A Day in the Life of an Artist: Leo Valenti

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Continuing our series looking at the day-to-day working practices of disabled artists, visual artist, Leo Valenti shares how they juggle a day job and freelance art career and the need for both routine and space to create.

Leo, a white man with short brown hair, sits facing the camera in front of his desk, on the left there is a bookshelf with a lot of art supplies. On the wall behind him is some original artwork and art from friends.

At my desk the first week I moved in.

First and foremost I think that it is important to note that I am a freelance artist with a day job. I’m a creature of habit and a sucker for financial security. After three years of studying after leaving school at sixteen, I found myself in a student service office facing eviction from my course. My attendance was under 90% due to mental health reasons. Was this a reason to kick a straight-A student out of a course three months before graduating? Apparently so.

As I packed my sketchbooks and left college I phoned my boss and immediately begged her for a full-time contract of employment. Thankfully it was doable, unfortunately, this took a toll on my creative career.

My freelance dream came to a beautiful realisation once I got my studio late last year. It was right around the corner from my flat and it has been my safe haven ever since. This was always the goal, and of course, I could produce the same work sitting at my dinner table, but it helps motivate me.

As someone with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) my days are incredibly repetitive. I wake up at the same time, I have the exact same thing for breakfast and I have a pre-planned outfit ready for me when I get out of the shower. I get the same train into my studio and I leave at the same time every day. To me it’s blissful, to most I think that this monotonous way of life would be worse than watching your ready meal spin in the microwave when you’re hangry.

You would think this is the same for my art, right? Wrong. I was once told an incredible piece of advice that has stuck with me. In my first year of college, I was terrified. I couldn’t physically do work because if it didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted the floor from under my feet would crumble. One day my lecturer said to me something along the lines of – It is better to fail so utterly horribly first, because then each time you try you’re going to fail better and better and better. I had never been asked to fail before, it was almost like a challenge, one that I happily accepted.

That’s where my art helps me thrive. It allows me to put down my need to control for once and just… Play. It forces me to play in fact, but that’s exactly what I need.

One bestseller in my shop are portraits. The other incorporates my passion for ink and that is my hand printed linocut t-shirts. I always get asked where I print and people are always so shocked when I tell them “on my carpet!”

Leo sits on the floor of his studio making prints. On the floor beside him is a canvas with ink rolled out onto it. He is rolling the ink onto cut bits of lino and printing it onto paper.

Printing my editioned prints in bulk on my studio floor.

Which brings me to the whole point of this article. What does a day look like for me as an artist who battles their brain every second of the day? My emotional monkey brain is in control more often than I would like to admit and so this makes it hard to function a lot of the time. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that some days are just write-offs for me – if I can’t get out of bed for three days then I just won’t. Accepting this hurdle actually makes things a lot easier for me though, seeing my peers create art constantly and go to all of these networking events was starting to take its toll on my self-esteem and confidence as an industry professional. It was essential that I found a way that worked for me.

After my usual routine I sit myself down and plan my day, this helps me because I’m excruciatingly forgetful. I put the jobs that have to be done immediately first and I leave my own free art time to the very end. It makes most sense to me to pack all of my orders at once so that there’s only one trip to the post office and so I quadruple check that I have the right addresses written down next to the right name also.

I like to get through my commissions first, simply because they’re my favourite to make. My most frequent commissions are portraits, for these I use the following:

  • iPad Pro 9 inch with the corresponding Apple Pencil.
  • An amazing app called Tayasui Sketches, for a free app it has an incredible array of realistic brush presets.

After this I catch up on my physical prints, I find it much less stressful to have a hoard of pre-printed T-shirts and tote bags to hand instead of printing one every time I get an order and having to waste a lot of paint and textile medium! Here’s how I print:

  • First I draw out the design that I want, my most up-to-date print cycle that I have right now is the “Evil Bugs” Collection, however, all of my prints bear the same technique.
  • With soft lino I cut into it with a trowel after tracing my design onto the top. This process is very tedious but I love the texture that it creates and it also is so therapeutic. I would highly recommend anyone with an anxious brain to give it a try, it’s hypnotic.
  • I’ve found the best way to print onto my material is not to actually use block printing ink, it is not any more cost-effective but I mix textile medium with acrylic paint (to the ratio of 1:1) because the application is much smoother and it dries almost instantly. After a quick iron, the material is sealed and it can be put in the wash!
Two pieces of artwork sat side by side. One is black and red and the other is black and white. It is an abstract piece combining collage and ink rolled onto the page.

Two of my mixed media experimental pieces. I used collage and ink on the page to create these big bold strokes with a lot of texture.

As a business my main goal is to connect with people, a lot of my day is spent writing thank you letters to every customer and drawing a little original drawing for them as an extra wee thank you. Normally if I have a spare print kicking about I’ll pop that in too if it’s been a big order just to show my appreciation for supporting my business. By looking at it from the perspective of “what would I want to receive if I was spending my hard-earned money” it allows me to always be self-aware and push my orders to a more professional level each time.

Before I get my free time I can be found scouring the internet to find whatever I can get my hands on. Zine submissions, open calls, artists looking for someone to hold their paintbrushes for them, I put myself out into the industry rigorously and often, because for every one hundred rejections there only has to be one person willing to give you a chance to show what you can do.

Then it comes, I look over to my sketchbook, haul my bursting pencil case onto my table and I ravage every single page. At least that’s what I would love to tell you. Sometimes I don’t need to create my own work, I’m all out of art juice for the day and my brain feels like it’s stalling.

I am sure I will sound insane when I say this – I love emails. I love receiving emails, I love sending them, it’s the best way to refine your rapport and professionalism in the industry. Look at it like an invitation into your work. You wouldn’t send an invite to a party if the address is illegible, or if it looked like it had been made in a muddy puddle, so how can you expect other people to respond to your invitation. There’s no point in putting in a mass amount of effort to your craft to let yourself be dragged down by shoddy presentation.

A hand printed lino t-shirt of a spider sits alongside two A4 digital prints. Above is a small line drawing of an abstract face and a handwritten thank you note to the customer.

A bundle getting ready to be sent out. Each commission comes with a free print, a handwritten note and a small original line drawing.

A lot of my fellow neurodivergent or anxious people already use scripting in their everyday life, and it helps to apply the same thing to your professional life. If you’re nervous about sending out emails and coming across professionally, make a template that you just have to create once and use again and again. This helps to take the pressure off of the actual grammar and structure and allows you to fully focus on the key points of information that you want to put in your email.

Now let’s talk about workspace. I love seeing other creators’ studio spaces and what environments make them thrive. Personally, I need to be surrounded in colour. My studio has to look like a children’s play area in order for me to sit down and focus (as counterproductive as that may seem). My OCD makes me hoard a lot of unnecessary items, but it’s important for me to allow myself to have those things in my space to make me feel fully at ease and safe. So if you also need a tiny wind up chainsaw on your desk to calm your mind then that’s totally ok! If you are having a mental health day, changing a little something about your space can make the world of difference even if it’s just moving something out of your peripheral vision.

Two collage pieces. On the left is a busy collage with blues, pinks and purples, hands are writhing in and out of what looks like other body parts. On the right is a more calm collage, a leg sticks out of a yellow doorway while an angled broom lies against the wall.

Two collages focussing on the idea of home and what it means to have one.

Leo Valenti x