If you ask any of his former art professors or even family members if they expected this kind of success from Bonilla, most would say no. His cousin, for example, confessed, “‘I thought you sucked as a kid. You were horrible. I can’t believe this [success],’” Bonilla says. His story offers a lesson in persistence in the face of rejection and the importance of ignoring the haters.
In a climate that is as difficult as ever for establishing an illustration career, a work life like Bonilla’s is about as much as any aspiring illustrator could hope for. After a stint designing Game of Thrones playing cards, Bonilla now regularly illustrates book jackets and magazines, including The New Yorker. He’s won three Gold Medals from the Society of Illustrators and several Awards of Excellence from Communication Arts’ Illustration Annual. And he has a steady gig teaching art at his alma mater, State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia, for which he also illustrates theater posters.
His early challenges stemmed from a lack of training, not a lack of talent—although Bonilla says, “I don’t believe in talent too much. I believe work ethic will take you a lot further than talent.” There were no art classes at the all-boys Catholic high school Bonilla attended in Queens, so his first artistic influences came from pop culture: the comic books his father, a manager with RadioShack, collected; the 1920s animations of Betty Boop, from creator Max Fleischer, beloved by his Puerto Rican immigrant grandparents; and cover art for video games like Pac-Man. “I used to steal my dad’s comics and cut out characters to make collages,” Bonilla says. “My dad would come home and find his comic books mangled.” Bonilla also “drew, drew, drew,” emulating the work of Todd McFarlane in Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and of former Marvel artist Rob Liefeld.
“When I found out people actually made a living doing this, it seemed so wild,” Bonilla says. He decided to do all he could to draw for a living. Once at SUNY Fredonia, he majored in new media, focusing on animation, and minored in illustration.
The tenacious drive to which Bonilla credits his success was immediately visible to his art profes-sors. “At first, his drawing skills weren’t up to par, mostly because he hadn’t been exposed to that stuff,” Alberto Rey, one of Bonilla’s professors at SUNY Fredonia, says. “We talked about the impor-tance of drawing, the repetition of that skill. To my surprise, Ray started taking additional art classes during winter break in New York. It showed he was taking things much more seriously than other students.” As Bonilla progressed, Rey could see he had “a much higher level of commitment, not only to craft, but also to building a career.” Initially, Rey remembers, Bonilla had been obsessed with working for Pixar, but he soon shifted his focus to illustration, realizing he preferred “Edward Hopper–ish stuff” to fantasy animation.
After graduating, Bonilla went on to complete an MFA in 2009 at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Rey then offered him a teaching position. “I’ve been teaching for 30 years, and I see a lot of talented students who flounder because they don’t know how to build a work ethic,” Rey says. “Ray never misses a day in the studio.”
Bonilla works in a sky-lit, turquoise-painted home studio in Buffalo, New York, where he lives with his wife, a former sculptor turned art writer. His shelves are filled with art books; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of illustration history. He talks about his influences with awe: Drew Struzan, the illustrator famous for his Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters; Marshall Arisman, an illustration professor at the School of Visual Arts, New York City; “old golden age guys” like James McMullan, who designed Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ theater posters for years; and 20th-century realist painters like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.
Bonilla’s illustrations expertly blend these influences’ takes on commercial and fine art. “He combines virtuosic painting skills with a strong storytelling ability,” says Jordan Awan, former art director of The New Yorker. “His work recalls a lot of my favorite illustrator-painters from the golden age of illustration.” Bonilla’s visual essay Win/Place/Show explores the “religious subtext” of the horse races in Queens that he frequented growing up. He borrows Andrew Wyeth’s muted colors and focus on contemplative moments—Bonilla’s father reading, a choir singing at the track—instead of action. Even his fantasy pictures of wizard battles for various games from Fantasy Flight Games fuse the expert draftsmanship of Struzan’s movie posters with Hopper’s sublime light.
