International Children’s Book Day Spotlight: Q&A with illustrator Robert Casilla

Robert Casilla is an artist and illustrator who primarily creates art for children’s books and educational publishers. The Learning Partnership first connected with Casilla over 10 years ago when he created the three illustrations for our Journey to El Yunque website. Those illustrations became the inspiration for the website’s new look in 2021 as there is a part of him on every page. Now Casilla is once again making our visions come to life through his illustrations for our upcoming children’s book. Cat McGee recently sat down with him. Let’s find out more about this very talented artist. 

Cat: Can you please tell me about your journey to becoming an artist and book illustrator? 

Robert: Ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by how someone with a pencil could bring something to life. When I was young, my mother used to sit with me and draw. She was not an artist, but she would do little doodles and draw pictures of men with pompadours to make me laugh. I thought she was the greatest artist in the world because she was able to bring them to life. She was my first inspiration. That was something she did with me for fun when I was young, and it made me really interested in drawing and had a great impact on my life.  

I also had a teacher, Ms. Ping, who recognized that I was an artist. One day she asked me to stay after class and told me, “One day, you’re going to be a successful artist.” She gave me a box of Rembrandt pastels. I would use those pastels to do a drawing every week, and I would bring her the drawings to show her.

Then in college, I became good friends with a guy named Cornelius because we used to take the train together after our class, and we realized we both really admired each other’s art. There was a mutual admiration that we developed in our friendship and to this day we continue to help each other and work together.

I really did not choose to become a children’s book illustrator. I knew I wanted to become an illustrator because it’s very tough to make it in fine art.  Upon graduating, we all had our portfolios, a collection of pieces of art that we show the client. So, I went everywhere to look for a job. I went to magazine publishers, newspaper publishers, and I did work for all of them. And then, one day, I got called to do a book cover, and I went ahead and did it and about a month later the editor calls me up and asks if I’d be interested in illustrating a children’s book. And then, it just so happened that within maybe a week or two, I get a call from another publisher asking me if I would be interested in doing a biography about Babe Ruth, which ended up becoming a book about Martin Luther King. I ended up doing about 14 books with that publisher, and about five or so with the other. And that was the beginning of how my career got off. 

Illustration from ‘A Picture Book of Jackie Robinson’ by David A. Adler
Illustration from ‘A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ by David A. Adler

Cat: How does your Hispanic background influence your work? 

Robert: I think everything about me influences my work. I have even told my students that it is important for your life experiences to help influence your work. Usually if I do a project that’s more in the Hispanic realm, I go a little bit brighter with the colors. I remember living briefly in Puerto Rico when I was a little boy, and I loved it over there. I loved the palm trees, the tropical plants and seeing those big leaves — you don’t see that here. Whenever I go to Puerto Rico, I’m in awe. When I worked on the Journey to El Yunque website for The Learning Partnership, I became more aware of how much is there that we don’t get to see here. So, I definitely relate when a job connects to my Hispanic background, but often times I get jobs that don’t relate to that, so I relate with other aspects of myself. It all comes down to how you can convey emotion through your illustrations. Regardless of race, culture or whatever, emotion is universal. We all have to use our own inner empathy and experiences to communicate.

Cat: What is the range of projects you’ve worked on?

Robert: For a while, along with doing the children’s books, I was doing postage stamps. Not for the United States, but for independent countries. I was working with a company that handled accounts, like for Palau, the South Sea Islands, and I forget some of the island names, but they were all from the Federated States of Micronesia. I did a lot of stamps for them. That was fun, and in many ways, it was like children’s books. When making the stamps, I would have to have something interesting on each frame, so that was nice. Then they would print a sheet and make a stamp out of each one. So, for a while, I did a lot of work for that. I would do a lot of textbook work, and small books, where instead of a full-fledged book, the books had 8-15 pages. I used to do work for a magazine called Highlights Magazine. When opening that magazine, there would be an illustration with a poem, and I would do that illustration. I did a variety of things, and I’m sure after I finish talking with you, I’ll remember other jobs.

Cat: Describe the work you have done creating illustrations for The Learning Partnership’s Journey to El Yunque website.

Robert: I learned a lot with that project. Initially, about 10 years prior, I did the three main illustrations of El Yunque for the website: ‘3 Months Before’, ‘3 Days After’, and ‘3 Years After’ a hurricane. A lot of the illustration was made up but I found a photograph of a certain mountain in Puerto Rico, and I used that as the backdrop. And then I invented the foliage and all that stuff, and I researched all the type of trees and animals. It’s realistic but stylized at the same time. Then I was contacted again after all these years to do the artwork for the website, and one of the requests was to redo the Journey to El Yunque logo. I’m a realistic artist, but the coquí frog looks a little cartoony anyways, so I agreed to do the logo.

