Artist Interview: DAVE LERI

In an effort to make this blog a little more diversified and valuable to its readers (if you’re one of them, thanks for sticking around this long!), I bring you the “Artist Interview” post! In these posts I’ll be talking to fellow artists and getting their responses to the really TOUGH questions - questions like what their favorite smell is and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop! But mostly I’ll be picking their brains about working processes and professional experiences in order to hopefully demystify some aspects of being a working artist/illustrator. So without further ado, let me introduce you to my first interviewee, Dave Leri!
"The White Queen"

Dave is a fantasy artist based in the Columbus area of central Ohio. He works primarily in oil paints to create insanely colorful and photo-realistic fantasy and figurative works, and has worked for such clients as Alderac Entertainment Group, White Wolf Publishing, and Realms of Fantasy Magazine, just to name a few. I first became aware of his work at the second IlluXCon in Altoona, PA back in 2008 (though in my amazement, I probably forgot to introduce myself to him). Needless to say, I am so thrilled and appreciative that he agreed to be interviewed for this blog. So let’s get to it!     
JM: In your website bio, you talk about how you worked for a while doing sculptures and props for the Scare Factory here in Columbus. What was it that ultimately led you to pursue painting and illustration instead?
DL: The Scare Factory was a great summer job and probably one of the most fun periods in my life. I was working with a group of other students from CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) who I liked a lot. We were a fairly idealistic group of young artists who had yet to be beaten down by the real world and we acted accordingly. While the company is still in business, I couldn’t see it as a long-term prospect for employment at the time. The pay was fairly low, there were no benefits, and it wasn’t the healthiest work environment with chemicals (resin, foam, latex) spilled all over the place. I would often go home with a not-unpleasant warm fuzzy feeling.

Most of the artists I had admired growing up were fantasy artists and I think that I knew from a young age that that was what I wanted to do. I was definitely intrigued by the 3-D illustration sculptures that I saw on my first visit to CCAD, but I hadn’t ever sculpted anything before and didn’t know if I had any ability in that area so sculpture was more of a secondary interest.
JM: As a primarily traditional painter, have you ever seen something created with digital tools that you thought you might like to incorporate into your work? Have you ever felt much pressure from the industry to move into digital work?
DL: I actually use Photoshop quite a bit in working out the layouts or compositions for most of my oil paintings. I usually bring my sketches, reference photos of people and sculpted creature or architectural maquettes, etc. into Photoshop and move them around, rotate them, and resize them to try to go through as many variations as possible and find the best one.

There are many artists out there that are doing incredible work digitally. I’m not one of those traditional painters who turn their nose up at the new methods of creating art. I’ve only done two finished illustrations in Photoshop. The main reason I used it was that both pieces involved painting magical effects and I’ve had little success in the past pulling them off in oil paint. I generally like the way my oil paintings look better than the stuff I have tried digitally. I also haven’t bought a tablet yet, so I’ve been trying to paint with the mouse which someone pointed out is like painting with a bar of soap.

I have been doing more personal work and paintings for collectors in the last few years so I haven’t felt much in the way of pressure to switch over. I have heard from other artists who work traditionally that deadlines have become more compressed, and clients are more likely to expect the ability to make changes not only throughout the process, but also after it is finished - which is much more difficult to do in paint than a program like Photoshop or Painter.

"Abby's Dragon"

JM: Can you break down the average number of hours you spend on an image (i.e. sketches, reference, final drawing, painting, etc.)?
DL: I try really hard not to think about such things. It is too depressing:) I work a part-time day job that varies between 25-30 hours a week, so my artwork generally gets done late at night and on weekends. For a small 9”x12” painting – I could usually get that done in a couple of months, which includes everything from initial sketches, model shoots, sculpting creatures, and then the oil painting itself. For larger paintings sometimes it would stretch to 3-4 months. I worked on my Death Squealer painting on and off for a couple years which in retrospect was ridiculous. The fact that I am so slow is the main reason that I decided to not do illustration full-time after the first couple years. Also there is something to be said for a steady paycheck.
JM: What do you find to be your most useful and most detrimental work habits?
DL: I think that my work habits have vastly improved mostly due to my part-time job. My first two years when I was freelancing full-time were a mess. Everyone thinks that working from home is a dream job. The one thing I quickly realized was that when you work from home, you are always at work. I tended to overbook my schedule, not intentionally, but it took a while to realize how long it was going to take me to do any given assignment. It is very easy to fill up your schedule when you are slow.

I also hated to disappoint people and didn’t want to squash future opportunities by rejecting work. The other obvious concern was that you have a certain amount of bills coming in and the amount of work you take on needs to at least equal that amount. Being a compulsive worrier, I would start out on a project and try to get ahead by staying up all night and working really long shifts on my projects. The problem with doing those kind of extreme all-nighters multiple nights is that your sleep or rest periods are kind of like a loan shark, you can borrow from them but you are going to have to pay them back or you will suffer physically and mentally.

I spent much of those two years as an over-caffeinated zombie. The lesson that I learned from this is that you need to be disciplined in your work schedule, and this might seem like a strange use of the word, but you need to be disciplined enough to know when not to work. You need to get some sleep and get away from your work periodically. Burn-out is a real thing and if you’ve ever seen one of your favorite artists seem to get into a creative rut, they probably just need a chance to get away from their work for a little while and approach it anew with fresh eyes.

My day job of the last 13 years involves driving a large truck, so I can’t and don’t pull the crazy all-nighters any more. It has forced me to get on a regimented schedule and to sleep. I tend to work on one project at a time now. Unfortunately, I’ve turned down more work than I have been able to take on recently, but I’m also producing a lot less crappy artwork than I was and that is a trade-off that I can handle.

