The drawings of Leah Goren, an illustrator and surface pattern designer based in New York, always have clear strokes and eternal shapes, which inspire femininity and beauty. Since she was a child, art has been an important part of her life – therefore, she has constructed a particular and rousing painter personality marked by patterns with flowers, bodies, women, and vivid colours.
What’s your history, when did you start painting? I’m from Carlsbad, California, a beach town about 30 miles north of San Diego. My mom is an artist so I grew up always making things with her. I was a naked baby painting in acrylics on huge canvases in our backyard. I painted the wood frame of my bed, I painted my first bicycle with enamel… When I was 15 and 16, I went to the California College of the Arts pre-college program in Oakland for the summers to take classes in drawing, painting, and printmaking, and it was life changing. I met a whole group of kids and teachers who valued the things I did, and spent time exploring a really exciting city. I knew I wanted to go to art school then, and moving far away from home to a big city like New York seemed really appealing.
How has the process of turning your hobby into a daily work been like? Art was a hobby when I was in high school, but even then I knew, or hoped, I was working toward something bigger. But still, it is definitely one thing to be a student and another to work at this on my own every day. Even though I was supporting myself right out of school, it was mostly because of my shop, and using the title “illustrator” always felt like a lie. After graduating, the free time was also a shock. In school I was attending classes, doing assignments, and running my shop, and suddenly it felt like I had so much time. Three and a half years later, I’m so happy to consistently have the kind of jobs I want and feel like I really am an illustrator now.
As a designer and painter, what’s the most comforting thing about your work? The best part is the moment when a drawing comes together for the first time, and I’m surprised and pleased by how it looks. I do a lot of bad drawings too, so it is exciting when a piece seems to come out perfectly and effortlessly. Sometimes this moment will happen when I’m working in Photoshop, but it feels best when it’s with my brush on paper.
Your patterns are mostly about women, flowers, animals and geometry, why is it? Was it a way to build your own identity? What else is there to draw? (Laughs). These are just the things I like, so I draw them. I started out with abstract or geometric patterns when I was in school, because it was a simpler way to get the hang of setting up a repeating pattern and trying out color combinations. I branched out from there, and aimed to have a portfolio that showed a wide variety of subject matter within my style. Clients hire you from what they see you’ve done already, so now I tend to get jobs where I’m drawing cats to go on mugs, safari animals for bedding, or a leaf pattern for a book cover.
Repetition is one of the main characteristics of your personality as a painter. Why do you use this method? Do you do it consciously? I started making patterns when I was in school because I had a hard time fitting a drawing into a box on a page and making a piece I was satisfied with. Patterns have no bounds; I could arrange any number of elements into a rhythm that felt right and it would repeat forever. I also liked that patterns could be printed onto products with more ease than a traditional illustration, and I always wanted to find a use for my work, especially before companies were hiring me to make their products, or ads, books, etc. As my work has evolved, I’ve grown into my style and figured out how to draw in a box on a page. I still make patterns for a lot of assignments, and when I’m not I usually throw in some polka dots, stripes, or florals into a scene to add interest.
Woman have an important role in many of your illustrations, do you think that your work has a feminist background? I am a feminist, of course, but I don’t consciously channel this into my work. I do have assignments where I need to draw men, but in terms of what I may post on Instagram or draw in my free time, women are just more interesting to me – probably because I am one. There’s more possibility to draw fashion that I’m into, and the curves on a woman’s body are just more fun to draw.
Speaking of which, some of these women that you draw are naked, what does the body of woman represent in your paintings? When I was 15 and studying at CCA I took my first life drawing class, and life drawing continued to be an important part of my illustration education. I really love drawing the figure from life, but I don’t always have the chance to go to sessions with a model anymore, so sometimes I’ll do it myself using image reference from Google. It doesn’t really mean anything beyond this, though I suppose on a subconscious level I probably feel comfortable enough with my own identity as a woman to show how I interpret the female body. I don’t really think about this though!
Nowadays there are many artists (not only women) that use feminism to create (photography, paintings, video art…), why do you think this trend is happening? The Internet has made it possible for so many artists and designers –including myself– to be seen. Anyone can create content, and start or contribute to a trend. Many of us are just making work about what we know: the experience of living in a female body, or perhaps for men how they relate to women in a positive way. Of course there is art with more overt social or political messages, but a lot of what I see is playful: pillowcases with screen printed boob patterns, ceramics planters or jars with sculpted boobs, incense holders in the shape of nude women. These are design objects for everyday life, and why shouldn’t they be? The internet has also allowed creators to find and connect with each other. I’ve met so many friends online who I’ve worked on projects with, such as the pop-up shop Sometimes, or Kaye Blegvad’s zine project, Horizontal Press. When these projects are put back online with a bunch of well-known names attached to them, it definitely starts to look like a trend. Kaye has convinced a ton of amazing illustrators to make pornographic zines, so it must be in right now!
Can you tell me if there are some women who inspire you specially? A lot of my illustration friends are big inspirations. I work on a project called Ladies Drawing Night with Julia Rothman and Rachael Cole where we meet on a weekly basis to chat and have a glass of wine while we draw (and we’re also making a “Ladies Drawing Night” book now, out in fall 2016!). They are always there to help me with life and push my work in new ways. My studiomates Rachel Levit and Monica Ramos are also very important! We all went to Parsons together, and it’s so helpful to work side-by-side two other illustrators that are on the same page as I am. If we ever have questions about clients, projects, or contracts, we have each other to ask.
Can you describe your studio? What do you need in order to paint or create new things? I share a studio in a large warehouse building in East Williamsburg. My studiomates, who I mentioned earlier, are illustrators Rachel Levit and Monica Ramos, as well as designer and letterer Ray Masaki. We each have a couple tables, as well as flat files, a lot of shelving, and a small living room area. I make all of my work with gouache on paper. My preferred supplies are Winsor & Newton gouache and brushes, and Kunst & Papier sketchbooks. I also use a lightbox, scanner, iMac with Photoshop, and printer to make my work.
Is there any places or things that spur your creativity? Which ones? I realized recently that I come up with the best ideas or solutions to prompts during the dullest times – especially when I’m on the bus or in an uber, or at the nail salon. I work very efficiently in my studio, but I don’t really allow myself idle time there to think through problems.
You have worked for Penguin Random House, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Frankie Magazine, NY Times, among others. Did you ever imagine that you would be working with these huge names? No, I had no idea! Having a career made up of freelance work was always the goal, but as a student I didn’t have an idea of how I could make that happen. I was never money-driven – I made things just because I really wanted to.
What’s the illustration or surface pattern design project that you have always dreamed of? I would love to work on more books, and I have a couple ideas I hope to bring to life in the next few years. Beyond that, I’ve always wanted to do surface design for a more high-end designer. It would be so dreamy to see my work on a runway at fashion week!
Can you explain us in what projects are you working at the moment? I’m usually working on several projects at a time, and right now this includes my first illustrated book! It is a loosely narrative celebration of best female friendship, told from the perspective of one friend to the other. It will be the perfect gift to give to your best friend, and will be published by Clarkson Potter in fall 2016. I started working on the final illustration about month ago and it’s been such a fun process so far.