The animation industry is big and full of talented people. So many artists find their way into the industry doing concept art, character design, background painting, and even the unique task of color styling under an art director.
Kenneth Hung is a very talented artist with experience working as a colorstylist for Nickelodeon and Disney.
In this interview Ken shares his journey as an artist which eventually led to his work on many shows like Kung Fu Panda(TV), 7D and Penn Zero. Ken shares his thoughts on what helps an artist in the entertainment field and what skills you need to truly make strides in your work.
How did you first get interested in art and when did you start taking it seriously as a career?
I was always drawing when I was younger but never really thought about it as a job.
Drawing helped me pass the time whenever I was waiting for the bus, waiting after school, or going on long road trips. Out of high school I was trying to get into biotech. I worked at a small Internet company in San Francisco around that time. My supervisor there used to be an artist in the video game industry.
He saw some of my drawings and taught me some basic digital painting. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to get home and scan my drawings in and paint them. That’s around the same time I questioned what I wanted to do with my life.
My parent’s weren’t particular happy with my choice but they supported me anyways. I ended up going to Cal State Fullerton to major in their animation program.
Do you believe that college is necessary for becoming a pro artist? Or is there any advantage to art school vs. self-teaching?
This is always a tricky question.
Do I think it’s absolutely necessary? No. Does it help? Oh so very much!
There are a lot of resources online or just around you that can help you learn on your own. At school however, you have the advantage of networking, working with other art students and teachers, getting immediate feedback on what to work on, the option to intern and receive guidance.
I still think you can get good teaching yourself but it’s so much faster if someone can guide you (in my opinion).
How did you end up working at Disney & what has that experience been like?
The short answer to how I ended up at Disney is that I had friends working there who recommended me.
The long answer is a little more complicated and long-winded. I started my career as an intern at Nickelodeon. I was on Kung Fu Panda(the TV show not the movie).
After my internship I got a call asking if I wanted to work full time as a production assistant on the same show. I had already made friends there during my internship and fell in love with the studio. I said yes, dropped out of school, packed my bags, and moved to Burbank. Later I started moving up in production and became a production coordinator on KFP and on a show called Harvey Beaks.
I wasn’t an artist professionally at the time but being around all that creative energy really got me motivated. I felt a little bummed about not being an artist but the art director at KFP encouraged me to work at it and guided me on painting for animation.
Eventually I got a call from an art director that was working on a Nick Jr show called Fresh Beat Band of Spies. They wanted a colorstylist and asked if I was interested. I was!
I remember it being bittersweet because I absolutely loved the Harvey Beaks crew. They were so nice and encouraging, even with the fact that I was leaving the crew to become an artist. So then I started my painting career in animation.
I worked a full season of Fresh Beat Band of Spies with some incredibly talented people. Unfortunately it didn’t get renewed and we all had to look for new jobs. It was kind of a depressing time for me. I don’t think school ever prepared me for becoming an unemployed artist. I kept busy working on my own personal work and applying to whatever artist position became available at the time. During that time I was testing for other shows too.
Eventually a friend who I worked with back on KFP gave me a call. She was working on a Disney showed called 7D. They needed someone to fill in for two weeks and asked if I wanted to. I took it and was super happy to be back at a studio. They extended me there for about a month and Disney’s Penn Zero was looking for a color stylist to help with season 2. A really good friend of mine who I also met on KFP was working there as a designer. She went out of her way to tell them I was at Disney, my end date was coming up and I would be perfect for the position.
They had me do some work for them and I’m going to guess they liked it because the line producer called me into her office and offered me a full time spot after that. That’s how I ended up at Disney!
The experience has been great. On Penn Zero I’ve painted some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever done on a TV show. The people were super nice and everyone was out of control talented. The whole time there I felt like I was out of my league. Also come on… it’s Disney. They are huge! It was a really proud moment for me.
tl;dr: I worked at Nickelodeon and some of those friends moved to Disney and asked if I wanted to work there too. I said yes, and it has been a wonderful life changing experience.
