Luanaheim by Johanna Taylor

Interview with Illustrator Johanna Taylor

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.

Dark Dicey by Johanna Taylor
Dark & Dicey by Johanna Taylor

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.

Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor
Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor

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.

Peter Pan by Johanna Taylor

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!


Setting Creative Goals... and Keeping Them

No matter what your art is (writing,
illustration, game design), you’ll often hear that you should work at it every
day. If you don’t do this, some people say, you’re failing as a creator.

Now, that might work for some people, but I’ve
tried writing every day on several occasions and it just doesn’t work for me.
It makes the whole thing a chore that I start to hate very quickly. Instead, I’ve
found that three scheduled sessions of at least a couple of hours keeps my
juices flowing, my motivation up, and my productivity on track.

The most important thing for me is that I have
a plan. Every time I sit down for a creative session, I plan out ahead of time
exactly what I want to achieve that day. And at the end of every session, I figure
out when my next one is booked for. That stops one or two days off from slipping
into more.

Another thing that works for me is to always
have deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed, and to make sure that I’m accountable
to someone else for those deadlines. If the only person I have to answer to is myself,
I will inevitably let things slip. What I would recommend is having a partner
in creation, someone else who also wants to achieve things and may need a nudge
every now and then. If you can arrange to meet up physically and keep each
other focused, then great! If not, maybe keep a chat window or video call open
during creative sessions and check in every half hour or so, to make sure
you’re both still on topic. And, if all else fails, just email each other your
schedule and your plan, and then report back after the session to celebrate
your victories. If you’re a writer who is more motivated by spreadsheets,
streaks, or games than by a creative partner, consider using something like 750words.com, 4thewords.com,
or getyourwordsout.net
to encourage you to meet those writing goals. Artists might get practice ideas
from artprompts.org
or the challenges, timed practices, and random poses on quickposes.com.
And no matter what your art, if you respond to gamification, something like habitica.com
might be just the thing to get you making the most of your creative time and
give you a sense of accomplishment as you make progress toward your goals.

That last point is important—make it easy to
celebrate your successes. If you have a big project, then just looking at the
whole thing may make it seem insurmountable. But if you break it down into
small tasks with sensible deadlines, you can have the satisfaction of ticking
off tons of little victories that you should absolutely congratulate yourself
on. If rewards help you (like “I can have a chocolate after I finish this
chapter” or “I can watch an episode of my favorite show once I’ve filled a page
with sketches”), then don’t hesitate to use that.

Most crucial of all is to find a system that works for you and just go for it.

What works for me is a rolling spreadsheet of upcoming submission opportunities (theme, word count, hard deadline, and possible publication all right there), sessions scheduled outside my flat with an accountability partner, and a list of very specific targets for each session. But the thought of all that organization might make you want to curl up and die. So try things out to see what fits, and once something works, don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t make sense. The only person it has to makes sense to is you. And if it keeps you creating, then it’s doing its job and you should stick with it no matter what.


Interview with Concept Artist Becca Hallstedt

Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Becca over email recently to chat with them about art, the gaming industry, and pickled vegetables. 

You can see more of Becca's work at beccahallstedtdesign.com.


How did you start out as a concept artist?

I've been drawing since I was very young, and I discovered concept art in high school through Tumblr, Youtube, and Blogspot sites. I actually originally went to an industrial design school because that's what all my favorite artists studied — folks like Feng Zhu, Daniel Dociu, and others —but I got bored of drawing hairdryers and shoes, so I transferred up to a game college program after three semesters.

My first job in games was as a paid 2D art intern at a local studio. I cold-emailed them asking if they would consider hiring a junior concept artist, and they got back to me less than a day later because they happened to need a Photoshop guru to help with GDC (Game Developers Conference) marketing materials. It was total happenstance. They slowly gave me more responsibility and I got some experience with UI art and visual development. My experience there led to my first true concept art job at Netherrealm.

Lucky Kirin by Becca Hallstedt
Lucky Kirin by Becca Hallstedt

What’s your favorite kind of work in the industry, and why?

I love creature design. I genuinely enjoy doing a variety of tasks like environment and prop design or character development, but creatures are the most fun for me. I think they always will be.

What’s your least favorite?

I don't have a specific task that comes to mind, but it can be very frustrating to work with folks that struggle to give honest or clear critique. The way that peers provide constructive feedback can make or break a job to me. I'd much rather work a job with less interesting tasks around people who communicate well than take on a gig with exciting assignments that involves consistently frustrating or confusing critique.

