Learn Why This Artist Compares His Craft To Ordering At A Restaurant


Dining room with landscape mural by Charles Leonard on the walls, wood table and dark, upholstered chairs

Decorative artist Charles Leonard comes from a long line of painters and studied at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Yet it was his decade working for artist Mark Giglio’s New York firm that Leonard describes as “my true education for what I’m doing now.” In 2014, the Michigan native decamped to San Francisco and launched his eponymous practice. Participation in the city’s Decorator Showcase—in particular, Mead Quin’s 2017 bathroom—proved a turning point for his business. Now, the Emeryville-based artist has projects Bay Area-wide.

How do your collaborations with interior designers start? Almost always, they come to me with an idea. If we’re doing plaster or a floor painting, it might be pretty basic and simple. Murals are a lot more complex. It’s a different type of artistic process. The challenge is to really listen and work to understand exactly what they want. There are a lot of details, and I don’t think you can over-talk it.

What does the preparation for large-scale works entail? The first thing I do is compile images of the scenery; if I can, I like to take photos myself. From the images, I create a small compositional sketch, then work on a sample board for the client—usually something close to scale, using the exact color palette. After that, it’s just getting on site and doing it. There are different tricks to get started. Sometimes I project the imagery on the wall as an outline. If I can’t do that—maybe the space is too small—I draw it out. It’s always a combination of things and never just one technique.

What makes for a successful project? Since I’m in a client’s home, time is of the essence—they don’t want me there too long! It’s important to have the process set up mentally to execute each piece in an efficient manner. There also has to be a certain level of trust. It’s like going to a restaurant: You order what you want from the menu, but you don’t necessarily tell the chef how to cook it. You just trust that it will be good.