INTERVIEW: Leslie Casilli on Painting the Creatures of ‘Savage Majesty’

The beauty of fantasy art often lies in its ability to find the magic in the natural world and let it explode all over the page. Leslie Casilli draws on the most elegant aspects of both reality and fantasy to create her art.

Working mostly with fantastical creatures, ranging from dragons and phoenixes to lesser known and sometimes original creatures, Leslie uses rich colours and stunning settings to bring her creations to life. She uses the real world as inspiration and lures you into vivid new worlds of her own design.

Her latest project is a deck of cards that showcases some of her most stunning creatures. It is currently in the last few days of its Kickstarter campaign. By pledging, eager backers can get their hands on one of the first batch, as well as limited edition prints. It is not only already fully funded, but has reached its first and second stretch goals.

We spoke to Leslie to find out more about how her artwork brought her to the campaign and where it’s going next.

Kirstie: How did you get into art?

Leslie: I think almost everyone draws or paints in some way as a child. At some point certain children grow out of it, and for some reason some of us don’t.

As a child I grew up in a very small hamlet. There weren’t a lot of other children to play with or things to do, so I spent a lot of time daydreaming. It seemed very natural to me to start trying to bring the crazy worlds and creatures that I dreamed about to life through art. It was very fulfilling and exciting to see them realized on paper, and I have been obsessed with the process ever since. I don’t really remember ever really getting into it, it has always been an essential part of me.

lesliecasilli-piscesfaeKirstie: Who were your earliest influences?

Leslie: The first art influence that I can remember was my father. I remember struggling to draw a rabbit and no matter what I did it just looked like a potato. Though he doesn’t really draw, he sat down with me and drew what was at the time the most amazing rabbit drawing I had ever seen. I was so inspired, though looking at it now it is funny to see how simple of a drawing it was. I still have that rabbit picture to this day.

My first true artistic obsession and influence was the movie The Last Unicorn. It was dark and moody, beautiful and sad. I probably watched that movie a hundred times and was completely in love with the art style and storytelling. Looking back I can still feel its influence in my art today.

I also spent a great deal of time reading as a child, so a great deal of my early influence came from those fantasy stories. Authors like Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Robert Jordan and many others helped shape my artistic vision.

Kirstie: Who are your predominant influences now?

Leslie: Though I have less and less time to do so, reading still remains one of the major influences in my life. I also love to listen to music while I paint, though I rarely listen to the lyrics of songs. I instead enjoy focusing on the melody, and oftentimes find that that melody greatly influencing the mood of the piece I am working on.

In terms of visual artists who influence me, there are so many. My favorites include Brom, James Jean, Bobby Chiu, Luis Royo, Brian Froud and many others.

lesliecasilli-ariesfaeKirstie: What is your favourite material to work with?

Leslie: Digital art is probably my favourite medium, though it wasn’t always available to me. It is so versatile, and since most of my pieces are destined to be printed, it is so much easier to produce it digitally. I find it is very important for me to switch mediums often however to avoid burn-out, so I paint traditionally quite often too. My favorite traditional medium is Rembrandt Oil paints on canvas, wood panels and feathers, though Gouache and Pyrography come in a close second.

Kirstie: If you could design the poster for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?

Leslie: The Last Unicorn! No question. I would love to take the breathtaking and delicate form of the unicorn and the ferocious Red Bull, but render it in a more realistic style.

Kirstie: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?

Leslie: The first piece that I was really proud of was probably the first piece I ever had published. It was a digital painting of a demonic woman titled The Beckon, and it got into Ballistic’s Exotique book back in 2008.

lesliecasilli-cait2.jpgKirstie: How have you changed as an artist since then? 

Leslie: As an artist it is important to always be evolving and changing. When I created that piece ten years ago I had much less confidence as an artist. I focused on rendering form as realistically as possible with only small changes to achieve a fantasy result. I was afraid if I went too far from the real world I wouldn’t be able to render it convincingly. I was also very intimidated by backgrounds, so I mainly used very flat washes of color or graphic elements behind my characters.

Since then, I have worked hard on pushing my characters to more unusual and fantastical solutions, and have been developing rich and detailed backgrounds and environments to help further the depth of my characters atmosphere and stories.

