Illustrator Profile - Rafael Alvarez: "I try any digital media that can make me do better work"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 8, 2018

Rafael Alvarez is a Berlin-based illustrator who was born in Madrid and went to art school (SVA) in New York City. His comic book-styled illustrations have appeared in numerous publications and websites, and lately he has been creating some very cool animations for

I currently live in Berlin with my fiance and our two-year-old son [Editor's note: Alvarez recently celebrated the birth of his second child, who was born just before the New Year]. I lived in New York between 2010-2013, where I got my MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts. I still travel to the US every year to visit friends and make sure people don’t forget about me!

I was born in Madrid, in a family with five generations of painters and sculptors. However, Spain is still a fairly conservative country so my parents discouraged me from following an art career. My grandmother—an amazing oil painter and portrait artist—still taught me the basics of drawing and was an incredible source of inspiration.

I got a degree in economics and spent many years working for American Express as a communications manager. I was doing pretty well but always felt it was not for me in the long run. I spent nights drawing comics and working for small advertising agencies. During a holiday in New York I dropped by SVA to meet Marshall Arisman and Kim Ablondi, and I fell in love with their energy and the program they were running. I applied, quit my job and moved to New York!

The Illustration as Visual Essay program at SVA was my only formal education in art. Back in my corporate days I learned art on my own, and learned design and branding by working on campaigns with advertising agencies.


I have my studio at EsdipBerlin, an art space shared with other artists and freelancers in Friedrichshain, one of the coolest areas in the east of Berlin. The building is a beautiful refurbished old factory that now hosts many studios, start-ups and companies. I have the benefits of being surrounded by other professionals (3D artists, programmers, painters, etc.) but the atmosphere is pretty chill—we have foosball, a couch, and nobody is going to freak out if I drop some ink on the table.

For my personal work, I go the classic comic book way: Sketch in blue non-repro pencil, inks with a sable brush, scan and color digitally. My commissioned work is typically 100% digital since deadlines are always tighter and tighter.

I actually try any digital media that can speed up the process or make me do better work: Adobe Photoshop, SM Manga Studio, Procreate (mobile)—all of them have their strengths and I often end up using all of them for the same piece. For animation I use After Effects.


During my thesis project at SVA I had some sort of creative block. I felt that nobody wanted to hurt my feelings with a harsh critique. So I asked my thesis coordinators—amazing illustrators and teachers Marcos Chin and David Sandlin—to give me the most candid and tough critique they could. I had to insist a couple of times, but they did! I got some of the best feedback ever and got a true boost of motivation from their honesty. Since time was limited, I decided to focus on my digital drawing skills, learn basic programming, and make a fully illustrated app.

With the help of Matthew Richmond (SVA teacher and Director of Experience Design at Adobe), I turned my illos into an interactive picture book for the iPad. It was only partially developed but got picked by Behance as student project of the year, which got tons of exposure and ultimately led to my first illustration jobs.

My grandmother (imagine the resilience you need being a female painter during Franco´s dictatorship!), and all the comics I devoured as a teenager: Pratt, Moebius, Eisner, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Brian Bolland are among my favorites. Also Carl Banks’ classic Uncle Scrooge comics and Spanish cartoonists like Jan (Super-Lopez) and Ibanez (Clever and Smart).

One of the first things that got me into illustration was the Illustration Now! series from Taschen (edited by Julius Wiedemann and Steven Heller). It was really inspiring to see so many different talents in a single volume. It was beyond cool when Julius got in touch to participate in their fifth volume.

I really admire my Berlin neighbor Christoph Niemann. He has acted as an ambassador of illustration, crossing (and playing with) the boundaries of photography, design and art, with a personal vision that is just creativity at its best, without any unnecessary additive. He also was so kind to save some time in his crazy schedule to talk to my illustration students in the past. It’s really nice to see somebody at this level being chill and willing to squeeze in a studio visit.

