illustrator Pablo Auladell, in his conference on last edition of the FIG Congress, told us that students from a workshop of him in Spain had complained about his rude critiques and his tough, demanding attitude. Then I asked myself: Would I want to attend a workshop where the teacher is indulgent with everything I make? There's nothing better to improve than a space where your views are shaken, and you are filled with doubts and discomfort. Let me tell you these spaces are possible: I did got that at Albarracín with Isidro Ferrer and Grassa Toro.

Jose Rosero

I know first-hand how difficult is to achive this, though. At FIG Congress we try to push authors to be critic and propose things beyond easy exercises. Sometimes we achieve that, and sometimes we don't. But if attendats write back to us complaining about the harsh critique they got from the workshops, I feel a great satisfaction. We also know that "rockstar" illustrators are not always the best ones, and I think we took good decisions briging creators with great experience but not such a big presence on networks, such as Enrique Alcatena, Javier Saez Castán or Fernando Vilela. But people tend to prefer the famous ones, that I have to admit.

Is there a real opportunity for the "businessman" illustrator who is not 100% devoted to create art?

I have to admit that, from my experience, managing a project and developing personal creations at the same time can be quite complex. It is a conflict between to equally valuable lovers, and sooner or later you will have to choose and devote fully to one of them. That decision will be given by which one gives you more health and stability. Right now, we are young and we can cope with that. My days are split in two: from 9am to 5pm I manage CasaTinta, and from 6pm to 3am it is time for illustration, drawing and painting. It's not always like that, I have also a girlfriend!

The business side was definitely an empty field that now is being filled more and more, and that makes spaces stronger in the path of building a cultural industry. It is dangerous to seek the attention of the public at all costs, but work is giving results.

And last, but not least: any advice for aspiring illustrators just starting up their careers?

Just one: take it seriously.

Thanks a lot Jose!

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