Interview with Illustrator Jo Painter

Jo is a freelance Concept Artist, Illustrator and Animator trying to break her way into the game industry! She currently works for a variety of authors and companies around the world but when she’s not working and painting at her desk, you can usually find her with her head stuck in a book or out for a walk in the countryside. The best way to keep up to date with her work is through Instagram – @po_jainter or her website, at www.jopainter.co.uk

1. You’ve mentioned that your love of illustration dates back to using MS Paint. Now, most people I know who have used MS Paint to draw anything serious are immediately filled with frustration at the lack of refined tools available. You, somehow, were affected differently. Why is that? Why were you drawn in, rather than put off, by MS Paint? Has this ability to endure the more arduous processes of illustration stuck with you?

It all started from my love of Anime and 2D animation. I was fascinated with the idea of being able to color characters on the computer and after stumbling across multiple digital artists online, I was hooked! I am also the sort of person who makes do with whatever they have on hand and so at the time, all I had to work with was MS Paint and my computer mouse. I would spend hours at my desk trying to get a straight line to look slightly less wobbly and my colors to look slightly less muddy. I would then print these out to keep and show to my parents and friends. I always remember this burning desire to be good at painting and it’s something that has never left me all these years later. If it wasn’t for that passion and determination I wouldn’t have put up with MS Paint for so long! I was aware of Photoshop at the time but it was something that would have to wait until I could afford my own tablet and the software.

If it wasn’t for those harder days and hours of painstaking work I don’t think I would have the respect that I have for digital artists now. I respect the process and the work that goes into it and I think that makes me much more humbled as a professional!

2. While many illustrators stop at the 2-Dimensional level, your passion extends into 3-Dimensional animation. Could you explain the process in which you take a project from idea to the fully rendered animation product?

I took 3D animation at University instead of 2D animation because there is much more versatility within the 3D world and I felt that learning something new to add to my skill set would benefit my career more as an artist in the long run. My hunch here turned out to be right as learning skills such as texturing, modeling, lighting and rendering within 3D software has directly influenced and improved my painting skills. I am now much more aware of how light affects different materials, for example, so when I’m painting that subconscious knowledge comes in really handy!

I also adore animation. I remember watching the behind the scenes for the Lord of the Rings for the first time and they were showing how they designed the characters and animated Gollum and I remember being stunned that people actually did that as a career. It was love at first sight and I haven’t looked back since! As an active artist in the industry, it has been really advantageous to have more than one skill – I’ve had CEO’s of companies in interviews tell me how useful it is for me to be able to animate as well as design and draw concepts because it means I am more useful to them across more than one department. I always recommend to young and aspiring artists to create a varied skill set for themselves as it will really help them climb the ladder in a competitive and high achieving industry.

The process from concept to a rendered piece is long and arduous but incredibly rewarding to see it realized and moving on the screen. It depends which industry you are in (film, game, etc.) as some ideas can take years from the first concept to the final product. My experience is within the advertising and book industry the turnaround for these products is much faster! There were times where we only had a month to pitch an idea to the client, get approval and work on the product so that they could get it out and aired on TV in time. It’s demanding of your time and patience, but it has taught me some valuable lessons with time management and client etiquette – remember, the client is always right!

3. Technology evolves at an exponential rate. Tools and techniques available to artists now simply were not available in the days of MS Paint. What software do you find most beneficial to your career as an illustrator? What technology do you look forward to in the future?

It’s pretty alarming to see how fast technology is evolving. I have even seen VR used for drawing 2D within a 3D space which just feels way too advanced for me! I personally use Photoshop for all of my work – it is an amazing piece of software that is regularly updated which makes for a versatile and creative space that benefits my time and skill sets. I am also set in my ways, so I don’t think I will venture too far from Photoshop in the years to come. In terms of tools, I would love to upgrade to a Cintiq from Wacom! They are expensive, but totally worth the money in my opinion.

When I was younger, I thought that getting a tablet would automatically improve my art and was totally disheartened when it didn’t, so I often tell young artists that it isn’t the software or the tablet that will make your artwork improve, but the time and patience you put in as an artist to practice your craft. Your tools should help you work, not create it for you.

4. On your website, which contains a great FAQ section (everyone go read it!), you talk about the need for artists to be versatile. You likely have your own concepts for other people’s work. How do you channel your own ideas when the client has something else in mind?