Kirstie: What drew you to drawing fantastical creatures? 

Leslie: Where I grew up was very beautiful. We were surrounded by trees and wildlife, and we lived on a small lake that was pretty private. I was always very inspired by that area, and seeing glimpses of deer, wolves, and foxes made it feel very magical to me. I really wanted to bring the feeling of magic and wonder that I felt from that time into my art.

yaya han fairy.pngKirstie: How does your creative approach change between human-shaped and animal-like creatures?

Leslie: Humanoid characters are much more difficult!

Though a strong knowledge of anatomy is important for both, people are way more familiar with what a human is supposed to look like. You can change the proportions a lot, but the underlying rules of anatomy have to be right. People will notice if something is off much quicker with a human than with a creature.

On the other hand, human features are much more emotive than creatures’. You can show so much emotion in a human’s face, and people are quicker to make an emotional connection because they understand the expressions and body language of a human. A creature’s face painted realistically doesn’t have the same kind of range. The use of environment, palette, and exaggerated form are essential for showing the mood of a creature.

It is interesting how as I get better with one type of character it influences how I paint the other. The approach I use to create a humanoid character has caused me to start to bring human expression into my creatures. A slight lift of the corner of a mouth or a furrowed brow to show emotion on a creature’s face. At the same time, the creative freedom I have felt within the form of creature design has caused me to become less rigid with my humans, and to understand the need for strong environments to enhance their story.

Kirstie: What is your favourite fantasy creature? Why? 

Leslie: Definitely the Dragon! A very common answer I am sure, but with good reason.

Dragons are one of the first fantasy creatures that a lot of us are introduced to, so there is a lot of nostalgia there. They are strong and powerful, magical and majestic, wise and ageless. And they can fly!

They are a key figure in many of my favourite books and movies, and were the first thing I obsessed over drawing right. You can track my artistic journey through my drawings of dragons.

No matter how many of my own creatures I create, they were all in some way inspired by a dragon.

lesliecasilli-kingofspades.jpgKirstie: What is your favourite fantasy story? Why?

Leslie: Other than The Last Unicorn, which we touched on earlier, it is very hard for me to narrow down a favourite. In terms of film, I would have to say that Dragonheart remains one of my favourites to this day, but I think my all time favourite story was the fantasy novel series The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Though I haven’t read this series in many years, I remember it having a profound effect on me. I would stay up late trying to draw the various characters and races within it. It told of a rich and complex fantasy world that was very unlike our own; a world sundered into elemental fragments.

I think this might have been the story that sparked my passion for creating artwork inspired by the four elements, which is one of the key aspects to a number of my series to date.

lesliecasilli-virgofae.jpgKirstie: Some of your art clearly has a narrative to it. Do you have any plans to further develop these characters and stories?

Leslie: Absolutely! Many of the creatures and characters I develop for these projects will be reoccurring throughout future series. Each time I paint them, I discover something new about their story. They get deeper and more complicated, and slowly develop a life of their own.

They all belong to a world I am building for them, and I intend to one day create an illustrated bestiary compendium describing their world and the creatures and characters within it.

Kirstie: You’ve created a number of spiritual/fantasy art series, including work based on Tarot cards and Zodiac signs. How do you go about giving the supernatural a physical depiction?

Leslie: A blank canvas with endless possibilities can be intimidating. For works like the Tarot and the Zodiac, they are a little easier because I have been giving a starting point for inspiration.

Each tarot card already has a general meaning behind it that I need to capture. I start by developing the narrative and general aspects of the series such as assigning an element and race to each of the suits, an environment, and a color palette and mood that might enhance their story. Once these over-arcing decisions are made, it is much easier to focus on the meaning of an individual piece within the series and fit it into that world.

It is then a question of what kind of attributes enhance a characters story. If they are an air creature, it would make sense that they have wings. There are a lot of different kind of wings however, so what kind of wings would best represent the personality I want to portray? What colors? Every decision I make with a character is to help enhance the flavor of that world.

capricorn.pngKirstie: What made you want to create a deck of playing cards?

Leslie: I am definitely drawn to series of paintings. To be able to create a larger narrative over many pieces is very appealing to me, so I am always searching for ways to incorporate that into what I do.

