Before settling down to work, Milan-based Lorenzo Gritti always begins by doodling faces. “I can’t start anything without warming up with free drawing first,” the illustrator explains. He’ll copy old photographs he’s found in junk shops and car boot sales, portraits of smiling women from the ’50s with pillbox hats, or tall, solemn men in WWII army uniform (Gritti shared some examples with us, below). After this warm-up exercise, an atmosphere of stilled time tends to infuse whatever commissioned work he moves onto next; recently, these forgotten faces have lived second lives in Gritti’s illustrations for the likes of The New York Observer and NPR.

Mysterious old pictures aren’t the only things that inform Gritti’s approach and style. When he’s hunting through flea markets with his pet dog (who often figures in Gritti’s pieces, usually wearing a hat), the illustrator keeps an eye out for comic books penned by Jack Kirby. A love of ’60s-era comics explains not only the rough texture of his drawings, but also his fixation with creating big-boned versions of Marvel’s notorious superheroes. Loose portraits of Batman, Captain America, and Spiderman fill Gritti’s portfolio of personal work, combining referential pop-art whimsy with child-like charm.

Gritti starts with a face when he begins each composition, and from there everything else—context, meaning, message—unravels. He begins by sketching the eyes, mouth, nose, and chin on the screen, mixing his own handmade brushes with the programs’ digital ones.

Next comes color. Gritti selects matching tones and layers them on top of one another to create different hues. “The overlapping process is fundamental,” he asserts. “Every layer has to interact with one another.” Gritti also layers different textures produced by his various brushes in order to create new graphic patterns. His layering process is both conceptual and technical. Not only does Gritti mix together strokes and colors, he also layers visual history and reference points. Peer close into the faces of his still, cartoonish characters, and you might spy eyes that once belonged to a man from a fading vintage photograph, or a chin shaped after a superhero in an iconic Kirby comic.