Painter and illustrator Alejandra Caballero brings us magical tidings with the strokes of a paintbrush. Her artworks brim with whimsy and nostalgia, filled with otherworldly characters and the odd cat or bunny. Indeed, stumbling across Alejandra’s artistry is like taking a tumble down the rabbit hole. You become all at once lost and inspired in another fantastical world of pure imagination.
Living in Mexico City, Alejandra Caballero draws upon the enchantment of the land. She refers to her shamanic roots, inspired by ancestral fables to weave together not just beautiful but symbolic paintings. Often, Alejandra Caballero paints mystical women who seem to contain resonating energies of clairvoyant power. This is all translated onto the canvas with the medium of gouache, which Alejandra finds is key to achieving her clouded, yet vivid, washes of colour. It’s just another ingredient of Alejandra’s artistic alchemy to conjure up her creative musings.
Luckily for us, Alejandra Caballero has invited us behind the curtain so we can get to know her spellcraft a little bit better.
In times of happiness and sadness, these are the themes that best suit my soul and I don’t think that will ever change.
I think we artists can be very hard on ourselves, we know how hard it is to make a living out of art, and so we always feel like we need to be doing more. Artists are hard workers, but these are hard times for everyone and we should take is easy too.
When and why did you decide to become an artist?
Since I was little you could always find me drawing and painting, but when the time came to choose a path, in the beginning, I wasn’t very confident in my skills and I went on to study graphic design. But I never stopped pursuing art in my free time and finally, I realized that I needed to give it all instead of just pushing on finishing another career that just didn’t suit me. In 2016, I decided to start studying visual arts in Mexico City and finally had more time to focus on my true passion.
Of course, art school, at least in my country, is not ideal for a painter of my style, but I did learn a lot about how to express my concepts and ideas into the artwork. I’ve always been self-taught in painting so I just had to keep pushing and keep learning on my own, and it is a process that never ends and I find so much pleasure in it.
How have your days been since COVID-19 isolation? Uninspiring or more inspiring than ever?
To be honest, I’ve always been a homebody, but this situation is different. Life seems very dystopic these days, and the future seems unclear, but having work to do and deadlines, is something that is helping me keep centered.
Some days I wake up very inspired to work and I make myself a cup of coffee, and start working as I usually would, making the day go by very smoothly. Other days, It’s harder, and there’s no motivation to be found. On those days, I try to be gentler with myself since we are living extraordinary circumstances we shouldn’t try to force or brainwash ourselves into thinking that we are being lazy if we are not having a productive day. I think we artists can be very hard on ourselves, we know how hard it is to make a living out of art, and so we always feel like we need to be doing more. Artists are hard workers, but these are hard times for everyone and we should take is easy too.
The constant feed of bad news and also the lack of freedom and the fear that everyone is experiencing can be very anxiety-inducing. Surprisingly, all that is happening right now also made me more focused on a series of paintings I’ve been working on that dive a little into the themes of media control and subjects that seem to hit home now more than ever, and that is keeping me busy too.
You tend to paint a lot of cats. Do you have any feline companions?
Yes! her name is Mina, and she is my muse. I’ve always had a fascination with cats, but never had the chance of having a feline companion until Mina!
To me cats seem to be highly superior spiritual beings, they can be great masters. They are so beautiful to behold. In fact, my Instagram name (pangurban) and my artistic name in many instances are based on a poem by a medieval Irish monk, who wrote it about his cat, Pangur Bán, and in which he compares his scholar doings, paintings, and writings, to the ones of his cat, and how he is the perfect companion. So, you see, I do find cats to be very inspiring.
Pick your poison: landscapes or portraits?
On that note, what is your favourite subject to paint?
There are two sides that my work focuses on; a sense of liberty found in the realm of imagination and hidden messages that can be found in the mythical and the magical realms. And the other side, which delves into the harsher realities of our days, the mechanisms of technological control that have us creating fake personas, and that in many ways is becoming a controlling factor in our lives and our psyches. On both subject matters, I think that the female figure is always something that inspires me greatly. Women have this liquid quality that can reflect a lot on the mood that I am at while painting, and the messages I am trying to transmit.
Do you prefer working on small scale or large scale works?
I usually prefer working on a smaller scale. I use gouache a lot, and on a larger scale it just doesn’t work for me, but I’m starting to experiment with oils in larger canvases and I’m really enjoying it! I think I’m slowly learning to love the larger scale, but my love for smaller paintings will always win.
When I go to museums, more often than not, the small paintings are the ones that draw my attention more than the larger ones, there’s something about the details, the coziness, and intimacy about small paintings that to me is very special.
‘The Magician’ reminds me of tarot cards. Talk me through the inspiration behind this piece.
I wanted to do a series inspired by the Major Arcana. When I have the chance I would love to do a full tarot deck, but in the meantime, I couldn’t contain myself from working on some pieces inspired by the archetypes of the tarot.
