While countless folks may count on the occasional cup of coffee to keep them energized during a stressful day, Brian Leonard regards the substance as art. More specifically, the Toronto-based artist (who is affectionately known as Barista Brian to his fans) creates intricate designs inside coffee. Leonard’s latte art is created with ingredients like steamed milk, and has even found popularity among celebrities like John Legend. The artist, who trained in opera before discovering his passion for edible art, has recreated everything from portraits to scenery inside his cups.
Intrigued by his unusual art form, Real Style spoke to Leonard about his inspiration and creative role models. From perfecting his latte creations to being influenced by legendary artists of the past, Barista Brian shared the story behind his craft.
Real Style: What inspired you to start creating latte art?
Brian: I was bartending at a wine bar in downtown Toronto, and we had an espresso machine there. It was my first time working with an espresso machine. To me, it was a way to be creative in an environment that wasn’t necessarily creative. As soon as I figured out that you could pour shapes and you could do designs, that’s all I wanted to do when I was at work. I was always trying to make lattes and cappuccinos and I left that to actually go into a café, to learn even more about latte art. I’ve always been a performer, so if I can illicit reaction from someone in a positive way, I’ll probably try to do that.
Real Style: As a performer, do you also have any other forms of creative expression?
Brian: I studied opera [at University of Prince Edward Island and Dalhousie University], and I’ve been performing in Toronto. Music is still a part of my life, I still record and perform. I don’t do it on the scale that I do latte art publicly, which is kind of a funny thing.
Real Style: What are some of the biggest challenges of working with edible ingredients?
Brian: If I don’t steam the milk correctly, that’s an issue. If the espresso is not right, that’s an issue. It’s hard working with hot substances, because as soon as I start to make it, it’s already disintegrating in milk. To do fine detail work, it’s like speed painting. I have to be very fast, and I have to make sure each action has purpose and meaning, before it starts to fall apart, because the image will melt. It’s all about creating that one moment of almost near perfection. I see the birth and death of each thing I make.
Real Style: Where do you find your inspiration?
Brian: I’m inspired by the people I meet. A lot of what I do is about engaging people, leaving an impression of them and their latte. In order to do that, I need them to leave an impression with me of who they are. That’s why I like to talk to people while I’m making them a coffee caricature or impression.
Real Style: Are there any designers or artists who are your role models?
Brian: I’m inspired by Andy Warhol. His career trajectory was amazing and his cultural impact as well. It’s trying to emulate something in a small cup. He’s kind of what started me using more colour, because I was looking at the colours in his pictures and paintings and wanted to see if I could do that. I like Impressionists as well, Van Gogh or anything that’s just not real.
Real Style: Is there a creation of yours which you are especially proud of, and what makes it special?
Brian: I tried to do Starry Night by Van Gogh, with milk and food colouring. Looking at it, I’m my worst critic and thought I can do that better. But like I said before, I don’t like to do things more than once, and when I was looking at it the other day, I thought that’s the performance, that’s it. You’re not going to do it again. If you do, it will be in a different way. I’m really proud of that, because it’s fun to put myself out there. I’ve been doing landscapes as well. Bob Ross, who was a famous landscape painter and had a TV show where he would teach people how to paint landscapes, I was watching a bit of his TV show and started doing that in lattes. It’s been amazing how I’ve been able to mix colour to create these skies, and a whole world in a cup.
Real Style: Has there been a memorable celebrity who you’ve created latte art for?
Brian: I went to Sundance, and John Legend was there and posted [his latte] on Instagram. A lot of people, like Rashida Jones, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Common, Jack Black. It’s been unreal; it’s allowed me to meet so many different people. When you’re meeting an extreme talent, to have them validate your talent and perspective as an artist is amazing.
Photos: Brian Leonard