Brooklyn Boro

An interview with Raúl Colón, the illustrator behind this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival poster

July 31, 2019 Mary Frost
Raúl Colón/Brooklyn Book Festival
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The Brooklyn Book Festival has unveiled this year’s poster, created by author and artist Raúl Colón. As the illustrator of more than 30 books for children, Colón has received numerous awards, including the Golden Kite Award, Pura Belpré Award, and gold and silver medals in the Original Art show. His picture books “Draw!” and “Imagine!” were chosen as American Library Association Notable Books.

The festival takes place Sept. 22, with Children’s Day on Sept. 21. Colón spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday about his artwork, his sources of inspiration and how he created the Book Festival poster.

Magical artwork created by artist Raúl Colón illustrates the Brooklyn Book Festival’s poster this year. The poster was unveiled this morning. Graphic courtesy of Brooklyn Book Festival
A magical piece of artwork created by artist Raúl Colón illustrates the Brooklyn Book Festival’s poster this year. Graphic courtesy of Brooklyn Book Festival

There’s a hint of magic in this year’s poster for the Brooklyn Book Festival — a golden glow that suffuses the travelers in their little paper boat, sailing towards adventure.

This is the signature style of artist Raúl Colón. The elusive glow can’t be created digitally, and that’s one reason why he is sought after as an illustrator.

When the Book Festival representatives called him, it was a privilege, Colón said.

“I decided OK, I’ll do it. They know my style. I started thinking about Brooklyn, and how people enjoy books. I sent them a few ideas, and they chose this one,” he said.

“I wanted to show people coming across the East River, going to Brooklyn. There’s nothing better than the [Brooklyn] Bridge” to represent the borough, he said. “And the people — I wanted diversity, and I know the Book Festival people did too.”

Award winning illustrator Raúl Colón created this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival poster. Photo by Photo by Gail Gaynin / Morgan Gaynin Inc.
Award-winning illustrator Raúl Colón. Photo by Photo by Gail Gaynin / Morgan Gaynin Inc.

“The boat symbolizes people going on an adventure. It’s a paper boat, to make it a page with words and text. The quotes are from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Colón said. “A little fantasy, a journey. All these folks reading in a little boat going to Brooklyn.”

The poster also can be seen as representing a group of people, refugees, trying to reach another shore, to find a new world, he said.

“This country was founded this way. When you read a book, you are going to another land.”

Colón creates his artwork using colored pencils over watercolor washes. The wash under-painting is almost monochromatic, he said, with just a few color varieties — sepias, golden yellow, ochres and brown washes. “On top, I draw images in half tones. After that dries, I draw in layers of colored pencil. I finish with lithograph pencil to put some darks in it. It takes a while.”

Colón spent a week working out the colors and sent festival organizers three or four sketches. It took him another week to “put down the color.”

“My first thought was which colors would work,” he said. Blues predominate.

Life as an illustrator

“I got my start in editorial illustrations, posters and novel covers — if you remember those,” Colón said. He illustrated his first picture book in 1995.

While he now works mostly with books, Colón will occasionally create an illustration for a magazine or poster. With a tile setter, he created a ceramic mosaic wall mural at the 191 Street subway station (for the 1 and 9 train stop.)

When trying to decide if he wants to illustrate a book, Colón sees if he can visualize it while reading the manuscript. “Images start popping into my head. I’ll take a job if I feel the images are interesting.”

One thing that people may not realize is when a writer and an artist work together on a book project, they seldom get together, Colón said.

“In picture books, the artist and writer stay separated a long time. Editors give everybody free range. Usually writers depend on us,” he said. If it’s not working out, however, “They can have their say. Editors like it that way.”

There are exceptions to this rule. When Colón worked with author Frank McCourt, “He had his say on that. Certain writers get theirs.” He added, “He was easy to work with.”

While Colón is making a good living at his art, being an illustrator is harder now that it used to be, he said.

“Album covers have disappeared, and print also in many areas. And there are a lot more people illustrating,” he said.

“However, a new area is video games. Hopefully, new venues will open,” he said.

Colón’s inspirations

Comic books were his first inspiration as a kid, Colón said. He admired Steve Ditko, the original artist who illustrated the “Spider Man” comics (with writer Stan Lee). He once saw an ad for the Famous Artist School and learned about Norman Rockwell, who was on the board.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that when I grow up.”

Later, he admired editorial illustrator Brad Holland and illustrator Ralph Steadman (who famously collaborated with Hunter S. Thompson).

Movies also have a big influence on his art, including the work of Stanley Kubrick. (While he can’t go into details, Colón hinted that he hid a small tribute to Kubrick inside a new book he’s working on about stars.)

“Music and film inform what you do as an artist,” he said. “It’s another way to stay creative.”

A brief stint in Brooklyn

Colón was born in New York City in 1952 and moved with his parents at the age of 10 to Puerto Rico. He studied commercial art there in a U.S government-funded program. In 1978, Colón moved to Florida, working at an educational television center. He also lived in College Point, Queens for a year and a half.

“It was very expensive — $600 a month,” he laughed.

Colón even lived in Brooklyn for a couple of months with his cousin. He enjoys visiting the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Public Library and the Transit Museum “with all those old trains,” he said. “Brooklyn has changed so much,” he noted. “It’s more interesting than it used to be.”

He moved in 1991 with his family — a wife and two sons — to New City in Rockland County, where he lives today. He’s got six young grandchildren.

Brooklyn Book Festival

Colón joins the ranks of cartoonist Julia Wertz, illustrator Adrian Tomine and author and designer Chip Kidd, who created the art for past festival posters. The poster will be on sale on Children’s Day and Festival Day, as well as online, with all proceeds supporting the not for profit festival.

Colón will be appearing with other picture book authors, illustrators and performers at on Children’s Day, September 21, where he will give children a look at one of his “wordless” books, “Imagine!” or “Draw!”

“Wordless books are like silent movies,” he said. “The children provide the stories. They come up with them better than I do.”

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