Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Johanna over email recently to chat with her about illustration, story boarding and composition, and crows.
You can see more of Johanna’s work at johannamation.com.
How did you start out as an illustrator?
I actually have video games and RPGs to thank for that. I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid, and I loved creating my own characters to fit into worlds like Hyrule, Kanto, and Tellius. I also played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons in high school and throughout college. I drew in the margins of my homework for many years, but I never realized it was something I could realistically do for a living until halfway through college, when indie games and 3D animated films started becoming popular. I originally set out to be a graphic designer, but I fell deeply in love with animation and the way art can tell a story, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in that process, so I worked at getting better every day and got accepted to the BYU Animation program. I was one of those students who wanted to learn and master everything, and took classes for digital painting, character design, storyboarding, 3D modeling, and animation.
After I graduated from the program, I applied for a job with an independent video game studio called Apocalyptic Games. I became the creative director on a game, and was in charge of designing the characters, props, environments, and even helped with the level design and learned lighting and composition in Unity. Since then, I’ve been a freelance illustrator and have contributed artwork for several indie games, children’s books, and comics publishers.
What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into it?
Freelancing is just as valid in this field as a full-time job at a major studio. As a student, it’s easy to feel like being a freelance artist should only be a last resort if you can’t find a “real” job in the industry, and it was discouraging when I applied for studios only to be turned down and feel like there was no other way for me to make a living doing what I love. A lot of studios and publishers reach out to freelance artists for projects if they have a style that matches their need, and I’ve been privileged to work with a few of them. I’ve also discovered that art is a marathon, not a race: there is no time- or age-limit for when you need to hit your big break in order to be considered successful or a “winner,” or if you even need to hit a big break at all. A successful art career is a series of small breaks over a long period of time that build on each other. Like a marathon, which path you take, and how long it takes you to get there, aren’t as important as staying in the race, making as much forward progress as you can.
What’s your favorite kind of job to work on, and why?
I really enjoy character design, environments, and prop design, but my favorite has to be fantasy illustration or character design with an epic, high-fantasy vibe. That genre has always spoken to me, and I’m so happy to see it making a resurgence in popular culture.
What’s your least favorite?
It’s hard to work on projects where the objective isn’t clear, or the expectations aren’t communicated well. Communication is hugely important to me, and if contract clients aren’t timely with their feedback, or change their minds on major design points too late into the project, it’s frustrating to have to scramble to satisfy their needs.
Tell me a little about your process—how do you decide what moment to portray when you’re planning an illustration piece or a comic panel?
I think a lot about what makes an interesting composition: what moves my eye through a piece, and trying to answer the question, “What does this person’s life look like and how do I show that?” I also think about the character as though I’ve just passed them by on the street and had about a minute to figure out who they are as a person. What they’re wearing, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, where they’re going; I treat the illustration like my elevator pitch for that character’s story, communicating as much detail about them as possible in the simplest, most relatable ways. A lot of story can be gleaned from looking at a character’s posture, their clothes, their expression, and the way they treat the environment around them.
Is the process of finding the dramatic moment to show similar to planning out a storyboard, or is that totally different?
I think it’s pretty similar, actually. Composition is hugely important in storyboarding, because you have to make sure all of your character’s actions are clear enough to communicate what they’re doing and what they want, otherwise the audience will be confused. But where storyboarding or comics have several panels to tell a story, an illustration only has one. To me, the most interesting illustrations are the ones where the staging is clear and dynamic as though someone took a storyboard panel and painted it, but are comprehensive enough to tell a complete story by themselves.
What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine as an artist?
A huge chunk of my job is self-promotion and financial preparation for conventions. I do draw primarily for clients, and even get time to draw just for myself sometimes, but I have to spend a lot of time networking on social media, creating and keeping up with a personal production schedule, checking out which conventions have open applications, and planning how much money to spend on printing, display setups, and merchandise for those conventions. Freelance artists have to deal with a surprising amount of math, accounting, and economics!
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to younger artists who want to get a start in the industry?
If you have fun drawing it, people will have fun looking at it. Drawing as a job is great and should be fun by default, but a LOT of art jobs and freelancing will be spent drawing other people’s characters, worlds, and props. If you’re asked to design ten different chairs for a robot pirate, even if you absolutely hate drawing chairs and robots and pirates, find a way to make the chairs fun for you to draw. What kind of details can you add that make them the most interesting robot pirate chairs you can possibly design? People can tell the difference between art someone had fun making and art they hated every minute of making.
I noticed you list some of your hobbies as cross-country skiing and feeding crows—how did the crow-feeding start? Do they recognize you now?
Crows have always been my favorite animal. They’re intelligent, family-oriented, and bursting with personality. I started out feeding seagulls regularly with my family (Utah gets a lot of seagulls), but over time more and more crows started cropping up. There was a murder of crows that hung around my college campus and I fed them any time I encountered them. They did start to recognize me after a while and would even bring me twigs in exchange for the nuts and granola I gave them. There was also a murder as large as 100 crows in the north where my mom lived, and feeding them was absolute madness! I used to keep track of where they migrated to, but they moved around so often that I no longer get to feed them as regularly as I’d like. I do keep a little granola in my bag just in case I run into some, though!