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Making Portraits Personal with Guest Contributor John Parra

A stylized, vibrantly colored drawing of a young girl lying on an orange rug over a wooden floor in a white shirt and blue skirt--clearly Frida Kahlo from her unibrow--drawing pictures of various animals like monkeys and dogs on a sheet of paper. Other drawings of animals litter the floor, and she is also surrounded by plants, flowers, a camera, a pile of books, and an alarm clock.

An illustration by John Parra of young Frida Kahlo drawing animals in her home

Have you ever looked at a portrait by a well-known artist? Perhaps a painting by van Gogh or Rembrandt? You may have noticed that there was something special about these artworks. Artists can use details to help portraits tell us more about the person being painted, drawn, or sculpted than what meets the eye. These details can tell us stories about personality, emotion, history, culture, and more.

Hello, my name is John Parra and I am a children's book illustrator. Many of my illustrated picture books are about real people. One special book I would like to share is titled Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown. It is a story that celebrates the life, work, and many pets of the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Let me share with you some ideas I considered and steps I took to create my portraits of Frida.

Left: the book cover for Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos. A young Frida Kahlo stands at an easel which displays the title and author and illustrator credits of the book. She holds a paint pallette and is surrounded by plants and animals including parrots, deer, and dogs. Right: An illustration of Frida Kahlo seated in front of an empty canvas with her back turned to the viewer She holds a paintbrush to the canvas. Two small animals are at either side and an orange plant grows from a planter to the right of the canvas.

Book cover and illustration from Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos

I looked to many inspirations to help me decide on the best way to create the art for this book. The first step I took was to examine pictures from Frida's life: family, home, history, clothes, style, school, pets, and of course Frida's paintings and drawings. She was known for her many personal and introspective self-portraits that celebrated her Indigenous culture.

Artists make all sorts of choices when they are creating an image. My goal was to be as thorough as possible so that any reader familiar with Frida's life and the places where she lived and worked would recognize my art as accurate in its presentation of the real people, places, and things. I also wanted to make sure the book was fun and accessible for readers of all ages. The author Monica Brown and I spoke about the importance of the color blue to the story. Frida's home in Mexico was painted a bright shade of blue, and is even known as La Casa Azul, or "The Blue House." Because blue was such a meaningful color to Frida Kahlo, and her family, I decided to use Azurite Blue paint for her home and other details, like objects and clothing, throughout the story.

A rough pencil sketch of Frida Kahlo on two sheets of paper.  Train cars and a flame are tucked under her left arm and her right arm is raised with a brush in her hand. A skeleton waves from beneath one train car. On the left page, an Eagle holds a banner which flows across and behind her raised hand.

A preparatory sketch of an illustration from the book. Frida Kahlo often painted herself surrounded by things that were on her mind. My portrait of her includes a factory, train cars, skeletons, flames and more

Often, I am asked, "How do you make your art?" Below are steps showing my process as I paint a page from the Frida book. I like to work with acrylic paints on board prepared with a special white paint called gesso. After adding multiple foundational layers of color, I use sandpaper to sand into the paint to give it an old worn-out look for the background. Then I begin transferring the sketch to the board, masking out shapes with tape, and painting all the various elements. As the characters and scene take shape, the final task is to add shading and detail to the art. I try to break everything down into small steps to accomplish the work. Each painting may take up to a week and a finished illustrated book takes me anywhere between six to eight months to complete.

A painting of Frida Kahlo scene in six steps of its creation process, organized into two rows of three images each. In the first image, a dark blue background is painted over a wider light blue background. In the final image, Frida Kahlo is shown in full color.  Train cars and a flame are tucked under her left arm and her right arm is raised with a brush in her hand. A skeleton waves from beneath one train car. On the left page, an Eagle holds a banner which flows across and behind her raised hand.

When you look at the painting step by step, you can see how each layer was an opportunity to add style to the portrait

As an artist, being prepared is an important part of the process. I always make sure my paints, brushes, and boards are ready to go in my workspace. Do you have a special place in your home where you like to create art?

A small girl applies paint to a painting in process of Frida Kahlo. Bits of tape cover parts of the painting with splotches of color over them. illustrated pictures frame on either side of the photograph.

The artist and his step-granddaughter Sophie have a special area in their home where they like to make art

Remember: artists are always on the lookout for ideas. Perhaps it will come from a family trip, a nature hike, or a visit to a museum. It could come from a book you read or a favorite piece of music, or perhaps from someone you know or admire. It could even come from you.

A hand holds a copy of the book "Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos" in front of the entrance of "the blue house" La Casa Azul. Over the red doorway of the building read the words "Museo Frida Kahlo" in tile.

Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos in front of Frida Kahlo's home, La Casa Azul, in Mexico City

What details would you include in your own self-portrait? What art supplies will you use—brushes, pencils, something else? Will you include your favorite colors? It's up to you as the artist... let's see some drawings! Send your completed self-portrait to for a chance to be featured on our site.

All illustrations © 2017 John Parra, courtesy of NorthSouth Books, Inc

Photos courtesy of Matt Parra and John Parra

Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies

An illustration of Frida Kahlo. She holds a paintbrush in her right hand and a ribbon flows down from her hair across her left hand and outward. She is surrounded by butterflies, monkeys, cats, birds, insects, and a goat.

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