I try to watch as many movies and read as much as possible. I just finished the book Creativity Inc. from Ed Catmull (President of Pixar), which has plenty of insights and advice about the act of creating stories.

Visually, I try to keep myself updated with the work of my peers via websites like Illustration Age and other social media. Sometimes the recommendations of great artists I follow are as equally inspiring as their own work.

Although I still work surrounded by other creatives, most of my clients and illustrator peers are across the pond, so I miss that personal interaction that not only is nice, but feels like a validation of my work. When I travel to NYC and we all share what we have been working on lately, I have a feeling of relief, like I still belong to the community. Of course social media helps, but nothing beats hanging out with a beer and a pizza slice :-)


I got a call from Stephen Skalocky, design director at Sports Illustrated, asking me to make an illustration in case the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 109 years. It was a great new client but the Cubs were already losing 3-1 by the time I started sketching (no team had ever made such a comeback in the World Series). They were flexible and offered a kill fee, but we talked each other into finishing the illo anyway.

I just had landed in New York when the final game took place, so I rushed into a sports bar, completely jet-lagged after two all-nighters drawing. The Cubs fans there couldn’t really understand why some Spanish guy—who needed to have baseball rules explained every five minutes—was also going nuts with the game.

It turned out to be a fun, full page in the magazine, and also led to an illustrated cover for the next issue—which was really cool since sports magazines rarely use illustrations for their covers.

Having lived in NYC for over three years I have an obvious crush on The New Yorker (well..who doesn’t?). Longboarding is my favorite sport when I have some free time, so I would have a blast making illustrations for longboards, skateboards, or snowboard gear.


The design directors at ESPN, Chin Wang and Neil Jamieson, are really cool to work with. I have worked with their teams on projects over the last three years, for both the magazine and online. They are extremely professional; they give constructive feedback while letting me do my thing. Some examples here and here

I also have a lot of fun working with Chris Elsemore from Billboard, and Haley Kluge at Men's Health—we do a monthly section which is really a blast to draw.

There are so many! Among my favorites I would pick Marcos Chin (I used to have his drawings hanging in my office before I became an illustrator myself!). He is a great person, artist, and a very patient mentor. Also Kyle Webster can make all of his many styles look effortless and makes the coolest digital brushes out there. Of course Tomer Hanuka—I really like the way he re-invents the classic line drawing, adding levels of depth and pulling off impossible color palettes. I admire how he turns traditional drawing and turns it into something edgy, shocking and new.

I have taught illustration at the Berlin University of Applied Arts and sometimes I do illustration workshops with the iPad pro at the Apple Store in Berlin and New York.

I recently worked with the NFL and the guys at Fandom to turn iconic football plays into animation.

Since Berlin has such a crazy street art scene, I have done some murals and painting live for art spaces and bars. 


We all know the struggles of printed media. Lately I have seen some clients directly publishing in social media, not even in web format. That involves being able to work faster, understanding image rights, and making content that can add something new in mobile devices (interaction, animation) while staying true to your visual approach.

I have sent postcards in the past and still participate in my favorite competitions but social media seems to work the best. I find it stressing but I have accounts with Behance, Instagram, Dribbble, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, which I try to catch up with. Being featured in the right blog or Instagram account can do wonders. There is an old image I did for Süddeutsche Zeitung  that always becomes popular every time somebody mentions it in Reddit.  

When I started teaching I was shocked to see that most people, even the really young students, thought they were starting too late or knew somebody who “made it” much earlier. I think setting reasonable goals makes the experience more fun. I know our culture loves “enfant terrible,” but let’s be honest, good things rarely happen out of the blue. Jobs, relationships, sports…everything takes time. If you consider a professional goal to be attainable in three to five years and start moving step by step, you can let go a lot of pressure and allow other good things to happen in the journey. Maybe you won’t get exactly to the place you dreamed of three years ago, but you will end up somewhere better!

See more Rafael Alvarez illustrations, new work, and updates:
Rafael Alvarez website
Twitter: @AlvarezStudioNY