Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an artist?
I grew up in Massachusetts, just north of Boston and next door to Salem. I lived in a house that bordered acres of woods and swamps, it was really gorgeous! I didn't ever decide to become an artist, because I have found drawing and creating to be fun and incredibly fulfilling since I can remember. The moment that I decided to pursue a career in animation, however, was in 1994 when I first saw The Lion King.
Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
I'm a mix of both, I guess. I took a lot of extra art classes in middle school and high school, took part in some pre-college and evening life drawing courses and eventually went to Rhode Island School of Design, where I majored in illustration. By the same token, I've done a lot of practicing, sketching and personal artwork over the years, so in that regard I am self-taught too. I don't think the two ideas are mutually exclusive; you don't stop learning once you leave the classroom, or rather if you do, then you're in trouble!
Have you always been supported in your artistic path or has it been challenging to let your family and friends understand your choice?
Thankfully, yes! My parents were incredibly supportive of me pursuing art and paid for my education, to which I am incredibly grateful. My enjoyment of making art was an obvious thing growing up, so it was just part of my reputation and was a really positive part of my education. My friends have always been supportive too!
What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up ( artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
I think cartoons were my biggest influence, I remember drawing a LOT of My Little Ponies and the Unicorn from The Last Unicorn in kindergarten! I think my second biggest influence would have been video games, being a kid of the 80's. Oddly, I got flak for being a girl who loved playing video games as opposed to any flak for wanting to be an artist. Times are changing, more or less. When The Lion King came out, I bought the enormous art book with babysitting money and toted it to school every day to look through it and draw characters from it. In high school I got into anime (Ranma 1/2, Akira, Robot Carnival, Macross Plus, & Studio Ghibli especially) and after college I got into what Cartoon Network was doing with Foster's & Samurai Jack, and then got into the whole Cartoon Modern look.
Did you have a favourite subject to draw when you were a child and do you still have one today? If you do, what makes it so special?
As a kid, it was horses, unicorns, princesses and dogs. Then I started to draw my favorite cartoon characters, like Gadget from Rescue Rangers, Princess Sally from the Sonic series, Mega Man from the titular games, Batman from the original Fox animated series... I went through a Mary-Sue phase as a pre-teen and inserted versions of myself into various cartoon series or video games that I liked and drew out those stories. Those will NEVER see the light of day, hah! I think as a whole I just love drawing animals, and always have. For a lot of my friends who work in feature, The Little Mermaid or some other Disney princess movie was their turning point, but for me, it was The Lion King. I just find animals so much more interesting! I like to give them human personalities without necessarily standing them up on 2 feet and dressing them in clothes. To me, animals are an endless source of shapes, sizes, colors, textures and personalities. I've also discovered that I just don't like drawing humans as much as animals, and someday I may change my mind, or will just have to make peace with that fact, haha.
From the initial client idea to the final work: what goes through your mind when you are designing and what is the method you use when starting a project? Could you describe it?
It depends on the project. Right now I am splitting my time between doing character design/vis dev for feature animation, and illustrating children's books. It's a fiercely busy time and I think there is a lot of overlap in my process between the two fields. At the end of the day, it's all illustration and storytelling, it just needs to be presented differently to meet different expectations and media. One client needs a full-blown illustration of a lizard playing board games with a hermit crab in their living room, the other needs a pose sheet of 8 variations of a cat wearing a sumo thong. I have to take into account how my time will be best spent (do they want lots of rough drawings that explore lots of different approaches? Or should I focus on polish and rendering for an eye catching illustration?) Currently I work 100% digitally for all client work, for the sake of speed and ease of making changes and revisions... because there will always be notes! My dirty little secret is that I don't sketch. Well, not conventionally. I put in a lot of years doing gesture drawings from life and that has been married with my love for shapes; that is, I no longer draw line art or a line of action when I do a rough sketch. I just go straight to (digital) paint, sometimes starting in color, carving out a basic shape with a big brush an eraser that follows an imaginary line of action. I realize there are some disadvantages to this, as it might be slower than throwing a bunch of rough line sketches down on paper, but right now this works for me. I do this whether designing characters, or environments. It all starts with a thumbnail and shapes, and then once I have the big shapes in place I work downward to the smaller details.
