Reflecting On Black History Month Illustrations


A timelapse of Diaz creating his Billie Holiday illustration.

My name is José Rubén Diaz Junior and I’m an illustrator for the kNOw Youth Media in Fresno, CA. I’ve been illustrating for practically all of my life and I have to give credit to Art Attack, a show I remember watching as a kid, for inspiring me. On the show they would demonstrate little crafts you could do at home and I remember feeling so inspired by them.

As I got older, I started noticing that my illustrations brought happiness and smiles to whoever saw them and that has been my motivation ever since. Knowing that my illustrations can bring joy to someone is the greatest feeling in the world. And now that I’m an illustrator at The kNOw, I was able to use that for Black History Month.

As you probably know, February is Black History Month, a month where famous and influential black members of society are recognized and celebrated. Back in January, Kody, our Program Manager with The kNOw, asked me if I would be interested in doing illustrations that celebrate famous and less well-known leaders in the African American community for Black History Month. I gladly accepted, and I’m glad I did.

Upon receiving the list of people to draw, I did immediately recognized some very well-known people like Barack Obama, Oprah and Jackie Robinson. But there were some names I had never heard of and I was curious to find out more about them. And I have to say, I’m so glad I did. People like George Washington Carver, who did so much in the field of agriculture even though he was born into slavery, showed me a side of history I never knew and I gained a new respect for all of these people I had never heard of before.

In terms of actually creating the illustrations, it’s pretty simple. First, I would look at the reference images that Kody had sent to me and picked one to base my illustration on. I usually go for the clearest one because I like to look at details and some of that can be lost if I use a blurry image.

Second, I make sure that the person’s face is clearly visible, because that is most important for the image I create. Their face. I also use the other images so that I can see what styles of hair and clothing they have. Using those images, I draw clothing that would fit their style and give them a hairstyle I think they would be most likely to have.

Lastly comes the coloring, which isn’t as hard as one might think. It’s really the shading/highlights which can be hard because you don’t want to over do any of them, you want to have the shade in the right place and matching highlights in the other parts. Once that’s done I try to give them a background color that will make then stand out, then I write their name and the years that they lived/were born.

In my case, it isn’t as hard for me to create these because I draw them digitally, which gives me access to tools that make it easier and time-saving.

One thing that I tried to do for each illustration was to pick one thing from their lives that really made them stand out and include that in my illustrations. For example, for the image of Charles Drew that I created, I included blood cells for his background because in his life, he made huge contributions to society by creating new methods of blood transfusions.

In general, I really enjoying illustrating people who contributed so much to society despite being in a society that treat them so poorly and looks down on them. Like I mentioned above, George Washington Carver is someone who I really came to admire as I read about his life. He was born a slave, then became free and went to on study agriculture. Eventually he went on to teach farmers about crop rotation so they did not destroy their soil and to create over 300 uses for the peanut. He did all of this knowing that the world around him didn’t respect him because of the color of his skin. His life teaches us so much about courage and about perseverance.

Now that the month of February is over, I have to say that I am very happy that I agreed to do this project. If I hadn’t, I honestly would not have learned about so many of these people who contributed so much to society. They did so much even though society didn’t give them any recognition or respect because of the color of their skin – but they never let that stop them. They had so much courage and I’m happy that I did this and showed our community everything they did for us. If I asked again to do this project again, I would gladly say yes.

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Ruben Diaz (he/him/his)
WHO IS HE? This is Ruben, he is a human. He is 16 human years. He goes to Central West High School, an education system school.

INTERESTING FACT: He knows how to code.

FEATURED AREA: Drawing, drawing, graphic design, comics, drawing.

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