Do you have an educational background in art or are you self taught?
I only had a couple of years of formal art training. I attended Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida but was recruited by DC Comics after my first year. What I learned from art school was having been exposed to various styles and perspectives about art which forced me to define and think about my own work. As far as developing the skills to support that, then it didn't come from art school but constant practice prior to attending school and never stopping the learning process - Always exploring style and not allowing a comfort zone to impede my evolution. There's many ways to grow as an artist. You can stay within a set of aesthetic "rules" and explore those limits, stay within a genre / industry or play in various mediums. Personally, I like the problem-solving process, the elements of story-telling and exploring different formats and mediums so I tend to fit into all of those categories.
How did you get involved in sketch cards/What was your first sketch card job?
Topps approached me to work on the Clone Wars cards. I was already an approved LucasFilm artist having drawn for the Dark Horse Star Wars comics and getting approved to work on a Phantom Menace related book at Random House. I really didn't know much about the sketch card industry and I approached the cards with the same attitude I have with all jobs - present a work that I would purchase. I had no idea the cards were going for so much. I was just thinking of the young card collector in me when I used to collect the Star Wars cards in the first sets Topps ever put out. How cool would it have been to actually get a surprise original doodle mixed into the photo cards?
How do you feel about working on such a small surface?
I've worked in comics for a long time and drawn tighter panels in a smaller space so it wasn't a problem. When I first started sketching in middle school, my father who was an architect gave me an old set of rapidographs that I cleaned out and used all through high school. I learned about india ink preserving the black over time longer than markers (of that time) so I did all my doodling with these extra fine nibs. It actually took venturing into painting to relearn how to use broader gestures and sweeps of the drawing arm to cover a larger surface.
How do you feel about the entire process? Is it similar to working in the comic industry?
It is similar in that there's deadlines. The whole approach is different because comics is about piecing fragments of images to tell a story. Sketch cards for me is about celebrating a character or film you are already a fan of. You want the viewer to get a bit of what made them like that character or moment and preserve it. So it does not have to be a super detailed card, most of my cards appear detailed but they really are just swatches of color that give that illusion. That's probably why many seem to like them, because they can be interpreted as realistic but still have the gestural qualities of fast sketch. It's a balancing act that is actually harder than it seems, but that's probably what attracts me to them.
Do you prefer to work with a specific media on your cards?
Every set I do, I try and do something different. Therefore, if you saw a Star Wars set from five years ago and compared them to a set three years ago, you can see the same character but you know right away they are from different sets. I like the risk of staying with one approach on a set and going with that. I'd probably get pretty bored doing the same thing every time. I mean, I've been drawing Star Wars characters ever since the seventies, when I tried to draw my own version of the original film in comic form just for kicks. So there's many characters there that I've depicted hundreds of times before I even ever drew my first sketch card. It allowed me to not get intimidated but instead have fun and try something different each go. This goes for LOTR as well.
You did some puzzle sketch card work that Topps made into a foil set for LOTR Masterpieces, correct? Was coming up with that concept very different than how you approach your other sketch cards? Can you elaborate on that whole process?
That was more a collaborative effort between me, Topps and the LOTR owners. More back and forth in terms of which character is allowed to be in it and what scenes to depict. I added a little bit more with the back ground to tie the whole image together because they were essentially all isolated full figure drawings so that every card would have a clear shot of a main character.
Did you receive any of those original cards back, or were they all inserted into packs?
I didn't get to keep any of the cards so the deal itself was very different than regular sketch card work. I did find the whole printed piece interesting due to the various materials they used.
