Muralist Ernesto Maranje discusses how he went from a career with the U.S. Coast Guard to painting murals 170 feet in the air.

A man standing on a platform painting a Mural

It’s always a joy to talk to people about their passions. I was fortunate to spend time speaking with artist Ernesto Maranje and his wife Hilary to talk about his murals and how he creates such large-scale pieces. We spoke over ZOOM from their home in Florida. I learned how different paint is used to different effect and what it feels like to be 170 feet up in the air while trying not to look down. Ernesto also told me how creating a new alphabet with shapes helps his creative process. The following interview has been transcribed and edited for clarity. 

Nikki Jardin (NJ): Hello Hilary and Ernesto! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. So, one of the things that always fascinates me about murals is just how large they are. How do you create something on that scale?

Ernesto Maranje (EM): To go that large — or really at any size, I like to work large to small. I break down my image into very simple, flat geometric shapes and I start from there. And then I start molding and breaking those shapes down into more shapes. It becomes like a game on a large scale.

NJ: Does it feel overwhelming?

EM: Oh yeah, at times. I would say the most overwhelming at the beginning and at the end. 

NJ: Ah, so in the middle, you’re just sort of “in” each section?

EM: Yeah, you’re in it. You get stressed or overwhelmed —  or maybe you like it and feel good about it, and then all that changes. It just keeps changing throughout time, but in the beginning and in the end it is always straight up overwhelming. 

NJ: Do you spend any time in the neighborhood or with the building itself to help shape the image or do you have an idea of what you want to do when you take the project?

EM: I always come to it with an understanding that whatever I’m painting it might change a little bit. Nothing drastic ever changes, but maybe there is a line of sight that I like and I want the mural to continue at that point like a viewpoint. Or, maybe there are plants in the area I enjoy and then incorporate them — anything like that really does change the wall. Sometimes it’s just even conversations with people. They will let me know a little bit about wherever I’m at and sometimes things just fit. Whether it’s just a shape of something to tie the conceptual part of it together or the image part of it. Sometimes it just happens that the right person says the right thing. So yeah, it changes, but just a little … nothing major .

A mural painted on a tall apartment building

NJ: I’ve noticed on a couple of your murals you’ve got some buildings that are rectangular and some very tall, thinner buildings. I imagine the shape of the building itself might dictate what works best there? 

EM: Exactly, yes. Whether it’s an animal that’s just an interesting shape and I want to play kind of like a polar opposite thing. You would expect a really long (tall) building to have a giraffe there. Sometimes I like to go the complete opposite, maybe put something really small there and blow it up to fit. So that’s one end of it. I like to play with the juxtaposition of it. Or, in certain parts of the world if there’s not a particular animal, it might seem right to just put that animal there. Because it’s a new thing that people aren’t used to seeing from that area.

NJ: Like the whale mural in Texas?

EM: Exactly. Or there will be times when I want to put something very native to the place. Like a black bear in Ocala (Florida). I like to play with all of these things and concepts. The overall theme stays pretty much what it is, flora, fauna and a lot of shapes … molding them, basically. 

NJ: Do you start with a sketch and then take it to scale? 

EM: I don’t really have a set formula. But it always consists of putting something first on paper and then on the wall. But it’s all over the place sometimes. Sometimes I do very small thumbnails, value studies. Because it’s such a large wall, sometimes I like to break it down very simply, like, this is going to be dark and this is going to be light. And then I go from there. As I’m working the wall takes different avenues here and there. Sometimes I really plan it out and I put the animals more strategically.  Then it’s more about painting the animals then the overall composition. It always varies. 

A man on a cherry picker painting a mural of a rhino

NJ: What is the largest mural you have done?

EM: In Ukraine, it was a 16-story building. 150-170 feet. 

NJ: Does that feel kind of scary?

Hilary Maranje (HM): Oh yeah. (laughs nervously)

NJ: Hilary, do you join him on the scaffold for these?

HM: Not that one, but we’ve been pretty high together. We’ve been up 120 feet and yeah, it’s scary. 

NJ: Because the scaffold is small, right? It’s a cherry picker?

EM: Yes, it is small and it’s very strange. Especially once you separate from the building, and you’re more in the wind. That really plays with your senses, it messes with you. 

HM: In other countries they don’t have safety regulations like they do (in the United States). 

EM: Yeah, so when we were in the Ukraine and there was no harness. It’s the highest I’ve ever been. So for 10-12 hours a day, I would just kind of stop thinking about it 

HM: Don’t look down!

EM: Yes, just go, go, go.

NJ: How long does the average mural take?

EM: Roughly 1 week to 2 weeks. I used to do them a lot faster.I’ve painted some buildings in 5 days. 

NJ: That’s amazing. I also notice that you use both paint and spray paint. Is there a specific reason for that or do you just like the way things flow. 