‘3 Years After a Hurricane’ image from journeytoelyunque.net
A cartoon of the coquí as a scientist

Then we were all brainstorming how it would be if we portrayed the coquí in all these different ways – as a doctor, a scientist, or doing a certain activity. And before I knew it, I was doing all these cartoons of the coquí. And that was something I never thought I could pull off because I’m a realistic illustrator. I would never have pursued a job like that because I don’t have the portfolio for that. But Steven and Randi trusted me enough that I could pull it off and I did it. And my friend from college, Cornelius, told me that he could tell I had a lot of fun with that project just by looking at the artwork. It was one of the easiest jobs that I ever did, because it was fun to do.  

Cat: When you get an illustration job for a children’s book, what is your process like from getting the job to the final product?

Robert: I always do sketches to get my ideas organized, especially with children’s books. With children’s books, every single page needs to be planned out. I have to read the story, divide it, label it, and plan the pages. And then I have to do thumbnail sketches — very small sketches that are just for me to look at. I use models and work off of photographs for my illustrations and these thumbnail sketches are meant to help me know what poses I’ll need. Sometimes I’ll do research to make sure the illustrations match the book’s time period and culture. Then it all starts with sketches and scribbles because at that point, the drawing is not important, the idea is important. Then you take the idea, and you develop it. You develop it until it gets to the final, and I have found that starting out very free and loose is the way to go. 

Cat: You’ll be creating illustrations for a children’s book that The Learning Partnership is developing, what excited you about working on this project?

Robert: The weird thing is, I’m not the right illustrator for every book. So, like I said, I don’t usually do cartoony stuff. I’m confident now, after doing the website with Steven and Randi, that if I needed to do a book that’s cartoony or whimsical, I’m pretty sure I could pull it off once I get into it.  From reading the story, I’m happy. I like that they kept the same format of the ‘before’, ‘during’, and ‘after’ the hurricane. I thought that was brilliant. So now, it’s just a matter of doing the sketches. I like the way they formed the story to show that Puerto Rico is resilient, that the rain forest is resilient, and that it has that superhero quality to it. With the story still in the development stages, we will be able to work together as a team. We want to make it as visually appealing as possible; with children’s books you want the pictures to draw in the readers to help them. 

Cat: How has your work shifted due to the pandemic?

Robert: It affected me in many ways. Since I work realistically and rely on photographs, I had to change my approach. I couldn’t hire models. So, I wanted to try this method where I don’t rely on models, which I’ve done in the past but then would nitpick my sketches. But the pandemic forced me to go ahead and try this other method again which involves doing a lot of research and searching for poses. It doesn’t matter who the person is or what race they are, I just look for the poses. I even have these mannequins that I can pose. They are pretty realistic. I have men and women, and I can pose them, and then from there, do sketches. And then, with my research, I would look at the clothing at that point in time and try to duplicate the clothing into my drawings. It’s a lot of inventing. There was so much work, and it was really hard, but I learned a lot from trying it this way.

Cat: What would you tell somebody who is interested in pursuing illustrating, particularly illustrating for children’s books? 

Robert: To be an illustrator, you have to be able to draw. Fine artists, if they don’t like drawing people, but like drawing landscapes, they can stick to landscapes. But as an illustrator, we don’t have that choice. We have to do landscapes, people, animals, buildings, cities, cars, I mean, everything. You have to be able to draw to show action. If the story takes place in Paris, then you have to be able to illustrate Paris. You have to be able to pull that off. Especially in children’s books, you’ve got to be able to draw. So, sharpen your drawing skills. And then, find a medium that you like working in, whether it be watercolor, acrylics, pastel, colored pencils. Nowadays, you can work in whatever medium you want. Choose a medium that comes natural to you and practice drawing as much as you can.  

Cat: What makes children’s books special to you, versus any other type of story.

Robert: Children’s books are a great way to teach empathy to kids which is something that we need. It teaches them to become a little bit more open-minded. There’s a lot of bullying that goes on with kids in schools, and a few of the books that I have illustrated touch on that subject and how to handle getting bullied. Children’s books can be very helpful to kids. They are great when it comes to teaching kids about different cultures, races and people without being preachy. It opens up the familiarity to them. It’s also fun because it opens up your world to stories, fantasy and imagination. As an artist and children’s book illustrator, I find it so special to be a part of that. To know my work touches these kids up to a certain point, and it becomes part of them. It’s special that I had a little bit of a part in their growing up. That’s a nice honor, I think. 

For more information, visit Journey to El Yunque and Robert Casilla studio.

Illustration from ‘Primer Día en las Uvas’ by L. King Perez

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