Ruben De Jesus is a professor at the UP College of Fine Arts, Department of Visual Communication, a children’s book illustrator, and a graphic designer. One of his most celebrated works include illustrations for Ang Mahiyaing Manok, which in 2008 was included in the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY) list of “One of the 25 Best-Loved Philippine Children’s Book Characters”, and was also awarded the “Encouragement Prize” at the 2000 Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations, and the “Runner-up Prize, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)” at the New York Showcase Exhibition and Competition in 2004.
His illustrations for Mga Anak ng Araw also received the Encouragement Prize at the 2002 Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations in Tokyo, Japan, and the 2002 Gawad Chancellor Para sa Natatanging Likhang Sining (Visual Art Production).
His latest books include Ang Tatlong Prinsipe ng Kalinaw, written by Eugene Y. Evasco and published by Lampara Publishing House, and Big Sister, written by Zarah Gagatiga, published also by Lampara Publishing House, and a Kid’s Choice Finalist for the 2016. And, most recently, he has also done illustrations for Karapat Dapat: Bata, alamin ang iyong karapatan, which was published by Center of Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development (CANVAS), in 2018.
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?
When I was a kid, I knew I really wanted to draw or do some creative stuff. In grade school, my artworks would be displayed on the bulletin board, or be part of the school publication or yearbook. I wasn’t competitive though. Perhaps I wasn’t really confident about my work. I don’t remember joining art competitions. I just wanted to create stuff and I felt good doing it.
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
As I said earlier, I wasn’t very competitive, but I just realized that my biggest struggle is actually competing with myself. There has to be some kind of improvement from my past works in whatever way. Improvement could be in terms of design concepts, continuous exploration of chosen medium, freshness within a consistent and recognized style of rendering, and even time management amidst all the other work that I have to accomplish.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
In any creative work, there has to be enjoyment in the process of creation but there are always obstacles you have to hurdle. Doing the work in stages makes the process smoother and more efficient. This is very basic, but the thumbnail sketches, rough studies, dummy, and color studies allow (or force) me to develop different approaches. If I get satisfied with the first visual that I develop because it seems okay at that particular moment, I deprive myself of other possibilities that could supplement or improve my first seemingly brilliant idea.
Nowadays, there is a tendency to do shortcuts mainly because there are more options or tools to make the work easier. Gadgets and creative software are very useful, but if your aim is just to make things faster, you are missing a lot. In my classes at the UP College of Fine Arts, we emphasize the importance of presenting several studies before final execution.
There is a tendency to be complacent when you have somehow established that style or look in your work. You are in your comfort zone so you forget that each new work should still produce some kind of freshness while having the characteristics you have already established in your body of work. I always ask myself what interesting visual aspect I can put into this new work. It may be in the application of my chosen medium, the variety of shapes for visual representation, or even the creative use of positive and negative space.
Time management is always a challenge. Juggling a teaching job and doing children’s book illustration projects requires a lot of discipline and stamina, especially because I am not getting any younger. For me, creating a work plan and enforcing it makes me more efficient and productive, but once I can sense that the routine is starting to bore me or make my output very mechanical, I shift to a less predictable but still productive work schedule.
I guess the key point here is to be sensitive to what your mind and body is telling you, and adjust accordingly so that the creative process is not hampered. But sometimes, this is easier said than done.
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
I think the ONE aspect that really helped me level up my skills, even up to now, is being in an environment that encourages me to be productive, to be critical yet encouraging, and to be observant of the output of those who are also active in the visual arts.
This environment, which I am fortunate to be part of, includes:
- the Visual Communication Department of the UP College of Fine Arts where I earned my Fine Arts degree and where I have been teaching full-time for 20 years,
- and, Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK), the organization which I co-founded and have been actively part of since 1991.
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I can’t think of one specific thing. I am blessed with an education that led me to the career that I have right now, a career that allows me create visuals for kids, share my expertise and skills with aspiring artists, and still continue to learn a thing or two for myself along the way.
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making your art?
Aside from the local and international recognition that my works have received, what really inspires me is the thought that my books have a vital role in the formation of children in our country. I get a certain high when I meet children who tell me that they have read my books. It gets even better when teens and even adults tell me that they still have my book that they read when they were kids.
I have been in schools where the teachers use my books as supplementary learning materials for their students. I am very happy when I meet parents buying my books and having them autographed for their kids during book fairs. The way they value my books inspires me to continue being a visual storyteller for Filipino children.
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
I am a teacher by day. My classes start at 8:30 in the morning and end at 2:30 in the afternoon. There are meetings, consultations and paperwork after classes. Of course, we still manage to squeeze in some siomai breaks or small talk about non-academic matters to add some spice to our noble profession.
I start my illustration and design projects in the afternoon or early evening. There are times when I wake up very early to do my artworks. Early means 4:30 am so it’s early to bed and early to rise. There is also the advantage of working with natural light during daytime because you see your colors better. Eyestrain affects how we capture the distinction and interaction of colors in an artwork. I get less eyestrain with natural light.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
First of all, our work always has a deadline. If I am given an unrealistic deadline, I have to communicate this with the client before I even accept the job. If a realistic deadline has been agreed upon and I decide to accept the project, I create my own internal timetable, which is composed of mini deadlines pertaining to the various stages or components of the entire project. This makes me less overwhelmed by the entire workload.
