Anatomy of a Newsweek Cover: Artist Diego Patiño on His Martin Luther King Jr. Illustration

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Newsweek

For this week’s cover story, Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald explores the bitter battle over Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Squabbles among the adult children of a famous patriarch are common, but the rancorous disputes of the King siblings—most of them over lucrative licensing deals for their father’s words and image—are rending family ties and friendships forged during some of the most harrowing battles of the civil rights movement.

Diego Patiño is responsible for the stunning MLK portrait accompanying the article. (You may recognize the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist’s bold style from recent Newsweek articles on the $500,000,000 Cyber-Heist and Mission Creep.) We spoke to Patiño about sifting through MLK imagery, drawing from his own neurosis and the famous weirdos he most enjoys illustrating.

Can you tell me about your background? Did you go to school for illustration or are you self-taught?

I guess I’m a self-taught illustrator, which is not, by any means, a real virtue. As a matter of fact, it may be an embarrassing way to expose how technically impaired I am in a lot of areas. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of art directors using sock puppets while trying to explain to me how the printing process that occurs after I’ve submitted my files is not a form of black magic. (Who would have thought!)  

Who and what are you inspired by? What cultural or historical figure have you most enjoyed illustrating? What do you think makes a good portrait, aside from a general likeness?

I’ve tried everything in the past—muses, personal heroes, museums and cities, substance abuse, my mother—and nothing has proven to be more inspiring than my clients’ deadlines, as they force you to deal with your own neurosis in the same way a Russian roulette game would: reducing your chances to all or nothing, to “I better pull this s**t through or I’ll crash.” It’s very freeing!

Portraying the Marquis de Sade for [Colombian magazine] El Malpensante was a lot of fun. He was a real character, more Voltaire’s Candide than Geoffrey Rush in real life and a total weirdo. Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a thrill to do too. That was a personal work. I love his line of thought, and his jazz band was pretty amazing too. He was a great man that certainly deserves more recognition.

As with any other good illustration, a good portrait must tell a story and have a twist, a Bruce-Willis-Is-Dead sort of thing to it. Likeness is almost secondary to me. I think the best portraits should operate as reminders of a person’s character rather than as mirrors of their physiognomy. Therein lies the difference to me between, say, Hanoch Piven, and the guy who draw cartoons at the mall.

I read you do illustrations for Rolling Stone and National Geographic. Where else has your work been featured?

I’ve been working with Rolling Stone Australia for over three years now. Every month we do something called “My Record Collection Series,” in which a guest musician discusses their favorite albums, and I create a portrait based on their answers and personality. It’s a lot of fun—you get to know a lot about these guys. Who would have thought Alice Cooper was such a sucker for the West Side Story soundtrack?

I have never worked with NatGeo, but when they interviewed Emily Anthes in regards to her amazing book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, they used a simplified version of the illustration I did for the book cover to accompany the article.

I’m really proud of that one. It was piece that connected very well with people, to a point where they’re using it in some of the international editions, including the British, the German and the Hungarian.

What’s your typical design process like? What tools do you use for your illustrations?

In many ways, the design process, it’s like putting together the pieces of a crime that hasn’t occurred yet. You collect clues and try to gather as much information as possible. In that sense, the next step, which is sketching, is like preparing some preliminary conclusions. I present these ideas to my editors and art directors, and depending on their comments I proceed to scan and give them shape in the computer. I work with a digital pen, using a set of brushes I’ve created in the past.

It’s also indispensable for me to create the proper working conditions so I can fully focus on my subject: handpick a playlist that would be a sort of soundtrack for each gig; switching from sleeping in a bed to sleeping in a couch; not leaving the house for a while and forgetting there’s a world out there. It may not sound like it, but it’s a very intense and almost painful process that could consume a lot of your life; it’s very personal to me and a lot of fun when you’re a masochist at heart.

What went into your Martin Luther King Jr. cover? There’s so much material around MLK to draw from. Was there a specific aspect of his life, a moment or a quote that directly informed your depiction of him?

I had access to a number of really powerful MLK imagery: a bundle of frozen memories—eventually shattered by madness—from his younger days, hanging with his family, the community and other leaders. The pictures of him riding with his children in their station wagon are particularly touching. The main story, however, focuses on what happened in the shadow of his legacy, so in that sense this illustration in particular had to evoke a sense of monumentality and the implications of being at its mercy. There’s a vast shadow covering most of the left side of his head, and there’s a purpose to that: What’s taking place in these dark corners where nobody from the outside is allowed to peek? Priest + Grace, Newsweek’s contributing design team, wanted something very clean and overwhelming, and that’s what I went after.

Anything else you’d like to share with Newsweek’s readers?

Sure! This one will give away, but I squeak when I walk and make a lot less sense in person. I also glow in the dark and may or may not have a book and a tarot coming their way.

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