When illustrator Marina Esmeraldo wakes up in her Barcelona apartment each morning, the first thing she does—even before a crucial cup of coffee—is settle down at her desk and put pen to page. In a fluid half-slumber images from her subconscious pour forth: depictions of luscious palm trees, ripe chili peppers, rolling waves, and cheerful, dancing women, all rendered in the sun-kissed colors of tropical modernism.
Esmeraldo grew up in the UK but hails from northeast Brazil. She works between London and Barcelona, creating her colorful, ecstatic work for a variety of fashion and culture clients like Refinery29, Lenny Letter, and Wired, as well as Google and Adidas. In her spare time, she publishes and art directs a visually striking literary magazine called In Shades, and creates graphics in support of the women’s movement.
Her path to illustration was by no means direct: after studying architecture and the built environment in her home country, Esmeraldo moved to Barcelona to pursue mural making, eventually combining her interests in color and space into her trademark illustration style.
“Studying architecture at university has definitely shaped not only my creative approach, but also my worldview and way of thinking,” says Esmeraldo. “I learned how to see the world, how to deconstruct space and rearrange it on a flat surface.” This has palpably influenced her approach to portraits, which often consist of shapes and lines that “form a whole” almost like a sweeping postmodern construction, derived from her interest in “mixing the figurative and the abstract.” When drawing Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian or Grace Jones, Esmeraldo combines constructional thinking with an exuberant pop art sensibility.
“I also have a lot of experience with signage and wayfinding,” says the illustrator. “The spatial awareness helps me with mural painting, in knowing how to blow up scale and having a holistic approach towards the medium.”
After working for a number of years as a successful illustrator, Esmeraldo has now turned to a new morning routine of drawing whatever comes into her mind as a way to start her day—an exercise she finds mentally healthy and beneficial, but also helps her discover the styles and themes she most intimately cares about. “As a freelancer who has to take care of my own practice’s marketing and accounting, there are long bouts of not being creative, and I was spending too much time on social media, which can be very crippling,” she explains. “Drawing an image a day has been incredibly beneficial. The mind expands in its search for new references and inspiration: I’ve been looking deeper towards my own Brazilian roots as a reflection of that.”
This has meant a renewed appreciation of Brazilian mid-century graphic design, from the ’60s especially. “Especially the work of Rogério Duarte, who designed many classic movie posters from the time—I love the colors and curves, and the way he balances that with stark modernism,” says Esmeraldo. “I also draw a lot from the visual antagonist Cesar G. Villela, who designed the minimalist Bossa Nova covers and mixed the figurative and abstract.” Esmeraldo takes all these influences, lifts and intensifies the color palette, and then focuses on distinctly contemporary themes—illustrating pictures of stylish, defiant girl gangs, pro-choice graphics, and wide-open mouths demanding equal pay.