German Gonzalez: Artist of the Portrait

By Scott Kirkwood

German Gonzalez has a thing for faces. “Originally, I wanted to become a photographer, because I love capturing portraits,” says Gonzalez, a Colombian illustrator who calls Medellín home. “But when I noticed that my college, Pontifical Bolivarian University, offered only two photography classes, I discovered that illustration allowed me to do the same thing in an even more intimate way.”

Early in his career, Gonzalez was commissioned by Bacánika, a Colombian arts and culture magazine, to illustrate a short story titled El Autógrafo.

When he was still a student, Gonzalez started posting his work on Behance, where his illustrations of Little Red Riding Hood and Edgar Allen Poe quickly garnered the attention of art directors. Gonzalez was pleasantly surprised and a little shocked to hear from Bacánika, a Colombian arts and culture magazine with a cult following on college campuses, where it’s distributed for free. The publication’s art directors asked him if he’d produce a series of illustrations to accompany the short story El Autógrafo, wherein a young man meets his favorite author in a coffee shop, only to be so disappointed by the encounter that he tosses the author’s autograph into the trash.

Gonzalez himself has no shortage of creative heroes. He’s inspired by movie directors Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson—one of several subjects he captured in a series of filmmakers commissioned by Bacánika. Rather than rattle off a list of well-known painters and illustrators he admires, he cites contemporaries including James Jean, Sachin Teng, and David de las Heras, all of whom have a penchant for warm colors and a painterly approach that wanders the territory between anime and photorealism.

Portraits by German Gonzalez.  

Gonzalez first became intrigued with the idea of editorial work when one of his university professors shared a short video that revealed the design process behind Little White Lies. A London-based magazine focused on film, Little White Lies is known for the illustrated portraits that grace its covers—which gives us reason to believe the name German Gonzalez will end up in its credits before too long.

Portraits of directors Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and George Lucas, by German Gonzalez.


Below, Gonzalez outlines the process behind a portrait of Agatha (played by Saoirse Ronan) from the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel.

1. “I start every project with a big canvas in Adobe Photoshop. I divide my screen into a “live canvas” on the right and all the references I need on the left. I like to build my own character poses, often using a few different photos as inspiration, along with images of the smaller elements—for instance, the delivery vehicle in this illustration. Then I imagine everything in 3D.”

2. “I create a rough sketch.”

3. “I create my color palette, as you can see on the left: the big pale circle for the skin and a second skin color for blush or shadows; the blue circles are for the blouse and its shadows; and finally, the brown at the top for her hair. At the right side are the brushes I always use—the circle and a chalk/blending brush that I downloaded here and then modified a bit.”

4. “I always start with the face; for me, it is the most important part. And I like to create striking eyes that are a bit mysterious.”

5. “Then I work on the body and other elements.”

6 & 7. “I keep adding elements, like the smoke, which guides the viewer’s eye through the image, from bottom to top or vice versa—always passing through the face. Sometimes I’ll add small details, like the man running over her shoulder, to tell the story behind the portrait.”

8. “I like to add a grunge texture to the background. Then, as a final step, I’ll often add a blurred element to give the image some depth. In this case, I created a few more of the pink curls, grouped them, and added a Lens Blur (Filter > Blur > Lens Blur), which mimics the bokeh effect better than a Gaussian blur.”

Want an even closer look? Watch a time lapse of Gonzalez’s desktop as he illustrates the lead characters in Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom.

October 17, 2017

Author Scott Kirkwood is a frequent contributor to HOW, 99U, and Adobe Create. A freelance copywriter and creative director focused on nonprofits and “do-gooder” brands, he lives in Denver, Colorado.