Leon Lee

Where did you grow up? At what age did you start thinking about pursuing an artistic career?
I was born and raised in the city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but I also spent a few years in Houston, Texas when I was in elementary school. It was during my time in Texas that I was first exposed to art. I remember drawing cowboys and horses for a school art contest and actually getting an award for it. Still, I never took art too seriously or even considered it as a profession when I was growing up. Instead, I was just an outdoorsy kid who enjoying playing sports and participating in various clubs. Even though I drew a lot in my free time, I was actually more serious about considering sports as a viable career option. Being active and competitive gave me the motivation and drive to compete at both the district and national level for track and field during high school.

But when the time came to apply for college, I chose Engineering as my major. At that time, I had believed that it was because I found joy in solving problems and in creating. However, I soon realized that the work I would be doing as an Engineer was not the type of creating I wanted to do, and I felt confused and unsure about my future. Seeing this, my mom sat me down and suggested, “You’ve always enjoyed drawing; why don’t you try applying for art school? I was skeptical at first, but she took me on a tour of The One Academy of Communication Design in Selangor, Malaysia. There, I was blown away by what I saw. I knew instantly that art was what I wanted to pursue going forward. I was nineteen at the time, and that was the beginning of my artistic journey.

Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
I attended The One Academy of Communication Design in Malaysia for several terms before attending ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. I had done a lot of research on schools in the U.S., and it was the legacy of the artists from ArtCenter that was a big draw for me. I received most of my formal training at ArtCenter, where I majored in Illustration with a focus on Entertainment Arts. Those four years were a rigorous training ground for me, punctuated by countless all-nighters. However, ultimately it was one of the best decisions I had ever made for myself. Being surrounded by the countless number of talents in the program forced me to work extra hard, and in return, allowed me to develop my skills quickly.

Have you always been supported in your artistic path or has it been challenging to let your family and friends understand your choice?
When I decided to switch from Engineering to Illustration, it was definitely difficult for my dad to accept this decision, especially since he is an engineer himself. While it did take him some time to understand that there is an entire industry in the arts and that having a viable job is possible, I did my best to prove to both my parents that I was willing to work hard to pursue my passion. Now, I am grateful that my parents have become so supportive of my goals.

What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up ( artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
As a kid, Disney’s The Lion King was the animated movie that really captivated me, as well as other cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, Scooby-Doo, and Gargoyles. I think I was sort of mesmerized by the idea that the animals and creatures in these shows could talk just like us humans. That allowed me to connect with the characters and inspired the desire to experience that world. Growing up, I was also highly influenced by books from the fantasy genre such as, the Harry Potter series, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Looking back at it now, I think I was fascinated by things that defied the logic of our world and somehow, that has led me to where I am now.

Then it depend on the kind of final product, if the designs would be translated to 3D or if it's just an illustration, or if my work is just inspirational as a concept artist and I just have to translate a text for an initial visual development. I adapt the technique in each case to avoid going too far, giving the information but without focusing too much on a rendering that is not necessary at that point. My main initial goals are readability, composition, proportions, light and color. With very few elements combined well you can explain effectively a big concept.  

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?
I remember always drawing cowboys and horses as a kid, which was probably due to my surrounding environment during my time in Houston. Today, I draw just about anything that piques my interest, from animals, people, vehicles, to architecture. I probably most consistently draw people in their daily lives or landscapes. Having had the opportunity to do a fair amount of traveling while growing up, I learned to appreciate the beauty and intricacies of life, nature, history, as well as  all the different cultures in the world. From those experiences, I developed an interest in capturing the subtle moments and locations that I have observed, and try to reinterpret it through my work. It serves as a reminder of the various subjects that have inspired or influenced me in along the way.

