Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be an illustrator/surface pattern designer.
My name is Erwin Ong and I am a self-taught artist and illustrator based in White Plains, New York, just north of New York City. I have been making art for sale for the past 10 years, mostly to family and friends. In 2021 I enrolled in Bonnie Christine's Immersion course, where I learned Adobe Illustrator and the elements of pattern design. Learning how to vectorize my work and the basics of surface design really helped me gain confidence to make commercially viable art. Since then, I have started my own online store selling art prints, greeting cards, stickers, and other small gift items. I have also started selling wholesale, and I have also been able to license my work.
What influences your art the most?
I try to make work that evokes wonder, humor, curiosity, and positivity.
I have always loved fish and other underwater creatures, probably because I’ve always lived in big cities that are close to large bodies of water. I grew up in the Philippines, then I lived in Southern California, and now I’ve been in the New York City metro area for 8 years. But as you can see in my work, I move beyond marine life, to encompass plants and animals of land and air.
What I focus on are lines, solid colors, geometric shapes, and repeating patterns that exist in nature, but I might compose them in unconventional ways, like combining the shape of a seahorse with the spots of a giraffe, or decorating an underwater illustration with raindrops and lightning bolts, which you would normally see in the sky.
I also think a lot about urban life and human travel/exploration, so you'll sometimes see my animals doing human things, like a lion blow-drying its mane before starting their shift at the zoo, or a stegosaurus ice skating while a meteor is about to crash in the distance.
Artists whose work inspire me: Lee Bontecou, Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Tim Hawkinson, Alexander Calder, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Keith Haring.
What mediums do you use to create your art?
I’ve been doodling and drawing since I was a little kid and that is still my go-to medium to this day. I mostly use pens and markers on paper, and I also create digital illustrations and patterns using an iPad. I love incorporating prints and patterns into my work, so you'll see a lot of repeating lines, shapes, motifs, and flourishes in my work.
Aside from ink on paper, I’ve started to experiment with using acrylic paint/ink, so perhaps that will end up in my portfolio in the near future.
And outside of that, I also consider myself somewhat of a maker, so there are a lot of objects lying around in my studio - ceramic sculptures, cardboard collages, old store window installations, plush animal prototypes, acrylic laser-cut jewelry, papier mache creatures, embroidered landscapes, silkscreened throw pillows — you name it, I’ve probably dabbled in it!
Your style could be described as a "graphic design" style with lots of black line work. Do you feel this helps you stand out from other designers or do you feel it's more difficult to get noticed?
I don’t think having a “graphic” style has necessarily helped, because I know there are other artists creating the same work that I do. All I can do is focus on my own body of work and make sure that I have a portfolio that reflects my brand, my values, and my story as an artist.
You recently began selling your stationery items wholesale. Tell us how you got into doing that.
I started with the idea of wholesale by setting up in Faire in 2022 and doing my own outreach to retailers. I didn’t move the needle too much, but the experience did help me start relationships with some retailers who I now consider repeat customers. I then enrolled in Katie Hunt’s Paper Camp course and that was key for me to learn about the wholesale industry.
At the end of last year, I signed with American Design Club to exhibit my products at the gift shows in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New York City this past January. Last year I also released a collection of notebooks with Denik, and a few of those designs are also available for wholesale.
Do you have plans to expand your wholesale product line? I do! I learned a lot about my product line after this first season. I plan to incorporate more of my hand-drawn art in my products, I plan to add larger sizes of prints, and also create more collections and other creative ways to merchandise and bundle my products. And I am barely at the tip of the iceberg for greeting cards! I currently have about 40 designs and my goal is to get to 100-150. I would love to see my artwork on other small gift items like stickers, buttons, keychains, totes, lunchboxes — you name it — but those could also be achieved through licensing, so I am focusing my wholesale on the cards and prints for now.
Much of your artwork has a fun, comic style. Have you always inserted a comic element in to your work? I’ve always created work that brings smiles and evokes happiness, and there is a comic through line that appears in my work. I grew up reading the comics in the newspaper everyday — I enjoyed everything from the single, impactful panels of The Far Side and Non-Sequitir, to the imaginative storylines of Calvin and Hobbes, to the depictions of everyday life in FoxTrot. and Life in Hell coming out of left field. . It’s such a a concise way to tell a story, and I love it when I can get the same characteristics in my work.
In addition to selling wholesale, you sell your products retail on your website. Do you have any other places where you sell your work direct to consumers? Along with my own retail website and wholesale, I also participate in a small number of in-person fairs throughout the year, and have some products on consignment in local shops in my area, like Eco Evolution in Norwalk, CT. I enjoy meeting customers and collectors in person. It’s been a great way to get immediate feedback about my artwork and also a great way to learn about what works in the market.
Do you have any dream companies you'd like to work with in the near future? Yes! Casetify for phone cases. West Elm for home decor — people always comment that they buy my prints as bathroom decor or kids’ rooms. Lacoste for a capsule collection of clothes and accessories. and Wrappr for fabric gift wrap.
What's next for you in your artistic endeavors? I want to keep exploring my own artistic practice so that I can strengthen my portfolio and continue making work that’s fresh and inspired. I am also planning a solo show here in Westchester County in the fall, which will be fun to conceptualize and put together. Most importantly, I am keeping front of mind how I can create work that, on top of my artistic influence, and brings people together and fosters community, especially in these times with continued hate against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and the LGBTQIA+ community, both of which I am a part.