Career Advice - Working as an Illustrator and Design Artist with Tiffani Brown
Want a successful career working as a 2D Design Artist? Tiffani Brown, a Design Artist/Background Painter from Toronto, sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.
Currently working at Nelvana, Tiffani sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I am a Design Artist/Background Painter. It’s as simple as this: I put colour and texture to the world the characters move around in. I paint their stage.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
I work at Nelvana. I started with the Second Season of Esme and Roy and now I’m on Thomas & Friends: All Engine’s Go.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
I was about 6 years old when I started to go all googly-eyed from watching any behind the scenes featurette. I’d then grab my sketchbook and go nuts with doodles.
Before MTM (Max the Mutt College of Animation Art and Design) I had gone to college for Computer Programming, English, and Fine Arts. I even had a few cartooning classes in there. I’ve encountered the dreaded sentence “this field may not be for you” on every single one of those areas.
Later in life, from a conversation with my husband, we both agreed I had a duty to myself to see if this childhood desire of mine was a field that may actually be for me. If by chance it was, I had to see it through, even if I failed. So, I researched the field as much as I knew how at the time and applied to school. I was shocked when I got in.
How did you get your first big break?
This is possibly the hardest question for me to answer because in my opinion big breaks don’t come from a single interaction or event. They are built by your work ethic, how you show yourself to handle stress and rejection, the connections you make, etc. They are earned with early mornings and sleepless nights, meals missed and outings with friends declined. I’m not saying those things aren’t important, what I am saying is that decisions to forego certain things for a time are necessary to get to where you dream of going.
If I had to pinpoint it, I guess I would say when I was 6 and smoke was emitting from my sketchbook -- I never put the thing down. That need to keep drawing formed the base of my love for the industry even though I didn’t know it at the time.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
I began my journey with Esme and Roy Season 2 right out of college – it was my first job in the industry. The time spent on the show not only allowed what I had learned from MTM to be used and built upon, I was also able to get my feet wet with some aspects of Art Direction.
Assisting with scene planning completely burst my bubble that background painting was only about producing a pretty picture. BG painting is about understanding what is needed for the benefit of the viewer when they watch the show.
Once Esme and Roy was ready to air, my time with the show had ended and I was instantly moved to Thomas and Friends. The style of the show is less painterly than Esme and Roy. As a person who swan-dives right into colour, I am learning to pull back and become a straight shooter in my colour choices and in how the brushes work.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
The short and sweet version: We all log in, check what needs to be done for the day, and get to work. Me, personally, it’s with tea in hand, I get to painting.
Overall, for many of us the norm has become remote working. This new way has caused us to develop our own day to day, so no one’s is the same. As for the team, we remain connected with each other through email and chat services. The process and understanding of the pipeline haven’t changed, so we operate still as though we we’re in the office. The only thing that has changed is that we aren’t sitting next to and around each other.
While communication was just a part being in the office, I feel that this new norm has caused us to focus more on that aspect. I believe we are all amping up our efforts to remain on the same page production wise. For the sake of our teammates, I feel we devote more energy into making sure as artist we avoid burnout. We really are in this thing together, more now that we have ever been.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
My primary tool for painting is Photoshop. For communication purposes, Microsoft Teams and Outlook serve us very well.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
As a Background painter, I work closely with Layout and Rigging. It’s important to maintain consistency with placement of objects and layer naming conventions.
With Layout, I do my best to get an understanding of the intent of the placement of objects before colouring. Before it goes to rigging, I must make sure consistency is maintained and names are clear and up to code to avoid any confusion and / or crashes. You want to make sure that any rigger that gets a hold of your file has only to upload, drag and drop. You don’t want them worrying about re-arranging (unless otherwise instructed by the Art Director) or naming. If another BG artist needs to work on it, your layers (including effects and naming) must be clear and easily accessed.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
I personally would never want to move into the realistic aspect of BG painting. I enjoy playing around in the interpretation of a realistic world. It’s the cartoon-y, imaginary, playful style that excites me. It keeps me aware of my surroundings and it forces me to communicate in a way that no matter the age, anyone can not only enjoy it but understand it as well.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
I love what I do. The only change I’d like to see is me. I want to continue to grow in what I do. As I stated before, I come from a very painterly side of colouring. Experiencing different styles that are just as playful but undergo a different process will expand my repertoire of creativity. I will be all the better for it. My level of communication will grow.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
There are many different answers for this question that are experienced based depending on who you ask. Many will say no, others will say yes. There really isn’t a perfect answer to this -- mix 1 tbsp of luck with 2 cups of wishing and BOOM you have a job.