What is your process in creating your art and what are your favourite tools?
My process depends on what I am trying to create and its intended purpose. I generally start with an idea or story in mind. Once I have a sense of what I want to communicate, I then look up reference images, do research, or look at anything that could provide some sort of inspiration for me. After that, I do several loose thumbnail sketches to explore different compositions, mood, and lighting that could help illustrate my idea. Depending on the time constraints, from there I rough out a few color comps before moving on to the final image. Throughout this process, I am constantly asking myself, “Does the image read? Is the message coming across the way I intend for it to?” When in doubt, I always refer back to the story and see if I can find a better way to communicate the idea.

In terms of favorite tools, I am a very old school, traditional kind of guy. I always prefer pencil on paper. There is just something about drawing on paper that is so satisfying, and that feeling simply cannot be replicated digitally. I also enjoy using watercolor and gouache when it comes to painting. That being said, I do use Photoshop most of the time due to its convenience.

What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
To me, the most exciting part of the process is the beginning phase — the stage where I get to explore, experiment, and play with different ideas and compositions. This is when I have the most creative freedom and can afford to make as many mistakes as I want. By the time I get to the final stage, everything is pretty much locked in, and drastic changes are not usually made; it’s just a matter of execution at that point. That being said, I think the most challenging part is also the beginning. Although it may be fun to do all those sketches and exploration, actually coming up with a decent idea that I am satisfied is not always easy.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work, collaborate or share your creative time with?
My day usually starts off with doing a morning workout, consuming a light breakfast, and mentally preparing myself for traffic before making my way to work. I am currently working at Renegade Animation as a background and prop designer on The Tom and Jerry Show. My job is to create the world where the story takes place, and I am fortunate to work with a team of extraordinarily talented artists who share the same passion that I have. What I really love about where I work is that everyone is very involved and collaborative. As a designer, I communicate most with my art director to ensure that we are able to deliver everything at its best and in a timely manner. I am also involved in story pitches as well as other aspects of the pipeline from time to time. This involvement allows everyone on the team to understand how each of us contributes to the show and fosters an environment that allows us to share our ideas with one another.

What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
Something I learned from an art director at DreamWorks TV whom I have worked with is to design thoughtfully and efficiently. The TV animation industry is very demanding and fast paced, and creating good assets that can later be reused saves production cost and time. Other lessons I have learned are the importance of always staying humble, being receptive to other ideas, and being a team player: it is generally easier to communicate and work with other artists who share these traits. By communicating with and observing how my current art director interacts and handles other artists, I have also gained a better understanding of what it takes to manage a team and take on the role of a leader.

What projects have you worked on in the past and what are you working on at the moment (if you can tell us)?
I have done some contract work as a visual development artist for DreamWorks TV on a show that will air this fall. Currently, I am working on The Tom and Jerry Show at Renegade Animation. I am also working on several personal projects, one of which can be found on my website. The Secret Garden is a re-imagining of a story about a self centered young girl who loses her parents in an unfortunate event and is forced to live with her distant uncle, where she soon discovers a secret that has been kept locked away for years. My reason for starting this project was to challenge myself to build a whole world including the characters, environments, and props, as well as key story moments. However, It was also partially because I enjoy coming of age stories that involve character development, growth, and the journey of self discovery.  

Do you have a longterm career goal? What would your dream project be?
Career wise, my long-term goal would be to have the opportunity to art direct or be a production designer on feature films. I would also like to work on a live action film one day, and be able to build actual real life sets. Eventually, I hope to find the time to create my own graphic novel and make a film with a group of artists/friends who share a similar vision of telling stories that connect with different people from all walks of life.

Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
I enjoy being able to do both because of the variation I can get in terms of client, pacing, and type of work. However,  as a people person, I do prefer working for a company a bit more because I enjoy the process of collaborating and bouncing ideas back and forth with other talented individuals.