EM: Different reasons.There is a type of material, I call it 3-D paint, it’s an actual material that molds to the touch. You can put a lot of it on and make it look like a relief on the wall. And then the spray paint, instead of being actually textured it’s always an implied texture so you get to create very beautiful gradients and soft edges. Sometimes you can make very pencil-like marks because of the caps. With the house paint and the brush you can get very “painterly” effects and then with the spray paint you can have very graphic and soft blended effects. And, those two together really play with our eyes in a very interesting way.

A painting of a Koala

NJ: The texture on your work is amazing. Everything is very alive on these buildings. 

These pieces are big, colorful and vibrant. As an observer I know how I feel as I”m seeing them, walking along the street. But do you get a sense on how your work is affecting a neighborhood or a section of town?

EM: Yeah, absolutely, especially the larger pieces we put up. When you put something very big up on a wall it’s going to get attention no matter what you want. If you want it to be subtle, it’s never going to be subtle. If you put artwork on a large wall, they’re going to look at it. So then there’s going to be a lot of opinions on the wall. If you’re lucky you get to see and experience the good ones, the bad ones, I wouldn’t say you’re lucky, but it’s always good information if you take it well. But it’s easy to get offended. And then it’s easy to offend. So, it’s this game you play with the community. So sometimes I see the positive, but sometimes —- because of social media —- a lot of people reach out to me from different countries. I would say the main one is people heading back home or to work and they are in some kind of traffic or something, they see the wall. And they say they look forward to seeing it. They know it’s going to come up and they look forward to seeing it. So I think that’s pretty cool. And, that’s the one I get the most. So, what you do there really makes a difference because they can see it as good or, it’s going to be talked about in a bad way — and, that’s what you want as an artist! 

NJ: It does change the landscape for as long as the piece is up there. And probably with your work, because it’s so intricate, people are probably seeing different things every time they look at it or they’re focusing on a different thing. 

EM: In a community, some people are going to see it from far away and people are going to see it up close — maybe someone’s going to see it from the air. Maybe there’s a bunch of buildings that get it from a specific angle, so I’m always thinking of that. Even if someone’s a mile away I want them to understand something. Maybe it’s just basic shapes that I want them to see or that can tell that it’s a bear. But then if you get the opportunity to get close to it, people can say, “okay, there’s more.” Whether it’s just the way I treat a texture or whether it’s another animal.

NJ: Is there a project that has struck you more in one way than others?

EM: I would say, at the beginning of my mural painting I got invited to a lot of projects and mural festivals like World Refugee Day or things like this. I would say it’s always those. In Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan I painted in the camps. I would say, by far, those were the most, in every level, the biggest impact.

A painting of a bear on a builiding

NJ: Where are you at now? What is coming up for you?

EM: I’ve been painting a lot of murals recently, a lot of city projects. During COVID I wasn’t really traveling too much out of the country, so I shifted to the US and a lot of places in Florida. 

HM: Our next mural is a firehouse in Tennessee. Then we’re going to Jersey City and then to Green Bay. Wisconsin. 

NJ: You’ve been doing this since about 2015. How did this all start? 

EM: I was in the Coast Guard for 7 years. I had a big change in my last year, medically. I had some surgeries in my knees that caused me to not be able to work on some boats. And then that led, somehow, to painting. I was painting the California flag on some mechanic’s shop window — and that’s it. Ever since that day I’ve been painting. 

NJ: I love that when, you have no idea, you wake up one morning and it’s like, I’m going to do this part of my job that they’ve asked me to do and it turns into something completely different. 

EM: Yeah, yeah, very random. Just out of the blue and that’s it. 

NJ: Did you grow up in Florida?

EM: Yes, in a place called Hialeah, in South Florida. 

NJ: I do like that you are constantly using nature in all of your works. It’s very calming to look at. Is that something you’ve always wanted?

EM: When I was just learning how to paint I was studying a lot. I  needed something to keep my studying focused. So, I said, I’m just going to paint nature because I was already doing some marks with my hand that emulated leaves. (I noticed that) very organic, simple hand movements with the brush would look like a flower. Even with a roller I can swirl it in a way that it looks like a leaf, so I said, well this is going to be my subject — all areas of nature. I really like biology, anything with life and the evolution story, so I just follow that.  A lot of the paintings are things that I’m interested in at the moment. It’s really nice to have an inspiration where it feels like an endless supply. Some people say, “paint something else!” I’ve done some cities, but everything is always constructed with nature. My drawing is always like leaves and stems growing out, and from there I start flowering and giving it shape. So it’s just really easy to use it on every level. 

NJ: It’s nice to be able to bring that into a cityscape

EM: Yeah. Visually it works and with my actual, physical painting process. It just works. I don’t use many references when it comes to shaping it. I just use references for the more realistic details on the animals sometimes. But everything else is just flowers made up of something I remember seeing. And it just becomes very specific, like if it was a letter in the alphabet, I continually use that motion. It’s just years of creating that alphabet with colors and shape and line. That’s why I really stick to nature. I use it to paint everything because I’ve already created that visual alphabet.

See more of Ernesto Maranje’s work at www.maranje.com. We’re fortunate to have two of Ernesto’s paintings in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps you can see his work up close in your town?