Thais Leiros is a Brazilian illustrator and graphic designer. Her illustrations are made in pencil and charcoal. She tries to work with the inner psychology of her characters, with themes revolving around death, the sublime, the mysterious and inscrutable. You can find more of her work on her website and on Twitter.
What led you to work with illustration? Tell us how your relationship with art began.
I think I’ve always been drawing. Some of my earliest childhood memories are those of making art: my parents let three-year-old me scribble up the walls of our old rental apartment with crayons, pencils, and paint. They gave me books about art (one of my favourites was a children’s book on Claude Monet) and have always immersed me in an environment of learning and appreciation for culture and reading. In my teens I was in a very academically demanding school, I used to draw as a hobby in my sketchbook during class, always casually and with not much serious study involved. A lot of my energy was expended on school, and because of that I felt like I was not good enough for art when choosing my college major. I decided to go to law school, which I regretted and quit after two years. In that time, with way more free time on my hands, I was able to re-evaluate my relationship with art and creating things, and decided to become an illustrator.
However, there aren’t any schools for that where I live, so I went to the closest thing I could get and applied for a graphic design major. It felt ironic that I still wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted, but life is about working hard around the limitations you have, and very few people are privileged enough to do exactly what they want, especially outside of “developed countries.” You could say I only really started taking art (as a discipline) seriously when I was 20, and I think it shows when you see my early skill evolution. I was not one of those 18-year-old wunderkids that have professional level work before they even finish school, but I think I did the best I could with the limited opportunities I had for formal art education, since to this day I am still mostly self-taught.
During the past week, as we worked with Valente's story, you mentioned how your work requires several thin layers of graphite, which gives your pieces a very luscious atmosphere. Can you tell us more about your process with traditional art?
For many years I did digital art, but about three years ago I realized that I like the physicality of traditional art way more. Compared to other traditional artists my process is pretty loose, but since you can ruin your expensive supplies by messing up, I still like planning around a bit before starting a piece: I do multiple loose thumbnails with different ideas, sometimes it takes twenty to get to the composition I like, sometimes it’s the very first. If I am unsure when choosing, I do a more complex and detailed thumbnail of what I think are the best ideas with light and shadow blocked in, and usually that’s enough to help me pin down what works best. Then, I tape the corners of the paper with masking tape, do a loose messy sketch, and just start rendering from that. I usually work with very densely packed dark values, and for that to work I need to do the “layer HB/2B pencil thinly and press it in with a blending stump for twenty hours” technique. The reason for that is that graphite particles are easily polished, and the pencil tip is an excellent burnisher, so if you go dark all at once it will become shiny, unreadable, and unscannable. There’s really no shortcut for that using only pencil (you can work around it with gray watercolor or charcoal), so I just have to bear with this really boring process for the sake of the results I think are best. When I’m done, I scan it (in halves because my scanner is tiny) and edit it on Photoshop to bring it closer to what it looked like originally. In the illustration I did for Valente’s story, I also added flat colors.
Quarantine has affected the work of many artists, and many of us have struggled to cope with the current state of the world. What do you do to keep yourself motivated?
The honest truth is that I’m not very motivated right now! I struggle with mental health issues, and was very burnt out from my thesis when quarantine began, so I haven’t done any personal finished work in months. I still have practiced and experimented with new mediums, but I also just recognized that I’m not at 100% right now and it would be unfair of me to demand the absolute best in such an abnormal situation. As artists in a capitalist society, our identities and worth are very bound to our capacity to create and produce (content, capital, etc). I constantly see my Twitter mutuals apologize for not posting much … I understand the sentiment, but I think we need to remove our self-worth from being so deeply entangled with producing things. Creating can be the way we assert our existences and personal vision to the world, but I don’t think it should be the endgame for our own perception of worth. We should be kinder to ourselves, and we should allow ourselves to just “be,” to just exist as individuals. Of course, if working makes you feel better, that’s great! I see a lot of people pumping out artwork right now, and I’m happy for them. But I think people like me need to let go of the guilt and just let ourselves know that we have inherent worth regardless of how much or how little we create. To be honest, historically most artists haven’t worked under such a neurotic pressure to constantly put out work like the one we have in the 21st century. Paradoxically, guilt can be paralyzing, it can hinder your personal and artistic growth, so currently I’m currently just trying to keep myself afloat one day at a time while being kind to myself and to others.
What and/or who inspires you? It can be anything: other visual artists, completely different media, or other things that boost your creativity.
I’m very inspired by visual arts and reading. I’m a big art history nerd, so I could go on for hours on the subject of my influences, but to pin down a manageable number, my most aesthetically influential art schools would probably be symbolism and baroque, and also religious art and brutalist architecture. Contemporary artists I find particularly influential to me are Yoshitaka Amano, Takato Yamamoto, and João Ruas. Looking at work I like and find congruous to my own aesthetics really inspires me, but looking at things that are completely different from what I do also helps. I try to keep my influences wide so that I can have new ideas and not the same self-parodying thing over and over again (I have various levels of success on this end). More even than art, I am greatly inspired by reading. I’m not really a fiction reader, most of what I like falls into the academic: art history, visual perception, philosophy, sociology, religion, and history are my favourite subjects. I like learning about the things that build people’s worldview, how they changed over time, the mysticism of the world and it’s natural phenomena, the subjectivity of human perception ... I get most of my ideas while thinking about those things.
Your style is mostly focused on pencil work and traditional art. Do you use sketchbooks? How is your approach to them?
I do! Although I used to more when I actually left the house. I’m not very organized with sketchbooking, I also have the “pretty” sketchbook where I put more organized finished things, and the “ugly” sketchbooks where I dump everything else. I think having a block of cheap paper that you don’t feel bad about ruining helps a lot, and those are the ones I use 90% of the time. There’s this mystique of the impressive sketchbook full of polished work but I’m pretty sure 90% of the artists that have those actually have, like me, a secret ugly sketchbook where they throw the crappy sketches and unfinished ideas. The other 10% are geniuses and virtuosos and whatnot. I’m not one of those so I just doodle on crappy paper with abandon, and if something good comes out I save it to turn it into a polished illustration later.
What's the piece you're most proud of, and why?
This one on the left, it was for my thesis, and accompanied a poem. I finished it in under three days as if I were possessed by something (I have never managed to work that fast before or since). I really like the imagery that I created, the shadows, the textural density, and the expression on the character. I think I really managed to convey the emotion I wanted through it, and it came really close to what I initially had in my mind when conceptualizing the piece.
You're currently working on a project of illustrating Brazilian poets. Can you tell us more about it? What are your dreams with art? If you could choose anything, what would you like to work with in the future?
It’s actually my graphic design thesis that is taking a LOT of time to come out. I’m illustrating poems by Brazilian poet Augusto dos Anjos. He’s my favourite Brazilian poet, and he’s also from my state so I get to honor local culture too. His work is dense with darkness and metaphors, and themes about death and decay, so I think it suits my style very well. My dreams with art are just to keep improving! After I graduate I want to do a masters degree in illustration, so I can become a college professor. I know what it feels like to be lost in your early adulthood, and I want to help future young artists in their artistic journey through these tough times. I have a nurturing personality, and both my parents are college professors too, so I think being in this career makes sense for me. Being a professor and focusing on personal work would suit me just fine, but I would love to illustrate more books in the future. Maybe a cover for a big magazine, or a special edition print of one of the Folio Society’s books. I will try to keep my mind open to possibilities, and lead my life one day at a time.