While few artists remember the precise moment when they decided to make art their career, David Diaz is an exception. He clearly recalls the day in first grade when he completed a vowel worksheet that was filled with pictures of objects with incomplete words written below. A line drawing of a nose was accompanied by "n_se," and young Diaz compliantly added the "o" to the word. After that, he was inspired to use his thick red pencil to complete the picture of the face on the worksheet, and he has been drawing faces ever since. Because he did not know the term "illustrator," in a moment that he calls a mini-epiphany, Diaz realized he would become a "drawer."
Diaz grew up in southern Florida after his family moved from New York, his birthplace. Although his parents recognized his talent, they had fears of his becoming a starving artist and suggested he set his sights on a less risky career. Childhood ended abruptly with his mother's untimely death when Diaz was 16. His art then became an important emotional resource. A supportive high school teacher pointed the way for students to become artists by guiding them to competitions. His art blossomed as Diaz attained success in the contests. Another opportunity proved to be invaluable for Diaz when he worked several years as an apprentice for hyper-realistic sculptor Duane Hanson. Diaz remained in touch with Hanson until his death in 1996. Following graduation from Ft. Lauderdale Art Institute, Diaz moved to southern California, where he worked in graphic design firms until establishing his own design and illustration business, Diaz Icon.
Gradually, he began to turn down design projects in favor of illustration assignments, because, as Diaz remembers, he did not want to look back with regret and wonder, "What if I had just focused on my true passion--illustration?" One of the many book cover illustrations the artist had completed for Harcourt, Inc., caught the eye of editor Diane D'Andrade, who offered Diaz a contract to illustrate the children's poetry book Neighborhood Odes (1992) by Gary Soto. After seeing one of Diaz's limited edition books created primarily as a promotional tool for his illustration, the editor offered Diaz the chance to illustrate a picture book based on Los Angeles street riots, Smoky Night (1994), written by Eve Bunting. Diaz approached Smoky Night with a desire to make an impact on the reader.
Inspired by sketches made while on a trip to Brazil, he created gouache paintings framed by bold borders with intricate photographic collages as backgrounds. The relatively flat paintings are perfectly matched to the textured collages, vibrant when the action heats up, softened by the end of the story. To the artist's surprise, his first picture book was awarded the 1995 Caldecott Medal. The Caldecott Medal changed Diaz's life in that the award enabled him to concentrate on book illustration. As he worked on The Inner City Mother Goose (1996, by Eve Merriam), Diaz created a number of simplified images that could function as graphic symbols or icons. His icons not only became a part of his books but they also became a business in themselves when he sold them in the form of computer software and continued to custom design them for clients.
Wilma Unlimited (1996, by Kathleen Krull) and Going Home (1997, by Eve Bunting) expanded the artist's use of photo collage, but soon he would try another style. The Little Scarecrow Boy (1998, by Margaret Wise Brown) allowed the artist to employ a lighter and less complicated style to reflect the gentle story. Silhouette forms dominated Be Not Far From Me (1998, by Eric Kimmel) and The Disappearing Alphabet (1998, by Richard Wilbur) giving a new look to Diaz's book illustration. The artist modified the technique in Shadow Story (1999, by Nancy Willard), and combined renderings in vegetable dyes, gouache, and pencil with secondary illustrations created by using Adobe Photoshop.
Other books have extended Diaz's horizons and guided him to try a variety of media and styles, including the vibrant computer art in The Pot That Juan Built (2002, by Nancy Andrews-Goebel) and the soft pastel images in Angel Face (2002, by Sarah Weeks). His work is sometimes compared to that of George Roualt or Marc Chagall, but Diaz does not seek to emulate any artist. Inspired by the innovation of Viennese Secessionists such as Gustav Klimt (1862-1914) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Diaz aims to break away from any constrictions and develop his own way of telling stories through illustration.
In his ceramics and the paintings the artist does for pleasure, which he refers to as his "personal work," new ideas and techniques emerge, some of which he incorporates into his illustrations. Some of Diaz's books deal with social issues fraught with controversy; but no matter what the subject matter, the artist seeks to illustrate books that offer hope. Another common thread in several of the books is a strong and kind mother figure that may be attributed to Diaz's devotion to and admiration for his late mother. "My mother formed my life in many ways," the artist said recently. "Because of my affection for her, the things she taught me remain important today." Diaz has never tired of drawing the faces he first explored as a six-year-old, but his interests have grown to encompass reading for pleasure and studying history and science. He also enjoys collecting furniture and accessories from the American arts and crafts era and glassware from the 1960s.
Diaz is also a trustee on the NCCIL's National Board and works tirelessly as NCCIL's ambassador to spread the mission of the organization.