Interview with Jessica Tung Chi Lee
Born and raised in Taiwan, Jessica TC Lee is an internationally recognized concept artist and illustrator, living and working in San Francisco.
After obtaining her MFA degree in illustration, she went on to win a number of national and international awards and built a freelance career working with prestigious clients across the board. In 2014, Jessica became a Lead Concept Artist at MunkyFunk. She gives back to the art community by writing tutorials for 3DTotal, 2DArtist and 3DCreative.
Jessica, you are an artist who understands the need to promote your work. Why is this so essential for digital artists?Because of the entertainment industry boom, there are tons of art resources out there. Almost anybody who is into digital art can quickly improve their skills to a level desired by the industry; therefore, clients have tons of choices. So what makes clients think of a particular artist? Self-promotion is something beyond establishing one’s style, work quality or reputation. At the end of the day, clients can always find someone else with a similar skillset and style. Self-promotion is essential even for industry veterans because there are so many upcoming artists who might not only have a similar skillset but are also as reliable with their work ethic and are most likely cheaper. Furthermore, because of the huge number of websites where artists can showcase their work, artists can quickly be forgotten if they don't constantly remind the audience and clients about themselves. Therefore, always update your several core clients through personal email with your newest work. You can even try something more personal, like sending postcards. Don’t over-do it, however, because the clients might be busy. Every one or two months is a good frequency.
What channels do you use to promote yourself?I always keep my ArtStaion and my personal portfolio up-to-date and active. ArtStation is almost a standard art website every digital artist should have their portfolio on today; it is known as a site where the top-league artists are, if an artist can make their work recognized by the audience there, they immediately gain prestige as being a part of the professional art community. I also always post on and submit to as many websites and as often as possible. The obvious choice is CGCookie, as well as DeviantArt, Digital ArtLords, InfectedByArt, ConceptArt.org, CubeBrush, 3DTotal, LayerPaint, Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, Society of Illustrators, It’s Art, Advanced Photoshop and many more. I also submit my works to magazines. Getting published in renowned magazines is one of the most effective ways for an artist to get noticed by clients. Facebook and Twitter are two of my most frequently used social media for quick self-promotional stuff, such as teasers of new work, news of activities I am going to do, new prints of my works, new tutorials I will put out, sharing works I just posted on an art website, etc. Many artists use Youtube to show the recordings of their work process. It’s one of the most effective ways of self-promotion because it can show all the details involved in the process and thus bring more satisfaction to the viewers. In addition to all the work I share online, I also participate in conventions and gallery shows where I can meet people and network. The more people I know, the more opportunities I have.
Your site JessicaTCL.com is a great example of a beautiful and professional artist website. What advice would you give to artists looking to create their own?Rule number one: keep it clean and simple! Easy navigation is one of the most important things. Recruiters and art directors receive many emails every day and usually only spend a few minutes to review a portfolio, so the less effort they need to navigate, the more they are willing to look through your work. Make the site feel fresh and current: maintain a News page or a blog to showcase how active you are in the industry. The first impression and a WOW effect are important, which is why I chose one large image for the homepage. I have accumulated a solid amount of quality work that I want to showcase, so I layed out the thumbnails of my works in a grid. Before I had quite a bit of work, I used a big slide show instead; it took up the entire page and showcased my best pieces. Add your resume and list all the big gigs you have worked on and the skills needed. Also list all your awards, magazine features, exhibitions and tutorials you have worked on. Finally, a nice and professional photo of yourself is helpful to give a good first impression to the viewers.
How can you prepare a portfolio and make sure it is focused while still appealing to a broad client base?If you are aiming to reach a broader range of work opportunities, you should show that you can be useful in more than one aspect. For example, I showcase work that demonstrates both your design and rendering abilities. I am a 2D artist, but I included 3D modeling work in my portfolio to show that I understand the entire production pipeline instead of only my own niche. For the most part, beautiful final illustrations in a portfolio make a good visual impact, but what really makes companies want to hire a concept artist is seeing that their designs are compatible with the company's projects. Mobile game companies especially want artists who are very flexible with their styles, from cartoony to realistic. They also prefer a knowledge of basic Maya modeling and texturing skills, or, if it’s 2D game company, Flash animation skills. If you want to work for companies like Bungie or Naughty Dog, or any film companies, you better show them your realistic-styled matt painting skills. Usually, they would want you to be able to also utilize MODO, Maya, or Zbrush to help with the speed, so it’s good to include some relevant works in your portfolio. If you are freelancing for book covers or magazines, your portfolio should show that your illustrations have an obvious style. It doesn’t have to be totally unique, but it has to be consistent - not necessarily through the whole portfolio, but at least through a project or a series of pieces.