I read a lot about Jungian interpretations of the tarot, and I’m of the idea that archetypes, like the ones portrayed in the Tarot, can help us navigate more clearly our subconscious minds.
You also painted a zodiac series. Do you consider yourself a follower of astrology?
Again, I think archetypes are a way to understand our subconscious minds better, and the zodiac signs, are nothing more than very ancient archetypes.
If you go deeper than the superficial teachings on astrology that you see everywhere now, you will find that astrology is not really about predictions of the future, and more about the symbols that we identify with; about mythos and archetypal forms that are part of the collective unconscious and that can teach us about our perceptions and the perceptions of the collective.
You mostly work with gouache. Why do you love this medium so much?
I came across gouache a couple of years back. I just fell in love with the medium because of how forgiving and versatile it is. I enjoy that it provides this opaque quality that creates the milky colours that I like to work with and that I find so hard to create in oils or watercolours, for example. Also, the way you can use opaque layers as you would with acrylics or digital painting is just ideal for me. I also like that it is very portable and easy to clean up, which suits me well since I don’t really enjoy the mess that comes with other mediums. I also like that it is very easy to photograph since the colours are matte and intense. All in all, next to oil paints, it is the finest medium that I’ve worked with.
Is there any other method or style of artmaking you’ve been wanting to try out?
I would really like to start using pastel colours but seems a bit messy, but I love the texture you get, so I will try again until I can understand how the medium works better!
Do you think living in Mexico influences the art you produce?
I think so; México means “Place in the Navel of the Moon”. And I can tell you, it is a very magical surreal place.
I like to think that all the Mexican artists draw inspiration, consciously, or unconsciously from our shamanic roots. We were warriors with ancient knowledge, and ever since the conquest happened, we never stopped searching but we also have that magic inside all of us.
Rabbits. They’re also very popular in your work. Why?
Rabbits are also very important for our culture. There are many references to rabbits, like the story of the goddess Mayahuel who had four hundred rabbit spirits to her service. The rabbits were related to dreaming and waking, to lucidity and obfuscation. I recently made a painting inspired by this goddess, but in general, I like to keep in tune with my unconscious, and the way I best do that is by painting. So, for the last couple of years, rabbits have been a constant archetype that I like to represent.
For me, they represent the search for something ethereal, something occult, imagination, and creation. It is a symbol that gives me strength.
Some of your artworks feel very ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Do you have a passion for the world of fantasy and magic?
I do! It is something that has been an interest of mine since I can remember. I never grew out of reading fantasy, and any occult teachings I could find, enjoying the other worlds which one can not see with the normal eye, and creating things relate to the magical realms. In times of happiness and sadness, these are the themes that best suit my soul and I don’t think that will ever change.
You’re also brilliant at using ink. I spied some Inktober on your Instagram feed. What’re some of your favourite comics?
Thank you very much! I sometimes have these bursts of just wanting to use ink, and then I need some colour in my life. Luckily, the bursts always come back!
On the topic of comics, I have to say, that ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore is one of my favourite comics, novels, and all in all pieces of artwork of all time. If you can read it before watching any tv show or movie based on it, I would highly recommend it!
How long does it take you to complete an original artwork?
It can take me anywhere from an hour to many months. It all comes down to the medium and the canvas size that I’m working on. I consider myself to be new in oil paint, and also in larger formats, that’s why a piece with these characteristics can take me even months. What helps me with that is that I always have several paintings in progress. I love to jump from one to the other, while they are drying.
In gouache, I usually work in smaller sizes so it takes a few hours to a week. I enjoy having many projects to work on, but when I have a deadline, I love the rush feeling of having to focus on a series or a piece and that makes me work a lot quicker.
We were warriors with ancient knowledge, and ever since the conquest happened, we never stopped searching but we also have that magic inside all of us.
Would you describe yourself as a chaotic artist or someone neat & tidy?
I would consider myself more on the neat and tidy side of things. To me, having a routine is very important as well as having my working space clear of a mess.
I love to have many paintings in the works but to be able to finish work and keep up with deadlines, I appreciate having a routine. It keeps me grounded. I relish that moment in the morning when I make myself a cup of coffee, head to my workspace and it’s all in its place, ready to be used to keep creating, I think some will understand me when I say that it brings me a calmness and gets me excited to start working as soon as possible.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2020 and what are your dreams beyond that?
I am currently working on two series of paintings, one of which the plan is to make an editorial project out of, but things are still in the works. The other one is a series on the archetype of the witch or female shaman and the secret meanings of old religious symbolism.
In the long run, I would like to keep on working on illustration work for editorial projects that focus on subjects that I feel connected to. I also want to focus my attention on being able to sell my paintings and my work to people that would give them some love and a home. It is such a satisfying feeling knowing that your work is being kept safe by someone that appreciates it.