Saturday, January 1, 2011

Latin Music Legends Stamps & Books

As the New Year approaches I've been reflecting on the fun I've had working on children's books and thinking small. In my opinion, great things do indeed come in small packages.
After almost two years work I'm thrilled to unveil five new stamps I have created for the United States Postal Service celebrating Latin Music Legends that will be available in March 2011. They honor incomparable musicians and performers of the Latin sound whose contributions continue to greatly impact world music. In alphabetical order they are; Celia Cruz, Carlos Gardel, Carmen Miranda, Tito Puente and Selena. Their distinctive styles embrace a diverse range of musical genres including salsa, tango, samba, Latin jazz and tejano. It's all about the music so select their names above to view these Latin music legends in action.
I am passionate about Latin music as it has fueled my work for decades. As a child growing up in Mexico City I was lucky to study guitar and South American instruments like the quena and cuatro with Folklorista Gerardo Tamez. My uncle had a musical radio program at UNAM that introduced folk and protest music from Latin America. I grew up in a household where my architect parents constantly played instruments and sang music. We were always dancing and I can't bring myself to paint without music.
What an honor it is for me to tell you more about these extraordinary legends and the process of creating stamps to celebrate their contributions. I'm proud of Latin music because it is essential in communicating the spirit of our culture. I have to agree that Latinos are born with rhythm. These five dynamic individuals continue to inspire future generations of musicians. I hoped to paint portraits that would resonate for their families and fans. I felt compelled to give it all I had as an artist to communicate the essence of these legends, their spirit, style and sound.

Celia Cruz stamp, mood board with imagery and sketch
¡Azucar! What made Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa so unique?
I wanted to celebrate that electrifying voice, those elaborate wigs, flamboyant costumes and dazzling smile that made you feel like you were part of her family. Her powerful contralto voice, dance energy and charismatic personality endeared her to fans from different nationalities and generations. A musical artist who knew no boundaries. She broke down economic, gender and racial barriers with her authentic humanity and mesmerizing vocal style.

Carlos Gardel stamp, sketch and a classic photo

With his movie star looks and superb baritone voice, he was the first great singer of tango and remains an icon in Argentina, France and Uruguay. A magnetic stage presence he mesmerized audiences with his charm and dapper attire. Gardel's music has always fascinated me and I posed a model with my own guitar to get the right stamp composition. His nickname El Zorzal Criollo translates to the Creole Thrush. Listening to his music, I envisioned a smoky boliche and saw cool shades of blue as his incomparable voice evoked nostalgia and a longing for something lost.

Carmen Miranda stamp, photograph and preliminary sketch
The glamorous Portuguese born-Brazilian Bombshell samba singer who went on to become a film legend captivated audiences with her Latin charm and dazzling persona. Her remarkable film, stage and radio career and exotic signature outfit challenged me. I had to make it all fit in a way that would match the proportions of the other Latin Music Legend compositions. I tried to showcase her mischievous, playful and coquettish beauty in a classic Hollywood pose that tipped it's hat to her contributions in music and film.

Tito Puente stamp, mood board imagery and alternative sketch
A musical pioneer this bandleader, percussionist, and composer fused Latin music with jazz and mixed Latin sounds with other musical styles. I was fortunate enough to see Tito performing live on the streets of San Diego. I was about 20 feet away and the raw energy and pure octane power he exuded was sensational. I wanted to capture in red the angular rhythms of Tito playing his timbales in the stamp's background. I'm currently working on a new book My Name is Tito about El Rey and can't wait to introduce this music legend to children.

Selena stamp and two sketches exploring composition
The Queen of Tejano I wanted to showcase her vibrant beauty. As an artist I was challenged by her love of fashion and style as Selena frequently changed hairstyles and clothing. After exploring many directions I became convinced that a photo provided by her family most closely communicated her essence. I worked to create a relationship between her hair and the background swirls to pay tribute to her sensual costumes and dance moves. I sincerely appreciated hearing from Suzette Quintanilla who saw the stamp portrait before release and felt I had captured her sister's charismatic spirit.


The Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee meets several times a year to look over many suggestions for stamp subjects. These ideas come for committee members, stamp collectors, postal officials and the general public. Once approved each job is assigned to an art director who selects an artist whose style and technique they believe can deliver the essence of a subject and meet the challenge of communicating at postage stamp size.

The Let's Dance: Merengue stamp and Mendez v. Westminster stamp
In 2009 I was approached by an exceptional art director, Ethel Kessler whose clients include the United States Postal Service. We had worked together previously in 2005 creating the Merengue Latin Dance stamp and the Mendez v. Westminster stamp in 2007. A year later I painted a poster to help win the Latino vote for then candidate Barack Obama and the style of that portrait resonated for the U.S.P.S. giving me the chance to work on this project.
Talk about connections, my very first children's book My Name is Celia about Celia Cruz opened the door for me to create books for children. I'm currently working on paintings for a new book My Name is Tito to be released in 2013 on the anniversary of his 90th birthday. I was excited to immerse myself once again into their lives and music and began to conduct extensive research into Selena, Carlos Gardel and Carmen Miranda. I tried to get inside the details of their lives by reading biographies and articles, watching films, looking at images and above all playing their music nice and loud.
Sketching for an upcoming children's book My Name is Tito and cover of My Name is Celia both written by Monica Brown

As an artist I tried to find the emotional qualities that described them and created mood boards with imagery, colors and textures to illuminate the path these paintings should take and develop a visual language. I poured over hundreds of images and worked to channel the spirit of their music into my sketches. I choose to not directly use any one image but reference still photography and video footage to synthesize information and get to the essence of a portrait. I stylized the images with the hope that people would see them and hear their music. Working closely with the art director I decided to show each musical artist in the period of time we thought people would remember them most. It's got to reduce well, not fill in or lose parts and communicate at the size of your thumb.
I then begin to sketch and it all begins with a pencil on paper. Talk about pressure. I was constantly aware that each stamp design had to be approved by committee, genuinely resonate with families and connect to fans. I gave it my best shot painting each portrait on a piece of sanded wood about 15 inches tall by 9 inches wide. I selected the wood carefully looking for the right texture to add character to the images. The process of sanding takes time and I like to think with patience the grain speaks to me. I buy my acrylic paints in large jars at a small tiendita in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. These paints are bold just like Celia, Carlos, Carmen, Tito and Selena and for me authentic Latino color is all about orgullo!
One last thing, these are forever stamps making them as timeless as the Latin Music Legends who inspired them.
Special thanks to Roy A. Betts of the U.S.P.S. for the high resolution stamp images.