When it comes to creative self-portraiture, nobody does it quite like Cristina Otero. Known for transforming herself into the most compelling characters, she juggles being in front of and behind the lens to pull off a range of emotions and concepts in her images. At a young age, this self-taught 18-year-old photographer has already had her work exhibited in notable art galleries in Spain, from Valencia to Madrid. Then, a couple of years ago, she gained widespread attention when her Tutti Frutti series went viral.

We can’t help but look to her mind-bending self-portraits for inspiration. They really do stay with you. In this exclusive story, Cristina reveals how she shot some of her most creative work. Scroll down, and get inspired!

“Like most of my self-portraits, I took this shot in my bedroom at home. The title of this photo is “Aftermath”. The word “Aftermath” has always been one of my favorites in the English language. I wanted to represent that word in a very psychological manner. It was very easy for me to shoot this piece, since there was absolutely no makeup involved. All I used were a pair of contact lenses. And if you’re wondering, yes—my skin can actually be stretched that way!”

“It’s funny how I get sick and weak in the knees just by talking about the circulatory system, but then, I love using blood in my work. I wanted to create a picture that represented hunger as its real, raw meaning. Hunger makes living creatures do things one would never think of. The blood is not real—it’s actually red lipstick! To enhance my eyes, I used contact lenses. My photography is a mixture of painting and reality. I always paint over the lenses to make them more real and make my eyes pop out. To make processing easy for myself, I created a render of the iris and sometimes I just paste it over the eye.”

“Once, I had a dream where I was slowly turning into the Grim Reaper—and I couldn’t do anything to stop this horrific process! That dream inspired this photo. The mask is real, it is not Photoshop. I made it myself. The most challenging part about getting the shot was finding that perfect composition which is difficult to achieve in a self-portrait. Besides that, I had lot of problems when I tried to have both my hands grabbing the mask right after I clicked the shooting button. It took me forever to get a few shots right! My eyebrows aren’t really dark, so they are easy to paint over, and make them look okay. For my hair, I used long red hair extensions which I placed in top of my head to hide my real hair. Later on Photoshop, I edited the colors.”

“Trauma” is a metaphor. I won’t say about what. I don’t really enjoy explaining my work. It took me 10 to 15 minutes to put on the makeup. I didn’t plan how it would look. I simply took a paintbrush and some red paint, and then I used it all over my face. This shot was really hard for me to do, emotionally speaking.”

“The title of this photo is “Oblivion” and it’s another wonderful word. I love how it is written and how it sounds. I’m a word freak. Words inspire me to no end! I cheated in this photo shoot. I painted part of my face in black! Then, with the help of lighting in just one side of my face, I created this effect.”

“I hate to repeat myself, but the word “Gunslinger” is awesome! Because Spanish is my native language, words in other languages sound beautiful—even haunting—to me. Here is a seductive woman, filled with death. The makeup here took forever! I even had to use coal to finish the look, because I ran out of black eyeshadow!”

“Self-portraiture can be hard at first, but it’s quite easy over time. You get used to it, and suddenly you wake up knowing exactly where to place yourself in front of the camera without even looking!”

1. Buy a wireless remote control. It will make things easier. If you have trouble with composition, try placing a mirror in front of the camera and you to see where you have to stay. You can also use another model (like a family member, or even a stuffed toy) for focusing.

2. Does everything look right, and are you about to start shooting? Check again! I normally take 5-10 pictures before moving forward towards the actual photo shoot.

3. Keep checking if the pictures are looking well during the photo shoot. I know it’s tiring to keep standing up to check on the pictures. But trust me—doing this has saved me hundreds of times. You may miss that lock of hair which covers your shoulder, or the lipstick that needs to be retouched.

Want to get to know Cristina Otero better? Read on for our exclusive interview, where she shares more helpful tips and insights on creating striking self-portraits!

Hi Cristina! So how did you get started with photography?
Since I can remember, art has always been tremendously important in my life. I discovered photography at 13 by chance. I never thought photography could be seen as art until one of my classmates recommended me to an American TV reality show, America’s Next Top Model. I was amazed by all the makeup, styling, poses, and lighting. I knew then I wanted to do the same.

Did you ever anticipate waking up only to find out that your photos have gone viral? How did you react to becoming suddenly famous?
No, of course not. There are thousands—probably millions—of artists out there who do what I do. I was lucky enough to have people liking and sharing what I did. I didn’t become well-known overnight in a few days. It’s been a long path where frustration would usually fill the air. I am always thanking my followers for all they do for me. I am so grateful for their support. They are somewhat like a family to me, if that makes sense.

What fascinates you the most about self-portraits?
Even when I’m painting, all my interest goes to the human body and how it interacts in certain environments and circumstances, being that the female face is usually the protagonist. When I began photography, I needed a model. But at the time, I was only 13 years old, and I could not reach out to “real” models. One day, I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and thought: “I’m a girl. I have a face and a body. I’ll use myself!” Self-portraiture then became therapy to me. It helped me portray my feelings in a way another person could never get to do. That’s why I continue to take pictures of myself, even if I’m currently working with models now.

How long does it take you to plan your photo shoots? 
It may take me weeks, and some have taken me months of thinking before shooting. I am very picky. I rarely feel satisfied when I’m finishing a new piece. I need to think of every detail of the photograph very carefully, or else I will toss it in the trash.

Do you have any makeup tips for self-portrait photo sessions?
I have to say I’m not a professional makeup artist. I use things that real professionals would never do. I usually go around the kitchen, and look for new materials to use in a picture. The fake blood I use in my work is a mixture of honey, paint, and coffee. I have used cinnamon as dirt, and salt ice. My favorite trick is to use lipstick as eyeshadow. It adds a bright, surreal feel to the eye.

What’s your go-to camera gear and tools for shooting portraits?
I shoot with a Pentax K3 and Pentax 55mm f1.4, Pentax 70mm f2.8, Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 and Sigma 85mm f1.8 lenses. For lighting, I usually do with a mixture of natural light and Profoto b1 with Profoto deep silver umbrella. My remote control is a Pentax F.

Today, you have 80,000 followers on Facebook. That is amazing! Can you share some social media tips that you use to get and maintain your followers?
Thank you! Being grateful and nice to your followers, and answering messages and comments are the most important things. They are people who follow you, and have taken some of their precious time to write you. The least you can do is kindly answer them back, right?

So, any plans for Halloween tomorrow? What’s your Halloween costume this year?
Every year I dress up for Halloween. But not this year—I am going on a trip this weekend. I wish I could do Halloween this year, because I love dressing up.

To see more of her riveting work, follow Cristina Otero on 500px. You can also visit her website, or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Got a question for Cristina about her images and her process? Leave a comment for her below!