Behind the Scenes at National Geographic: Depicting Gaudí’s Vision

by Kaitlin Yarnall, Fernando Baptista and Katia Savchuk

Barcelona's Sagrada Família basilica is notable as much for its protracted construction (it has been in the works for 128 years and will not be finished until 2026) as for its paradigm-bending architecture based on organic forms.

In this month's issue,
National Geographic unearths the roots of Antoni Gaudí's iconic design, inspired by his devotion to religion and nature.

Deputy art director Kaitlin Yarnall and senior graphics editor Fernando G. Baptista set out to depict the final form the building would take — not a simple task when no accurate model of the completed church existed. After fourth months of research and design, they created an illustration that they say is the most complete visual representation to date of what the finished Sagrada Família will look like (they also composed the above graphic to illustrate Gaudí's use of organic elements).

In a guest post for Polis, Yarnell and Baptista tell how they researched and portrayed Gaudí's vision.

“My client is not in a hurry.” Antoni Gaudí’s famous words referencing the still-unfinished Sagrada Família church in Barcelona did not, unfortunately, apply to our version of the project. Tasked with illustrating the wonder of Gaudí’s masterpiece for our readers, we began our work in early June.

The process began with preliminary research. We read, viewed, and absorbed as much as we could about Gaudí and his work. We quickly discovered that the key to understanding the Sagrada Família lay in understanding the architect himself. His deep faith, respect for nature, and unique ability to see and express the world three-dimensionally drove all that he did. He considered the Sagrada Família to be the culmination of his vision and used other works as test grounds for the church.

Armed with a basic understanding of Gaudí and his unique style, we traveled to Barcelona in late June, to spend a week in, under, and on top of the church. Aided by the architects, we began to document and absorb all aspects of the church. We had a basic idea of the information we needed for Fernando’s illustration, but had no idea how challenging it would be to gather these references.

The already constructed portions of the church were relatively easy to portray. Over the course of the week we took thousands of photographs, which Fernando later stitched together and used as reference material. Architects gave us access to the church’s roof, construction elevators, basement, and interior. Aerial photos were also shot from a helicopter, which gave us the large-scale views we needed.

The most challenging part of the illustration came as we tried to gather reference material for the yet-to-be constructed portions of the church. The architects working on the church today follow Gaudí’s style not only in their execution of the building, but also in their method of working. Gaudí worked in three dimensions. Most of his contemporaries worked with pencils, pens, and paper to create building plans for their works. Gaudí worked in clay, mud, paper mache, and rock to create models of his work.

Today’s Sagrada Família architects have a large model room and lab in the basement of the church. Parts of the church under construction are modeled in the lab by sculptors using 3D printers and plaster and serve as reference for the architects and engineers. We photographed these models and used them to illustrate future sections of the church. Fernando drew, we sent sketches to the architects, they commented, Fernando corrected, and the cycle continued. The greatest hurdle was the lack of a complete model of the completed church. An accurate model of the church in its entirety simply does not exist. Fernando’s illustration is now being used by those within the Sagrada Família as a demonstration of how the church will eventually be completed.

We magnified several details from the church’s crypt, facades, and interior. We felt these helped give our readers a glimpse into the detail and symbolism that is unique to Gaudí. His gargoyles depict wildlife that was displaced in the church’s construction, mosaics on the interior floor represent the initials of saints and apostles, and all columns, facades, and towers have unique symbolism that together tell the story of Jesus’ life. This theme was continued on the backside of the graphic, which explains Gaudí’s unique incorporation of natural elements in his work.

To execute the final artwork, Fernando first worked in Adobe Illustrator to create a line drawing of the church. This art was then printed onto paper. Fernando sketched with pencil to give the drawing depth and shading and then scanned them again. Working in Photoshop, layers of color and texture were applied. Many of the layers were created digitally, while others were hand painted with watercolors that also were scanned. The final product is digital but with many hand-crafted touches.

We finished our project in early September, just four months after we began. It was a group effort that included many of our colleagues within the magazine and collaborators in Barcelona. Fernando considers this to be the most challenging graphic he has ever done and hopes that Gaudí himself would be proud.

Credits: Image from National Geographic.


  1. fascinating! thank you for posting this.

  2. I agree! Really amazing to get behind the scenes of such an impressive work effort. Being such a unique and path breaking architect, it is interesting to hear that is is actually possible to understand and unfold Gaudi's visions and secrets. I wonder, did he leave a lot of written material behind too?