Ramona MacLean | The Middle Is the Hard Part

Ramona MacLean (@freckledpage) has a distinct worldview when it comes to creativity: The world could do with a little more silliness.

Known for her whimsical style, the Vancouver-based illustrator enjoys creating art that dabbles in daydreams and flights of fancy. Her work consists of a full host of characters, including sassy unicorns, foxes with wings, a pregnant cat, a miniaturized version of herself, and more. For Ramona, it all comes down to expressing herself through art and sharing that expression with others.

It wasn’t always this way. Prior to striking out on her own as a freelance illustrator, Ramona attended school for musical theatre, worked for an animation company, and more.

But long before that, Ramona didn’t even think she was capable of making art.

Escaping Through Art

Ramona’s path to creative illustration started when she took drawing lessons from her dad’s friend, an exceptionally talented artist who focused on hyper-realistic drawing. 

But, as a kid, that never struck a chord with Ramona. Even today, it’s vastly different from the kind of work she enjoys. In fact, she says, she had doubts about her own artistic ability throughout her entire childhood.

“As I got older, I kind of thought I couldn’t draw. So, anytime I would go to do it, I would kind of do it and then just put it away for a while,” she said.

Unlike many professionals that we’ve spoken with, Ramona’s sole artistic focus as a child had nothing to do with art. Instead, she was heavily involved in musical theatre and ended up attending Capilano University to earn a degree in it. 

There was just one problem:

“Partway through, I didn’t like it anymore,” Ramona said. ”Just the audition process and everything. And I knew that everyone was putting in 110%, and I wasn’t.”

Ramona and her friend remedied this by picking up a few cheap paints from a local store and started to draw. And it stuck. Ramona started painting Disney concept art that she found online. From there, her interest in art seemed to lock into place.

“It sort of became my survival mechanism while I was going through theatre school. Eventually, my friend who I had been doing this with was like, ‘You should do this for your job.” I said, ‘Oh, no. I can’t. This is my hobby!’”

Eventually, she gave in. The university had an animation program, and she applied for it. Though she finished her degree in theatre (so that she could graduate alongside her friends), Ramona immediately went back to school for animation.

After graduating, she went to work as an illustrator and storyboard artist for Bardel Entertainment, where she worked on Dreamworks shows like Puss In Boots, King Julien, and The Rescue Riders.

But, even there, Ramona eventually found herself looking for some sort of escape. At Bardel, she would spend hours and hours illustrating a single picture in a very Disney-esque style. It was great training, and she learned a lot about illustration, but Ramona had other plans.

“I got to this point where I really just wanted to do my own stuff because I had all these ideas,” she explained, “but I didn’t always have the energy to put that into my own projects when I got home.”

During breaks, lunches, and meetings, Ramona started drawing cartoons as a sort of coping mechanism. That, she says, is when it all came together.

“That’s when I found such a joy in drawing. There’s something about being able to draw a full picture in just, like, a minute that’s showing what you’re feeling in that moment,” she said, “instead of spending a ton of time doing one drawing that feels a little bit stiff. That’s where my love of drawing very simple stuff came from.”

Eventually, Ramona broke away from Bardel to pursue her own creative ideas as a freelance illustrator, dedicating part of her time to client work and the rest to her own artistic endeavors.

Stories, Starts, and Stops

Ramona is a woman of many firsts. Many, many, many firsts. So many, in fact, that it’s sometimes difficult for her to know where to start when she first picks up the pen.

It’s important to point out that, for Ramona, art isn’t something that simply lives on the page. The art that she shows to fans is only a sliver of the creative thunderstorm inside her head.

Ramona’s characters aren’t just for the page. They’re as much for her as they are for her audience. From Little Ramona — Ramona’s on-page representation of herself — to her sassy unicorn sidekick, every character has interests, likes and dislikes, and a backstory that can never be completely expressed in a single drawing.

“I love stories so much,” she said, “and to have a character that you know their backstory and you know who they are and how they would act in certain situations — I just can’t help but do it! I just get so excited about the idea of characters.”

Ramona enjoys having that wellspring of information to draw upon when she starts to create art, and it reflects on her creative process, as well. She draws heavily on her own inspiration but also does a ton of research before she begins a project by surfing through Pinterest, Instagram, and other platforms.

“Anything that kind of works with that project, I will save and look at, and then I’ll do a lot of brainstorming. So I’ll just write down ideas. That’s probably my favorite part of the process, just coming up with ideas,” she said. “I’ll pour over all that stuff and sort of build a story about whatever project that I’m working on.” 

She also makes sure that she draws from multiple sources to ensure that her ideas are diverse and that she has room to put her own fingerprints on the piece.

