Derek Abella Interview
Illustrating otherworldliness and nostalgia, Derek creates dream-like sequences and idyllic ways of looking at the past.
Derek is a Cuban-America Illustrator and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. He works across print and digital and has completed works for clients like the New York Times, The Washington Post and Medium.

Mon:          What's your back story Derek, how did you become an Illustrator?

Derek:          Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time alone reading, drawing, and watching television and movies. I would staple pieces of paper and rewrite and illustrate stories I saw on shows like Reading Rainbow because I thought I could do it better. Later on, I wanted to work in animation as a concept artist, and would see that lots of my favorite artists studied Illustration at schools in California and New York.

Mon:          You're originally from Miami, when did you make the move to the big apple?

Derek:          My move to New York happened in 2014 so that I could go to Pratt Institute. The school had a good reputation and they offered me a decent scholarship compared to other places. At the time, Pratt was my last choice, as well as the last school to accept me. I’m ultimately glad that I went there fo school.
Derek:          The professors in my Illustration program came from different generations and professional backgrounds. The younger teachers I had like Ping Zhu, Jing Wei, and Jon Han were incredibly formative for me both in terms of craft as well as contemporary industry advice. In fact, one of my teachers, Jen Heuer, gave me my first assignment for The New York Times during my senior year.

A lot of the friends I made at Pratt I’m still close with, and we all still give each other lots of life and career advice, and even feedback about the work we’re currently doing. I feel really lucky to have built such a robust emotional home for myself in such a tough and competitive world.

Mon:          What made you switch study paths from animation to Illustration?

Derek:          The big factor in that switch was going to school in New York rather than Los Angeles. I was very close to going to study Illustration  at Art Center College of Design because they had an Entertainment Design track within the Illustration BFA. The professors and resources in New York showed me other avenues where my work could live, and my work started becoming more graphic and abstract. I always preferred older animation’s visual vocabulary, which seems to be viewed as reliquary now. In the end, I feel like my work wouldn’t have found a home in a contemporary major animation studio, but who knows if that’ll change!

Mon:          What would you say are some of the biggest influences on your work?

Derek:          Before, I would answer that question by saying something like “Matisse,” but I’ve realized that my work is informed by so much more than the big names I look for when visiting a museum or gallery.

I’ve really started looking at art less and more at the real world around me, my friends, my relationships, the books I read, et cetera. I try to combine those feelings with my love for really decorative and figurative art.

With quarantine happening, I’ve had the privilege to be more reflective and almost hermitic in my home space. I spent Summer of 2020 alone in my apartment in New York, and then spent winter in Miami with just my parents, and had a lot of time to think about what it is I’m trying to do with my work and where I want to take it. I could definitely see a theme of loneliness or longing come into my work, which is something I’ve been feeling a lot of. Mixing that emotion with attention to daily details and tensions has been something I’ve found really enjoyable to explore.

Mon:          You've described your work as creating dream-like representations of a variety of subjects. How did this 'dreamy' aesthetic and inspiration come about?

Derek:          The general dreamy aesthetic has always been a part of my work in different ways. I would say that the way that it has manifested itself now comes from being in quarantine and mixing daydreaming with idyllic ways at looking at the past. I like the idea of blurring things, soft/harsh light, and leaving things out of the piece as a sort of universally understood way to show otherworldliness and nostalgia.

Mon:          You’ve done work for news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vice. What's it like working for those companies? I'm envisioning it as having super quick turnarounds…

Derek:          Editorial is really exciting and challenging. Sometimes I have very generous timelines, and sometimes I get an assignment while I’m having my morning coffee with sketches due by lunch, and a final due by dinner. I work quickly and tend to thrive on the pressure of making the best piece possible in the shortest amount of time, but I do appreciate the luxury of having a week or more to work on an assignment.

Mon:          How have you found working from home? I recall that you used to have your own studio?

