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Christopher Lee Interview

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Christopher Lee is a multi-disciplinary designer and illustrator from Sacramento, California. He currently resides in Burbank and lives a double-life working full-time as an art director in the motion graphics industry for Buck and as a full-time freelance illustrator for a variety of clientele.

In this interview Christopher shares with us how he got started in the digital art field. We learn about his formal education, work, and his career. He also reveals ideas, inspirations, and his love for drawing, illustrating and creativity! So let's have a digital chat with this talented and highly skilled designer/illustrator.

1. Hello Christopher, how are you today? What design project are you working on currently, is it exciting or challenging?

Hi! I'm doing great. I'm currently working on the materials for a re-launch of a product for Hasbro and a new cartoon i.p. The work I receive is always very satisfying and requires a good amount of effort to establish a rhythm. I definitely enjoy a challenge!

2. Give us a brief bio of yourself; tell us where you're from, and about your formal education and how you got started in the digital art field?

I'm from Sacramento, California and graduated from CSU Sacramento in the summer of 2006 with a bachelor's degree in graphic design.  The journey into digital art started when I was in high school. We had a few copies of Photoshop, 5 on the computers in the lab, and I started messing around… and by messing around - I mean throwing as many filters as possible onto a layer of type.

I guess everyone starts out with lens flares in the beginning - haha! The more I experimented, the more I wanted to apply the new skills I learned. I taught myself how to color my sketches digitally and things kind of snowballed from there. This was ten years ago.

Every artist has their humble beginnings and with that in mind, I wanted to share with all the readers my beginning.

One of my personal digital coloring projects in 1999.

This was my first homework assignment for my "Intro to Illustrator" class at my community college in 2001. We had to incorporate our name into a space scene. Exciting stuff!

3. How long have you been designing and illustrating? What's the one thing you wish you knew when you started your career?

Professionally, I've been doing this for about five years.

One thing I'd wish I knew upon hopping aboard this crazy train is how much time and dedication would be required to turn this interest into a serious career. It's probably better I didn't know beforehand because the reality of it all would have probably scared me off, haha.

I've grown and evolved so much during my career. I wish I could make a flow chart to illustrate how meeting one person, or doing one project led to the next thing, and then to the next, and how those branches extended into even more branches, and so on. The journey really is part of the fun!

4. I notice that you work full-time as an Art Director in the motion graphic industry, as well as work full-time as a freelance illustrator. How do you manage your time, clients and projects? Isn't it too much for one person?

Sometimes it is. With increased responsibility comes increased sacrifice I suppose. For example, I haven't touched my video game consoles in months nor have I finished the Gundam model I'm in the process of building and painting, haha. These aren't horrible sacrifices, but those are two things I wish I could devote more time to, because well, they're fun! However, these things are not priorities and I know I'll get to them… eventually. But it's not ALL work for me. I've definitely eased up on my work ethic and have shifted some things around in my life to keep a healthy routine.

5. What is your workflow for creating a typical image, how long does it take? Do you start with sketching or do you start directly digitally? What are your research resources?

99% of my work starts off as a pencil drawing of some sort. These can either be as rough as a thumbnail or a cleaned up sketch. The time it takes to finish a piece is really subjective. I think I work pretty quickly but I don't know. The longest single piece I have worked on took forty-ish hours and I only had five days to work on it. That was the Honda earth illustration in my portfolio.

I keep an illustration reference folder on my computer of all the cool things I find on the net. The most time consuming site that I often browse through is FFFFound. You can click forever and always find something new. It's like Pandora but for art. You click on something you like and it brings you to more pieces like it.  I also have a regular list of design/illustration blogs that I check daily like Drawn and grain edit.

6. Your portfolio boasts a number of amazing character illustrations, each one of them are unique. Where do you get ideas and inspiration to draw these characters? Are they the part of project brief or your brain child?

Thanks! I'm inspired by a ton of things. Some indirect and some direct. On a base level, I'm drawn to the retro styling of cartoons from the 50's and 60's, texture, and contrasting bold and muted color palettes. The way the characters communicate so much with so little has really hit home for me. I definitely have more complex designs, but the principle of using basic geometry to build a solid silhouette stays true no matter if the character is simple or complex.

I found a love for texture and within the past two years have tried to introduce textural qualities to my characters and illustrations. I'm a tactile person so the dry brushed and "rubbed out" qualities of animation background paintings add a lot of visual interest for me. I try to incorporate those details into my work when it's appropriate.

The direction of my client work is definitely dictated by the project brief, but often I'm given the freedom to create the look and feel. It sounds like an ideal situation to establish a design direction but in reality the openness is really challenging. Rather than getting a client that asks for "a bear with glasses juggling fruit," sometimes I'll get a brief that calls for a "cool, funky character geared towards kids 10-16." Is this character an animal? A creature? How juvenile should it look? What color is it? What does it like to do in its spare time? I have to answer all these questions simultaneously and convey all of it into a successful character design.

