One of the biggest challenges that young illustrators face when they’re first starting out is learning to develop a visual language that’s uniquely their own—not just a reflection of their client’s aesthetic. This was the case for Barcelona-based illustrator Cristina Daura. After graduating from Escola d’Art i Disseny a Barcelona, with a semester spent studying abroad at Maryland Institute College of Art, she made a conscious decision to shift her focus away from jobs that paid the bills but failed to help her define her voice as an illustrator.

Cristina Daura, illustration for Italian band Lame

Daura instead returned to her first love for inspiration, graphic novels, applying their bold lines and sequential imagery to create illustrations with strong storylines. “I’ve found that there’s a narrative theme that runs through my work, partially because I’m always trying to unite my illustrations with the structure and style of comic books,” she says.

Her strategy has paid off; after posting her distinctive imagery online—and receiving a few helpful features from the crew at It’s Nice That—art directors from publishers like the New York Times and Penguin Books starting commissioning her for editorial work.

Daura explains that her process always begins by dividing her compositions into multiple panels, allowing the story to unfold across the page from various points of view. A series of esoteric objects routinely appear in her work, like a doorway that is sometimes open, sometimes closed, and sometimes engulfed in smoke and flames. Though the origins of Daura’s surreal visual lexicon stem from childhood memories, overheard conversations, and inside jokes among friends, the archetypal nature of the imagery allows viewers to apply their own meaning to the work in the same way one interprets symbols in a dream.

True to her comic book roots, Daura also populates her illustrations with a cast of recurring characters: a black cat, a horse, and a dark-haired mystery girl whose face is always obscured. “The majority of my illustrations are dedicated to specific people in my life,” she says, “they just don’t always know it.” The girl she so often depicts is something of an illustrative everywoman; a composite of Daura’s friends, Daura herself, and at other times someone that Daura has yet to meet.

 

When the girl appears behind a smiley mask she is all of us hiding our true selves beneath the external personas we don everyday. When she is riding a horse, she is a symbol of empowerment, channeling the confidence of the girls on the polo team from the illustrator’s school days past. “If my drawing is dedicated to a friend, I always look for objects that relate back to that shared story,” Daura says, “so it kind of continues the memory for us. At the same time, I try to choose images that can be relatable to anyone, so they can create their own stories out of my work.”

Anyone can make art that means something to them personally, but it’s a testament to Daura’s skill as a visual storyteller that the symbols from her own history so easily translate into arresting illustrations with universal themes.