The International School of Comics in Turin has been organizing a series of meetings with several important national and international authors, among whom the Spanish illustrator Roger Olmos. For the occasion, we interviewed the author, who is renowned in Italy especially for his adaptation of Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees.
When did you become an illustrator? What authors have influenced you?
I started working during several afternoons at the hospital where my mother use to work. They needed someone able to draw to help doctors create anatomic illustrations to explain the operations to patients, or to show them on different conferences. So my mother introduced me, – hey, I think my son can do that (I was 18 years old, I think). After 4 years I went to do my studies at the Llotja school of Barcelona where I spent 5 years discovering this beautiful job. There, I discovered that there is a world beyond flesh, broken bones and veins. So here I am.
Your illustrations fuse a painting style in coloring with a more cartoonish rendering of characters. How have you developed your peculiar style? Do you adopt specific painting techniques?
The way to draw characters is always in constant evolution: the more you draw and improve your technique, the more you see yourself able to find different aspects to represent all kinds of psychological behaviors and expressions. At the same time, trying different techniques allows you to discover that some of these techniques let you do easily textures that you can use to create atmospheres and different kinds of shadows and illuminations. As it’s important to mature in your personal life, it is equally important for your language when you create an illustration as well. One insignificant situation can be a beautiful visual poem depending on how you represent it.
Talking about shapes and forms and the visual aesthetic of my work, it is something that comes from the inside, I guess. Characters speak with their bodies, postures and the different ways you put them on scene. The story that you are illustrating guides you a lot. The amount of humor, melancholy, sadness or mystery comes from the author (if it’s another one), but it moves my hand too.
You mainly work as an illustrator. What is your relationship with comics, both Spanish and international?
Actually I’m not very involved with comics, as my work is very focused on illustration for children and young people. But I like a lot of them, and they are an important source of inspiration as far as composition and color.
Do you consider attending schools and academies of comics a valuable experience for young people that want to take up this profession?
I guess it is, it’s important to have a solid basis where to start. I’ve never attended a school of comics, as a student I mean. But when I studied illustration, I was taught about different ways to work and I learned about techniques, composition, how the image has to speak, semiotics, colors, lights. If I had tried to do some of these things on my own, surely I wouldn’t have arrived at the point where I’m now. Schools provide you with the tools, you discover authors, they show how to face the terror in front of the white paper. It is important to go to the academy.
As a Spanish artist, what is your impression of the Italian comics and illustration world?
About comics, I don’t have an opinion. But in the field of illustration I have seen great people doing very nice things. I like the difference I start to see in many books fully produced by Italian authors. They have started to distance themselves from the classic style very influent in this country, which is normal: in Italy, everywhere you look, Cinquecento (1500s) surrounds you so… As books from abroad are starting to arrive, and various fairs are being organized, authors from any place in the world bring us their different lights, colors and shapes. This has been very inspiring for everybody. Not only in Italy, in all the countries.
One of your most important works, Sinpalabras (Wordless), deals with veganism and animal-rights, in which you are actively involved. Where did this book come from, and why?
From both, veganism is the direct response of my activism with animal rights. For me, to defend and protect animals means not to eat them, use them as clothes, use products tasted on them, pay people that want to show them in cages, all this. It is like someone that works for an ONG that protects children in poor countries: he would never buy products made by children under slavery conditions, wouldn’t he? It is a matter of being coherent with oneself, you cannot separate the two things.
This book came from one day talking with my partner; we realized that all the visual information about what’s beneath products or amusements where animals are involved was very raw, as it is indeed. But people that do not empathize with animals too much normally refuse to see it. These images are extremely shocking for children as well, so I decided to use the silent language of illustration to show this reality in a “poetical” way, less shocking but not less hard. The reality is hidden under things, and people never have to stop to think about it, because no one has ever explained it to them. The only thing that people that knew have been doing is lying, lying, lying to the public. This is how Sinpalabras was born.
In Italy Cosimo, your personal homage to Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, has drawn a lot of interest. How did you come up with the idea of adapting this work?
Cosimo came through my publisher from Logos, Miss Lina Vergara. The Baron in the trees is one of her favorite books, and she wanted my personal view of this character. I knew about this book, but I had never read it, so I did it, one, two, three, and four times. She told me that I was completely free to interpret it, I had like 250 pages to adapt the story with images. So I decided to choose, among its 33 chapters, those images that are more representative, those that are stuck in the minds of Italians that have read Calvino’s book. Of course, there should be more images, but in this case I would have needed like two years to finish it.
I had two options as well: I could represent the story from the point of view of the people on the ground, or choose Cosimo’s peculiar way to understand things, which, I think, is more interesting to illustrate.
Our heartfelt thanks to Roger Olmos for his availability and to the International School of Comics for making this interview possible.
(Interviewed via email in March 2018)