Illustration

Creating Iconic Editorial Covers: Carlos Rodríguez Casado

We look back on the most important moments from Carlos’ professional career, such as winning a gold medal at the ÑH 2020 Awards

The achievements of Carlos Rodríguez Casado (@carlosrodriguezcasado) will make your jaw drop. His cartoons have been published in magazines such as Interviú, Jot Down, El Jueves, and Líbero, as well as other international publications. His work can often be spotted in the Spanish national newspaper, El Mundo, portraying personalities from the world of politics, with his drawings often appearing on front pages. Recently, he won the gold medal at the ÑH 2020 Awards, which celebrates journalistic design across media titles in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America.

We caught up with Carlos, who is also a Domestika teacher, to discuss his profession, his favorite projects, and the path he took to become a professional illustrator. He also talks about his dreams, such as getting to illustrate one of The New Yorker’s legendary covers and the determination it takes to keep making a living doing what he loves. That, he insists, he discovered very early on.

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Carlos Rodríguez Casado in his home studio in the Legazpi neighborhood of Madrid

Hi Carlos! You were only 22 years old when one of your illustrations became the official image for the fifth season of the MTV series Teen Wolf in the United States. It was displayed in Times Square and at the Art Directors Club in New York. What was that experience like?

It was wonderful. It started out during a trip to New York, which was also my first solo trip out into the world. I was carrying a folder in my suitcase containing my earliest work to present. Through contacts that I made almost by chance, I ended up meeting the person who gave me this incredible opportunity. At the time, I thought, "now, things will really take off, and I'll get lots of offers.” It was a project that gave me great exposure, as it even had my name written underneath. I had hoped it would have made more of an impact, but it didn't catapult my work as much as I had wanted it to. At first, I was a little disappointed, but soon I appreciated that things hadn't all come at once. I was very “unripe” at that point.

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Carlos’ illustration for Teen Wolf was displayed in Times Square.

What do you mean by “unripe”?

In Spain, I had just started working. I didn’t have a solid portfolio–I had three or four important projects, but it was a bit unbalanced. I needed to work everything out, my style, more variety of clients... I needed to get to know myself better and interact more with others.

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Lady Gaga by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.

Did you work everything out early on?

I had to because it was very necessary to learn the ropes, not only to mature as an illustrator but also to understand the profession, which can be very unstable. There was a time where I went from publishing regularly to looking for jobs just to make a living. I remember one job where I was decorating Christmas hampers for a supermarket deal. It was very boring, and nobody would stop. Then, when I started drawing characters on the baskets, people became more intrigued and gave me photos of their relatives to draw. That was fun, and it made me realize that if I didn't separate myself from drawing, I wasn't separating myself from my goals. In the process, I learned things like how to develop my portfolio and manage my social media channels better.

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Front cover featuring Neymar, by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.

How do social media channels help you to perfect your style?

Part of showcasing your work is interacting with the people who follow you, understanding what they like to see from you, getting their response is to what you do. For example, I do a lot of lives and listen to live reactions. This helps me to get to know my audience, but I try not to let it impact the way I work. I don’t want to make decisions based on what works on social media. I usually put stickers so that people can suggest who I should draw next, which is how I generate extra material. Because of my editorial work, I'm quite limited when it comes to what I can show and how. In general, I don't show what I've been working on until it's been published, which forces me to generate additional material specifically for social media. That material is usually a product of interaction.

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The characters from the Spanish series 'La Veneno', by Carlos Casado.

On your Instagram, there's a lot of queer-themed illustrations, something we never see in your commissioned work...

I try to include it in my work, although I would like to develop a queerer series of work that I have been thinking about. Not only because, as a member of the LGTBQ community, it is a world that fascinates me, but also because I want to make queerness more visible. Because of the way things are decided in mainstream media, I don't usually have the opportunity to include that parity and diversity in my portfolio. Every time I have the chance to do so, I share it on social media.

How do you deal with the ideological clashes that come with being an illustrator for big publications?

Being able to choose is a luxury. If illustrating is your way to earn a living, you can't always expect to agree [with every client]. Sometimes I ask what the tone will be, even though I can usually figure it out. I've been lucky as so far I've worked mostly on subjects from sports and culture, whom I really enjoy drawing because they allow me to explore and evolve my work. They don't usually come with any big moral dilemmas.

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Madonna by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.

Can you express your feelings towards a subject through illustration?

If I don't like the subject, something will inevitably show through. But I don't do it on purpose. I think it comes out unconsciously, and if you know how to look, you can see it.

Do you feel under increased pressure when you have to illustrate a person who will see the results, such as the cover you did of King Felipe VI?