7. I also noticed, while viewing your shoppe, that you have written a short story description along with each of your character illustrations. Are you also a writer? Does the story come first or illustration? Is there also any story or reason behind the name of your website, The Beast Is Back?

I'm glad you took the time to read some of those stories! I'm definitely not a writer, haha. I enjoy writing when I need to, but for the stories about the Great Hunters, I have to give credit to my insanely creative girlfriend who is an aspiring writer and a script coordinator on The Mighty B! cartoon.  She based those stories off my completed illustrations. I guess it could go either way as long as I can visualize the finished product.

"The Beast Is Back" was derived during a fateful lunch break in the cafeteria while I was at college. I was writing a bunch of possible monikers for my portfolio all with the purpose of building a "brand" rather than just being a portfolio name. I wanted it to be fun and mysterious so that I could use as a unifying theme for prints, characters, or anything else that was related to my site.

The original symbol/logo for my site consisted of a creature in a suit with a briefcase ringing a doorbell. Get it? The Beast is…back? Haha! The humor and literal meaning was soon nixed for a more ambiguous "beast" head. He has since evolved to a full personality as seen on my current site. Try not to poke fun at him. He's just trying to pass the time while hanging out in the woods.

8. You have worked with a number of great clients and agencies. What are the projects in your career so far that you are proud of and which you think have given you immense creative satisfaction?

 I had a blast working on all the gift cards for Target. There actually is another I've just finished, but unfortunately can't show yet.  The "Lumber Jack's Wood Feast" motion piece was a true labor of love. That project allowed me to explore a lot of techniques and ideas all at once.

Another project that I'm proud of is the work I did for Nike ACG. I took risks with colors and stepped out of my comfort zone. This is also another project I can't share yet. The nature of confidentiality is part of the responsibility of this business and part of the frustration, especially when there is a project you just loved working on but can't share with the world.

9. Talking about vector illustrations, what is it about vectors that fascinates you? What tools and applications do you use to create your vector arts? Would you like to share with us your favorite vectoring tip or technique.

I love the flexibility of vector art. Everyone has their own style and unique way of approaching the format. The sheer size of the vector artist spectrum always amazes me.  There are artists who can create completely realistic human faces and product renderings and there are people like myself who do a lot of character and typographic work.  Technique is also very individual. There are many ways to do the same thing.

I use Adobe Illustrator exclusively. Sometimes I end up with a literal translation of my sketch and other times I use the sketch only as a guide for interpretation. One of my favorite vector techniques involves using the effect Roughen (Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen) to give my clean lines a handmade texture.

I use really low values and apply them repeatedly (Command + Shift + E) to build up the effect. Roughen gets really wacky at higher values. Try a size of 0.03 to 0.08 and a detail value of 70 to 90, Points "corner". Don't forget to click the preview check box so you can see your changes in real-time.

NOTE: With circles and rounder shapes a higher roughen value or many applications of a lower value will be needed to see any sort of effect on the shape. You might need to repeat the effect 20 or more times with a value of 0.07 and 85 for example.

The reason I use effects rather than filters is because I can always edit the effects in the appearance palette. With filters it's a one shot deal. This particular effect creates a million anchor points and when used as a filter instead of an effect, all those anchor points are permanently added to your shape making it impossible to edit again.

10. Of all the work you've created, or at least the ones showcased on your website, can you name a couple that you have a special love for or connection to? Do you have any specific plans for the future direction of your artwork?

All the personal work I do has a special place in my heart. Those are the times when I'm free to create whatever I want. Often times these are back-logged ideas that I've been itching to get onto paper. "The Great Hunters" world is one of my favorites along with "Mr. Villain's Class of 1983" where I pay tribute to my favorite characters from the He-Man series.

I like to keep my style versatile without feeling like I'm forcing any particular style. I'm exploring more hand-made, DIY looks along with stretching my typography wings again with "The Birds & The Beasts" brand that I'm co-developing with my girlfriend. We're putting our own spin on the Etsy aesthetic.

11. If you could take a trip and paint anywhere in the world, where would it be? And, who and/or what are your inspirations as an artist?

I went to Japan last year and absolutely loved it. So I would pick Japan again.

As far as inspirations, it's hard for me to remember everyone's names but I really enjoy the work from Charley Harper, Invisible Creature, Scott C.

12. Christopher, thanks for the interview. What advice would you like to give to budding designers and illustrators?

Take the initiative to really find your individual voice in this industry and never lose the love for what you're doing.

Christopher Lee on the Web

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