“Iain Mccaig showed me how to draw , Brom showed me how to paint”
Karla is talking about her childhood memories of Puerto Rico, and the day that she became an artist. Whenever her father was “feeling lazy”, he’d take his daughter down to the local bakery on the Caribbean island and treat her. On one idle afternoon’s walk, Karla noticed a new store filled with the wonders of witches and warriors, announcing itself to the neighbourhood with a large painting that stopped her in her tracks.
“They had this giant Magic: The Gathering poster of Brom’s Desolation Angel in the window – this badass chick with crazy wings. It just looked so amazing,” says Karla, “and I remember my dad walking ahead, and I walked into the store. My dad didn’t worry about it. He was like, ‘Of course she’s in there, of course!’” The 13 year old got her first taste of illustration and was hooked.
Today, Karla’s as in-demand as Brom. It’s hard to pin her down for an interview, not because she’s cagey about her craft – Karla’s generous to a fault. It’s just there are only so many hours in the day. Scheduled chats at art events are postponed by a flurry of fans asking for advice, or her working on whatever epic piece she’s
got going. Skype interviews are delayed last minute with short, frantic notes: “Would it be possible to do this on Friday!? It’s 5am here and I’m pulling an all nighter on a Marvel film. I’ll be dead in an hour!!”
When I finally speak to Karla in her San Francisco studio, which she shares with Massive Black luminaries Wesley Burt and Kemp Remillard, she’s exhausted, rundown and feeling like crap. Having just returned from talking at Bobby Chiu’s Schoolism in Denver, Colorado, the artist is burnt out. Still recovering from a fever, it’s back to balancing film art at Marvel with her fine art painting and everincreasing workshops. The thinking behind this insane schedule is simple: “I work well with deadlines. If I don’t have a deadline I don’t do anything. So I reckon if I say yes to all these things, at least I’m getting stuff done.”
There’s order to this chaos. “Marvel’s my main job, working on titles like Doctor Strange, then on the side I do my own gallery work, and somewhere in the middle I work for Magic, or book covers. Now with all the workshops I’m doing, and all the travelling, it’s like, holy shit man! It’s nonstop.” As I write, Karla has a workshop planned in Bali, then she’s going to LA in February, followed by a talk in Seattle, then off to London and Berlin in April and March. “Oh, I might be in Shanghai next year at some point too.”
The pace was already picking up four years ago, working at Kabam Studios. She bagged her first Magic gig and the resulting painting Teysa: Envoy of Ghosts (see right) became her own Desolation Angel. Yet her fans only know a slither of her work: personal, book and card art. “My Marvel work and everything I did for ILM before that won’t be seen by the public until next year, or the year after. So I’m being contacted for these workshops for stuff I’ve done already, not for the films. When the films hit, then it’ll be really crazy!”
Gods and monsters
Creativity meant many things for Karla growing up. Her dad was a musician, her mum was a fashion designer, and her grandmother was a writer and painter with an envious collection of classically illustrated books. “I’d draw partly because my mum was drawing all the time. My dad was always playing music, so it was really normal for the family to have their own quiet time to do their own creative thing.”
Local Spanish and African folklore, and Puerto Rican myths and legends filled the artist’s mind. “I was taken to this crazy rainforest, El Yunque, and my parents would tell me these awesome stories from the Indian tribes and how their gods would be hidden in the mountain and all that really cool stuff. I guess it was also because I was kind of a solitary kid. My parents would move to places where there were lots of neighbourhood children, but they would fail miserably! I was always more comfortable drawing and painting, so they always had supplies for me.”
I was taken to this crazy rainforest and told awesome stories about gods hidden in mountains
Then there were games. To this day, breaking open a video game instruction book brings back floods of fond memories to Karla. “It’s like one of my favourite smells in the world. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the glue or something,” she laughs.
Zelda and Super Mario were always on, and when Final Fantasy VII came out, Karla started drawing human figures. “When I was a kid I was so in love with Sonic the Hedgehog that I made a 120-page comic book about Sonic going to Africa, because I was also into The Lion King. My mother has the comic and she threatens me (I don’t think she means it as a threat, I think she means it as a compliment) to release it online. And I’m like, ‘Mum, no! This isn’t something that would please me. This would suck.’”
Just do it – all!
In September this year, when French filmmaker and artist Loïc Zimmermann screened A Solitary Mann, his documentary on painter Jeremy Mann, the crowd saw a Karla cameo at a painting party. Bedecked in their finest threads, it was just another day for the San Fran art contingent. “I’ve always kept myself active in the San Francisco gallery scene, and Jeremy is one of my dearest friends. I also host The Monthly Fuck It All, where everyone just drinks. There’s no painting at that one.”
Karla stresses that she’s pushed by, and loves, her concept art, but her personal art is where she’s seen recent growth. “Early 2015 I did a drawing of this guy I’m dating, Joshua (see left), and during the creation something clicked. I felt really, really inspired and excited, because I could see my skill pushing somewhere new. It felt like this is a new place for me to explore, and it changed where I want to go in the next five to 10 years. I want to spend 50 per cent of my time on concept art, and the other 50 per cent on my fine art work that allows me to explore my thoughts, my skills and gives me a personal space.”
Karla has a talk called Do It All, where she identifies herself not as a concept artist or an illustrator, but as an artist, period. “I think there’s value in all kinds of things, it all goes hand in hand, it’s all to do with balance. God, I sound like such a hippy!”
Perhaps, but she’s echoing the bigger picture philosophy of another art hero of hers, and now a good friend, Iain McCaig. Discovering his Star Wars concepts at 16 was a thunderbolt for Karla. “I’d never seen drawing like that before, and it changed my perception of where I needed to go. Brom taught me about illustration and painting, while it was Iain who taught me about drawing.”
Skip forward a few years of working feverishly at her craft, and Karla’s making good with those early influences. But as the endless workshops attest, it’s her time to make her own impression on a new generation of artists.
I was so in love with Sonic the Hedgehog that I made a 120-page Sonic comic book
Bali Workshop “This was painted live at a demo in Bali. It was surreal to paint live for so many people. It really made me feel love for this visual language of ours. It’s truly universal and attracts so many wonderful people from all parts of the world.”
Entender “I was running out of time and needed to be efficient with my marks. With more time, I might have rendered out the freshness of it.”
Liliana, Heretical Healer “A sister piece to Liliana, Defiant Necromancer. It’s Liliana before her jump into darker worlds. She’s surrounded by omens and premonitions of her notso-innocent future.”