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How to become a comet: The journey as an illustrator of Estela Cen

Profile picture of the mexican illustrator Estela Cen, alias Cometa Estelar

Some decades ago, on the Peninsula of Yucatan, a young woman had to make the biggest choice of her life: what career to study. She had only one certainty back then: she wanted to draw, to create characters, landscapes, worlds. She chose a path that makes us happy and lucky since it led her to Pepperberry Publishing, where she would become the illustrator behind Bodies of Sand, our upcoming production. And since we think she is an actual comet, we invite you to see her shine.

Illustration 101: The first steps to becoming an illustrator

Choosing a career is hard, but it is harder if you don’t know what you want to do. Estela always knew what she wanted; the problem was that she didn’t know if there was a career in that. When she had to choose, the options were limited, and researching was challenging: the internet was still a starting thing; she remembers the days when connecting it caused the phone to stop working. Something she was sure of was that she didn’t want to study visual arts because she already knew what that environment was like in the city. Among all the options, she decided to enroll in graphic design, which was closest to what she wanted to do.

During her time in college, she finally found out the name of what she wanted to do, illustrating, and she started to practice on her own. The portfolio she started found a house thanks to an assignment in class, she was asked to create her own brand.

Cometa Estelar: a way to be seen

Curvy bodies, all kinds of colorful characters, non-hegemonic physical traits, commissions, and fanarts of her favorite shows, that’s what you can find when you scroll through the Instagram account of Cometa Estelar (Stellar Comet). This is the brand Estela decided to keep since college; she says that there are people who don’t even know her name and call her Cometa. The brand became a serious project for her the day she decided to make it her illustrator account. Before that, she had done not only illustrations but also graphic design, so the account was already a portfolio, but it wasn’t as defined as it is today.

Thanks to her portfolio she was able to start working on illustration projects; at first most of them were small, but she took all the projects she could. In this way, she started making a name for herself in the city, and this motivated her to keep doing illustrations, learning, and improving her skills. Thanks to all the efforts she has made, she has been asked to make murals for campaigns, and she is well known when she goes to events in the city

Illustrating in Merida? What? Like is hard?

Being an artist is not easy anywhere, but when Estela was starting, people in Merida used to call the illustrations “drawings”. Not knowing about illustration, about its process and all the work behind it is a problem artists must deal with, and it affects even their incomes. The joy that illustration gives her is so big that she never stopped despite all the bad experiences. Because at the beginning of her career, when there were just a few illustrators, people used to want their work almost for free; it all seemed an effortless activity for them.

That’s why Estela had to find steady jobs as a designer in different companies for a while to sustain herself. But since these works weren’t enough to make her feel fulfilled, she would take all the time she could to keep going on with her solo project. And even though mixing both activities was exhausting, she didn’t stop because she was determined to reach the point in life at which she could become solely an illustrator.

Character design of Tletl,a possum from the graphic novel Bodies of sand
Estela's character design of Tletl, a possum from the graphic novel Bodies of sand

The big jump: Pepperberry Publishing enters the chat

Before joining Pepperberry, Estela had one thing in mind: to stop working as a designer. She felt ready to take that step after the rejection of a project she wanted to be a part of. In this project, she was supposed to be a concept artist for a short film that was going to be sent to a film festival; she sent the portfolio, which she prepared the best she could. She passed the first filter, which made her picture herself not having to be a designer anymore; sadly, the art director didn’t choose her, but the seed was planted, she knew the moment to leave behind the profession as a designer had arrived.

It was at that moment that the job opening in Pepperberry appeared. After the first interview Estela was offered a designer position because she didn’t have enough English proficiency, and she could have taken it, but her goal was set so she rejected it. It was the best decision because her talent was so big that the producer and the project manager decided not to let her go: the language barrier could be solved in other ways.

An illustrator’s gotta do, what an illustrator’s gotta do

Being an illustrator is being a communicator. Because, according to Estela an illustrator is someone who gives a message through a visual representation. But, unlike other forms of art, this should not be interpretative, it should be clear. Maybe this is the reason why, of all the possible branches, such as marketing, posters, packaging, to name a few, what Estela likes the most are the ones that are needed to create graphic narratives; concept art, character development, worldbuilding. In those departments her specialty is color because she dares to play with it, it is what gives her the biggest joy.

One can look at Estela’s work and understand its message just by the colors she uses; because with them she sets the tone of the scenes, she gives personality to the characters, she lets you know what kind of story you are about to embark on. If you look at her Instagram account again, you’ll understand she likes vibrant stories, full of magic, of fantasy, and that will give you the first clue of why she was the perfect fit to our Bodies of Sand saga. But Estela’s style is not the main reason for her to become the artist behind the project; she feels identify with the story itself because it talks about people like her: fighters that endure because they have strong beliefs.

Estela loves that the characters in Bodies of Sand are from Latin America because she knows that, historically, graphic narratives have had mostly hegemonic protagonists, and she is tired of that. In her opinion, even when some stories are set in less common locations, the characters’ traits tend to belong to canons that are unreal. So, when she read the story, she gladly jumped into the project because she could already picture the kind of characters she would be able to create. If you, like her, like seeing multicultural and diverse stories, we can assure you that Bodies of Sand: Where Days Repeat Endlessly will become one of your favorite graphic novels from 2024.

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