Leon Lee is an illustrator and visual designer whose versatile vision is equally dynamic at rendering the natural landscape, a fantasy world built on architectural and vernacular idioms, or the cosmic sleekness of an imagined futurism. His skills as a respected illustration artist contain within them the nuanced spatial sensitivities of a painter, which is expressed in his ambitious environmental design work, as well as the confident line of master animators. Besides boundaries of medium and even of industry, Lee also blurs borders in the eclectic globalism of his inspirations, which reflect in a seamless blend the influence of his Malaysian roots and the interdisciplinary cultural currents of his ArtCenter education and professional life in Los Angeles.
L.A. Weekly: When did you first know you were an artist?
LEON LEE: I knew that I always wanted to do something creative from a young age, but I never considered myself to be an “artist” until I had to decide what my plans were for college. Growing up, I was an active kid who only drew every so often. It was just a side hobby, nothing more. My first year in college, I majored in engineering. After several terms, I realized it was not for me and I decided to drop out. It was during that time that I felt lost and unsure of what I wanted to do. My mum was the one who actually saw that I had a creative talent in me and urged me to give art a shot. With nothing to go on at that time, I took her advice and never looked back since.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
I enjoy storytelling and creating imaginative worlds. Most of my inspiration comes from my own life experiences, interactions and travel adventures. My work mainly encompasses landscapes, whimsical worlds, moments in time and my daily life.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
Probably something involving animal conservation or sports-related. Those two things have always been a big part of my life while growing up, and I still enjoy them to this very day.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
I attended two different art schools. The One Academy in Selangor, Malaysia, was where I first received my formal art education. I studied there for a little over a year before deciding to further my studies at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. Moving to ArtCenter was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself because of the talent I was surrounded by, the important lessons I learned from various instructors, accompanied by the best resources and facilities that were available to me at my disposal. I believe that being surrounded in that inspiring and challenging environment was what really helped me grow rapidly as an artist/designer.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
L.A. is one of the most diverse cities in the world. There are many different cultures, cuisine, art scenes, landscapes, and people to be inspired by. It also happens to be the epicenter of most of the top animation studios in the world. Being a visual development artist who works in the animation field, there is nowhere else I would rather be than at the center of it all.
When was your first show?
My very first show was on the 2nd of January 2018 at the Society of Illustrators, New York. A series of my watercolor paintings were selected to be part of their Illustrators 60 exhibition showcasing the top illustration works of the year. It was an honor to be part of a show with such a long history, and to be published in their annual book as well.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
My most recent show was with The Artist Lodge + Studio Ghibli Tribute Gallery that took place on the May 11. Coming up, a series of my illustrations will be showcased at the Somerset House in London for the World Illustration Awards from July 11-28. If you are in the area, be sure to check that out!
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
It would be a dream to have my work shown alongside some of the masters, notably; Andrew Wyeth, [Joaquín] Sorolla, Hokusai and Gustaf Tenggren. These are a few of my artistic role models that I constantly look up to and try to learn from.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
Definitely! It is almost unbearable for me to work without music or something playing in the background. I usually like to mix it up between music from Korean artists such as Dean, Heize and Hyukoh, classical tunes from Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Andre Rieu, Studio Ghibli soundtracks, as well as old classic pop songs. It just depends on my mood. I am always looking for new suggestions!
Website and social media handles, please!