Wesley Fox by Becca Hallstedt
Wesley Fox by Becca Hallstedt

What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into it?

Everyone knows each other, so don't burn bridges if you can help it. This starts day one in game development, whether that's in college or in a job. Soft skills and being self-aware are super, super important, and those things tend to be heavily underemphasized in general. Learning how to be empathetic, generous, and proactive will always do you more good than being stingy and paranoid. When applying to a job, I send that same opening to friends that need work all the time. Either of us getting it is a win. Working together and being benevolent does surprising, wonderful things in this industry.

What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine as an artist?

I only actually work about twenty-five billable hours each week as a freelance artist, but I still manage to be busy all the time. Same goes for all my freelance friends locally. I think people assume that every freelancer works about forty hours/week, but so much work has to go into administrative stuff that you don't get paid for. Things like keeping up asocial media presence (all my work comes from Twitter,) emailing future clients, networking, keeping my portfolio updated, creating personal work so I have new pieces to show, and so forth take up a LOT of hours.

Courier's Beast by Becca Hallstedt
Courier's Beast by Becca Hallstedt

When you’re designing a new creature or other element, how do you start out? What kind of direction are you given from the client, and how do you go from there?

The specificity of the prompt varies heavily by task and client. Sometimes they know exactly what they want and, even if I as the designer don't think the idea is strong, it's my job to make the design look awesome. Other times, I'm handed really vague prompts with a lot of creative freedom. I like having a mix. Having heavy constraints and having a vague task each have their own unique challenges that are fun to tackle.

I can't overemphasize how much time goes into research and rough sketching when starting something new. Sometimes the sketch or lineart of the final design will only take fifteen to thirty minutes, but the prep work that goes into that drawing can take hours or days. The biggest lesson I've learned in the last year was to slow down and give those early stages a lot of time rather than trying to rush through them. Clients always prefer a badass final design that took an extra day over a quick, uninformed, unfinished idea.

How much backstory do you have in mind when you’re doing creature or character design, whether for yourself or for a client?

I think in context rather than about story. I like to imagine the circumstance of the creature while I'm painting rather than setting it all in stone before starting because I think that results in some very organic, interesting elements in the design. If I try to put all the pieces together before I even start sketching, I get frustrated and feel too restrained.

When I say context rather than story, I mean that I focus more on the personality, surrounding environment, and interactions this creature has on a regular basis instead of their life story. Sometimes once I have that context nailed down, I naturally work backwards and a more specific backstory comes from it.

Ebony by Becca Hallstedt
Ebony by Becca Hallstedt

What kinds of questions or thoughts lead your worldbuilding process? For instance, do you think about where a creature fits in an ecological niche, or more about what role they’ll play in a game or story?

I really try to ground my ideas in believability. I've historically struggled with storytelling, which results in a confusing design that viewers don't know how to place in the world. I have found over time that it's better to latch onto a few "cliché" aspects for a design and execute it elegantly rather than rejecting the obvious solutions entirely and making something the observer can't understand. Embrace some of the obvious!Just make sure you insert your own unique voice into it.

What one piece of advice would you give to younger artists who want to get a start in the industry?

Take yourself seriously. No one else will treat you like a professional until you do it first. People treated me like a pro my junior year of college because I did my best to speak and behave as one, and that got me jobs. Don't be an aspiring artist or a student artist. Just be a damn artist.

Snakeoil Potionmaster by Becca Hallstedt
Snakeoil Potionmaster by Becca Hallstedt

I saw on your website that you like to pickle vegetables — what’s your favorite? Do you have any tips or a recipe that you could share with us?

My two favorites are beets as well as sweet and spicy peppers. Use organic ingredients because the quality difference is HUGE. I usually wing it instead of going off a written recipe but here's my basic approach...

Becca's Good-As-Hell Beets:

Primary ingredients:

  • 3 beets, skinned and boiled (you cannot over boil beets, so be patient until they're easy to go through with a fork)
  • 2 sprigs of fresh organic rosemary (do not use dried, it sucks)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 thinly sliced organic Vidalia onion
  •  3 cloves of smashed garlic

Brine:

  • 1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup cup water
  • 2 teaspoon salt

Put primary ingredients in large glass jar like this one, distributed evenly. They should come to the top and fill the jar entirely. Bring brine just to a rolling boil and pour into the jar over the contents up to the very rim and refrigerate. Wait two or more days before eating. Great on crackers with sour cream and dill. Good for up to two weeks in the fridge. Save the leftover brine to reuse or for pickled hard-boiled eggs.

Best of luck out there, y’all.