“Nothing in his compositions distracts from the idea he’s trying to get across in the piece,” Rey says. “It’s sophisticated content. His compositions are nontraditional, elegant and very clear.” Of Rey, Bonilla says, “I owe him my thinking process. He taught me how to use metaphor artfully, in a way that doesn’t hammer you over the head.” One such metaphor: In a poster for the musical Cabaret, four bent legs splay out around a grinning dancer. Their purple-white skin looks embalmed. The image is at once seductive and sinister; it takes a moment to register that these legs form the shape of a swastika, an allusion to the play’s Nazi Germany setting.
Although only subtle traces of Bonilla’s early obsession with animation show up in his current work, it conveys a theatricality most animators embrace. “The best compliment I’ve ever gotten was from Kazuhiko Sano, a professor who designed the Return of the Jedi poster. At my final thesis presentation, he said, ‘When I look at your work, it makes me want to share stories of my own.’ That’s how I want the viewer to respond,” Bonilla says.
This distinct narrative feel is what makes Bonilla’s theater posters and illustrations for The New Yorker’s theater reviews so successful. “Ray has a remarkable ability to capture both the mood of a show as well as the essence of characters, themes and situations in the play,” says Tom Loughlin, chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at SUNY Fredonia. “His posters are both subtle and haunting. When I had an opening for a new poster designer to create posters for our five-show season, I hired him right away.”
In his painted poster for the musical Rent [see Communication Arts 2015 Illustration Annual, p. 107], for example, three actors hold hands on a couch in almost tenebrist light. One woman’s pained expression conveys the characters’ struggles as artists trying to work during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “Much more powerful, I felt, than using Rent’s familiar and well-worn stencil-letter logo and graphics,” Loughlin says.
“There’s this idea of an animator being a method actor. I love the idea of being a method illustrator,” Bonilla says. “I try to get in a zone and convince myself that I’m living in these characters worlds. While working on Rent, I almost cried, thinking about how AIDS affected my family—a couple of my family members passed away from the disease.” His mother also works in the AIDS clinic at New York–Presbyterian Hospital.
Very little is spontaneous in Bonilla’s creative process, which fuses digital and analog techniques. He made the Rent poster from a photograph he staged and shot himself. He uses this approach often, making a grayscale under-painting from a photo by hand, then scanning it onto his tablet to build up with digital color. With paint, he interprets texture, color and light in ways that photography alone can’t. Though his style can best be characterized as realism, it’s always run through an emotional filter.
A few award-winning theater posters helped lead to Bonilla’s first gig with The New Yorker. He sent a postcard of his illustration The Piano Lesson to Awan, who says it was one of those rare images that stick out from the slush pile. “I usually look for strong conceptual thinking or a unique personal vision. Ray’s postcard did a great job of suggesting a narrative in a very atmospheric and dramatic way,” Awan says. “Overall, it was his technical painting skills that really caught my eye.”
Bonilla’s first New Yorker illustration accompanied a review of The Fabulous Miss Marie, a play set during the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Cast in ochre light, the illustration depicts a split second after a large toast at a party—Bonilla studies the psychological complexities contained in single, tiny moments. A woman in feather boas brandishes a cigarette holder like a conductor’s baton, surrounded by partiers, all African American. “You feel like you’re sitting in the room with those characters; you get a sense of all the various personalities,” Awan says. “You can practically smell the cigarette smoke in the air.” One man sits in shadow, staring at a half-empty glass. The figure lends gravity to this scene of revelry, conveying the anxiety felt by these “middle-class African Americans forcing this good time, trying to shelter themselves from the riots outside,” Bonilla says.
The now far-from-subpar Bonilla, who teaches several days a week, might be the most encouraging type of professor a young artist could have. “The guy who went from ‘never gonna get it’ to, well, getting it will instill faith in even the weakest students, instead of assuming there’s no hope for them,” he says. “Time and time again, I was the student who teachers didn’t focus on.” The way he quietly surprised such teachers has lent him a humility and devotion to his craft that can only lead to further growth. “In many ways, I feel like my career is just starting. My best work is the stuff I’m making right now.” ca