Seeing a large clean sheet of watercolor paper, an empty white canvas, or even a blank screen can be quite overwhelming. Setting mini deadlines and accomplishing them one by one makes me smile more often before the ultimate deadline.
I make sure that my communication line with the client is always open. Giving a progress report is very important. It keeps me on my toes and it makes my client feel assured that work is being done efficiently. If things aren’t moving as expected due to unforeseen circumstances, adjustments can be agreed upon between my client and me. Professionalism is the key word.
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
I change my routine and clean my work area, sometimes rearranging things a bit. For artists, there is such a thing as productive clutter. But things will definitely get better when there is a cleaner space and a semblance of order. The problem is: It takes some time to put things in order, but it won’t take long before it goes back to its usual state of productive clutter.
More breathing space means more positive energy and more room for creativity. (My nieces will surely raise their eyebrow when they read this. There were times when they even volunteered to clean my work area. I knew they were showing concern for my artistry, but I always rejected their offer.)
The reality and challenge here is that artists really have a lot of stuff.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
ANG MAHIYAING MANOK.
The success of the book has paved the way for me to have more book projects, to be more involved in the concerns and advocacies of children’s book creators, and most of all, to gain the respect of illustrators, writers, publishers, educators, and media practitioners in the country.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
There have been mistakes and rejections, but in time, they also left a positive mark.
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
I don’t really get to do much online promotion for myself. I haven’t even created a site or page mainly for my body of work. The closest thing to promotion that I do is post on FB my work-in-progress, book covers or selected inside spreads from my published works.
Local and international recognition helps but a good rapport with co-creators and movers in the children’s book industry is also very important. This serves as my long-term promotion.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
CREATE. If I don’t have book projects, I pursue personal projects that will continue to make my work visible. I have regular group and solo exhibitions. I propose my solo exhibitions to the Academic Affairs Office of the university, and once approved, they are credited as my creative load (3 units) for each semester.
SHARE. I have been teaching full-time for 20 years and I put my heart and soul in this profession because of the impact it can create on the lives of these young and aspiring artists. I also accept projects that address particular concerns or promote advocacies beneficial to us Filipinos as individuals or as a community.
LEARN. Never stop learning. I learn by continuing to create. I learn as I teach. I learn also from my students. I learn by being in a group of artists who don’t take themselves too seriously, but are oozing with talent and creativity. I also learn from random sources.
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
As a children’s book illustrator, always going back to the child in me triggers the flashing of images, the flow of ideas, and the rendering of details that can make my visuals more interesting or relatable to the young reader. My education and professional background as a visual communicator, prior to being a children’s book illustrator, has given me a stronger foundation and basis for my artistic approaches for each project.
Q: What is your big “WHY”? Why do you feel the need to make art? Who are you doing it for? What’s the hidden reason behind your big dream?
This gift was given to me. I have to use it, enhance it, and share it.
Several years ago, illustrators were not being given the attention that they deserve. After organizing Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang InK) with artist-friends and being active for almost 30 years, we have asserted our rights as professionals and proved that illustrators are vital co-creators in the children’s book industry.
My dream is not just for myself, but also for all children’s book illustrators. I hope that we continue to have more venues to showcase our art in books and other projects that can benefit the youth in our country.
I also hope that we can encourage more artists, writers and publishers from other regions to create their own children’s books so that the focus will not only be in Metro Manila. I have been invited to talk and conduct workshops in areas outside of Metro Manila, and I know that they have a wealth of stories to tell and visuals to create in their regions.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
SLICE OF LIFE by Larry Alcala
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak
ANG UNANG BABOY SA LANGIT Written by Rene O. Villanueva, Illustrated by Ibarra C. Crisostomo, Published by Cacho Publishing House, Inc.
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills? (Feel free to plug in as many as you’d like)
ILLUSTRATING CHILDREN’S BOOKS Creating pictures for publication Martin Salisbury
THE ART OF READING Forty Illustrators Celebrate RIF’s 40th Anniversary
WINGS OF AN ARTIST Children’s Book Illustrators Talk About Their Art
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
I still want to work here in the Philippines. I want to work outside of Metro Manila but still enjoy what our country has to offer: Baguio, Iloilo, Bacolod or Palawan. The art scene in these places is quite active. I’ve done unplanned trips to Baguio and Sagada where I ended up creating a good amount of work for an exhibit I did a few years ago. I’ve only been to Iloilo twice, and to Bacolod and Palawan once, but the limited encounter with the people made me feel their creative energy and hospitality. I also love the food in these places. My ideal studio or work area is a nature hideaway but with a good internet connection.
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
Two, actually. Maurice Sendak and Peter Sis.
There’s a certain strength hidden in Sendak’s characters even though they initially seem quite passive. There is a tenderness of soul and heart wanting to come out of the dark images and detailed rendering of Peter Sis.
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills?
(Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art has inspired you to get better, over the years.)
ALL OF MY ART TEACHERS FROM ELEMENTARY, HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE. Salamat po sa inyong lahat!