The aspect most likely to draw you into the work of illustrator Derek Abella is his attention to the minutiae of details. It’s not that whole images Derek creates won’t grab your attention, but there is often a certain crop, use of light peering through, or his signature texture that’s bound to catch your eye. Personally, it’s the way Derek is able to elevate an image by cropping into it that stuns again and again, in an approach he describes “as a means of abstraction and creating interesting tension, tangents and negative space.” He continues that “this strategy works in tandem with the textures and effects I utilise in order to make my pieces seem like vignettes into moments, feelings, and ultimately, stories. I like to push the readability in my work because I tend to be drawn to work that doesn’t spoon-feed viewers information.”
Derek has reached this considered approach through a childhood exploring fine art, animation and illustration. The only child of Cuban immigrants born and raised in Miami, Florida, as a child Derek would spend hours watching “old school animation” – but was already critical of shows’ creative direction. For example, after watching one show, Reading Rainbow, a young Derek could be found stapling pieces of paper together to create his own fully illustrated rewrite, “because I thought I could do better than what I saw on TV.” In high school, he then took up an interest in creating concept art for animation “and took tons of figure drawing and painting classes in the Bird Road Arts District in Miami,” becoming obsessed with the likes of Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle and Walt Peregoy. Settling on illustration later for university, Derek then moved across the States to New York to attend Pratt Institute. Here teachers like Ping Zhu, Jen Heuer, Jon Han and Jing Wei were his illustrative guiding lights, leading to the Derek we know now.
Having graduated from Pratt in 2018, when speaking with the illustrator today, Derek describes his work as “intentionally decorative, emotional and dreamlike.” Rather than pinpointing tools or subject matter, Derek instead leans into discussing “the relationship of shape and colours”, likening them to “the emotional relationship between figures in my pieces”. Every colour or shape combination in his work is puzzled together with intention and ideas are first developed as “thumbnails” he draws in his sketchbook in “moments where I’m alone and reflecting”.
Due to his thoughtful nature and almost metaphorical use of cropping, shape and colour, it’s no wonder that Derek’s had numerous editorial commissions of late, noting how “I feel very lucky to have found success in editorial recently.” Another practice that offers moments of reflection, Derek adds: “The best thing for me about it is the problem-solving aspect.” First, he’ll often try to figure out why a client has hired him “and try to meld my visual vocabulary with the stories,” he says. “I get a lot of melancholic assignments, so coming up with new ways of showing themes like disconnect or loneliness is a challenge I really enjoy.”
A recent example of this is a piece Derek drew for a Medium article about a woman who hadn’t been in physical contact with anyone for a year. With plenty of room for interpretation, “we went with the idea of two swans embracing and in the negative space of their necks, you see her in the distance longingly watching them interact,” explains the illustrator. An accompanying illustration that immediately evokes the sentiment of the article, “it involved the perfect amount of compositional and emotional play, and I feel like that piece summarises what I’ve been trying to achieve with my art for a long time,” adds Derek. Another, this time on the woes of online dating during the pandemic for The New York Times, struck the illustrator due to being a subject matter he could identify with. “I’ve learned that having lived experiences parallel to what the editorial piece is about really embellishes the illustration process – but doesn’t necessarily make it easier to complete the assignment.”
No matter the subject matter, an attribute of Derek’s work you’re always likely to see is his aforementioned use of texture. A stylistic tendency the illustrator has developed from experimenting with a variety of brush modes and filters in Photoshop, the use of grain in his work is inspired “by both the harshness and delicacy of light and texture in early 20th Century illustration from Cuba and Florida, as well as how these things come through in old films and photography.” And although personal in motivation, this approach displays the illustrator’s aim “to tap into the universal language of nostalgia,” he says, with a focus on “selective detail, lack of clarity and idealisation.”
Each of these attributes can be seen in Derek’s current position as a remote freelancer for Pitchfork. Creating lettering and collage pieces for the platform’s articles and weekly columns, the position has offered the illustrator the chance to try new modes of working, “but it’s interesting for me to tie in my illustrator mentality with their asks,” he adds. Looking to the future, Derek also hopes to expand his nostalgia-inducing and emotionally-fuelled work into longer-form pieces. Previously creating two zines, one for TXTBooks and another for Social Species, each communicated Derek’s own explorations of queerness, combining image-making and creative writing. With his illustrative thoughtfulness, we look forward to seeing him communicate narratives in new ways in future.
Derek Abella: Zoom Date (Copyright © Derek Abella, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.