What advise would you give to an artist who is dealing with an artist's block? How do you boost your imagination and keep yourself creative?
Go out and have fun! Step away from whatever you are doing and try something new or different. Living a healthy and balanced life is important, as it helps keep ideas flowing. I personally enjoy being outside, hiking, hanging out with friends, trying new food, playing different sports, or even meeting new people. All the little things that you experience along the way will serve as inspiration when creating your work. The more you discover and observe things around you, the more you will be able to draw from when you need ideas.

Concept art, animation, illustration, comics, you name it. There are so many careers and when you are very young, sometimes you know only one thing: you simply love to draw. In your opinion, what should a young person take into consideration to make the right decision when choosing an artistic path?
I think a young person should keep an open mind and try out as many things as possible. Don’t limit your options when starting out, because there are so many things to learn from in all the fields. That's not to say that specializing is not good, but I think it will be beneficial to be open to the different possibilities, as there is a lot of crossover among them. I think if you keep exposing yourself to various types of art and constantly practice your craft, you will eventually find out what really resonates with you, keeps you motivated, and that will lead you to your artistic career.

In your own experience, what would you suggest to someone who is inspired by your work and wants to follows your footsteps: should they work in one consistent style, or work on many different ones?
I personally do not work in one consistent style; I enjoy exploring different techniques and finding new ways to push my work. There is always an ongoing debate over whether to work in one consistent style or many different ones. I think that it depends on what you want to do. Based on my personal experience, animation companies nowadays tend to look for versatile artists, and there will be more job opportunities if you are able to work in different styles as opposed to just one style. That being said, there is also a demand for artists who only work in one consistent style. It all depends on what the company or client is looking for. Hence, my advice would be, if you have one specific style you enjoy doing, great! Highlight that in your portfolio, but also try to show that you are able to work in other styles at the same time.

What’s your point of view about the industry today: what are the expectation for someone who wants to make a living with an artistic career?
I think it is a great time to be in the industry. We are in a time where so many animated shows, games, and short films are being produced. Hence, there are a lot of job opportunities out there. It is completely possible to make a living with a career in the arts. However, the question you must ask yourself is, “Am I willing to do what it takes and put in the practice to get the job I want?” Yes, there are opportunities and jobs out there, but with great opportunities comes great competition.

We have a soft spot for hand drawn animation, what is your opinion about the future of this art form?
Having grown up in the era of 2D animation, I personally have a soft spot for it myself. There is a certain quality and expression about it that cannot be replicated with 3D animation. It’s hard to say where the future of this art form is heading, but the fact that I am currently working on a 2D animated show proves that it is still very much alive. There are also smaller independent studios out there that still practice the art form and are putting out some really amazing short films. It has definitely become more niche since the industry has transitioned into 3D over the years, but I do hope that more people will continue to appreciate the appeal and charm of hand drawn animation and keep the art form alive going forward.

Social networks, crowd funding websites, print on demand online services and so on. New media on the Internet are connecting the artists directly with their fans like never before. In your opinion, how is this affecting the industry and what are the pros and cons?
I think it’s great that these platforms have helped bridge a gap that used to be difficult to connect. Artists are now able to gain the exposure they need by showcasing their work on different social media networks, and fans can easily find and appreciate the different type of work that is put out by individual artists. They have also made it much easier for artists to gather inspiration and reference material now. On the other hand, the ease and accessibility of these materials may promote bad habits for an artist. It puts pressure on them to create work that would satisfy the public. Overall, I think these platforms have helped the public gain a better understanding and appreciation for the type of work we do in the industry. However, the vast amount of work that can be conveniently accessed through social media has also made the industry into a far more competitive place.

Finally, where can we see your art online and get in touch with you? How can we buy your creations and support your work?
You can follow me on Instagram ( @leonlee.art ), Behance ( behance.net/leonleeart ) or check out my work on my website ( www.leonleeart.com ). I will be setting up an online store in the future, but in the meantime you can also find some of my work in selected gallery shows, such as the annual Post It show at Giant Robot. This month, my work will also be in the “Innuendo” show at Light Grey Art Lab.

Thank you Leon :)