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Bryan Leister: Evolution of an Artist [elan magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
elan magazine
Cover story
October 2005

Illustrator Bryan Leister has evolved from a master of classical realism to the maker of iconic digital images for some of the nation’s most popular magazines. Now, at 42, he’s taking his art to the third dimension.

Even at the start of his professional career, Bryan’s oil paintings were compared to the famous early Renaissance artist Botticelli. That talent launched a fruitful freelance career that began the spring of 1985 when the Virginia native finished a degree in fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Soon after setting up his studio in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, Bryan began landing work for Atlantic Monthly New Republic and Business Week and large corporations such as Mercedes, Kohler and Smuckers. Celestial Seasonings hired him to create artwork for the packaging of one of its most popular teas, Raspberry Zinger.

Book publishers called on him to paint portraits of Queen Esther, Queen Elizabeth and Robin Hood for covers of their newest books. A highlight was when he was tapped to paint the cover for Karen Cushman’s 1995 Newberry Honor-winning book, “Catherine Called Birdie.”

The pinnacle, though, came when Bryan was hired to paint the August 8, 1994, cover for Time magazine. The piece, “Everybody’s Hip,” was a takeoff on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

“Landing a Time cover was always a goal of mine,” says Bryan. “It was a very strange feeling when I actually achieved it.” So strange, he admits, that once he achieved it, he became very reflective.

“I started questioning the practicality, of earning a living with such a time-consuming illustration style. I loved doing those intricate paintings, but it took weeks of research to get the images just right. I finally decided that if I was going to make a good living as an artist, I needed to work faster. That meant changing my style.”

So in 1997 Bryan made a bold move. He put away his paintbrushes.

Instead, he picked up a computer mouse and, using a top-of-the-line Macintosh G4, developed a new digital graphic style. It took him hours, not weeks, to complete an illustration—and immediately the gamble paid off. Art directors took notice of the tight, clever, iconic images he was turning out.

Bryan not only kept many of his old clients but soon added new ones including American Express, Ameriquest (he created the company’s new logo), Bechtel, Fidelity, IBM, Lotus, Oracle and Verizon.

His new success didn’t surprise fellow illustrator and wife, Becky Heavner.

“It was kind of sad when he stopped painting in his old style, because it was so magical,” says Becky. “But Bryan had been talking to me for a while about making a change, and I’ve always believed that my role as his wife is to be supportive. Of course, it helps that Bryan is a good businessman and is always careful about his choices, so I trusted it would all work out.”

Soon after, Bryan’s new style-and his affinity for computers-spawned another bold move.

In 1999, he founded www.folioplanet.com, a Web site that showcases the portfolios and stock images of hundreds of artists. In the last six years, it has become a go-to spot for art directors looking to hire top-notch artists, says Bryan’s partner and longtime friend, Maryland illustrator Randy Lyhus.

“A real shift in the illustration industry happened in thelate’90s,” explains Randy, who is in charge of customer service for the company. “Artwork created on commission by illustrators was being bought up and resold by big companies [such as Corbis, owned by Microsoft’s Bill Gates]. Those firms used the power of the Internet. They bought the art cheap, resold it for less than the artists were [charging], and literally changed the industry. It wasn’t right, and it was hurting everyone who made a living creating art. Our goal at Folio Planet was to give some control back to the artists.”

A third partner, Chris Noel of the Maryland design firm Particle,
came on board in 2000 to create promotional materials and give the Web site its cut6ng-edge look.

Are there ever clashes between the three creative types?

“Sure,” Chris admits, “but not often. We all have been friends for nearly 20 years, and we know each other pretty well. So if we have a problem, we set up a time to get into the same room. Once that happens, any conflicts that have been raging get resolved quickly. We are friends first. If we get really mad, we make a plan to go fishing and that makes whatever we’re arguing about seem much less important.”

Fishing, it turns out, is a hobby Bryan has long turned to when he needs to escape the pressure of the business world. Last summer, while trying to snag the “big one,” he got to thinking about his career.

He pondered what he liked about his new computer-generated digital style and considered what he missed about the older painterly style he’d abandoned. Then he had an epiphany: “I thought it might be fun to learn to combine the two styles but do it in a really new and different way.”

Upon returning home to his studio, he started looking into the Masters of Fine Arts program at George Mason University in Fairfax.

In addition to getting a refresher course in technique and concepts, he knew that an M.FA. could eventually lead to a teaching position—a step he had long thought would add some stability to his freelance illustration career.

Bryan was accepted into the program last fall, and his work soon caught the eye of his professors.

“Bryan came here looking to combine his old painting style with his passion for digital technology,” says Gail Scott, director of GMU’s Digital Fine Arts department. “Of course, he is an incredible artist, and what he’s come up with is tremendous and really something of a hybrid.”

That’s just what Bryan was hoping for.

“I always thought it would be too hard to actually paint on the computer,” he says, “but it turns out it isn’t as tough as I thought. What I’ve learned at GMU is to take the entire creation to a new level by making it work in three dimensions.”

It’s actually tough to tell what medium he is working in when creating a portrait, for example.

“I start by basing the painting on my wife Becky, then morph different parts of it,” he says. “For instance, I’ll elongate her neck or make her eyes different sizes. It’s strange, but it’s interesting—and essentially, I’m playing with the idea of feminine beauty.”

That twisting of reality is what makes his new work fascinating.

“I always believed that if the skin, eyes and mouth of a painting are beautiful, that the viewer will focus there, and the artist can play around a little,” says Bryan. “In these new paintings, I’m taking some liberties with traditional concepts, and that’s what makes it intriguing.”

After he creates the effect of an oil painting on the computer, Bryan prints out the digital image, often adding paint or texture to the finished piece. Then he takes the entire creation to another level by framing it in a unique 3-D manner. The finished product isn’t just a painting, or a print, but a work of art that is unusually stunning.

“I like pushing the limits and making viewers question what they are seeing,” he says. “For years, people would be amazed that my paintings were really done by hand. Now they seem amazed that they are computer-generated, but finished in an original, unique way. I’m having a great time keeping people guessing.”


For more visit: www.bryanleister.com.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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