Can you share a little more about the job of a colorstylist? What does that entail & what sort of artistic skills are required?
A colorstylist’s job is to come up with the colors for all the characters and props that will be on a TV show, basically anything that isn’t a background.
You have to make things look cool while not getting lost in the background. I think for this particular position you need a good sense of color, light and shadow. Everything you paint will have to feel like it belongs in the world without getting lost in the world at the same time.
Which software and materials do you use on a daily basis for your artwork?
These days I work mostly digital. Photoshop is my software of choice.
There’s lots of other good stuff out there but it’s just my personal preference. Occasionally I’ll bring a sketchbook with me and draw but if I had to choose I’ll take my Cintiq any day haha.
Are there any books or learning resources that really helped you improve as an artist?
There are a lot that have helped but I’m not sure I can think of one that REALLY made an impact.
My book cases are filled with art of books from different movies but those are more for just references. There have been some animal and human anatomy for artist books that have been a huge help. The Animator’s Survival Kit helped me understand a lot about animation even though I don’t animate for a living.
I’ve watched some painting videos from Gnomon which were really awesome. Ctrl Paint is another great website, though I may have only checked out a few videos.
It might just be a personal learning style but learning by observation and learning by doing helps a lot for me. Books have been great for supplemental stuff.
What’s your opinion on life drawing in regards to cartooning/illustration? Is drawing from life necessary to improve in the field of animation or illustration?
Yes. Absolutely yes.
Life drawing in my opinion is essential to everything we do in animation/illustration. The skills you learn from drawing from life(gestures, poses, proportions) are so important when you need to create something from your imagination.
You can’t really make something up and have it be believable if you don’t truly know it well. The better you get at drawing from life the better your animations & illustrations are going to be.
How much “business” is part of working as a professional artist? Are there any non-art related tasks that go along with a professional art career?
Depending on who you are and what your goals are, the business part will help you so long as you put the time into it.
You can do great work and hope that people just know that you do great work and hire you. However if you want to promote yourself and get your name out there you’ll have a much better chance that people will come looking for you.
Non art related tasks usually end up leading back to art related tasks in one way or another. Especially if you’re trying to promote yourself on social media. First there is creating the art (the fun art part), then there is getting your artwork seen(slightly more business-y). It’s really about how much effort you want to put in it.
If you only want to work at a studio and make art then you probably don’t have to invest as much time selling personal work if you don’t want to.
If someone wanted to become a colorstylist what type of work should they include in a portfolio?
Paintings! Characters, backgrounds, traditional oil paintings, any paintings.
Employers wanna know that you can paint stuff that stands out and still makes sense on whatever background its on. Paint some stuff without gradients(check out some animation stuff, they rarely have gradients).
Find a way to make things look cool with flat colors. Then add some light and shadows to it. Then do some other work with gradients to be like “check it out, I know how to use ’em when I need to”. Throw in some stuff with textures too.
When I was starting, someone told me to paint a forest and don’t use blue for the skies and green for the trees, however it still has to make sense like Eyvind Earle paintings.
Can you share any final advice for aspiring artists regarding art & the entertainment industry?
I’ve been asked this before and I answer it the same way every time.
Whatever you want to do related to the entertainment arts/animation industry, do it now.
Don’t want for the animation job to tell you that you’re a storyboard artist or character designer. Go board some stories and design some characters right now. Post them on DeviantArt, Facebook, Tumblr, whatever social media thing is cool these days. Show em off to your friends.
Keep doing it and keep posting stuff. Keep drawing stuff you love. Get good to a point where the technical part of drawing is out of your way and you’re comfortably drawing what you want.
Don’t wait. Start now!
Super special thanks to Ken for taking some time out for this interview. His advice should resonate with all aspiring artists and it goes to show that work & patience can pay off.