Magical gals and their spooky pals: That’s how artist Sierra Leitner of Moonbound Studio describes the characters whose worlds she dreams up in her digital paintings. “The characters I paint always feel real to me — like they’ve been wandering around in my head, and I just need to discover them rather than create them,” she said. “They feel like untold fairy tales that I get the pleasure of hearing first.”
Read on to discover Leitner’s first love of Disney and Studio Ghibli, how she conjures the feeling of a studio space from her campervan bouncing between the East and West coasts, and her advice for connecting with fellow artists and fans.
Tell us more about your journey to becoming an artist. When did art become a passion for you? Was there a particular moment that captured you?
Art has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember! My mom always talks about how as a child, if I went too long without creating something, I would break down a bit. I’d be shaking my hands out saying, “I need to draw!” and throwing a small fit. Because of that, she eventually bought me a little portable art kit, a sort of plastic clipboard that had storage behind it for all of my colored pencils and paper. That way I could create whenever I needed to.
I’m not sure if that part of me has ever changed, truly! But now, instead of that clipboard, I always carry a sketchbook instead, and I have a note on my phone full of the ideas that I’ve written down whenever inspiration strikes.
You’ve got an adorable style as described on your Instagram: magical gals and their spooky pals! Who are some of the characters, and what are some of the places you return to again and again? Why do these subjects fascinate you?
I’ve always loved creating characters and stories. The characters I paint always feel real to me — like they’ve been wandering around in my head and I just need to discover them rather than create them if that makes sense.
My favorite characters tend to be the ones that have some sort of story or realm attached to them: Lucy and her cat Sampson who go on spooky and enchanted forest adventures; Princess Asha and her fox, who reside in magical night meadows; Magnolia and her familiar Colette who live in a realm overflowing with floral magic; Princess Wysteria with her haunted castle and spirit-inhabited landscapes … the list goes on. I love discovering these characters and their worlds, they feel like untold fairy tales that I get the pleasure of hearing first.
Who are your influences?
I grew up absolutely enamored with Disney and Studio Ghibli. I would watch their movies on repeat almost every single day! I think that my work is heavily influenced by the fairytale aspects of Disney films and the spookier, cryptic-yet-nostalgic elements of Ghibli films. Both studios are so masterful when it comes to creating magic that feels natural and real, and of course, they are masterful at storytelling and world-building.
My love for both of these studios has not waned at all with age. I still go to Disney World every single year and escape into Disney and Ghibli films and music quite often when the world feels too much. I truly look up to both studios.
My absolute biggest dream is actually to have my work sold at the Disney parks in their Haunted Mansion store or during Halloween! I hope I’ll get there someday. (If anyone reading this can make that happen, I am all ears! Pun intended!)
When did you decide to pursue the arts professionally? It looks as if you have a lot of ways of sharing your art with the world through Patreon and prints, etc. How do you decide which avenues to pursue? What advice would you have for other artists looking to do the same?
From a young age, I realized I was either going to be a musician or an artist. I’m lucky enough that my parents always really supported these dreams. I ended up going to college for visual art at SUNY New Paltz, so my creative world kind of shifted in that direction.
I learned a lot about how to make art at school, but truth be told, I didn’t learn much about how to actually make money making art. So it was a lot of trial and error once I graduated (it still is in a lot of ways! I think that’s the life of an artist). I ended up making most of my money selling my prints at juried art fairs and festivals, with Patreon being my next biggest income.
My advice for artists looking to make money on their art is to put your eggs in as many baskets as reasonably possible! Keep throwing your art at the wall until something sticks. Usually, it takes more than one thing to truly sustain yourself financially purely through art.
And to try your best to always remember WHY you started creating in the first place, because it wasn’t just for money. It is so easy to get stuck in the mindset of “I need to make something so that I can make money” rather than “I need to make something because I feel inspired.” Especially when the path of being an artist can be so unclear. To combat that, I try to focus on the connections I make with people through my art. Usually, if I follow those paths, the money follows eventually, and I am happier too.
You use a lot of cutting-edge techniques, like animating your paintings and exhibiting them in virtual shows. What opportunities do you think this new world creates for artists?
For me, entering the virtual and technical sphere of the art world has honestly been very intimidating! As I’m sure, it is for many artists. It can swallow you up completely, there are so many talented artists out there, and we all have a voice now. It can feel impossible to stick out. But the virtual sphere also holds a lot of opportunities in that way, too, with a bit of luck and a lot of effort.
Exhibiting virtually is such a cool opportunity to reach people you would never have met, and to do it safely, too. As a digital artist, it’s also great because you can upload your paintings directly.
But I think my favorite discovery in the virtual sphere has actually been the app Motionleap, which I use to animate my paintings! I knew I needed to start making video content in order to be successful on social media, but creating videos wasn’t in my wheelhouse, nor was it inspiring for me. I dreaded it, really. Discovering that I could animate my paintings with the push of a button was a true game changer in that sense. Instead of just “creating content,” animating was another way to bring my paintings to life, so that had me feeling so inspired. I’ve loved being able to “step into” my worlds in a way I hadn’t imagined.
