Illustrator Profile - Monica Ramos: "I've always enjoyed making pictures"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 19, 2015

Monica Ramos has only been illustrating professionally for three years, but she’s already made quite a splash and has gathered a passionate group of fans along the way. Her illustrations have been featured in publications large and small (including Lucky Peach, Good, and The Washington Post) in the U.S. and Europe, and she’s also branching out into fashion design.

Monica’s graceful watercolor paintings are notable for their rich, dense, and beautiful patterns of figures, which she jokingly says are inspired by the Where’s Waldo? books. Her illustrations are delicate and joyous, with a very relaxed style. There’s a sense of childlike wonder to her work, but also a powerful graphic sensibility that is stunningly artful and precisely plotted. The illustration here, from Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in Germany, for a story about sex education, is a perfect example of the strength and effectiveness of Monica’s work. There's also a great sense of fun and delight in everything she creates.

Monica has also built an engaging presence on social media, gathering over 12,000 followers on Instagram and creating a lively, regularly updated blog.

Her illustration work has recently expanded into fashion, as she has done assignments for Coach and Urban Outfitters. Most recently Monica did a series of lovely illustrations that grace Rachel Antonoff's Fall/Winter 2015 collections, including patterns for shirts, pants, and dresses.

I am originally from the Philippines. I've been living in Ridgewood, Queens in New York City, a couple years now. My dad's great grandfather was Juan Arellano, a famous architect and painter back in the day. He designed the Central Post Office building in Manila. My paternal grandmother took up fine arts and my mom painted a lot while I was growing up. My parents are wild bird photographers. I went to Parsons (the New School for Design) for a BFA in Illustration.

I share a studio space in Bushwick with my friends, a couple illustrators (Leah Goren and Rachel Levit), a typographer (Ray Masaki) and a knitwear designer (Gina Rockenwagner). It’s been good to have company. Everyone does their own thing, but are still very supportive. I also just enjoy having a space to work outside of my apartment. I like how high the ceilings are and the big windows too. The light is perfect in the afternoon.

It’s a little different for each image. I usually paint everything with watercolors and do a bit of clean up in Photoshop. I do a lot of little paintings to test out colors and layering. Sometimes I use a lightbox to paint over sketches. When I need to be more flexible or use specific colors, I work in layers in Photoshop. Painting just feels good to me right now, even if it’s harder to control.

I feel like it’s been a long process of just accepting my inner nature and building up the courage to do it. I’ve always enjoyed making pictures, like most kids. Drawing was that one thing that seemed to come easily for me, but it annoyed me that my classmates in high school all seemed to all think I would be an artist one day. I was very contra and did not want to be labeled, so I went to a liberal arts college planning on being a business or environmental science major. I was a real nerd and couldn’t help loving the required art classes, and transferred to Parsons. Over there, I was torn between product design and illustration. I decided to just go with it when I learned that it could be an actual career option. Even if it sounded super hard to get started, it felt like an adventure. I may have had an overly romanticized view of being an illustrator as a student.

“Do the work that you want to be hired for” was something that George Bates said in class that really stuck with me. That was probably in senior year of Parsons. I was just trying out all these different directions, but I started to just make things the way that I wanted to instead of the way I thought they should be.

Maybe Where’s Waldo! It’s always changing though. I can’t help but be influenced by the trends of the moment, like Minimalism, all those sleek interiors on Sight Unseen, how everyone is using really geometric shapes, patterns everywhere, old children’s books, rugs from Morocco, anime food GIFs, alpacas, marbling, the rise of typography, selfies, belfies, there’s this great blog Gurafiku on Tumblr about Japanese graphic design. I admire fashion, but from afar, just on blogs and whatever pops up on my feed. I got drawn into things my boyfriend likes too: hip-hop, masks, future trends, reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, reddit. Going further back, all the TV shows that I watched as a kid feed into my brain too like Hey Arnold, SpongeBob, Rocko’s Modern Life, Third Rock from the Sun, Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons, tons of trash TV. The visual landscape of Manila, how everything is really packed together, lots of grays and bright colors and crowds of people. I always like to think about the trips that my family would take—we’d go to far away beaches and hike on mountains. I love being out in nature and feeling so small and carefree. Right now, I want to get more into making patterns and have a book about oriental rugs and one about textiles from around the world beside my bed.

There are way too many: Misaki Kawai, Steve Powers, Tadanori Yokoo, David Hockney, Brecht Evans, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Rod Serling, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Matisse, Charles and Ray Eames, Yayoi Kusama, Susie Bubble, Bjork, Amy Poehler, Louis CK, George Carlin, David Bowie, the Dalai Lama. I am also constantly inspired by all my friends and peers. I’m really inspired by Erykah Badu. She’s empowering, positive, a badass and so so so smooth. Her songs never get old.

Finding a good work life balance!

Walter Green has been super fun! I love all the weird assignments from Lucky Peach. The first assignment I did were those spots for the articles on the women’s side of their Gender issue. There was a penis soup how-to and recipes using breast milk. I remember wondering, “will they really print these???”

You mean besides my iPhone? It’s always changing thanks to the insane amount of material on the internet and television and my own limited attention span. Most of my personal work comes out of learning to deal with whatever I’m going through at the time. Like living abroad, my relationships with people, fears, emotional stuff. It helps me figure things out. Going back to nature is also important. Sometimes it’s just everyday stuff: certain colors together on a building or the way the sky looks on day or the way light hits the cement, puppies, whatever gives feelings.

My most intense one was a live portrait drawing session for Urban Outfitters x Hunter Boots. I had about five minutes per person and felt like a warrior, planning out the layers so they could dry properly and getting a likeness. It was fun! I’m a dork. Right after the event ended, I walked to the American Illustration party!

I’d love to collaborate on a fashion line or chocolate bars or a line of home goods and furniture.

I mostly use Tumblr and Instagram, as well as entering annuals like American Illustration and Society of Illustrators. When I was starting out I sent out tons of postcards and emails. The e-mails seems to have gotten a better response for me, so I’ve just tried to reach out to people who I’d like to work with that way. I try to update my blog and Instagram frequently because I feel that’s how most people find me. Basically owe all the work I’ve done to the internet.

I’ve just made a handful things like blankets, printed tote bags and ceramics. It’s exciting to see my work applied to different surface and material. The ceramics on the other hand are a good way to create something that’s not a drawing.

Experiment, be patient, be nice, and hustle!

Getting really into “the zone” has to be the best feeling. I’m also always excited to get stuff in the mail. It’s so cool to see my work published and part of something bigger than me.

I’d like to own a dog or a baby!

See more Monica Ramos illustrations, new work and updates:
Website and portfolio