"Death Squealer"

JM: What was one of the most beneficial or memorable lessons you learned in art school?
DL: I think in retrospect that the freshman foundation year in which you were taught the fundamentals of design, color theory, perspective, drawing, painting, etc. were the most important lessons. However, I did not feel that way while I was going through it. I can remember many times while I was cutting shapes out of construction paper or painting color wheels in gouache feeling like what the Karate Kid must have felt while he was waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car and painting his fence. It seemed like a lot of make-work B.S. at the time. I felt like other aspiring illustrators were probably actually working on honing their craft while I was wasting a year. Only when I finally had a chance to apply the lessons learned in those classes in the subsequent years did it make sense to me why they were important.
JM: When and how did you start getting into the convention scene?
DL: I attended a few GenCons between the years 1995-’97 up in Milwaukee, WI. It was a good experience. I had the chance to see a lot of great original, professional artwork in person and meet the people creating the work, many of whom were my childhood heroes.

I then went on a 13-year hiatus where I didn’t attend any shows or conventions. I’m not a really social animal and was generally fairly content if I had a project in sitting in front of me. I think that there were two things that caused me to get back into exhibiting my artwork and attending conventions. The first was that some of my major clients that I had been doing work for over the years went out of business, were having financial difficulty, or in one case were bought out by a company that focused on computer games rather than the pen and paper games that I had been working on.

The second motivator was the creation of Illuxcon which is a convention focused entirely on Fantasy Art which brings together many of the biggest names in our industry along with collectors of original artwork and students who aspire to work in the industry. I had the chance to exhibit in the second show in 2008 and it was a great. I was familiar with everyone in the show and their artwork as I was a big fan of this stuff long before I ever seriously thought of doing it professionally. It was pretty clear to me, however, that even though I had been working in the biz’ for the last 13 years that no one had ever heard of me or was familiar with my work. I decided that I really needed to start putting more effort into promoting my art even though I don’t enjoy doing it.

I shared a booth with my friend Raoul Vitale at the 2nd Spectrum fantastic Art Live in May and the great Paul Bonner stopped by our booth and after looking at my work said in his wonderful British accent “Why have I never heard of you before?” I guess I’ve still got a lot of work to do.
JM: What part of the creative process do you enjoy most? Which part do you find the most frustrating?
DL: I really enjoy coming up with the concept for each new painting. The preliminary work including the sketching phase, the scavenger hunt for props and models, designing and sculpting of the creatures; all that stuff is cool and exciting. The actual process of painting itself I find to be absolute drudgery. I don’t know if I have burnt myself out over the last 17 years or my painting technique is just too tedious, but I try everything possible to occupy my mind with other things to forget that I am painting. I listen to books on tape, the radio, CD’s, news shows on T.V. and thankfully have a friend who is up late and doesn’t mind listening to my incoherent ramblings early in the morning.

Oh, and finally finishing the painting or sculpture is enjoyable too. That is probably the best part.

"This Hard Land"

JM: Can you talk a little more about some of the work you're doing outside the Fantasy and Sci-Fi genres?
DL: My highschool art teacher really turned me onto Western and Native American art. He was doing some beautiful portraits of American Indians while I was in his class. He would attend pow-wows and photograph the participants and then work from his photos. I still enjoy painting western scenes and have sold a couple of my paintings, but I don’t have a good understanding of that market and coming from a commercial art background, I’ve always been a little leery (no pun intended) of the gallery scene.
JM: Any words of wisdom for students or aspiring artists/illustrators?
DL: There has been a lot of talk lately on blogs and Facebook regarding whether getting an art education is worthwhile. Having had the opportunity to go myself I wouldn’t discourage anyone else from attending college or an art program, but I would caution that it is not worth getting yourself into a large amount of debt to have an art degree. Much has changed since I started at CCAD which was a little over 20 years ago now. In that time, as with most schools, the tuition cost has nearly tripled.
I have heard people throw around numbers like a hundred thousand dollars of art school debt and it makes me ill just thinking about it. There are professions out there like doctors and lawyers where you are likely to make enough of a salary to handle that kind of debt. Artist, on the other hand, is a career that is not likely to pay that kind of money.

Only one Art Director has ever been interested in where I went to school, let alone whether or not I had a degree. He was only interested because we went to the same school. There are many artists out there working today who I don’t think have any formal training beyond what they received in highschool. The aforementioned Raoul Vitale, Michael Komarck, and Tim Bradstreet are a few examples of incredible artists who fit that description. The vast majority of what I have learned over the years is through hours and hours of painting, experimentation, studying others’ work, all of which are not expensive and can be done outside of a school setting.

The obvious advantages to going through a structured program include being exposed to things that you may have not known that you enjoyed or are good at. You will probably be learning the latest software programs and on the latest hardware available. If you are fortunate like me, you will have students in your class that are much farther along and better artists than you are, which will force you to get better as you will have to put your artwork up next to theirs’ every day. Having a four-year incubation period for you to build up your skills before being thrust out into the cold, cruel world is also nothing to sneeze at. And lastly, coming from a small town, college was good for me in that I was exposed to many different kinds of people, cultures, and ideas that I might not have been had I not gone there.

I guess that my point in all this is that everyone has a different situation in life and there are many different paths to a career in art. You just need to find the path that works for you.

Sincere thanks again to Dave for taking the time to be interviewed! If you’d like to learn more about him and see more of his incredible work, run over to his website:!

All Images in this post are ©Dave Leri. All Rights Reserved. Displayed with permission.

Did you like this interview? Any suggestions for future interviews? Leave a comment below!