The client is always right. I pretty much live by this rule! It is so important to remember that even though as the artist you are bringing creativity to the job and bringing an idea to life, you should always be getting approval from the client and if you have any suggestions to add, do whatever they have asked of you first and then add a few extra ideas on the side for them to take a look at and see if it sparks their imagination. Not only have you given them more work than they asked for, it also shows that you are invested and interested in their project.

Often, clients come to me with a very specific idea in mind. For example, when I work with an author on a book cover, they will have a list of things they would like to include and the first thing I do is create three to four initial sketches and concepts to send over to see if there is one that they like and then I will do another three of four variations of that one sketch. This way, I have input on what I am creating but also leaving the decisions up to the client.

Being versatile has also meant that I have worked on a variety of projects rather than narrowing myself down to a very specific style of art. I have worked on children’s books with a very cartoony style of art, I have animated 3D characters with a Disney style personality, and I have painted vast landscapes and detailed characters for book covers. Not only do I get to create something different each month, it also opens me up as a freelancer for more work!

5. How would you describe the perfect client/artist relationship? What are some aspects that have gone well for you in the past? What are some things that hindered project success?

I don’t really think that there is a perfect relationship! Every client is different and likes to work in a different way, so even though I try and stick to a regular routine when it comes to my process, that often changes with each client. It’s important to be OK with this and roll with the punches; sometimes you will send off something that you think is great and all the client will do is come back with a list of changes. It can be disheartening when you are first starting out as things like education and school have taught us to expect praise when we work hard and this isn’t always the case in industry. It can be a shock at first, but once you learn to swallow your pride and take on the criticism, it will vastly improve your work!

Being regularly in contact with my clients is something that has always gone well for me – I will send them regular updates of where I am on their project and the expected deadline if there isn’t one set already. It creates a level of trust between the client and the artist which means they are more likely going to come back to you again in the future. Something else I always find works well is staying professional when emailing. I have a signature at the bottom of my email with where else to find me and I always use the proper sign off (Kind Regards, Yours Faithfully etc.) as well as not using shorthand or emojis like you would in a text message. These things help to create a professional atmosphere, even if it is for a personal commission for someone.

Some things that have hindered a project’s success is not getting a prompt response from the client – I have waited up to two weeks to hear back from a client before and by that time I had already started another project and so then my work load is suddenly doubled, and I am then having to juggle my time. Sometimes this means a project can get rushed and I perhaps don’t feel as comfortable with the work I have produced and so won’t include it on my website. This is of course no one’s fault, usually it is because the client is busy and doesn’t have the time put aside to go through any work I have sent over.

Another thing would be not outlining my terms and conditions properly in my invoices. I always quote a specific amount of time and set a deadline, putting aside a day for changes as well. That way, you won’t have a constant back and forth for months on end making endless changes that you should technically be charging for. If any clients want to make changes out of the time frame we initially set, then I tend to charge a little extra to make up for lost time. You must be careful as a freelancer because it is very easy to end up working for nothing!

I am also very strict with my time management. I have a diary that I use daily to keep track of deadlines, when projects are starting, and what I need to get done that day. It sounds slightly over obsessive but since I started as a freelancer a year ago I haven’t once missed a deadline or got off track with work! Sometimes, I am juggling three or more projects at once due to overlapping deadlines, so it comes in really handy to have something to jot everything down in.

6. Many software packages like Photoshop have gone to the cloud, literally. Stand alone tools are more and more becoming monthly subscriptions. What do you think about that? Are these modern requirements helping or hurting our capabilities?

If 15 years ago, there was the option to have a monthly subscription to Photoshop instead of using MS Paint, I would have probably been able to afford it – eleven year old me would have loved it! Unfortunately, a lot of large softwares, including the 3D ones that I use for animation, are extremely expensive and involve forking out a large sum of money in one go to purchase it. With a monthly subscription, you are paying a fraction of the price on a monthly basis (I pay £7.99 a month for Photoshop) and therefore am able to produce high quality work on a budget. I think that this opens up a lot more opportunities for young and aspiring artists to not be put off trying out digital art and design and instead have a go and see what they enjoy. I was put off for years because Photoshop was so expensive and it felt almost out of my reach, but to now be able to pay for it minimally without it impacting my income, I feel at ease knowing that I will always be able to have access to it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are painting software’s out there that are free and work just as well! I am just used to what I use and Photoshop is what is predominantly used in industry, so I always recommend it.