The King! Yes. That job was crazy because it was a front cover, a back cover, and three double pages. Over three or four days, I did his head, legs, and feet on those three double pages. I was putting him together almost life-size. I had to put the pieces on the bed while I was doing it because they wouldn’t fit on the table. I wasn't nervous about the subject itself. I was very focused on making sure it was in tune with my style and responded well to the brief. It was a challenging job, but I'm happy to get opportunities to do something different.

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Cover featuring King Felipe of Spain by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.
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Back cover featuring King Felipe of Spain by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.
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Three double pages featuring King Felipe of Spain by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.

What is your creative process after receiving a commission? Where do you start?

When I receive a commission, a countdown is activated. Sometimes, I have a few hours to come up with a solution, sometimes a day, but rarely more than that. This forces you to speed up your processes a lot. First, I start looking for images of the subject that I’ve been asked to draw. I save various options in a folder on my computer. I usually choose a couple of images that I combine working with in order not to stick too much to one photograph. Once I have the image clear, I start painting directly onto watercolor paper to save time. The sketch usually ends up becoming the final drawing.

Do you have a routine you follow on busy days to be more productive?

When I have days like that, I should stretch and eat healthily. Instead, I just concentrate on trying to get the work done. That's my priority. Usually, they tell you how many hours an assignment is going to take but nobody takes into account that you should eat, bathe, and shave as well. I skip everything. I eat just enough and leave my house in a mess.

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Portraits in one of Carlos Rodriguez Casado's school books.

What materials and techniques do you currently use?

Curiously enough, I use the same ones that I’ve always used: watercolor combining wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques. My color palette has not changed at all, although I have discovered new brands. I have also learned about the importance of choosing materials that will enable your work to be preserved better over time, maintaining the best possible quality.

I tend to use Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith a lot for color (I am in love). As for paper, my favorite is Arches fine grain, sometimes in glued pads or sometimes in sheets. I always make sure that it is 100% cotton or has the highest percentage of cotton possible. Lately, I am also trying to use brushes that carry more water than those I am used to using, such as Princeton brushes.

Let's take a look at some of the pieces you are most proud of.

Okay...

1. Rafa Nadal

This job was a night of no sleep. I was very clear about the pose I wanted, and I knew that the racquet had to be in the foreground. Although I had a photo of the pose, I didn't want to plagiarize the photographer’s work, so I decided to combine several different images to achieve this facial expression that shows he’s exerting great effort.
In general, it doesn’t take long after starting on a piece for me to realize if I'm going to like it or not. When it doesn't work out, I look at it and start over. Still, by the time I'm done, I never like what I'm doing. I find it hard to be comfortable with an illustration when I’m doing it. I send them to the client without feeling convinced and wishing I could develop them more. In the end, the rush is perhaps better because you maintain a certain spontaneity. Eventually, I look at it and say, "well, in the end, it wasn't so bad."

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This illustration of Rafa Nadal for El Mundo features in Carlos’ portfolio that was awarded a gold medal at the 2020 ÑH Award

2. Joe Biden

I had one day to do this illustration, and there was no certainty that he would win. Like many of my colleagues, I wished Trump would disappear from the political scene, and I wouldn't have to draw him anymore–that's where Biden’s cheerful, confident, even relieved expression comes from. When you have so little time to create something, spontaneity sometimes counts more than any ideas you have. When I finished it, it reminded me of the pink skins of Norman Rockwell's paintings, a great example of American political illustration. It is curious how your head can draw on influences almost automatically.

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This illustration of Joe Biden for El Mundo features in Carlos’ portfolio that was awarded a gold medal at the 2020 ÑH Awards

2. Stephen Hawking

I really love this illustration. It helped me pull myself out of a rut of not getting much work. With this artwork, I started to change my style. In terms of techniques, I found a way to use textures. In terms of the subject, I tried to capture his intelligent, calm, and gentle personality. I added a digital addition, a galaxy that they finally decided to cut out. That's also part of working in editorial illustration: your work gets cropped. The designer of a publication can be your best friend or your worst enemy when it comes to presenting the work. Fortunately, I get along well with the people in charge of my work and have come to understand that I can't control everything.

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Stephen Hawking emerges from the cosmos, by Carlos Rodríguez Casado.

Did you enjoy reading Carlos’ advice? Would you like to know more the techniques he uses and his way of working? If so, you can sign up for his courses, Caricature in Watercolour, Watercolor Portrait Sketchbook, and Watercolor Illustration: Recreate Your Most Iconic Scenes.

English version by @eloise_edgington.

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