Let’s hear more about your process. How does your work go from idea to execution?
Most of my paintings start out as sketches in my sketchbook or as vague ideas frantically written in my notes app — many of which hit me in the middle of the night. I always feel like my paintings are “beamed” into my head. I try to write it down or sketch it within that moment, so I don’t lose it.
Once I have the sketch or idea, I usually do a concept a d color test on my laptop. I use Clip Studio Paint on a Microsoft Surface Pro 7. I have a sketch layer, and then “color it in” on layers behind the sketch, messing with the colors a lot before I commit to starting the final painting.
Then, it’s a bazillion painting layers and masks as I “build up” the image, starting from the sky and moving forwards through layers of the scene. I upload some watercolor textures to overlay over the skies to add texture, and I use some custom floral and tree brushes to make it feel lush. My favorite part is adding the glow and the ghosts. I love how digital painting allows you to kind of “paint with light.”
I actually have timelapses of my paintings on my Patreon that show the entire painting process! It’s definitely easier to watch the process than it is to explain it.
Once the painting is done, I print it on my own using archival luster paper and a high-quality photo printer. The printer is my favorite investment I’ve made in my artistic career; it’s so nice having so much freedom and control over how my prints turn out.
What is your studio environment like? Do you have any rituals or mottos as you start to create? What tools and references are always on your desk?
I bounce between the East and West coasts very often, as I am bicoastal to the Hudson Valley, New York and Los Angeles. That means I also spend a lot of time on the road in my campervan. Because of that I don’t really have a proper “studio” like a lot of artists do! In New York, I do have my desk and my printer/all of my paper. In Los Angeles, I don’t have a desk at all, so my “studio” is usually the couch, and on the road, my “studio” is either my bed in the van or a chair at a campsite by the fire.
So for me, the little rituals and tools are really what creates a “studio” space! I love to have my favorite pink comfy headphones on, playing my favorite music, usually Aurora these days, and if I can help it, I like having something yummy to drink and some candles or incense lit, too. It’s the little things that make me feel completely immersed in my painting.
I do dream of having my own studio space someday, though. I think it would be full of flowers and art and figurines and things that make me happy. Lots of natural light, lots of pink things, and a comfy, comfy chair. And a cat or two.
When do you feel most creative? How do you boost your creativity and push through creative blocks?
My creativity strikes at the strangest times! But I definitely feel most creative when I am seeing inspiring places, like when we are on road trips and driving through incredible forces of nature; magical places like Redwood forests and winding blue rivers. There’s something about nature that holds this deep-rooted magic. I always feel so inspired when we are exploring.
When I can’t explore or am feeling creatively blocked for whatever reason, I have these inspiration albums on my phone that I add to regularly to help push through that blockage. One album for color scheme and environment inspiration, and one album for character and outfit inspiration. They are full of screenshots and photos I’ve taken myself that inspire me for one reason or another. I always try to keep my mind open to these moments of inspiration, so I can save them up for when I need them later.
Whenever I’m feeling blocked, I can scroll through these hundreds of photos that have inspired me, and something is bound to come together in my head.
Also, though, I think it’s really important to not push yourself too hard when you’re feeling blocked! Creativity ebbs and flows. Always trust that when it is blocked, it will eventually flow again if you are patient with yourself.
Do you ever face self-doubt as an artist? What advice would you give to someone else?
I actually struggle with self-doubt all the time. I don’t think that’s something that will ever change, really. And I think that is a feeling that all artists struggle with. I actually receive messages from other artists asking me this question quite often.
But I think it makes sense to feel self-doubt. Creating art is like baring a piece of your soul. It makes sense for that to feel extremely vulnerable and really scary. It makes sense that you would then compare yourself to others and possibly feel inadequate.
The thing I always remind myself is that as an artist, it’s not my job to create other people’s art. It’s my job to create MY art. Using MY soul. As long as I am finding joy in creating art, and I am painting what I truly love to create, that joy and that love will shine through my paintings. And people will see it. And if I keep following that love and that joy, my paintings will only get better, too.
If an artist reading this ever wants to have a chat about that struggle, I am always here! You can message me on Instagram. Artists lift each other up.
How do you connect with audiences and build community around your art? What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
I think if you allow yourself to be vulnerable and to be open to people, the community and the connection finds you. I absolutely love to talk to people when they reach out to me with questions or kind words. They inspire me every single day. I’ve actually met some truly dear friends that way. How incredible it is, the connections you make and ripples you cause just by putting your art into the world. It is a surreal feeling I don’t think I’ll ever get over.
A really special community that I need to mention are my patrons on Patreon. These people believe in my work and in me and support me every single month. They are so genuine and so kind, it is such a joy to have such a direct connection to them.
I hope that when people see my work, they leave with new fairytales and a new world to explore, new spooky friends, and new whimsical characters to look up to or see themselves in. I hope that they can use my paintings as an escape, as little windows into a realm a little spookier and more magical than the one we live in, guided by spirits and guarded by the moon. And I hope the world I paint feels as real to them as it does to me. I really just want to share this place with everyone.