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Q&A with Leonardo Santamaria, Invisibilia's Cover Illustrator

Leonardo Santamaria is a first-generation Filipino-American freelance-illustrator. His work has been published in varying applications: from editorial illustrations for The New York Times' Disability Series, cover illustrations for NPR's Invisibilia podcast, to ad campaigns for clients like The New Yorker. In addition to producing commercial work, his paintings are regularly exhibited at galleries across the U.S. He currently lives and works in the Los Angeles area.

How did you get your start as an Illustrator?

I was in school for basically forever. It took three years of community college and then four years of art school before I finally entered the working world. And, oh man, was it a slow, challenging road to the full-time illustrator life.

Along the way, I got lucky—I assisted the illustrator Brian Rea, who was one of my professors at ArtCenter College of Design. He ended up being such an influential mentor to me, shaping my work ethic and approach to illustration for the best. My work grew so much from that, and that's when everything started to fall into place!

Illustration for '<a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/03/11/814733124/the-confrontation">The Confrontation</a>."
Illustration for 'The Confrontation."

Describe your creative process as you conceptualize illustrations for different episodes?

The beginning of the process is always the most exciting part. Liana, the manager, and Emily, the art director, would first send me the rough script and audio rehearsal of the episode, along with some initial thoughts to keep in mind. Then, while actively listening to the rough script and audio, I'd keep my eyes open for a couple things:

  • What's the main takeaway from of this episode?
  • What could it look like?
  • What could it feel like?
  • Then from there, I'd start off with some rough concepts. As I'm drawing, I'd be constantly thinking about what the drawing means, and what I need it to mean, and how to get it there. Then, as I'd continue to redraw and reshape the ideas, eventually I'll find my way towards more interesting ones.

    It becomes an interesting idea when it starts to capture the essence of the episode, while also provoking us conceptually, all the while being executed well. When the piece is successful in that it hits all three of those points, well, those are the creative moments I live for.

    Illustration for the '<a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/03/25/821648089/the-last-sound">Last Sound</a>."
    / NPR
    Illustration for the 'Last Sound."

    What's your favorite illustration you have created for Invisibilia ?

    It's hard to choose just one, but my favorite illustration was for the ' Last Sound' episode. The episode was about using sound to visualize animals leaving their ecosystems, and the illustration brings all those elements together in a really unexpected way. Kudos to the Invisibilia team!

    Who are your artistic influences?

    Ren Hang, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dana Schutz, Ruprecht von Kaufmann, Nobuyoshi Araki... honestly, the list is never ending!

    Illustration for '<a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/03/18/817977005/an-unlikely-superpower">An Unlikely Superpower</a>."
    / NPR
    Illustration for 'An Unlikely Superpower."

    Who are you currently listening to?

    Elephant Gym.

    Any advice for artists that want to stay creative during the quarantine?

    Be present. And if you can't find yourself making things right now, that's okay too.

    Illustration for '<a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/02/25/809336135/two-heartbeats-a-minute">Two Heartbeats A Minute</a>."
    / NPR
    Illustration for 'Two Heartbeats A Minute."

    If you could create your own Invisibilia episode what would it be?

    There's something to be said about how Asian Americans were celebrating Parasite's wins at the Oscars one week, and then trying to defend themselves from coronavirus-induced racism the next week. It feels like we're all characters in an Invisibilia episode right now.

    Anything else you'd like the world to know?

    It's such an exciting time to be an illustrator. There's so much great work being made right now, especially from artists like AJ Dungo, Sally Deng, Maggie Chiang, Ileana Soon, Hokyoung Kim, Celia Jacobs, and Katherine Lam. Watch out, world!

    Connect with Leonardo on Instagram at @ Leonardo.Santamaria

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Anaïs Laurent
    Anaïs Laurent spearheads publicity for NPR Music, How I Built This, Code Switch and . She's also a contributor to Alt Latino.