Having gone through a formal education on many different subjects, I would now have to replace the word “formal” with the word “focused” because that is the type of school I received the greatest benefit – an environment where I was surrounded with as much art as I could get my hands on without the distractions of other subjects that had nothing to do with my desired industry.
Wherever you decide to attend, you must have discipline and a willingness to be taught. Be ready to work for it. I’m telling you, be ready.
What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?
I would have them adjust sections of existing backgrounds to suit the art direction of an episode before diving into colouring a full layout. To complete the task, they would need to review the storyboards and Leica’s to understand how this background and the item they are focusing on will work with the characters.
There is a colour and style consistency in the show that must be followed so reviewing similar backgrounds will help with that. Layer order and naming must be clear as well. Things like this save time and avoid confusion when going down the pipeline.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
Talent and EQ. Let me explain - talent in the sense that you understand colour theory and shape language and that you apply these things in a way that you are beginning to create your own voice. In other words, use what you have learned to play around, but still allow those rules to remain.
EQ calls for you to place your ego aside. You are talented yes, but none of us are above learning and growing. Be open to that – compliments as well as criticisms. Studios want to teach you, but you must be willing to let them.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
Research and development, done properly, is oftentimes the one thing that's missed most.
Many artists that enter the industry mono-focus right out the gate. It's all paint and create -- which is great because it's what you love to do, it's what you went to school for -- I TOTALLY feel you and I've had my days when I've been very guilty of that. However, there is an art of research and development that is often left behind once one gets the job.
Production studios will have a database for you to get acquainted with. Take that time to do so. That database will serve as a constant Pandora's box of clues to help you do your job efficiently. Look past the cuteness, colour, and the shapes, keeping those things in mind of course, but pay close attention to the details.
Pay attention to how layers are ordered, labelled and coloured; get familiar with how adjustments and different layer types are used. Ask your art director questions about how these things may or may not affect the pipeline (i.e. if other artists need to touch the background-- how easily can they make changes quickly).
These things will help you develop a workflow that will not only enhance your creativity, but will also turn you into someone that is a pleasure to work with. Studios love that.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
Create a story that means something to you. What does the world in that story look like? Placing characters into those backgrounds helps too. It can show size and depth relationships.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
During the interview process, a studio will ask you about your works. They will pick ones that they love and ones they question. They will critique your works and ask you to elaborate. A key question is “what was your thought process / idea behind this piece?” Sounds harmless, right? This single question can give them an understanding of who you are as a person and an artist. You must be able to clearly convey your thoughts without becoming defensive. Passion is one thing, but difficulty to speak to and / or take criticism is something studios will often avoid.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Mistakes are not the end of the world so freakouts and talking down about yourself do nothing but discourage your progress. Critiques can hurt like hell, but a choice must be made: either be sad and frustrated that someone dislikes your work or compose yourself as someone who is listening on how to improve. You can only choose one.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
A perfectionist attitude does not equal know-how. It only loses valuable time. It also promotes stress and an inability to remain open to improvement. What’s worse is that it blocks your understanding of a process. Don’t rush it, instead fall in love with the process, enjoy the learning aspect. If you do, works that show what you’re capable of will come. I promise.
Tiffani is a Design Artist living in Ontario, Canada currently working at Nelvana. She has worked on Esme and Roy Season 2, and now on Thomas & Friends: “All Engines Go.” It’s been a bit over 2 years, and Tiffani is still amazed to be working at a studio that was such a huge part of her childhood.