Derek:          When the pandemic started, I sort of loved it, but I’ve reached the point of dreading it. I’m dying to have a space again and have a home/work separation. My year at the studio I shared with my friends Paige Mehrer and Maddy Price was amazing. At the same time, having a fridge and dishwasher at my disposal is a luxury that I am grateful for. The grass is always greener on the other side!

Mon:          How do you think the pandemic has impacted Illustrators in your industry as a whole?

Derek:          Like many workers this past year, I think it’s made us more willing to ask for better pay and equity. I really love seeing and participating in conversations online and with my friends about what needs to be fixed in illustration programs at art schools and in the industry at large. I have faith that the illustration community will make big strides in a lot of ways in the coming years.

Mon:          What are some of those things that you feel need fixing in the way art schools teach Illustration Programs?

Derek:          I definitely think schools are doing a disservice to their students by not giving them enough classes on the business of working in this industry. Whether it’s talking about meeting potential clients or peers, doing your taxes, or finding your own health insurance, these things are very real issues, especially for freelancers. School tends to paint  a glossy image of what your career will be, but how alone you can find yourself after graduating is terrifying.

In terms of actual faculty in these institutions, it’s important to have teachers that are in touch with modern day politics, professional practice, and that come from a host of backgrounds and walks of life. Students shouldn’t be paying wild sums of money to feel uncomfortable in class, or to hear advice and critique that is antiquated and sometimes even irrelevant.

Mon:          Where do you see the future of Illustration heading?     

Derek:          I’m not sure! If anything, I’m seeing creatives in general become more and more multidisciplinary. Lots of graphic designers are illustrating and vice versa, for example. In some ways I love the idea of it, but part of it freaks me out. I worry that sometimes people (including myself) spread themselves out too thin while trying to push themselves to do different things to seem more marketable or interesting. Some people seem to really be able to do it all, and that’s really inspiring. Not to sound medieval, but I really admire people who love craft and are obsessed with the one or two things that they love to do… even though the world might ask them to do a lot more for not much more money.

Mon:          So you're definitely more of a fan of specializing as opposed to becoming a generalist?

Derek:          I think to a degree, yes. That comes partially from the place of loving what I do, and seeing Illustration sometimes treated less seriously than other avenues of design, or as a fun skill to have when looking at job applications. The other side of that sentiment is that if someone wants to try new things and have their work manifest in new ways, then by all means they should do it. My worry is if the reason someone is generalizing their skills comes from a place of pageantry or compensation rather than being innately curious. I definitely don’t want to say I’m not willing to try new things with my work, but I do tread cautiously with it.

Mon:          Do you have any new favorite or signature tools of your trade? I know Pro Create has recently had Illustrators flocking to the software, for example.

Derek:          I am not anti-Pro Create, but I’ve actually never drawn on an iPad. All my work is finalized in Photoshop, but I tend to thumbnail in my sketchbook or diary and then clean/color my sketches on the computer.

Mon:          Miami or Brooklyn, which ones better?                            

Derek:          I love the communities I’ve been able to tap into here in New York, but Miami offers me so much space to relax and connect with nature. Brooklyn nightlife and fashion are amazing, but the silence of a beach afternoon in Miami means the world to me.

Mon:          Dream clients?                                                                     

Derek:          I don’t want to say names necessarily, but I would love to have my work live in fashion or music somehow. I’m also itching to do a magazine cover for a major magazine.

Mon:          Any exciting projects coming up?                                      

Derek:          I’ve been asked to illustrate a new weekly column for The New York Times which is really fun. I also recently started freelance designing and illustrating for Pitchfork, which has allowed me to play with different ways of creating like digital collage and lettering.

Mon:          Any favorite artists you think we should check out?      

Derek:          I’ve really been loving the work of Aryo Toh Djojo, Bahati Simoens and Rachel Hayden.

Mon:          Plans for summer?                                                               

Derek:          Sighing less, laughing more, and eating fruit under the sun.

Mon:          New website dropping soon? (Serena mentioned).           

Derek:          Yes! Very soon, hopefully. She created a site that really presents my work in a way that is symbiotic with my aesthetic. I really appreciate her help on it and I can’t wait for the world to see it.

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