I've been following Leah Davies on instagram for quite some time and I've always admired her work. Leah is an artist based in Boston and she makes beautiful, detailed portraits. Her care and attention to detail never cease to amaze me, and she has this uncanny ability to capture the personality of everyone (or every pet) she paints - and that is no easy feat! Today, I spoke with Leah to find out a little more about her work and creative process.
Being a small business owner myself, I love to hear the origin stories of other makers. When and how did you decide to start your own business?
I really believe that art & creating is in my bones. I was lucky enough to have a mother who saw this creative need in her child, and she made it her mission to foster it. Something I am forever grateful for. I did go to art school for college: I started at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA, but finished at U-Mass Dartmouth. At both schools I studied printmaking. It wasn't until I left school that I started to paint - I just couldn't figure out how to do printmaking in my tiny apartment, and couldn't afford to rent a studio space. Painting and drawing was something that needed little space and little cost. Though I took painting classes here and there throughout my life, I consider myself a self-taught painter.
I worked many jobs both related to art and, some not so much. For more than ten years, throughout college and after, I worked in art galleries. I then went on to work as an administrative assistant for the art department of a publishing company. Sounds cool, but what it boiled down to was torture for an artist: I watched all my co-workers create amazing works of art, and I filed their invoices... Throughout all this, I was creating portraits on the side - after work and on the weekends, mostly from my Etsy Shop and word-of mouth. It wasn't until the end of 2013 that I had had enough of putting my art on the back-burner, and allowing it to be a "hobby". With the support (mental and financial) of my husband, I quit my job and decided to put everything I had into getting my small little "side business" off the ground and to make it my full-time gig. January of 2015 was my one-year anniversary of running this little business of mine.
You make beautiful, detailed portraits. How did you decide to focus on portrait work as opposed to any other style of painting?
Aww, thanks! Once I had found my voice as a painter (it was a small voice, my first paintings were crap), I just happened to be obsessed with taking endless photos of flowers and fauna of all sorts. So I had reference photos galore, and that's what I practiced painting. I've always been very detailed oriented - I think that's why I ended up in printmaking in college. I also love challenging myself, so getting my paintings as close to my reference photo was what I considered the toughest thing to accomplish. I happened to be working at a gallery at that time, and the owner very graciously offered me a solo show. I spent the next year (2005) doing nothing but painting flowers for the show. Opening night I sold more than half of everything in that gallery, and sold off nearly every painting that remained by the time the show was over. Needless to say, because I had put so much into that show, I didn't want to look at flowers any more! Ha! I thought I would shift focus to people and portraits. I got a few jobs through the gallery, but it seemed over and over again I was asked to create portraits of people's pets. I couldn't have been happier! I was in love with my own pets, so I totally understand the want to have a pet painted. In 2008 I did my very first portrait of Henry (there have been many since!), and I realized I might be on to something. I then began to paint friend's pets just so I could build a portfolio. I wanted to have something to show people when they inquired. It grew and grew until in 2010 I opened my Etsy Shop as a pet portrait artist.
Have you set any exciting goals for yourself or your business for 2015? What can we look forward to seeing from you?
Yes! This year is all about growth! I'm investing more in educating myself to be a better business person. I think most often that's something artists and creatives lack intuitively, and I have no problem admitting I need help in that department! On the art side, I have many challenges planed for myself. I'm exploring new and old mediums, trying to perfect my skills. I just completed my very first ballpoint pen drawing, and I plan to keep practicing that method and sharing what I learn along the way. I've also developed a slight obsession with colored pencils. I'm currently working on a colored pencil drawing - it's been one of the biggest challenges yet, and I can't wait to share it! However, what I'm most excited about is my shift into wildlife. I've been collecting some reference photos of various wildlife species. I'll be working on some large (for me) paintings of birds of prey, wolves and perhaps even tigers. I see this not as a departure from what I'm currently doing, but as an additional challenge, and hopefully will open the doors to new opportunities.
When you're not creating or working, what do you love to do?
I love being outdoors. Hiking, walking, bike-riding in the summer. I ski in the winter. I also love to cook (and eat!), so I'm often trying to whip something up in the kitchen! But I also love my couch and TV time. It's when I can turn my brain off and unwind.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in their own self-made business?
I have two great suggestions I have learned over this past year. First - put yourself out there, and don't be afraid to go beyond your comfort zone. Making connections, with potential clients and with fellow artists, is crucial to success. Each connection has the potential to open a new door down the road. Second - be patient and don't give up!! Nothing will ever happen over night. I'm only one year in to doing this full-time and I'm no where near making the kind of living I was when I worked for others. I don't say that as a deterrent, but as a reality. I do want to say I'm happier than I ever have been. I am thankful that I was making small steps while I had my other jobs. Each new step teaches you a lesson, and if you are willing to stop and listen to those lessons, you'll grow! In my first year I felt so much pressure to "make it happen". I needed to put everything into it because the alternative was going back to working for someone else. I worked my butt off in 2014, and I sacrificed a lot. I often felt discouraged and I often felt that my hard work wasn't making a difference. Looking back, I can see all my hard work is paying off. I know this because I have clients that met me over the summer commissioning me now for portraits, giving me a great start for 2015.
Lastly, can you share three of your favorite artists?
Yes! There are so many amazing artists out there right now that are so inspiring! My true art crush starts with Alphonse Mucha, a late 1800's artist. His drawings and paintings have captivated me since I was a little girl. Today, I find a lot of my inspiration from artists like Maria Björnbom-Öberg (http://bokkei.net), a swedish artist known as Bokkei on Instagram (@bokkei), and Morgan Davidson (http://morgandavidsonart.com, @MorganDavidson) a young American artist. I'm realizing now all three are illustrators! And the two girls work almost entirely in colored pencil! But, the reason I am attracted to Bokkei and Morgan is because of their creativity, color sense, and their ability to add so much life to their works.