The Sculptor Graphics Artist
Text: Javier Errea Múgica, President of SND-E
Photos: Aydin Kudu, Becky Hale, Fernando G. Baptista.
One day, the mother of Fernando G. Baptista opened the refrigerator of her home in the Begoña neighborhood of Bilbao and nearly died of shock: tucked amid the food was a horrible, hairy mask! “It was the head of Yoda, the Jedi Grand Master from Star Wars, which I had become a big fan of. I put it there so the clay wouldn’t dry out,” Fernando confesses, thirty years later. And he laughingly adds: “The hair was my grandmother’s, which I had snipped so I could glue it onto the head and make it seem more realistic”.
Fernando hasn’t changed a bit; whether in Bilbao or Washington D.C., always Fernando.
As a kid, he preferred to stay home to work on his models: he built miniature sets and even customized —as they say nowadays— the classic “Madelmán” articulated action-figures that were the play-time companions of an entire generation of Spanish children from 1968 to 1983. “I made outfits for them. I built weapons for them, based on whatever films I had seen… I spent more time making things for them than playing with them”. As an adult, he has continued building models.
First, a squid from the unfathomable depths for El Correo and now Moai statues from Easter Island or ancient temples such as the Göbekli in Turkey.
No matter the assignment, he will create a model of it for National Geographic and its millions of readers.
“I wanted to be a comic book illustrator or a create characters with special effects for films… Until, by chance, I discovered infographics where I could realize all those dreams. And I’m still at it.”
The Accidental Graphics Artist
At 49 years old Fernando G. Baptista (born in Bilbao in 1965) is still physically the same: lean and sinewy. He goes swimming in pools around the world. The same rounded head, shiny and bald, like a cue ball.
The same penetrating eyes behind heavy-framed glasses. His inveterate black clothes, his tight-fitting t-shirts. Fernando and his customary appearance of a bald “Madelmán” action figure. And a face that looks like he’s been fully focused all day. Nervous. Vigilant. Always learning, learning. As if he’s still not over the shock of that phone call from National Geographic.
The thing is that it all happened just like that, a bit by accident, like that phone call. Without big plans or ambitions. Without a lot of resources at his disposal, other than his incredible talent. Dreamily. Discretely. Working it. Just like him. Fernando is a typical middle-class boy from Bilbao of the Nineteen-sixties and Seventies. In the family apartment —in the Indautxu neighborhood until he was six and afterwards, as we mentioned before, in Begoña— lived three generations: grandparents, parents and children. The household was not very typical, however, as both his mother and father worked from home, at a time in Spain when this was not common. His father was a draftsman, always surrounded by diagrams, tracing paper and folding rulers. His mother ran a bookstore. “I loved to see my dad in the midst of all his things.
The rulers he used seemed like the arms of robot to me. He kept everything very clean and organized. He drew excellently, and he keeps at it even now. He taught me how to use a dip pen with India ink. I would go meet my mom when she would finish up at work. At the bookshop I would get all sorts of presents: pencils, notebooks, Christmas figurines… On Fridays, every Friday, after school, I would go straight to the kiosk and buy comic books. There wasn’t the wide variety there is today, but you can imagine… I’ve saved some of those comics like they’re rare treasures,” he reminisces.
He was not an outstanding student at school, but he was the best at drawing. He spent his time doing just that, drawing. It didn’t matter to him if he was in Art Class or Math. He filled his textbooks with all sorts of characters, creating adventures. His teachers scolded him many times. At night and on weekends he would read and re-read his comics and copy them, for hours on end. He would leaf through the art books in the
family library or an illustrated encyclopedia showing the inner workings of things. He learned about anatomy by scrutinizing Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan. He idolized superheroes from Spain and around the world: ‘el Jabato’, ‘el Corsario de Hierro’, Green Lantern, Ironman, Spiderman. He memorized all of them. Hespent hours with them. “I liked it whenever I got sick because mom would bring home more comic books.”
