Jessica TC Lee is a concept artist and illustrator, born and raised in Taiwan. She later came to San Francisco to obtain her MFA degree in illustration. She is a winner of both national and international awards, and plays a critical role on her project team. She also gives back to her art community by writing tutorials for 3DTotal. She is constantly seeking inspiration in life, and motivated to put out more engaging art works.
Iulian: Tell us a little bit about yourself: where did you grow up and how did your early life influence your future as an artist?
Jessica: I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. Immersed in such big a city as Taipei, I was constantly inspired by all the modern architecture and cityscape. My father is a civil engineerer, and when I was a little girl, he often took me to his office. I had such a rare chance, which people usually don’t have, to observe the view of construction sites and all the cool machines in close look and without being blocked outside of fences. My love toward mechanical and environment design and illustration sprouted back then, and has since constantly influenced my passion toward the subjects of my art.
As a kid, I used to play with my cousins a special game in which we all took a paper and started to draw out our “army”. We would constantly chat with each other what kind of soldiers and vehicles we were putting out. The design was usually very science fiction with a lot of laser power involved. If we were fighting against each other, we would need to constantly draw and erase our army. Now looking back at that, it was really amazing how limitless imagination could be, and how design and play could merge together. This game had a great influence on me becoming a science fiction and fantasy artist now for sure.
When I was in middle school, I also started getting into writing and inventing my own stories. I would design all the characters myself.
In addition to life experience, I am very into many science fiction and fantasy themed things; games, novels and movies play a huge role in shaping me becoming an artist.
What are your favorite design tools and how did you get to learn them?
My favorite technical tools include pen and paper, Photoshop, Maya, and SketchUp. I used to use Illustrator and Flash too.
I learnt Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash back in college, but it was not until I finished my MFA program in the Academy of Art that I could really say I knew how to use pen and paper. After I started working professionally, I had the great opportunity of learning Maya and SketchUp as assisting tools for my designs. It greatly helped speed up the entire production pipeline.
In addition to adding to the team work flow, 3D programs also help me with my personal projects too. Some tricky scenes with difficult perspective can easily be figured out with 3D programs.
Are there any other artists out there that you admire and whose work has helped shape your work?
Although I no longer follow the styles of Feng Zhu and Scott Robertson, these two artists’ tutorials and books greatly shape my design logic and thinking process. Illustrators and concept artists who I admire and influenced my work in different styles include Ruan Jia, Kekai Kotaki, Dylan Cole, John Wallin Liberato, Fausto De Martini, Emmanuel Shiu, Karla Ortiz, Dice Tsutsumi; just to name a few.
Where do you find inspiration?
As briefly mentioned in the first question, I have been constantly inspired by daily life objects and as well as novels, movies, and games. It was such an impact to my art each time I saw or read about a design that I wouldn’t think of by myself normally. Imagination can get much wilder and more interesting with external impact.
However, I will say that life is the biggest inspiration. Sometimes when I was doing something, and my mind would wonder if there were such a machine, this thing could be done much more efficiently. I love astronomy too, and I love to imagine what and how it would look and be like if we had colony or residence in space or on other planets. What equipment and technology we would need and how they would look like, thoughts like that really excite me.
Same situation with fantasy designs too. Although there is magic involved, I still like to reference cultural facts and think about how the people would dress, and what their equipment would be like, since I don’t like magic that can pop a chair from nothing.
How to make the viewers believe the world is usually the drive and inspiration behind my work.
How would you break down your work flow in steps?
I always start with researching. I look into the objects that I will need to design first. I find the closest things in reality and study the references. After I have a good idea about how the objects will look, I start doing thumbnails. Thumbnails are essential for both good designs and illustrations. They help me figure out the big shapes, which will determine almost 80% of how the final designs or illustrations will look. At this stage, if it’s for concept design, I try to figure out the most interesting silhouette while making the design functional. If it’s for an illustration, I try to figure out the best lighting, value, and story-telling composition. After I come up with a good silhouette/thumbnail for the design or illustration, I will finally start adding smaller decoration to the designs or illustration and bring them to completion.
Your work is very science-fiction driven. What drives you to that subject?
Partially it was attributed to my childhood as I mentioned in the first question. However, the main reason was because I am really excited by the idea how technology can mold our daily life, and where it can bring us to. All the fascinating machine parts we send to other planets not only look extremely cool, but also are preparing for our space odyssey. The ideas of space mining, moon colonies, extraterrestrial beings, outside of our solar system are like a wonderland for me to explore.
If there was one piece of advice you could give other beginning artists, what would that be?
Don’t be shy. I was very shy when I was a newbie, and didn’t network as much as I could. Although artists do need a lot of private/alone time to grow and polish our skills, peers and the business side of our career are essential for us to really make a successful living as artists. We have to understand the importance of keeping good contact with our clients, audience, and artist friends, and also explore and expand them when we have the ability to. By saying that, I mean when times like our skills reach the next level, and when our work is recognized by new people, and when there are any related conventions we can go to. We need to be pro-active about the business side of our career.
And the second piece of advice is always be nice. The industry is a very small world.
We selected one of your pieces for the cover of our magazine. Tell us a few words about how that piece came to be.
“The Critical Moment” was a commission. I first received the script of the short story by Martin L. Shoemaker, and I read the story like two or three times. During reading, I marked down several scenes which I had good ideas of engaging and eye-catching compositions. When I was reading a script, there usually was a mini-movie going on in my head. Even though it might not be exactly clear, I could still have a good idea about how the scenes look like in a blurry-image way.
After reading, I started digging into the objects in the scenes as related to the closest things in reality, such as the interior of a space station, space suit, important equipment, etc. After I had a good grasp of the objects I would need to design, I sketched out several small thumbnails. They were around 2” by 3”. After I found three thumbnails that had the greatest potential, I did three much more detailed sketches of them. It was when I dug into researching what details all the objects had. It was also when I decided what the lighting was like for each piece. Lighting is an extremely important element of a good composition.
After the final sketch was selected by the art director, I brought the sketch to the final completion. During coloring, I started to think about what kind of colors would bring out the tension the scene had. I discussed a little with the art director, and settled on a strong contrast between blue primary color and red secondary color. The final illustration was a demonstration of all the work and love put into it. This piece was definitely a huge breakthrough for me.
Where can we find you on the web?
I am very active on my facebook profile, under Jessica TC Lee; I often post news and updates there. My portfolio website is also a good place to visit and shoot me an email. I maintain a blog in my portfolio website about my latest exhibitions, awards, projects, etc. I can also be found on Twitter too. My Artstation keeps all my best works. I also have portfolio on CGCookie. It is a very nice place for artists, especially beginners, to get involved in art community and have well-organized resources. InfectedByArt is a great place to see my work too. It is a great promotional platform, and cooperates with many famous conventions and contests. Digital Artlords is a fast surging platform and has helped gain me much new audience already. It also works with well-known art groups. Many other internationally acclaimed artists have portfolios there too.
Digital Artlords: https://artlords.com/u/j03150315
Here are some samples of Jessica’s works:
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