What is your process in colouring your art and what type of tools and media do you use?
I use Photoshop 99% of the time. The other 1% is when I do a little painting for myself in AcrylaGouache on illustration board. When using Photoshop, I like to lock the transparency on layers and color directly on my shapes. I also use the curves and hue/saturation sliders a lot to fiddle with colors. I also downloaded a massive library of fancy brushes from Kyle T. Webster on Gumroad - seek him out, and you shall not be disappointed! I don't really mess with making my own custom brushes, partly because I haven't sat down to really figure it out, and partly because there are so many awesome ones already out there.
What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
I suppose the easy part is just... doing it. The hardest part is just doing it too, haha. Call it your muse, but there are just days where creating is fun and immersive and everything feels great and effortless. Other days, working on the exact same project is hard, tedious work, and everything feels wrong about it. I think the hardest part for me, especially right now, is managing burn-out, because that can make a project that you were so excited about feel like gruelling work, and also rob you of you ability to make your best work. It's very hard for me as a freelancer to maintain a work-life balance for a number of reasons, whether it's because different clients' schedules can shift and deadlines pile up for long stretches of time, or because working irregular hours makes it hard to sync up with friends who work normal hours (Weekends? What are those?) and for me, working in isolation is very draining. Still working on that one.
What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work/collaborate with?
I get up around 9:00, make breakfast and glance over the emails of the day, then walk 20 feet down the hall to my studio to hunker down around 10:00 to reply to emails, start the day's project, etc. I collaborate with various publishers and art directors via email, as well as my publishing agents. On the animation front, I usually collaborate by email but phone calls are more common, since the turn around on artwork is on a far tighter schedule than the books I do. It's also nice to hear people's voices! I break for lunch, maybe run a couple of errands, and I typically work until 9:00 at night, sometimes later. Currently I am not collaborating with other artists on personal projects, there's just no time.
What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
I learned a lot about shape theory from my art director at Leap Frog, Mike Daley. That is one thing I miss about working in-house, I miss those collaborations and gleaning knowledge from your peers and superiors. I learned a lot about color theory from Dice Tsutsumi's work, storytelling from Pascal Campion's illustrations too. I am learning a lot about branding and marketing oneself from Nidhi Chanani, and I've been learning about story structure from Brianne Drouhard, Lauren Faust and Bill Presing. I consider myself very, very lucky to have so many talented friends who are willing to share their experience with me!
Is there something that you have designed that you are most proud of?
I designed a lot of My Little Ponies back in the early 2000's (G3, for you folks in the know!) and it was amazing to see them on-shelf in toy stores and animated in the DVD specials. I'm also proud of the Raturdae I needle felted a few years back, and some of the work I've done in the Snorffles & Meeps! series with my good friend and artist, Jeannine Schafer. I'm very proud of the Sweater Ferret feltie that I made, it was an ambitious project and it went to a fabulous new home!
What projects have you worked on in the past and what are you working on at the moment (if you can tell us)?
I designed My Little Ponies and playsets, Littlest Pet Shop toys, I did virtual stickers for the Little Big Planet series, character design on WordGirl, character design for Paw Patrol and a bunch of pilots for short films or TV series that I can't talk about. Currently I am working on 6 children's books, a few Little Golden Books and I am wrapping up with character design/vis dev on Blazing Samurai, which is the animated feature I mentioned earlier.
Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
This is a tricky one. I think that since I am an extrovert, I do much better in a social, collaborative environment like a studio. However! I've worked in studios where I've had great chemistry with my team, but hated the project we were working on. That really kills morale and I was unhappy in that situation. Alternatively, I have worked in studios where I loved the project but had really bad chemistry with the team, resulting in the same unhappiness. Finding that balance is very hard, and in those situations you have to find a way to bring your best to the team and not bring everyone else down with a bad attitude. I have been freelancing for the last 2+ years and it's very lonely, working out of my own home studio. It takes its toll on me for sure. However, I am working on projects that I am so proud of and bringing my absolute best to, so that helps to balance things out. I think my ideal situation would be to work in a shared studio space with other freelancing artists, or to be in a big studio on a project that resonates with me. But life isn't perfect! For now I just have to work harder at making time to be social and to make more plans with people outside of work.
What advise would you give to an artist who is dealing with an art-block? How do you boost your imagination and keep yourself creative?
LIVE YOUR LIFE. DO NOT FORGET TO LIVE. Seriously. There is this very unhealthy mentality for young artists that I see online, coming from pros themselves, that basically if you're not drawing every day, all the time, you are not a real artist and you fail. I think that's a damaging perspective and not sustainable. My biggest enemy is burn out, and the cure for that is to do things that don't involve creativity; at least, not in the conventional way. Don't be afraid to spend time consuming! Consuming has such a negative association with it, but it's integral to its opposite, which is creating. Consuming means spending time with friends, family, reading a book, take walks, see a play, a movie... we don't create art in a vacuum, we create it from our emotional response to life's experiences! Of course moderation is key, and there comes a point where consuming too much can kill motivation and make yourself lazy. So find the balance, try to push through if you are struggling but don't be afraid to just exist if that's what your mind and body need.
Many art teachers and schools suggest to their students that a commercial artist should always work in one consistent style if they wish to have a healthy career. In your own experience, do you believe this to be true?
There are pros and cons to this and it depends on your field. In TV animation, you're going to want to be able to mimic the "house style" as part of your job, but you also need to have an artistic voice of your own to put a spin on it. In a field like feature animation, at least in my experience, you may have more luck bringing your own style to the team and making a bigger impact on the look of the film. In publishing, unless you are working on a heavily managed licensed property, publishers generally want you to use your own style and consistency is very important for branding. I tend to work in one style, and for now, it's going great for me. However, I know that what I do will not always be in demand, and there will come a day when things slow down and I will have to either re-invent my style or find a different outlet for it. If you can work in many styles, you may well never go hungry, but you also risk working for long periods of time in a style that you hate doing. You have to figure out what your priorities are. I spent many years working in mobile games where I worked in styles that were tedious and poorly conceived, so for now I am indulging in my own style and seeing where it fits in this industry. In general, I like the "model 'T' " approach. Imagine you have a broad, but somewhat shallow understanding of several styles or skills in art. But there's one area in particular where you are just a rock star, that is your specialty. The more shallow skill-sets are like the top of the 'T' and that one skill you do really well is the part of the 'T' that dips down. It's great if a studio can rely on you to be the rock star character designer, but if things get backed up in layout or story and you're able to help pick up some slack in those areas too, you're even more of an asset!
We have a soft spot for hand drawn animation, what is your opinion about the future of this art form?
I really hope it makes a comeback. Right now it seems like 2D, particularly in feature, is more of a novelty or a set dressing, rather than a respected medium. How many 3D movies have I watched with amazingly animated 2D credit sequences and lamented, "Why didn't the WHOLE MOVIE look like that?!" I do hope we see a revival, outside of TV animation and back into feature.
Finally, Where can we see your art online and get in touch with you? How can we buy your creations and support your work?
Many places! My portfolio ( stephlaberis.carbonmade.com ), my Facebook page ( facebook.com/stephlaberisart ), Instagram ( instagram.com/steph_laberis ), my online store ( stephsketches.bigcartel.com ) and My blog ( stephsketches.blogspot.com ). I am most active on the Facebook and Instagram accounts. It would mean a lot if people would follow and share my work on those accounts, social media is a beautiful thing and I love meeting fellow artists, whether online, at a convention or at a show!
Thank you Steph :)