Soon he began inventing his own stories and, almost without realizing it, recreating the characters he liked best from his favorite movies. An ET, a gremlin, a chimp from The Planet of the Apes, that hairy Yoda…
Fashions, Styles And Limits
In the hands of Ondarra, Zarracina and Baptista El Correo soon made a name for itself on the Spanish press and, furthermore, carved out a space in international infographic journalism. It began competing with The New York Times, with Clarín, with The Guardian…
I don’t believe I’m wrong or exaggerating if I say that Fernando’s stamp, his hand at drawing, was key to this acclaim. He explains it this way: “When I got to El Correo, the PC was king. Everything was done
on computer. Photographs weren’t taken, they were copied. We had a fixed page on Sundays devoted to Science and there I put my first handmade drawing, made with India ink. Sometime later, I did one in pencil.
I felt that drawings done by hand had a quality and subtlety that were very hard to achieve on computer.
I used one, of course, to draw some parts and print them blown up, but I preferred to later redo them all pen and pencil before scanning them and refining them on PhotoShop. Another factor was speed.
Drawing by hand is much faster than using computer.
That allowed us to do larger presentations on breaking news. That process became called by some the ‘Correo style’, which, in reality, meant getting the most out of each technique: the richness of a hand drawn picture and the precision of the computer. The awards were an incentive, but we always kept making graphics that we liked. Some on the staff were surprised by these awards. For many there, we were
just the illustrators, the ‘dibus’ (short for dibujantes in Spanish). The truth is that without the room and freedom that the editors gave us, it would have been impossible to win those awards”.
We have spoken all the while about accidents of fate.
I do not believe, however, that term applies to National Geographic noticing Fernando. There was a logic to that telephone call, for the interest of the magazine for this guy from Bilbao, which had to do with their concept —more human— of illustrating information.
National Geographic is a society that creates a publication dedicated since its beginning to the discovery and reverential respect for the planet. Photography and maps are the mark of its identity. Also, informative graphics. More figurative than conceptual, to use a pictorial phrase. No other place could have been a better fit for the illustrator and sculptor Fernando G. Baptista, who admits having some doubts about the fad of visualizing data and the excessive complexity in many graphics, including some award winning ones. Three decades after making models of the characters from The Planet of the Apes, the first graphic by Fernando in National Geographic was one on the behavior of chimpanzees…. Was that an accident?
Diagrammical and illustrated graphics: our man from Bilbao truly enjoys them. Much more than statistics or databases. It isn’t that Fernando depreciates visualizations, so much in fashion today. But he is concerned about what he considers an “avalanche of information”.
“The Internet has tons of data. Anything you look for is there. It is also true that along with of this wealth of information is great deal of noise. Sometimes it is hard to find reliable data. For this reason at National Geographic the work of the assigned researcher and later, the fact-checking and rewriting is so vital. But, well, talk about quantities… It’s a hard reality, but a reader cannot absorb that much information, it isn’t possible. We have data to back this up: the average reader of National Geographic spends from one to three minutes looking at an animated graphic. Videos longer than one minute often are not watched to the end. Our work has to make things clear. However, we see an increasing amount of graphics full of data, highly complex visualizations, which are impressive, to be sure. But it’s not clear to me whether these have made for the readers or for the satisfaction of the graphics artists making them. I still remember when someone at El Correo ask us to make graphics with circles, circles no matter what. I don’t have anything against circles, but the old-fashioned bar charts are much easier to comprehend. I would like to know how many of these complex graphics that we see have been reader-tested. At National Geographic, we create diagrammical and also data-driven graphics, but we screen all of these in front of many people before they are published. I often test them on my wife and my friends outside the magazine. And it’s always surprising. I say that because frequently they do not understand what we are trying to explain. And, you know, that’s very frustrating. It makes me think: aren’t we making things too complicated? Simplicity is the key. A graphic must always be quickly understood. If it’s not comprehensible, the graphic is a failure. I am convinced that we graphics artists are confusing ourselves: we always wind up adding more information than necessary to our graphics”.