Mauricio Abril’s recipe for artistic success includes a little superhero, a dash of whimsy, and a lot of kindness.
Mauricio Abril had it all worked out: He’d study molecular biology in college, work toward a master’s degree, and eventually earn a Ph.D. At least, that was the plan — and you know what they say about those. Thanks to a little bit of intuition, Abril decided to slow his roll and take a step back. I spoke with Abril about how he made the transition from scientist to concept artist for some of the entertainment industry’s biggest names, how he’s just a big kid at heart, and what’s next.
Pop Insider: Tell me a bit about your background and your rather drastic shift from molecular biology to illustration. Did you wake up one day and decide to pursue art out of the blue?
Mauricio Abril: As a kid, I always drew and felt like I was artistically inclined, but I never was exposed to the realities of pursuing art. Growing up as a kid in the ‘80s, I didn’t know what you could do as an artist. … So I never pursued it. In high school and college was when I really started to fall in love with science, and I’ve always felt like I’ve had an analytical side to myself, too.
I thought, “OK, I’m going to go to grad school and get a Ph.D.” Around the end of college, I started to just have this kind of creative voice inside of me that was saying, “You don’t want to do science, you don’t want to do science.” I finished [school], but I didn’t end up applying to any grad schools.
I took a couple of years to just work, and I eventually started sketching again. I thought, “Maybe I can go back to school for art. If I can get into school, then I’ll go.” And once I got in I was like, “OK, as long as I don’t flunk out and I see that all signs point to yes, then I’ll keep going.” Thankfully, they’ve continued to point to yes so far, so now I’m an artist/illustrator — and loving it.
PI: It’s one thing to be interested in something, and quite another to make a career of it. How’d you get started?
MA: The school I went to — ArtCenter College of Design, which is based up here in Pasadena, California — is one of the top design schools in the country. I still tell this to people and I stand by it: I went to UCLA for science. I studied molecular biology. I graduated with virtually straight As. I was doing research at the time, working in a research lab. I was involved in student groups and had a fun time. So, I wasn’t taking my college experience lightly and slacking, but ArtCenter was far harder than anything I’d done at UCLA. It’s essentially a trade school, but it kicks your butt so that your work and your professional appearance, the way you present yourself to the world, are at a certain level.
Right around 2010, I got my first official freelance job. … At the time, I had a blog. That’s how I got my first job, which was awesome. It was for a video game company based out of Chicago. The great thing about that experience for me was that it validated everything I had done in school.
I was able to get some work from my website, as well as from interviews. The great thing about ArtCenter is that they have these recruiting events for their graduating students. They invite companies and, because of the relationship the school has with the industry, a lot of representatives come. That’s kind of how my freelance career started. I eventually got a job in-house at Disney Interactive, and I stayed there for about a year before moving on to other things.
PI: How does your science background inform your art?
MA: They’re not in separate boxes. My science background definitely has been a big part of my professional career. I’m assuming the stuff [people] probably know me for is the stuff I’ve posted online, which is really what I do in my personal time for fun and to share with people. But for my professional career, I would call myself a concept artist. It involves a lot of research and putting A and B to equal C, which is essentially science. It’s the analytical process. The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that science is inherently creative, too. I remember watching the old Cosmos series with Carl Sagan and him talking about how these ancient Greek scientists figured out that the Earth is round by using shadows and sticks. That’s creative.
PI: How has your work evolved over time?
MA: Somebody asked me once to communicate what my voice is in a sentence, … and it’s basically portraying the kind of optimism and whimsy of the world through the lens of childhood and imagination. My work now is very much about capturing emotion and story, and mostly through an optimistic point of view. A lot of the superhero stuff that I do for fun tends to blend that. But coming out of school, I was still exploring.
I always tell my students that just because you finish school doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything you need to learn. I was continuing to fill in the gaps in my education afterward. Eventually, I started to notice a trend with my work where I was usually showcasing ideas through the lens of childhood.
