Katty Huertas adopts a painterly approach for her editorial illustrations

The illustrator, who creates work for a big list of clients, talks about how she got started, her creative process, and why she’ll always make time to add detail

Born in Colombia and now based in Washington DC, it was during Katty Huertas’ undergrad that she began experimenting with different mediums such as ceramics, animation, art and digital drawing. “I got a small graphic tablet and started testing it with the software that came with it, nothing too advanced,” she says. “I wasn’t seeing this as a step towards illustration but rather as a new art tool.” 

At that time it was the golden age of Tumblr and Flickr and everything Huertas created she posted to her accounts on those sites. Then one day her first editorial commission came through out of the blue, to create a series of illustrations for the now-defunct Lenny Letter (originally created by Lena Dunham and Jennifer Konner). “I was still in school and since I was a fan of the newsletter I was super excited because they also wanted to pay me. I remember thinking: ‘I’d do this for free!’ I definitely don’t think like that anymore,” remembers Huertas.

That was my first dive into editorial illustration. I kept illustrating for them frequently until it shut down and got some clients here and there thanks to that exposure, but since I didn’t know how the business side of it worked or how to market myself, my clients were few and far between.” 

Top: How to keep your cool in high-stress situations, Harvard Business Review. Above: Remaking the Grade, CEN magazine. All images: Katty Huertas

Since then, Huertas has gotten more savvy and now has a regular slew of clients, often creating work for the Washington Post, New York Times, NBC Today and Wired among many others. On top of illustration, Huertas also works across animation and graphic design to create some variety between her projects.

I can get bored very easily so I like to be jumping around projects and mediums. Because of this, I’m always looking to expand my toolkit even if I don’t always succeed at it,” she explains. “I once tried to learn creative coding since I wanted to make more interactive work and realised it wasn’t for me. I started experimenting with animation because I used to wonder how my paintings and illustrations would look if they could move. While it takes a lot of time if you can draw you can probably animate frame-by-frame, which is the type of animation I like the most.”

Pandemic anniversary, The Washington Post magazine
Untracking a heritage of hate, the New York Times

Huertas’ illustration style is figurative, delicate and full of detail and though she creates her editorial work digitally, she’s adopted a painterly aesthetic. “I’m also inspired by the vibrancy of where I grew up and have always been a ‘more is more’ type of person,” she says. “I want to translate that into my work, which is why my work is often filled to the max.”

The illustrator enjoys the fast pace of editorial work, often finishing a piece two days after receiving the brief and then seeing it in print or online only days later. “I also like how there’s not a specific theme you’re working with and that you can get to learn about different areas like science, politics, arts and culture, or technology,” Huertas says. “My favourite briefs are the ones that allow me to create surreal spaces but make them somewhat believable thanks to the execution. If an assignment is just asking to recreate a photo or a place with no ‘magic’ in it then it’s not as fun for me. I also love when the art director gives me free rein to have fun, at least in the sketching phase.” 

Life under occupation, the New York Times
Ode to the Paleta, Texas Monthly

Huertas’ creative process starts by reading through the brief several times and taking notes, then going onto research if it’s on a topic she’s not familiar with. “I then make super rough stick-figure-like thumbnails just so I don’t forget my ideas, and try to scribble some words with those since it has happened before that when I look at them again I can’t remember what they were about,” she explains. “I try for these to be interesting compositionally but also somewhat bending reality. For example, it could be a tiny person with a giant pencil or syringes growing flowers out of their needles.”

After that she takes three of those ideas and turns then into fully-formed line sketches. Then, after one gets approved, she starts by blocking shapes with the last step adding the fine details – this where Huertas is most in her element.

Science News magazine
The Inauguration, the Washington Post magazine

“I could spend hours just drawing hair or adding highlights to a thing most people won’t even notice,” she says. “I always try to give myself a couple of hours between finishing and sending a piece since time can give you perspective and allow you to see if something is off.” 

In her personal work Huertas often explores identity, and when working for a client she still likes to incorporate some of that where she can. “I also try to be inclusive every time I illustrate characters to try and balance the lack of representation in what we see out there,” she says. “And I want people to slow down and get lost in the details, to bring a sense of magic to the everyday.” 

Facetiming psychics, Today