I have always loved playing cards, and really enjoy combining artwork with a usable product. Being able to appreciate beautiful art and also accomplish some kind of goal, whether it is playing with friends or keeping track of a schedule on a calendar, makes my art feel even more fulfilling.

I think it is important to create things that you yourself feel passionately about, so as a person who owns many custom decks myself, playing cards seemed a perfect choice to create something I would love, while also  giving me a vehicle to develop my creatures for my fantasy world.

playing cardsKirstie: Why did you choose to showcase your designs through playing cards rather than something like a book?

Leslie: Mostly due to time! I am still in the process of developing my fantasy world, which will eventually be showcased in a book. The card deck was a great way to do a smaller series where I could focus strictly on character design and development, and have a usable end result with only 19 pieces of artwork. You could say that creating this deck was in fact work towards a book. Each series I create enhances the next!

Kirstie: You’ve used four fantasy creatures in your deck – Dragons, Zeffurs, Phoenix and Jazzercorn. Why did you choose these four in particular?

Leslie: I wanted to have a creature race for each of the suits of Savage Majesty that felt very unique. Even though the Dragon and the Phoenix are known fantasy creatures, I wanted to design them in such a way that they felt new and exciting.

I played a lot with form and color to create exciting new interpretations of these classic fantasy creatures, and I used those to bridge the way to my completely new creature creations, the Jazzercorn and the Zeffur. Each of these races have very different temperaments and characteristics that let each of them feel very different from one another, yet with enough similarities that allow them to feel cohesive and from the same world.

lesliecasilli-fourofswords.jpgKirstie: Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund your project?

Leslie: In order to get my deck printed by one of the leading card printers in the world, Legends Playing Card Company, I had to buy a minimum quantity of 1000 decks. Quality is very important to me, and I always strive to make the best possible product, even if it ends up costing me more on my end. It is important to build up your collectors’ confidence in your products, so I didn’t want to go with a lesser quality playing card printer that had lower minimum orders. I was going to get the best, or not make the deck at all, but for an order this large I just couldn’t afford to do it myself.

Kickstarter is an amazing platform that makes these kinds of things possible. Fantasy fans that have been watching the project unfold over the last two years have been able to help make the deck a reality, where I otherwise couldn’t. It truly is an amazing time to be an independent artist!

Kirstie: How are you finding your Kickstarter experience so far?

Leslie: It has been amazing! Kickstarter campaigns are a surprising amount of work, and though this is my second one, I was still surprised at how much it entails. I am very excited to announce that we recently reached our funding goal, and with only a couple days left in the campaign, we are pushing towards unlocking our third stretch goal!

I am so thrilled that the deck is going to become a reality, and I honestly cannot properly express my gratitude to those that helped bring it to life. If you are interested in checking it out, Savage Majesty can be found on Kickstarter here.

lesliecasilli-capricornfae.jpgKirstie: What’s your plan for once the campaign is over? 

Leslie: Outside of actually fulfilling the Kickstarter, which includes going back and forth with the printers, getting physical proofs, making sure everything is exactly the way I want it, and putting together and shipping out all the orders, I plan on jumping headlong into my next art series, the Zodiac Creatures!

This will be a series where I will be taking inspiration from the iconic signs of the horoscope, but creating all new fantasy creatures to represent them. These creatures will help further develop the world I am building, and at the end of the twelve pieces I plan on doing another Kickstarter for a 2019 calendar. I am very excited about this project, and am actually already a couple of pieces in!

Kirstie: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Leslie: Oh wow, there is so much advice I could give here. I think the main thing to remember is that never feel discouraged that you aren’t as good as another artist, or you aren’t as good as you want to be. Everyone starts at the same level of bad, and are just at different points of their own art journey. No matter how good you get you will never feel like you are as good as you want to be, and that is a good thing. Let the dissatisfaction push you to always be evolving and be getting better.

Let yourself be consumed by the passion and the challenge to improve. You would be surprised to know how many of the artists you admire feel the exact same way you do.

We’d like to thank Leslie for taking the time to talk to us! If you want to find out more about her Savage Majesty playing cards, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign here. If you’re interested in following Leslie’s work, you can check out her website or follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitch and Instagram.



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