PI: Why is childhood your preferred lens?
MA: The funny thing is that it wasn’t so conscious or intentional. I just started to notice that that’s just naturally what I gravitated toward. When I self-reflected on that, I realized that I’m honestly just a big kid at heart. I’m in my mid-30s now, but … my living room with my girlfriend looks like a comic book slash toy store because of all the stuff that we have up and out.
Thankfully, I’ve never lost the connection to my childhood, which was overall fun and positive, and to the idea that life could be so much better if we were just a little bit nicer to each other, a little bit happier. Not to say that I don’t enjoy more adult content with violence and action and things like that, but the stuff that I do tends to just be more about making people smile.
PI: What artists or illustrators inspire you?
MA: Norman Rockwell was big in my development when I was in art school. … I do remember when I had a class that really showcased his level of storytelling in an image, and that’s when I started taking my storytelling seriously. A teacher once [said] every square inch of a Rockwell is useful to the overall story of that painting, and I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So I’ve always kind of taken that to heart, and I try to infuse as much story in every aspect of my pieces because of that.
A lot of people, at cons especially, tell me that my work reminds them of Pixar. So I guess from a visual point of view, I’m not necessarily influenced by one artist as much as just the collective field of animation.
If I had to pick one artist who represents that, he works for Disney. He’s a production designer. I’ve never met him, but his name is Paul Felix. As a student, I definitely looked up to his work a lot, and still do.
PI: Who has had the largest impact on you as an artist?
MA: I’d have to say my mom. While I’m not necessarily thinking about my mom when I’m doing these pieces, … when I was a little kid, she got me this poster. She still has it. Basically, it says, “If you smile to everyone you’ll be happy,” something to that effect. I had that poster by my bed when I was a kid growing up. I was actually thinking about that poster a little while ago. I can’t help but imagine that that didn’t have some [influence on] my overall life and demeanor.
She didn’t do anything specifically to help me make art, but just that indescribable amount of support that I know that other people don’t have? I know it had to have contributed to my ability to do what I do.
PI: You’re also a teacher. What have you learned from your students?
MA: I view art as this kind of ethereal thing that’s greater than any person. Like music or math, it exists. And one of the things that I just love about teaching is helping [students] understand that a little bit better.
The other thing that I feel is infectious about teaching is kind of seeing their enthusiasm and passion for their ideas and their artistic goals for that specific illustration. I remember exactly how that felt as a student. It’s a nice reminder to really, really appreciate where I’ve been, and even where I am, and just keep working — to not be stagnant.
PI: You’ve worked on everything from short films and theme park designs to illustration and books. What has been your favorite project?
MA: I’m currently illustrating two children’s books for Simon & Schuster that are going to tie into an upcoming animated film. I’m currently in the process, … so I can’t really say if the whole process will be a favorite, but what I like about that is … when you’re doing a children’s book, the art is the end product. The art is the final, and it’s not about communicating design solutions as much as it’s meant to be art and communicate the emotion of the story.
PI: How long do you typically spend working on a personal passion project?
MA: If I … get the idea immediately from the universe, then it could just be a couple of days. Other times, it could be months. …
There’s one piece that I’m really, really proud of that took me months to arrive at the idea, but … once I had the idea, it just took me a couple of days to finish painting it. It’s a line of young girls in ballet class, and it’s really about one girl who doesn’t quite fit in.
… I always think about young kids who are forced to do things they don’t want to do, whether it’s sports or music or whatever. … Especially because we’ve been talking a lot about the roles of gender in society as a whole, that speaks to me strongly. I’ve never really grown up identifying too much with the stereotypical guy stuff, but I wanted to portray … a kid who is maybe playing against that kind of conformity and tradition.
The first time I did a sketch, it looked completely different. I left it alone, and a couple of months later, I went at it again. And this time, I kind of saw the composition. I thought, OK, I’m going to have them be close up to the camera, and it’ll kind of mimic the fact that they’re all in line like little clones of each other, except for one, and she’s breaking the mold.