Let's focus on looking for a dream job in the industry. The competition is tough, how do you differentiate yourself?The key is to really know the job you want and polish your skills around it. For instance, I really wanted to be a concept artist in the entertainment industry. I learned that the industry looks for artists who not only have solid design aesthetics but also good 3D skills, which helps with the speed and production pipeline. Therefore, in addition to Photoshop, I learned SketchUp, Maya and matt painting techniques to help me better cooperate with a team. In addition to understanding the requirements of your dream position, you will also want to perfect your specialty, something that sets you apart from others. For example, I am very interested in mechanical, environmental and architectural designs, so I spend time enriching my portfolio with pieces from these areas and I train myself by observing machinery and commercial buildings in everyday life. To be a strong job candidate, an artist should be familiar with the entire production pipeline and have a solid understanding of the big picture, but strive for mastery in a specific area that interests them. At the same time, promote your personal work in order to be recognized as an individual artist.
What is your experience interviewing for a job: is there a good way to prepare and practice?Once you've received an interview invitation, you know that the interviewers already like your work enough to want to know more about you as an individual and an employee, so you should focus on showing the interviewers that you are pleasant to work with and can motivate and energize the team. Pay great attention to dressing properly and wear a formal outfit. You want to give an impression that you are an organized and professional individual. Some people mistakenly think that interviewing for a job in the entertainment industry means that it is OK to dress very casual. This is totally false. It is an industry with clients, products to and deadlines like all other fields and you should look the part when you go to an interview. Be prepared to answer some general questions, like how you manage conflict, make tough decisions, what your last job was like, your weaknesses and strengths, and hobbies outside of work. Next, prepare for questions about your artistic skills: How long did a specific piece take you to complete? What important techniques did you use? What is your workflow usually like? What is your thought process when designing? Make sure you know your long-term plans. If you show the interviewer that working for the company is in line with your long-term plans, that is a good way to convince them that you will give your best effort on the job. I always make sure to reflect that I am passionate about the company's projects, know the key team members and take an interest in the future of the company. Do your research beforehand. It helps to consult your friends who had gone through similar job interviews, practice with them and ask them to question you. A technique that worked for me was to memorize a draft I wrote, then practice in front of a mirror and try to say the content in a natural way.
Whether working full-time or freelancing, what type of projects can a concept artist work on?As a concept artist, my first two main markets are mobile games and short films. I am very flexible with my styles; I have done designs in realistic, cartoony, stylized and animation styles for these two markets. I got to design shots including lighting, colors and compositions for short films; I have done background painting, and also character designs, prop designs too. For mobile games, I have done characters, assets, vehicles designs. In addition to those two main markets, I have expanded my client base to book art as well. I have done illustrations for book interior art, for book cover art, for magazine interior art. The illustration market also includes newspapers, board games and card games. This type of client usually expects artists to showcase a clear style instead of a broad range of styles. Some of my friends whose style is more cartoony or editorial also do licensing and have their art printed on mugs, t-shirts, kitchen wares, stationery, cards, and clothes. Licencing can be incredibly profitable if your style is trendy. I personally also do prints and clothes. Artists who have a graffiti, graphic or editorial style can also work on mural projects for stores, museums or communities, big bulletin boards projects for advertising companies, and interactive illustrations for websites or e-books. The list of projects you can work on is almost endless.
Finally, if you could go back to your younger self, what number one advice would you give to yourself when you were starting your professional career?Do more networking and promote yourself as much as possible. I used to be very shy and mistakenly thought that my art should speak for itself and people would just come to me. I gradually realized that it was not true. After I have met so many incredible and famous illustrators and concept artists, I came to understand how much effort they had actually put into promoting themselves. They maintain blogs, journals, news and social media posts. They go to conventions, meet-ups and hang out with people in the industry. They put out publication at their own expenses. They network with potential clients and future co-workers and update their work regularly. When I was selected as one of the twelve Illustrators of the Future contest winners, Dave Dorman told us: “I treated my career as a small business and started to work on the business side of it.” He tirelessly went to conventions and sent out samples of his art. It is inevitable to have to invest money and time first in order to get recognition. Even if you are aiming to get into a company, the same philosophy applies. Artists need their work to be seen in order to get opportunities. You never know when a new opportunity appears and where it will lead you - and it might be some place awesome.
To see more of Jessica's work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.