An interview with the in-demand illustrator of Young Adult novels
Don’t judge a book by its cover—unless that cover is illustrated by visual artist Erick Dávila. A browse through the popular young-adult section of any bookstore, or even your local Target, and you will see a commonality in books with covers that are vibrant with saturated colors, featuring portraits that are photorealistic yet have a multidimensional digital depth to them, with main protagonists whose knowing eyes seem to follow you, all of them people of color, all of them drawn by Dávila.
The 32-year-old New York City resident by way of Miami, Florida ,has been working as an illustrator and graphic artist since he graduated Ringling College of Art + Design some 10 years ago. His work has appeared on Papyrus greeting cards, apparel from high-profile brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Victoria’s Secret and Soul Cycle, in the pages of publications like Fast Company and on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.
“Throughout my college career, I didn’t think I would be successful because my teachers didn’t know what to do with me and because my work was so different,” says Dávila who does all his illustrations digitally in Photoshop. “When I started getting those commissions was when I started feeling more encouragement. Things don’t happen overnight. They definitely didn’t happen overnight for me.”
In the last three years, publishing houses have tapped into Dávila’s inherent feel for representing diverse characters to illustrate the covers of their Young Adult titles.
Although Dávila is a first-generation American of Mexican and Nicaraguan descent, it took a friend pointing out that his illustrations for a commission from Glamour Mexico were not representative of the magazine’s audience. “Until he said that, I didn’t clue in,” Dávila recounts the turning point in his art. “Everybody in Mexico looks like me. I’m looking at them in the mirror. How could I have missed that? It was a big wake up. It made me check myself. Why is my default a white woman? That was when I decided I was going to paint people of color, almost exclusively.”
Dávila’s start in YA was the cover of With The Fire on High, by bestselling author, National Book Award winner, and Carnegie Medal recipient Elizabeth Acevedo. In the process of diversifying his portfolio, Dávila painted a woman wearing a headscarf printed with fruits in a high key color palette. The painting caught the eye of Acevedo’s publisher, HarperCollins, who reached out to Dávila, as the aesthetic of that particular piece was a good match for the food-centric With the Fire on High.
“I didn’t realize the process for a book cover goes on for months,” says Dávila. “I thought I was doing something wrong. I was passing off versions and they would say, ‘She should have a more determined smile.’ I would tweak that and they would say, ‘Make her face very lifelike so the character is as real as possible.’ The background color reference was super-pastel but they said to go with reds because of the title and wanting warm tones. I thought that would be too dark, but if we gave her an interesting light, she’ll seem like she’s glowing. When I did that, it really started to come to life.”
Dávila has also illustrated the UK version of Acevedo’s Clap When You Land. His work is on the covers of BIPOC authors’ books such Camryn Garrett’s Off the Record, Debbie Rigaud’s Simone Breaks All the Rules, Zoraida Cordova’s Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Samira Ahmed’s Mad Bad & Dangerous to Know, Nina Moreno’s Our Way Back to Always, Stephan Lee’s K-Pop Confidential and K-Pop Revolution. He even illustrated the Italian version of Eat Pray Love.
“Usually the designer and the author will give you direction,” says Dávila, who, if a publisher provides him with a manuscript, reads the novel ahead of starting his illustration to get a sense of the character and pick up small details. “They’ll say ‘She’s a Haitian girl and she’s heavier set,’ or ‘She’s Puerto Rican and she has darker complexion,’ or ‘Her nose in narrow or wider.’ Even down to the hair. I had to research hair types after certain authors said they wanted this kind of hair I didn’t know about. They’ll give a vibe of what they want to see and it’s your job to look for those features.”
Once he has general direction, Dávila goes the conceptual route and starts searching through pictures for hours on end. He gathers references from different elements of faces, lighting of subjects, and other visual ideas which he composites and builds into a prism. He then begins his sketching, which is where it all comes together, resulting in rich and varied portraits.
“I’m super-excited that I have an opportunity to do YA covers with characters that are so diverse,” says Dávila. “At the young adult age is when the training of what the ideal is, happens. You don’t even realize what you’re subscribing to, maybe until it’s called out to you, the way it was called out to me. There are so many different kinds of people. From an immigrants’ kid’s perspective, I understand the struggles. Now that I’m conscious of it, I try to not create cookie-cutter versions.”