I was born and raised in Jayuya, dead center of the island. Up in the mountains. So lush, you can feel the trees breathing. My family lives on a hill, and there’s a hill above that hill. My parents still have a roof over their heads, but during Maria, a landslide washed into the house. My mother tells me of water like hot chocolate coming in from the windows…
I was eager to speak with Diego, storyboard artist and illustrator living now in New York City. What did it mean to grow up in Puerto Rico? Would he shed some light on the conditions in his homeland after the disastrous hurricane? And--not least--how do storyboard artists work?
First, I needed to get the terminology right. Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US is unique. It’s an Estado Libre Asociado, a Commonwealth of the United States. Puerto Ricans are American citizens but do not have voting representatives in Congress. Diego told me his brother is in the army, fought twice in Iraq.
So we began.
Diego, what was your schooling like in Puerto Rico?
Elementary, middle school, and high school were in my hometown, very rural. Everything in Spanish. We had English language as a class. I got a decent education...but education in Puerto Rico has suffered a lot since I was there.
Tell me how.
More than two hundred schools have shut down since the economic failures started to hit—it's been a decade in the making--and the austerity measures that came into play. This is before the hurricane. After Maria, there are almost no resources at all.
The downturn actually began in l996 when President Clinton suspended section 936 of the tax code that gave pharmaceuticals and other companies tax incentives to open subsidiaries in PR. Many of the pharmaceuticals left. Nothing has been done to replace this huge chunk of the economy.
I'd love to address your development as an artist, Diego. When did your love of art begin?
It was there since I was a toddler. And, I was a gay teenager in a rural area. Bullied. So, art became my outlet. I could express myself without being made fun of--respected even--because I could do things other people couldn’t. When I was 15, I won a competition for some sort of Christmas card illustration and received a scholarship to go to the Liga de Arte in Old San Juan. It was drawing from life. Naked ladies. I was under age, so my parents had to give special permission. I think this gave me the self confidence to pursue art. I remember that the dudes were never naked, which is funny.
Diego applied to Savannah Art and Design, Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, and Pratt in Brooklyn. Savannah accepted him first, then Parsons. Diego says he chose Parsons because they had a campus in Paris, but once in New York, he loved New York. The school cost $30 grand a year then, and he’s still paying for that. It was the first time Diego studied in English.
I think I have a pretty good ear, so it was a bit of a jump. But not huge. I had much more of an accent than I have now.
I got a Bachelors of Fine arts with a concentration in Painting. Four years. At first I did websites and graphic design to keep myself in New York. I wasn’t great at it, because I am not a graphic designer. A lot of people mix graphic design with illustration. Graphic design is graphic information and typography, and I deal with stories and figures.
When did you get your first break?
Well, my first job that kind of launched my career as an illustrator is what I would describe now as a permalancer (a full-time freelancer) at Ogilvy, a storied advertising company. In 2004 or 2005, I think. The culture was different. I had my own office--now it wouldn’t happen. It was a great experience being given the room to grow into my role. I learned to do storyboards and work with art directors and came away with a portfolio.
I saw your website, Diego. Noticed that you’ve done projects for children, television shows, movies, and advertising. As a bonus for writers—for me—how do storyboards work? Are you given a script?
In advertising, there is the pitch side of things. This is the kind of work I did at Ogilvy and Mather. All of these once-upon-a-time Madison avenue agencies are now in Wall Street. They pitch directly to the client. The ideas are coming very rough. Everyone has to hit the ground running. My job is to interpret and visualize. Things go through many different iterations and become a little more polished, because they are being presented directly to the client. To capture their imagination and make the point.
From there things will go to the production side, which is when people do casting and building of sets. The production feels more creative, at least on my end of things. I’m working with a director and people who know focal lenses and visual story telling. It’s more fully thought through. All the iterations have been approved by the client, so there is no pleasing the client. The director is interpreting the idea, giving it a specific style. Some directors that I know do especially artful, action sequences. That’s a lot of fun.
I also work on designs for environments and design for characters, what’s called visual development rather than storyboards. I worked on a film five years ago that is just coming out this year, where I did initial character designs. The film had these alien races. The Director had to communicate this to prospective investors. I worked on the treatment, so that from the get go they’d have some idea of what the film would look like. Eventually, a really famous costume designer came I and re-imagined everything. All these steps are necessary.
It’s all digital now. All on the computer. The deadlines for this stuff have become so compressed. Sometimes I’m on a job for a maximum of two days, including changes. That could mean fifty story drawings.
Transition from hand to digital must have been something.
The first few years I still did drawings in pencil, then I scanned and colored them on the computer. Now I have a graphic tablet that is basically a digital sketchpad. But even that was an adjustment, because you are drawing on the tablet but looking at the screen.
If you want the feel of watercolor on paper, you would have to do it on paper and scan it. Not long ago I was hired by a lighting designer to do a backdrop for a Grimes concert. She wanted paint splatters, something like a Pollock. Actually the computer is hopeless. I had to make a mess with paint, then photograph it and layer it in Photoshop.
Diego is drawing on something that looks like an I-Pad.
This Wacom pad is actually very responsive, and it keeps getting better. I have one tool but all of these options to choose from. About fifty. Brushes that simulate the softness of oil, ink brushes that mimic the gritty lines of comics. Many more.
Diego points to drawings of people he is creating on the computer.
I also want to do something autobiographical. I am working on representations of people and putting myself out there. People who look like me.
(Part 2, Diego: Navigating Identity, continues next week! Stay tuned.)