7. What’s your favorite part of a project? What’s your least favorite?

Hmm. Good question. I would have to say my favorite part is seeing a character come to life on the page. It sounds rather fantastical, but when you read a book and the characters are so ingrained into your head, being able to put pen to paper (or pen to tablet!) and bring them to life is incredibly satisfying. I also love the painting stage of an illustration. I find it incredibly relaxing and rewarding once finished.

My least favorite would probably be the stages in between sketching the character out and starting painting. I spend some time establishing the colors I’m going to use and lighting setup I want to achieve, and this can sometimes put me off finishing the painting if I can’t get it right. It also makes the painting seem intimidating! But you just have to dive in head first and go for it which is usually how I get past this wall.

In terms of animating, I would have to say that I love the final stages of animating a character where you start smoothing out the sharpness of their movements and start adding all the smaller details such as secondary motion; this is where things like hair, hands and clothing move after the body has finished moving. For example, if a ballerina spins, her dress will be the last thing to settle. This really brings the character to life and makes it feel more real which makes all of the hard work beforehand worthwhile!

My least favorite part of animating would have to be the planning stages of it. If I am animating a character, I will always film reference for it. So, if the character is jumping around, I will film myself jumping around and get that into Photoshop to draw all over and make notes of where my weight is falling and which way my hips are rotating – the COG (center of gravity), which is the hips, is the most important thing when animating a character, so I always make sure I’m aware of what’s happening here before I start. Unfortunately, this takes time and usually I am just itching to get started, but if I don’t put this effort in first, I struggle down the line when I get to the smoothing stages of the animation and something doesn’t look quite right.

8. Artists often have role models or art styles they admire from other people. Who are some of your role models or what are some examples of completed projects you are impressed by?

Oh wow, I don’t even know where to start!

I think let’s go from the beginning. Growing up, I was a huge fan of anime and manga ( and still am!) When I was young, I watched the likes of Sailor Moon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, etc. and was reading Naruto and Fairy Tail and then spent my days trying to copy these characters and draw them as best I could. It’s these initial days that inspired me and are still my inspiration today – I still stand by the opinion that Naruto has some of the best character development out of any show/book/film.

As I grew up, I started to delve more into fantasy books and films and in particular, the Lord of the Rings and the rest of Tolkien’s works. I still draw inspiration from this now and I find his work to be some of the most interesting and detailed. His ability to create a fantasy world that feels like genuine British mythology is astounding!

Nowadays, its shows like Avatar, Avatar: The Legend of Korra and Game of Thrones and books from authors such as Sarah J Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Cassandra Clare and pretty much any young adult fantasy book I can get my hands on! I also still go back and watch Naruto or dive into new manga’s such as Death Note. I also love ‘The Art of…’ books from Disney films and games where the creators release all of the original concepts and artwork into book form. I collect these and there are still so many out there to add to my list! I usually grab them from a bookstore or off Amazon.

In terms of artists that have inspired me, that changes as I grow as an artist. At the moment, the ones I can list off would be Anna Steinbaeur, LD Austin, Ryan Lang, Rudy Siswanto, Charlie Bowater and pretty much anyone who works for Riot Games and paints the characters for League of Legends!

I think when it comes to projects that I am impressed by, I would have to say that the work that comes out of Studio Ghibli is the most innovative and unique from the past few years. With each film they release I find myself inspired in a different way. I have huge amounts of respect for the artists and animators that work on these films and the time and detail that goes into them – 2D, hand drawn animation is some of the hardest work you can do and requires endless amounts of patience!

9. No doubt you’ve been tracking the development of virtual reality systems. Do you think this will be a large industry for illustrators and 3D animators? Do you have any plans to carve out a niche for yourself in that space?

VR intimidates me, I won’t lie! I think that I see it being used more in the game industry like it is now as I don’t think the market is there for it to be used by animators or artists. I don’t think that it will benefit us much, but I have seen it being used for the making of film which is amazing. Especially with the combination of motion capture it makes for incredibly detailed pre-production – as far as I’m aware, Peter Jackson used this process for the filming of The Hobbit and was able to use VR to layout the CG elements of the film and track the camera through it.

10. What’s next for you? What can our readers expect to see you develop or accomplish in the next 1-2 years besides more great illustrations?

My plan is the work on my portfolio and carry on world building. At the moment, I have a few characters that need fleshing out and I want to add some more designs to my portfolio and then I plan on trying to step into the game industry as a concept artist! It’s a long process and I’ve had some success the past year with interviews and art tests so I’m getting close but there’s still a lot of hard work to go! For now, I’m happy freelancing and taking my time with everything – industry is tough and competitive, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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