An illustrator not by design

Artist Iban Barrenetxea has gone from amateur to prize winner in just three years

One of Iban Barrenetxea's illustrations from the Brothers Grimm's 'Snow White,' published by Nórdica.
One of Iban Barrenetxea's illustrations from the Brothers Grimm's 'Snow White,' published by Nórdica.

In little more than three years Iban Barrenetxea has gone from being an anonymous graphic designer in his hometown of Elgoibar in Gipuzkoa to rubbing shoulders with the best in the world at collective exhibitions everywhere from Oxford to Japan -- all without leaving his own corner of the Basque Country.

He is exhausted from so much work -- almost 10 books in that short space of time -- and still struggling to get to grips with his success. The latest piece of good news came from the 90 booksellers who make up Club Kirico, who awarded him their prize for the best book of 2011. El cuento del carpintero (or, The carpenter's tale) recalls the classic folk stories of northern Europe: Once upon a time, it begins, there was a carpenter who was so, so good "that his tables never wobbled; more than that, they displayed such grace and such delicacy that when you looked at them out of the corner of one eye, they seemed to be dancing the minuet." Hearing of the fame of the cabinet-maker, the Baron von Bombus commissions him to make a wooden limb to replace the right arm he lost in the war. This small, 48-page book astonishes with Barrenetxea's exquisite and ironic drawings, which are full of minute details and sometimes spread over four pages.

Barrenetxea is an illustrator in fashion, but he wants to distance himself from labels. "Sometimes you can create a false feeling for having reached such visibility so soon. I hope to have a long career."

Basque illustrator Iban Barrenetxea.
Basque illustrator Iban Barrenetxea.

He says "soon" given that his rise has been meteoric since his illustrations started circulating on the internet. So much so that he didn't waste any time before quitting his job. "I love drawing, but graphic design seemed the most viable professional path. There is a lot of industry in Gipuzkoa and I dedicated 10 years to doing catalogues and, when I went home, sometimes I drew."

People loved the pictures he posted on his blog at and he realized that he was a natural illustrator. "They asked me where they could buy my books and I told them, 'I haven't published anything. These few drawings are the only things I have done'."

Among those who contacted him was publisher Arianna Squilloni, who commissioned him to illustrate El cazador y la ballena by Paloma Sánchez Ibarzábal. Since then he hasn't stopped: Bombástica Naturalis, Un panal de rica miel, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White...

What drove me to draw when I was little were Errol Flynn and pirate movies; they used to finish and I started drawing ships" 

Barrenetxea is convinced that a static image can convey as much as 3D. "Today there are some amazing movies and videogames, but you have to make a child discover the evocative power of books. A hundred years ago, books and illustrated magazines were tremendously popular. They were the biggest thing you could aspire to, a means of receiving stories. They have to go on being so."

He didn't begin drawing out of artistic obsession, but to tell stories. "What drove me to draw when I was little were Errol Flynn and pirate movies. They used to finish and I started drawing ships, the 7th Cavalry Regiment..."

Barrenetxea is a methodical worker who doesn't want to know about other projects once he starts something. He's just finished illustrating Charles Dickens' David Copperfield for Teide, the same publishing house that released his version of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. "If I illustrate Dickens, I only read things from the Victorian era. If I branch out, I get interested in other things."

He has no plans to leave Elgoibar, population 11,000 -- "I like peace and quiet." After all, with the internet and a phone, he is connected to publishers all over the world. Without even meeting the publisher, he has just released Por el color del trigo by Toño Malpica for the Mexican Economic Culture Fund and along with others given prizes at the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava - one of the most prestigious awards for children's books - his drawings will also travel to Japan.

"They are going to open a show in Oxford for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland and I will be alongside first-rank names such as [British author and illustrator] Anthony Browne," he says.

He doesn't want to shake things up, but he does have his own interpretations. "Snow White belongs to the popular imagination and what comes out of me is something traditional. If I draw the dwarves returning home, it might recall the traditional Disney image and that's great! It's like with Alice. I think I left behind John Tenniel's illustrations and did it my own way."

Barrenetxea has been working at a dizzying pace and admits he needs a break. "I haven't had time to see where I have been going. I think I have evolved quite a lot, but I'm afraid of losing the quality if I draw so much. I like to do a lot of research and I spend a lot time on that. There are people who say they write for themselves and not for others. But doing that is very important to me."

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