PI: When was your first con? How did it feel to be there?
MA: My first con was DesignerCon 2013 in Pasadena, California, and I only tried it half out of curiosity and half out of professional boredom. While I had a nice studio job as a concept artist, I lacked any sort of outlet for my own creative expression, and I thought exhibiting my work at a con might be something that would interest me.
That first experience was honestly surreal. I didn’t feel like I quite belonged, and it felt so weird to be literally selling my own work instead of trying to sell myself as I had done so many times in an interview.
PI: You published a book called Small Dogs. What was the idea behind it? Do you plan to create more long-form content? What’s next?
MA: In terms of the long game for myself, I would love to publish — hopefully officially publish, but if not, I’ll keep self-publishing. I’m currently creating another children’s book that, just like Small Dogs, I’m trying to shop around. … I developed a dummy, and I’m in the process of sending out queries to get representation for it to see what happens.
I also have been working on a young adult novel that I want to write and embed with illustrations, kind of like the old Alice in Wonderland books. … Basically, what I’d love for it to be is a young adult novel with illustrations interspersed throughout the book that are in color, and telling the story that I’ve been developing for the last year and a half. I guess you could call it historical fantasy. I’m super excited about that, and I’m trying to not get so much professional work so that I have more time to work on that. But I have to pay bills, so. …
I [want] to release a calendar before the end of the year that’s just original, cute art — kind of ideal for kids or kids at heart.
Digital Bonus: Fandom-Fueled Q&A
PI: Ok, now we’re getting to the tough questions. You’ve said before that you were “raised on a diet of comic books and animation.” What was your favorite comic book as a kid?
MA: That’s an interesting one. Comic book itself would be Spider-Man. The technical answer is that it was the first comic book that I got exposed to, and then I started collecting it. As a kid, I loved Batman equally, but I was buying Spider-Man comics faster than they could come out. I think there’s just always something cool about Spider-Man as a visual character. I always just loved the costume, and I’m a fan of simplicity. I [still] have them all in the comic book boxes I bought as a kid; they’re in my closet, along with my X-Men and Batman comics.
PI: And now that you’re all grown up, is Spider-Man still your fave?
MA: I wouldn’t say I moved on, but … right now, seeing as how the only tattoo I have on my body is the Superman symbol, I have to say that Superman is my favorite superhero/fictional character. I liked Superman as a kid, … but it wasn’t until my 20s when I started watching the series Smallville.
I was familiar with the Superman mythology, but something about Tom Welling’s portrayal of Clark made me just really fall in love with that boy scout aspect of him. So that started getting me down into a rabbit hole, and that’s when I started buying Superman comics.
Something happened where I think it was the rebirth of me kind of with that hopeful optimism that I love about my work, and that’s just what Superman represents. At the same time, it’s what Captain America represents really well in the MCU. I’ve always pictured Superman to be that big brother that everyone wants who does the right thing and won’t let you down. It’s like what you’d want to be if we could all be really, really good.
PI: What’s your favorite fandom?
MA: I would say in addition to the MCU, just because I love how respectful they treat every property and the source material, aside from that, Game of Thrones would be the second-biggest, non-superhero stuff. I was into that since the first season, and I’m excited to see how it ends. Hopefully, it’s done well.
I’m a fan of like practically any fandom you see represented at comic cons.
I’m actually standing in my living room right now and looking across at what I have, and it’s mostly superhero stuff. So, I guess I’d have to say [as far as superhero stuff goes], the Bruce Timm-animated DC universe would be my answer … as far as merch and story.
And if we’re talking animation, Bob’s Burgers is a really big one as well. That’s huge. I love it. … It took me a while to get into it, I watched the first couple of episodes when they actually aired and it kind of put me off, but then I kept hearing so much about it.
So I’m like ok, let me give it another shot, and then I haven’t looked back.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Summer 2019 Issue No. 4, click here to read more!
Photo: Mauricio Abril