Your cards are very painterly and detailed. How long do they usually take you to complete? Depends on the image. A few minutes or half hour - maybe more if I get crazy. I try and pick one element that I put a little extra attention to. Because if the card has everything completely rendered, your eye darts around it. Now you place it in a pack and it gets lost because it has too much detail, and vice versa - if it's too loose you might alienate the viewer. It may seem like you're just doing an under layer so that you can capitalize off it later on, perhaps not even use the structure or set of lines you placed on there in the first place. I'm sure there's very valid reasons why someone would do that but I want the card to stand on its own merits. It's done, it was a sketch and that's that. Not a promise of something good if the price is right, but here it is man, enjoy it - you bought a box, or pack and you deserve getting something special. That resonates in the buyer on a subconscious level. This is supposed to be fun and that's why you bought it right? Now, with the return cards - that's no longer a risk on anyone's part - the buyer is making a business deal to purchase a work you made that you'd rather keep for yourself. They don't have to find that card in thousands of packs scattered all over the world. It's a win-win situation all around.
Do you have a lot of contact with collectors regarding your cards?
Off and on. Since I don't do sketch card commissions - that whittles it down greatly. However, I really appreciate reading or meeting collectors at shows who enjoy them.
Do you welcome commission requests?
I used to get more, but I think everyone who seriously collects knows I don't do sketch cards on the side, not even in cons. Because that's a commission already - more like the return card deal. I have less interest in that. In fairness to the buyer, I'm notorious for being slow on commissions that aren't sketch cards in the first place. I have to find the time to finish them, and I like to do them in straight sittings rather than leaving it and coming back to it months later. So those moments are rare and anyone who asks for non sketch card commissions are saints if they can sit out the waiting period. I discourage anyone to pick up commissions from me. On very rare occasions I will have a short window to take them and that's it.
How do you feel about some collectors wanting more detailed cards despite was artists are paid to work on sketch card sets?
You mean collectors commissioning cards or buying them from packs? The artists dictate how they want their work to be presented and how finished they want it to be. What the collectors want may not match that. so it is really the call of the artist whether they want to meet that demand or stick to what is logistically feasible for them. For myself, I turn down more sets than work in them just because I know I can't meet that deadline the company is asking for or that I don't want to do a hundred cards. A hundred to 500 cards is a lot of work. If I had nothing else to do then sure - bring them on but really you can't survive on that. They are special for a reason, so if you want to do a ton of cards then you have to figure out whether your style is suited for that or find another way to express yourself. Be honest with yourself and your capabilities. It isn't fair to the publisher or to yourself if you are now in turmoil over how you can finish a set. Collector's tastes will be diverse, and if you have a cute style or a realistic one, or more graphic design in nature, if done well - then someone will like it. But first you have to like it.
What was the most difficult sketch card set you have worked on to date? What made it difficult?
I found them all equally fun. None of them were difficult because I signed on knowing it will be a fun gig.
Are there any cards that you are particularly proud of?
Probably the ones I end up asking back as my returns, but there's a few of the multiple card images and some cards that probably wouldn't be considered the ones most people would go for that I favor. It probably reminds me of something else than the actual image, like the time I was drawing it or what I was listening to etc.
Do you see yourself continuing with sketch card sets? If so, can you tell us what future sketch card sets you'll be working on (base or sketch cards)?
At the time being I'm thinking about doing a set but it really depends on my schedule for the project I'm working on now. Always like the Star Wars sets, maybe a Marvel set, but it's more about time to set aside for it.
Have you had any bad experiences working with card companies or collectors?
Not really. The company I have dealt with mostly is TOPPS and they were always good to me. Even others I never got to work with but wanted to were always gracious and professional - the planets just didn't align in terms of schedules.
What are you currently working on?
Finished up my stint as illustrator for director Julie Taymor on the Spider-Man musical that Bono is doing the music for; did a one shot What If for Marvel featuring Elektra; concept art for one of my favorite visionary directors, Tarsem, and in talks on another fight choreography gig on a film in the near future.
Where can people see more of your work?
Just had a cover come out for ALTER EGO 92 published by TwoMorrows, it's a sword and sorcery themed issue edited by Roy Thomas.
Thank you so much, Rafael!!