With each stroke of her stylus, artist Aleea Rae creates original characters and the vibrant worlds they inhabit.
“I want my characters to not just be illustrations of people,” Aleea says. “When we put a little love and attention in, characters actually become alive.”
There’s Iris, the leading character of her digital comic series “Nocturnal,” who, on her 21st birthday, discovers her ability to shapeshift into a cat with psychic abilities.
There’s the fairy Alora who inhabits the Crystal Forest. She is caring and kind-hearted, quick-tempered and not afraid of confrontations.
There are best friends, Stella, an easy-going astronaut, and Skye, a reserved green alien from Adrion 28. Together, they’re stranded in outer space with a mission to help bring other beings back home.
We talked with Aleea about her creative journey, the intricacies of world-building and the process of creating fantastical Black characters in art.
I read in your feature on Instagram’s #ShareBlackStories Campaign that your first canvas was your body, and your mom had to buy you a sketchbook. Can you share with us what this masterpiece was that you created on your arms and legs?
When I first started drawing on myself—I had to have been five or six years old—I used to get in trouble for it. When we had parent-teacher conferences, my teachers used to tell my mom, “She’s such a great student, but she loves drawing on herself.” My mom was like a germaphobe, so putting ink on my body freaked her out… But I just really loved drawing. My mom eventually bought me a lined paper notebook that I started sketching on. (I still have all of my sketchbooks from when I was younger.) I would draw little characters, like little skeletons or goldfish or stick figure people interacting with each other. I always imagined different characters living in the same universe.
Tell us about your journey, from receiving your first sketchbook to being an artist today. What was your creative journey like after receiving that first sketchbook?
Here I am today, and I still feel like I’m teaching myself every day.
Along the way, I’ve had really great professors and mentors who encouraged me to keep going and introduced me to relevant artists doing similar things I was trying to do. For example, Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker are big inspirations for me. I went to a predominantly white school, so most of the time I was the only minority in class. I used to get really insecure because I didn’t know how to draw Black people. I even started shying away from it. But I had a professor come up to me and tell me that there were artists of different races, and that’s something I’d never really thought about. Through my journey, my viral artwork caught the eye of studio writer and producer Evan Mirzai who signed me to his production shingle House of M. I am now not only meeting with major animation studios, also, now in business with them on several fronts.
So yeah, I fell back in love with art and learned better ways to teach myself. And eventually, I found my own style. I feel like I’m still on that journey though. It’s hard but definitely worth it. Because through falling in love with art, I’ve fallen in love with the artist I’ve become.
What is your favorite part about creating your art?
My favorite stage is research: getting my ideas together and creating my “mind map.” It can get a little frustrating because I have so many ideas. But I started challenging myself to redraw the same characters over and over, something that was hard for me at first. I keep all of those mind maps. I don’t delete anything, and I reuse those ideas.
When I create a character, I want that character to have a backstory. So I start world building for them. I’ve been really big on storytelling lately, and I want my characters to not just be pictures of people. I feel like when we put a little love and attention in them, characters actually become alive. I think that comes from me creating “Nocturnal” and creating a consistent, cohesive story with a character that people relate to. When I was rewatching my favorite shows growing up, the reason why I fell in love with art was because I loved those characters. I loved that the characters would come back, and I could go into their world and learn more about them.
You create your own original characters such as the fairy Alora and the characters from “Nocturnal,” like Iris and Sebastian. What do you love about creating original characters? How do you go about developing these characters?
If I have too many ideas from one illustration, I know I’ll have to bring that character back somehow. I started writing down their backstories and personality traits on what I call a character chart: What is their eye color? Hair color? Personality type? That has helped a lot with keeping the characters consistent and distinct. And coming back with more original characters is something I enjoy doing now as a digital artist. I want to do more comics or eventually an animated TV series.
You draw inspiration from cartoons. What are your favorites—TV shows or cartoon comics?
My favorite cartoon show—hands down—will always be Spongebob. The designs and characters are so different and so distinguished that when you see just a silhouette of one, you know who it is. I also love the writing—it doesn’t matter if you’re a kid or an adult; it will still be funny.
As far as aesthetics go, I would have to say The Powerpuff Girls and the new Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. I love the style of both of those—particularly, the character designs and backgrounds. Also, for anime I love Naruto and One Piece.
What inspired you to create your digital comic series, “Nocturnal”? Why choose comics as the medium?
The idea really came from when I was visiting my mom in my hometown. She was in the process of moving houses, and I found all of my sketchbooks from when I was ten or eleven. I spent the day looking through them, and I remembered that I used to write comic stories, love stories, people getting together, or a forbidden love—I was super big into love stories. Later, I ended up hanging out with my friends, and when I was heading back home after midnight, I literally saw a Black cat and a White rabbit in the middle of the street like they were having a conversation telepathically. You don’t usually see cats and rabbits just roaming around together. And that was what started “Nocturnal.” As soon as I got back to New York, I started writing.
Your art puts a spin on fantastical characters, including Sailor Moon, Alice in Wonderland, cyclops, fairies, witches, vampires, etc.—characters that are historically represented by non-Black characters. Why is it important for you to portray Black people as these characters in art?
I’m huge on fantasy and science fiction, and I don’t see a sizable amount of Black characters, or they’re never the main characters in those stories, and that’s something I believe is important to see. I also feel like there are so many other stories to tell because we also read literature, we also have dreams, fantasies, and imaginations. People have their painful histories, and we should learn our stories, grow, and embrace them, but I had to understand by witnessing these stories and through my own experience, there was the need to break through generational barriers by representing how I see myself and others through my characters.
I just want to see more positive stories about Black people. Stories where they’re not in it because they’re Black; they’re just in it.
Any projects that you are excited about this year?
There are a few projects in the works. As far as “Nocturnal” goes, it started off as a comic first… But I eventually want to start doing animation. Even if I’m not literally making the characters move, I definitely want to world-build… You might see my art go from character-based illustrations to more background world building illustrations. I’m starting small by drawing things like my characters’ bedrooms. But I eventually want to get into world-building because when you think about your favorite movies and shows, the world around the character is a character in itself.
I’ve been doing a lot of research with my reps on how to start an NFT. My sister asked me to draw something for her. She turned it into an NFT, and it blew up. But I’ll do more research. Instead of doing single NFTs, I’m thinking about doing a series of NFTs…
Lastly, what advice would you give to fellow young artists like yourself who are finding their footing in the art space?
Even if you hate it, even if you think it’s not the best, keep it. Don’t delete, don’t throw away anything because you might eventually come back to it. If I would’ve thrown out those sketchbooks that I had as a kid, “Nocturnal” never would have been a thing.
And also, perfect practice makes perfect. I don’t believe in talent; I believe in skill, practice and hard work. I would not be where I’m at as an artist if I didn’t practice all those years drawing. Learn the basics and practice them. Do your research, find your style and make sure you’re making it your own. Try to stay positive—not everything is going to be perfect. And don’t be afraid to share your work because you never know who’s out there. And you can inspire.
Shop Aleea’s work below and check out their Society6 shop for more.