Derek Abella performs with nostalgia and texture in his ethereal illustrations

"I grew up as an only child in Miami and had a lot of time to imagine and observe things," says New York-based illustrator Derek Abella. “I've been fortunate to have been encouraged by my parents to be creative, enrolling in free community art camps during my childhood, and taking drawing classes in high school on weekends. My mother is a librarian, so we had a lot of inspiring books. "

When Abella started a career in the creative industry, he thought it was a conceptual artist for feature film animation, but he was continually drawn to the illustration courses offered at various institutions. "I almost went to school at the Art Center in California, but ended up at the Pratt Institute in New York instead, where I was shown editorial and other illustration options," he explains.

Editorial illustration has since become Abella's calling, and his portfolio is filled with assignments from the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, NBC News, Medium and many others.

Above: For the Guardian Above: New York Times Magazine

The illustrator's work is created digitally in Photoshop, but feels structured and ethereally glowing, as if Abella had transformed blocks of light into recognizable shapes and figures. "It's interesting because recently people have asked me what colors I use in my work, or whether I scan things and put them on the computer," he notes. “I want to include analog things in my work and stop making the computer so central to my process, but I appreciate the lack of physical clutter and the ability to undo the things that go with it, which says a lot about my personality. ”

Abella describes his work as emotional and dreamlike, and much of his recent work embodies a warm, summery cloudiness. "The goal of my work is to make it feel like it's either a dream or a vignetted piece of memory. My biggest inspiration is probably growing up in Florida, whether a lot of my pieces are about the colors or the roaring sun "Explains the illustrator." I recently took inspiration from photography and film to advance my lighting and composition execution. Nostalgia is ultimately a key player (or perhaps a culprit) in my life and work. "

Papá study

Another inspiration is Abella's Cuban-American roots. “Back in school, I worked a lot more on Cuba, the diaspora of its people and the child of immigrants. I would say that a lot of the tropical and nostalgic elements of my work came from my research and introspection at the time, ”he explains. “A great source of Cuban inspiration for me is the covers of a magazine called Carteles, which often featured beautiful illustrations inspired by Art Deco. The Art Deco vocabulary is very present in Miami too. In a way, I like this style because it visually connects Cuba and the states. "

What makes Abella's work seem even more personal is his exploration of sexuality and relationships within his illustrations, which gradually happened for the illustrator. "The weirdness found its way into my work when I found more of my weirdness, ”he explains. “After school, I became more active in the community here in New York and started thinking about how to be informed through dualities like loneliness and intimacy, or shame and celebration, based on relationships and the time I spent with them To do work. One day I would like to do a job that involves being Latinx and Queer, but I have not yet found a satisfactory solution to this "assignment". "

New York Times

The illustrator's creative process when starting a new piece begins with making music and filling the room with a pleasant scent. “When I work from home instead of the studio I had before the pandemic, I really had to be portable to be able to work well,” explains Abella. “I usually deal with things that I draw in my sketchbook or journal and then try to get the idea out of my system by making as many pieces as necessary. The Rolodex of things I research in my free time finds its way into both my personal and commercial work. "

Abella enjoys problem solving in his commercial work. “When someone approaches me with a letter, especially a letter that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with my other work, I like to think about why they chose me and how I can apply their reasoning to the task. "He says." My favorite subjects are relationships between people, be it articles on online dating, identity politics, or how the pandemic has affected friendships, for example. "

Isolation, New York Times

Even on commercial projects, for Abella, working feels personal, and while this allows him to feel a connection on a wide variety of subjects, it has its drawbacks. “It was an interesting mental exercise for me to reconcile a lot with learning to let go as a professional,” he says.

On a broader level, other challenges Abella faces are the typical financial and moral dilemmas many freelancers face, but he hopes for change. "It was exciting to see the online discussions go on about better (and on-time) pay and equity for creatives, especially BIPOC individuals," he says. "Hopefully sooner rather than later the conversations will turn into noticeable changes in the creative world."