After the research and brainstorming are done, Ramona gets to work. Armed with her iPad and the Procreate app, she tries to engage with the project and make work quickly toward the end result.

There’s a reason for this: Ramona gets excited about ideas, and that excitement is a major motivator. But that also means that every other idea that she has is competing for her attention. She works until she’s no longer captivated by an idea and, by that time, a new idea has already taken its place.

She explained: “I have to really force myself to go through the middle. I think that’s the hardest part for me. The beginning’s great because I’m super-excited about a project so I’ll put everything into it. Then I get to the middle part where it’s sort of the harder stuff and I’m not feeling that really passionate energy. But then, towards the end, when I’m starting to see the final product, I start to get excited again.

While she’ll keep working on a project if she knows that it’s a good idea, the lack of inspiration leads to a lack of motivation that makes it difficult for Ramona to continue.

This leads to an artistic process that becomes very touch and go as Ramona switches between multiple projects and nudges them toward the finish line. It’s not ideal, she admits, and sometimes it results in some things that she’s worked on just stopping.

But, she says, forcing her artistic process isn’t productive anyway.

“Every time I go to work on it, I’ll just feel a block. I just can’t do it anymore,” she said. “In cases like that, I just think, ‘Yes, it’s not finished — but I’m done with it. And I’m not having fun with it anymore.”

Putting On the Business Hat

For Ramona, so much of her success and personal satisfaction comes from making sure that she loves what she does. However, her entire process transforms when paying clients are involved. 

While she does her best to make sure that the work she does for others is reminiscent of her personal style, she understands that her clients have their own needs when it comes to artwork.

As a primary source of income, Ramona illustrates children’s books, and she follows a traditional process to do so. Starting with character design, where she brainstorms the characters and finds inspiration, Ramona moves through thumbnail creation, rough sketches, feedback, lining, and coloring.

It’s a very structured process, almost completely inverted from the freewheeling and open approach to her own creative endeavors. With client work, Ramona likes firm approvals at each stage because requested changes throughout the process are time-consuming and expensive.

“I like everything to be sort of locked down in each stage before going onto the next one,” she said. “And if there is a change later on that makes me go all the way back to the beginning, then I’ll add that to the cost because now I’m redoing a lot of things.”

When she’s on the job, Ramona plans and structures things out so that she knows how much work she needs to do for the client in a single day in order to complete projects on time. Then she works on it first, every single day, until it’s done. Otherwise, she points out, it’s too easy to miss a deadline.

But, as you might expect, Ramona has more than one iron in the fire when it comes to sales, marketing, and revenue. 

In addition to children’s books, she has an Etsy shop where she sells prints and enamel pins. She takes commissions, creates Skillshare classes, and occasionally coaches other artists who are trying to learn how to draw. She sells prints at fairs and has even pitched a few television concepts at major conventions.

It’s a wide variety of interests that help her stay creative and engaged.

On top of that, Ramona is always looking to improve. New projects often fuel her own inspiration, but she also keeps an analog notebook just to practice, refine, and explore with her pen.

“Sometimes, if I find somebody’s art really inspiring and I’m like, ‘How do they do that?’ I will copy their stuff — obviously, I won’t post it or anything — just to understand how they do it.”

That, she explains, is an old trick from her animation days where she would trace and redraw characters for hours to ensure that her muscles were trained on a specific character before drawing them for production. It’s a technique that she highly recommends.

Do What You Like, Draw What You Love

For Ramona, art isn’t always about making money. It’s about expression, community, and sharing with the world. While she follows what may best be described as an “unstructured process” when it comes to creative pursuits, it all comes down to passion and personal satisfaction at the end of the way.

This is a struggle, she says, that many artists deal with, especially when it comes to social media and online identity.

“There’s a battle in a lot of artists about putting content out there and deciding what you want to do and what works for you versus putting stuff out that you love doing,” she said. “But the whole point of sharing online is to show what you’re passionate about!”

Ramona’s argument is simple: Why go through the trouble if you’re not passionate about the end result?

But, Ramona says that she also wants her art to appeal to her fans. While most of her works are happy and endearing, she also occasionally posts pieces that deal with procrastination, depression, and other negative emotions.

That, she says, is by design. “I have to decide to post stuff like that,” she explained. “If I’m dealing with it, other people are dealing with it. When people can see that you also go through stuff like that, people don’t think you’re just happy all the time.”

That connectedness, that community, and those stories are things that Ramona thrives on. It’s why she has a host of characters living inside her head and why she shares updates about her life and her passions on her vlog.

In many ways, it’s why she loves art in the first place.

You can learn more about Ramona and shop for cool products on her website, Freckled Fox Designs, and find new artwork, along with her entire host of characters, on Instagram. If you want to see what’s new, you can also check out Ramona’s vlog on YouTube.