Hmmm, I don’t know that this question has an answer… I think one of the great things about the job is that it requires the unique background and skills and critical thinking that you as an individual bring to the table. Your differences and your differing experiences make you more valuable. So asking “what makes a good visual development artist?” is kind of pointless - instead ask, “what do I bring to the job that no one else can?”
I think the really successful artists are the ones that are more then just their technical skill - they are the people who embrace their individual way of thinking in order to come up with truly unique solutions to visual problems. To me, each painting, each design, each drawing is like a puzzle that has many different solutions. The one I come to might not be what the guy next to me comes up with, and that is a good thing! My unique human experience can only better inform my work, and it makes me valuable and provides job-security in a way that technical skill alone cannot. Anyone can draw like anyone else, but we can only think like ourselves.
All that said, of course there are the basic skills, being good draftsman, having a solid knowledge of perspective and composition and color. But those things can be learned and improved on constantly. I would cultivate your problem solving skills… the only way I know how to do this is to read a lot of stories and to look at a lot of pictures (film, animated or otherwise, art, animated or otherwise, etc.). But I also think a big part of this is having a life and experiencing the world. When you are sitting at your drawing table, the mental library of your life experiences is just as valuable as the references you pull from the internet. Make sure to keep that library well-stocked.
Hi! A lot of these art terms are interchangeable, but for me, when I say that I’m “blocking in the colors,” I am referring to the stage of a painting after the thumbnail, where I quickly and loosely decide which color goes where. This is the step where I will create my “color thumbnail.” I don’t figure out every little piece of the painting, but rather I am creating a general roadmap for the color and lighting of a painting for me to follow. It is very easy to get “lost” in a huge painting, and before you know it you’ve painted the shadows going the wrong direction. Blocking in the colors in a small thumbnail helps keep those sorts of mistakes from happening. Here is an example of my painting process - however in this tutorial I call “blocking in the colors” creating a “color key”: http://samsketch.tumblr.com/post/16853629822/for-those-interested-process-on-my-last-painting
Hi! I’m not sure you’ll be too happy with my answer, but this is truly what I wish someone had told me when I first started school. You say you just started your studies, so at this point, I would actually caution against focus. It is great to have a long term goal, like becoming a visual development artist - that was certainly my goal in school - but I would also say that school is this magical place where you get to try a bit of everything. Explore; don’t limit yourself by being too focused on your end goal, because the truth is, even detours will end up enriching your success in your chosen field.
It’s for this reason that every good artist in animation I know tells students that the biggest mistake they can make is to only look at “art of” books for animated movies. If that’s all you’re looking at for reference, then all your ideas will be recycled versions of things that have come before. Use this time now to be a student of everything. Even though my paintings are representational, all my favorite paintings are abstract. If I feel like I’m in an “art rut” one of the first things I try in order to snap myself out of it is to go outside and have an adventure, without even thinking about how my adventure will impact my work. Good work comes of living, and being a student means having the freedom to really examine what picture-making means to you in a way you seldom get the chance to do again. I would say you should use this time to expose yourself to as many different influences as you can - this will give you a mental reference library that will give your illustration and vis dev work so much more depth. Don’t try to nail down your “style” - explore and have fun in different mediums and voices. Of course, hone your foundation skills, work on your perspective and draftsmanship and color sense, but do this by going outside and painting from life, instead of sitting at your computer doing a master copy of a still from an animated movie.
My best work was always made when I looked outside myself and my chosen field. Rarely in your professional life will you get the chance to explore the way you will in your academic life - take advantage of that freedom! And good luck!
I’d be happy to tell you about my experiences right after graduating, but I’m afraid you might not find them too encouraging. I should preface this by saying that I graduated at the height of this last economic recession, and every industry, including animation, was hit really hard. Jobs were, and still are, pretty scarce. I think it is just now starting to get better again.
So, that said, my prospects upon graduating were pretty bleak. I can’t even tell you how many rejection letters I got - and that’s if a company bothered to send a rejection… most just ignore you, which is even more infuriating than getting rejected. To be honest, I was pretty depressed during this time, and I even briefly entertained the self-indulgent fantasy that somehow I’d managed to get myself “blackballed” from the industry. But the truth is much less dramatic: there are simply too few jobs for the number of artists out there, and studios are very reluctant to try unknown quantities such as students right out of school.
It was in this moment that I made a decision that has guided me throughout my professional career. I decided that if no one would hire me, I would employ myself. I began to cultivate a real online presence. I made sure that people knew me, that they knew my work, and I began to sell myself like a product. I had to start thinking of myself as a small business of one. I began to truly market myself - not just “Sam the employee”, but “Sam the brand.” I stopped thinking of myself as a cog in a giant animation machine, and in this way I became in-demand, because I decided to approach each job as if I were bringing something truly unique and irreplaceable to the table - because, of course, you are! In this way I formed connections, made contacts, and this led to freelance work.
