Hitting the Right Notes in Illustration

By Joe Shepter

At some point in their lives, everyone draws,” says illustrator Gabriel Silveira. “Some people continue to draw, but most stop.”

That’s the humble way the 35-year-old Brazilian describes his path to becoming a highly sought-after professional illustrator. Silveira’s futuristic and intensely graphical creations have graced the pages of magazines like ESPN, Wired, and the Harvard Business Review, and enhanced brands and events like Loot Crate and the MCM London Comic Con.

Recent illustrations for Wired Germany (left) and the French magazine Usbek & Rica. 

He admits that as he was growing up, he was much more of a fan than a prodigy. Early on, he discovered the Brazilian cartoonists Laerte and Angeli, as well as Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées, becoming fascinated with artists like Hergé and Moebius. From there, he moved on to American titles and developed a particular affinity for the X-Men. Along the way, he noticed that the comic books didn’t merely have an author; they also credited an illustrator.

Turning Up the Volume

This sparked an idea that emerged when he graduated from design school in 2005. After struggling to find a design job in Sao Paulo’s competitive advertising scene, Silveira landed a position as an assistant for noted Brazilian illustrator Carlo Giovanni, with whom he trained diligently for nine months. When Giovanni decided to take his practice in the new direction, he generously shared his editorial contacts with Silveira, who quickly established himself as a talented freelancer. 

A recent illustration (for an article about Google AI) for Fast Company. 

Silveira enjoyed plenty of success over the next several years, but he felt like something was missing. His illustrations were sought after and won awards, but they weren’t quite at the level he wanted them to be. Then, by chance, he started taking drumming classes. Although already a musician, he struggled mightily with the drums and found himself wondering why he could hear something in his head and not be able to play it with his hands. Working through this, he began thinking about something else: he couldn’t always illustrate the way he wanted to either. He had ideas in his head but lacked the ability to turn them into reality.

And so, from 2013 to 2015, Silveira went back to school. Not literally—but he did return to all of the old things he had learned but never quite perfected to his satisfaction: things like anatomy, perspective, color—in fact, everything he is known for today. Most of this autodidactic work was done in simple charcoal sketches on paper, but he also tasked himself with completing one very large, very complicated project every month. 

A recent illustration for Wall Street Journal Magazine, for an article about neural links, body augmentations, and high-tech prosthetics. 

“I believe the best way to find your style,” says Silveira, “is to learn as much as possible from the real world—in my case through formal training—and then deconstruct this knowledge. You don’t need to become a classical drawing master, but you’ll slowly learn what you need to keep and what you can leave out, and then finally learn how to bend reality to express yourself in your style.”

A Perfect Composition

Soon, things started to change for Silveira, both artistically and professionally. Clients and ordinary fans on social media began to see something more precise, more expert, and more solid in his work. He slowly removed the technical illustrations from his Behance portfolio and concentrated on showing only the more advanced kinds of illustrations he wanted to do.

Today, Silveira works along a well-defined process for each illustration. He begins with a tiny thumbnail sketch in a cheap notebook. From there he quickly moves to Photoshop, where he sketches out his ideas (among his favorite tools for this are Kyle Webster’s Xerox brushes). As the concept develops, he creates a full composition in Photoshop and, when he is satisfied with results, shows it to his client.

“If you have Photoshop imitating a pencil sketch, everyone understands it’s a sketch,” he says. “I really want them looking at the overall composition and the graphical ideas, not getting caught up in the details.”

Once he receives approval to move forward, he takes his drawing into Illustrator. Here, he favors using multiple layers, often working with the Line Weight tool to give his drawings the correct solidity. His design background shows in his frequent use of geometric shapes. When it comes to color, he tends to be bold but sparing in his choices, and here color swatches have a big role to play. They allow him to quickly play with the various splotches of color in his drawings to find the right combinations.

This portrait of an android in need of repair was a personal project—shown here at three various stages of development.      

“To me, it’s a very natural and straightforward way of working,” he says. “I love how can I take something from being just a drawing to this piece of design and having the weight and extra dimension of a finished piece.”

That said, he doesn’t finish the drawing in Illustrator. It turns out that the perfect results he gets from the software are sometimes a little too perfect. To add an element of chaos, he takes the drawing back into Photoshop and adds textures and imperfections—sparingly. A little goes a long way, he explains, and too much quickly unravels the effect.

A recent illustration for Endpoints: the Elysium Health Journal, for an article about dietary supplements. 

“It may sound funny, but I continually ask myself, ‘Does it look cool yet?’” he says.

And the results definitely do look cool; they are colorful, technological, and seemingly chaotic while also highly refined productions that reflect Silveira’s unique tastes, vision, and training.

Today, Silveira has a thriving freelance practice in London (he moved there a few years ago to work for a gaming tech company). He splits his time between drawing for magazines and technology companies and creating characters and style frames for animation. 

“On a personal level for me,” he says, “it’s about doing things that are satisfying, while making sure that people are coming to me for the work I want to do.” See more of Silveira’s work below and on Behance

An recent illustration for Virgin Atlantic magazine. 

A recent illustration for Science Focus magazine, for an article about spring cleaning.