In the mean time, I was still applying everyday to every studio I could think of. I treated my job hunt like a second job in and of itself. I sent out holiday cards with my work on them for every holiday imaginable (from Hanukkah to National Sandwich Day) just to remind people I was alive. A lot of times the reason people don’t get hired is not because their work is bad; they don’t get hired because the people doing the hiring don’t remember them at the moment they need someone. I worked really hard to be unforgettable. I also applied to any job I thought I’d be even remotely good at - as well as internships and fellowships.
Eventually, about a year and a half after I graduated, I got the Nickelodeon Artist Fellowship, where I got to work on Spongebob and Monsters vs. Aliens. However, I think it was the friendships I maintained with my classmates, and the work I continued to do in my own time, exploring my own interestes, that helped me get the job on Cloudy 2. One of the things that my Art Director and Production Designer made very clear to me, and it’s something I am eternally thankful for and admire them for, is that they hired everyone on that movie because of who they were as artists. They truly appreciated what each artist had to bring to the table; and in this way, each artist excelled, and came together to make the best movie possible.
I should also say that the whole “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen” (Conan O’Brien) thing is completely true. Especially in a small industry like animation where EVERYONE knows EVERYONE. You never know where a job will come from. Actually, one of my frist jobs in animation came to me through my mom’s realtor, who was selling the house of a creative producer looking for visual development artists. Go figure. As you can imagine, in moments like that, it’s good to always have your portfolio with you at all times. I was one of those people who always had a copy in my car, until the iPad came along and I switched to using that. (So much easier to lug around!)
I hope my ramblings about my journey are helpful to you, though if I’ve learned anything from hearing other people’s stories about how they got started, it’s that no one walks in the same path twice. The doors that opened for me might not open for you, and the way in you find, no one else might be able to repeat. I heard a story once, where Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg were giving a lecture and a student asked them how they broke into the industry. Katzenberg simply said that it would be useless for Spielberg or him to tell the student the exact steps he took to getting his job, because that path could never be repeated. He told the student that the one thing he and Spielberg and other successful people had in common, was not the path they took to get where they are, but the fact that, when all the doors were closed to them, they climbed through a window. They wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. That is what I have to say to you. If this is what you want, if this is your calling, don’t be afraid to scale a few hedges and climb in a few windows. Good luck!
Hi Chris! I’m happy you like all the Cloudy work - especially since it relates to your question. I learned so much about color working on Cloudy. I think the biggest piece of advice I can offer you is do you research! Gather a lot of reference material. And not just research material from animated movies or “art of” animated movie books - a big thing that my Art Director, Dave Bleich, taught me on Cloudy was to look for color inspiration in unexpected places. When he gave us a sequence to key, many times he would also give us tons of reference images. These images came from anywhere and everywhere… yes, there were animated movie stills, but also photographs from fashion magazines, food photography, swatches of fabric, national geographic shots… By looking for color connections in these images, you find really unexpected combinations and solutions.
I think the other thing that has really been helping me to hone my color sense has been going plein-air painting. Up until this last year, I’ve been a pretty lazy painter. I never used to go painting outside, but since I started doing it again, I’ve learned so much about the amazing colors found in light and shadow. I will never paint a black shadow again! I think nature and life is the best teacher, so my other piece of advice is go outside and really pay attention the amazing colors in the world.
Hope that helps!
Hi! Thanks for your question - this is definitely something I’ve always been meaning to do, but never quite get around to… mostly because when I’m painting at home these days, it’s usually for work, which I can’t show on youtube. Also… I’m a little technologically challenged when it comes to figuring out how to record my paintings for future viewing… I would have to learn how to edit out all my “snack breaks.” Maybe one of these weekends I’ll figure it out. If I do, it’ll show up on the blog! :D
Hi! I don’t really share them, many were given to me and many I made myself - however, they are ridiculously easy and fun to make and also you can find many free ones online simply by searching “watercolor textures.” I definitely recommend making and scanning your own, however; they will give your work a look that is distinctly your own!
I would post more often if tumblr paid me for each post. But thank you for your enthusiasm. :D
Hi! Thank you for the kind words about my work! As far as advice… I guess my big piece of advice is simple, and yet hard to take to heart: never give up. When you are trying to get your first job in the entertainment industry, you will hear “no” a lot more than you’ll hear “yes.” It took me two years after graduating school before I got my first full time position in a studio. Try not to be discouraged by rejection, because it happens to everyone, and try to never stop learning and improving. My other piece of advice is, be nice to everyone because the industry is VERY small. Don’t dismiss anyone; you realize very quickly that everyone knows someone in this business, so be kind, work hard, and never give up! Good luck!