Leon Lee digital painting
Artwork by Leon Lee

Background Artist Leon Lee On Diversity & Creativity In Art

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There’s so much talent in the entertainment industry that it’s hard to contain it all. Not to mention every artist has their own personal interests from characters to weapons, video games to kid’s cartoons.

Leon Lee is an incredibly talented artist with a focus on background design & background painting for animation. His work is just stunning and has been featured on many sites including the Society of Illustrators LA.

In this candid Q&A Leon shares his artistic journey into the entertainment industry with bits of advice and guiding principles that anyone can take away into their own creative work.

At what point in your life did you realize that creating art was something that you would like as a career, and what factors led you to this realization?

I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a culturally diverse city similar to L.A.

I did most of my growing up in Malaysia, but I did have a brief elementary school education in Houston, Texas for about 3 years. It was during that time that I was first introduced to art classes in summer school.

However, art remained a side hobby of mine that I would just do every once in a while when I was bored. After graduating high school I went on to major in engineering. A year and a half into the program, I started dreading it, as I found that I was only interested in the group projects that required me to design stuff.

Long story short, I dropped out of the program and took some time off to myself. During my short break my mum introduced me to an art program at The One Academy of Communication Design, one of the top art schools in Malaysia.

Having nothing better to do, I took a look at the program they offered, as well as some of the work that was being produced from that school. Needless to say I was convinced and enrolled immediately. However, I still wasn’t 100% certain that art was something that I wanted to do as a career at that time.

It wasn’t until a year and a half later when I enrolled to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena that I really started to take it seriously.

The things that made me realize that art was something that I wanted to pursue as a career was; when I discovered the creative process and mindfulness that went into designing something, the friendly community of artists that exists, and all the different avenues that are possible within the creative field.

LeonLee Art - buildings at dusk
Artwork by Leon Lee

As a Malaysian who grew up in different cultural environments, how has your cultural background influenced the art that you make?

Growing up in Malaysia, I think I took my surrounding environment for granted.

It wasn’t until I moved here to the U.S. for art school that I began to appreciate the diversity and cultures that I was surrounded by back home.

Kuala Lumpur is a diverse multicultural hub similar to L.A. With three major ethnic groups consisting of the; Chinese, Malay and Indians, as well as other immigrants, I was surrounded by so many different cultures, religions, art, and food.

In retrospect I feel very lucky to have grown up in an environment that has helped me keep an open mind when meeting new people, and taught me how to appreciate the various cultures that exist in the world.

I think that my cultural background has granted me a deeper understanding of how certain cultures think, and in return, has made me more conscious of the subtle details when it comes to designing something specific.

Ultimately I believe that it has affected my style, as well as the way that I think and do research when creating new work.


Can you tell us about your educational background? What difficulties did you face while studying art?

I majored in Engineering for quite a while before ultimately deciding to pursue art instead.

My first formal art education began at The One Academy in Selangor, Malaysia.

I studied there for a little over a year and a half and learned the different traditional skills such as watercolor painting, figure drawing, portrait drawing and landscape sketching. Shortly after, I furthered my education to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena where I would major in Illustration.

ArtCenter was the most challenging, yet fun part of my college experience. The difficulties that I faced were mostly the workload, the demand in quality of work, and the lack of time to do anything else but work.

LeonLee Art - Detailed ornate interior painting
Artwork by Leon Lee

Do you believe that a degree is important to become a professional artist? Or can someone study on their own using online resources?

In this day and age, no. I don’t think that a degree is necessary to become a professional artist.

The reason being, studios do not look at your degree when hiring.

All that matters is what you put into your portfolio. The quality of work, skill level, ability to problem solve, and ideas are the things that companies look for when scouting for possible candidates.

Nowadays there are some great online resources that are easily accessible to everyone such as Schoolism, New Masters Academy, Gumroad, and so on.

All of the above are very affordable options that offer the same courses that you would get from an art school but at a much more reasonable price.

The main difference between studying on your own versus attending an art school is the learning environment. It’s a matter of preference, but I can say that being surrounded by other talented individuals does push you to work harder and consequently grow faster.


How did you get into background design? What aspects of this type of art appealed to you?

Growing up, I’ve had the privilege to do quite a bit of traveling. Those experiences opened my eyes to the various architecture, landscape, and cultures of the world.

I think that sort of exposure early on in my life developed my curiosity for world building. It was during that time that I discovered my interest in architecture and landscape sketching.

After taking that class I went on to take other environment based classes to learn about the different principles of background design.

What really appealed to me about this type of art was that there was so much more involved in the process of creating it than I had initially thought.

There are many things to consider when designing a background; the composition, set dressing, and staging. I find myself more intrigued with the process rather than the final result. I enjoy doing the research, coming up with new ideas, and telling a story through my backgrounds.

LeonLee props for background painting concept art
Artwork by Leon Lee

As a background designer, how do real-life environments inspire and affect your work?

Real-life environments and landscapes are my main source of inspiration. It is one of the reasons I enjoy travelling so much.

I am always fascinated by the different cultures, architectural styles, and history that each country has to offer.

I feel that by filling my visual library and experiencing those things I am able to add another layer of depth and believability in the work that I create.

I definitely have favorites when it comes to architectural styles and cultures, but when working on a design, I try not to favor one over another.

There is always an appropriate time and place for each influence or reference to be used. I just use whatever I feel works best in each individual situation to solve the design problem that I created for myself.


Tell us about your plein air work. How do you think plein air painting helps someone who wants to go into illustration and background design?

Plein air painting is a personal hobby of mine that I try doing whenever I have free time. It’s a form of relaxation and an excuse for me to go outside and explore the world.

That being said, I’m also aware of the importance of the practice and its benefits. When I plein air paint, I’m always looking for something that catches my eye and piques my interest.

Leon Lee more classical painting work
Artwork by Leon Lee

It could be anything from the lighting, color, shape or pattern. In my opinion, plein air painting is important because it informs us about how lighting works, how color interacts with one another, as well as the subtle variations in color temperature.

These are all important information that’s valuable to any background artist. Practicing plein air painting will not only inform the work that we create, but also help us achieve a level of believability and color harmony that we strive for in our work.


What advice do you have for people who want to put their work out there and meet other artists, find career prospects, or get featured in galleries or anything like that?

When it comes to putting your work out there, there are so many options. I recommend starting with a website or online portfolio because it feels more professional.

Social media platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr are also other options to get your work out there, however they feel more casual.

Also try to attend as many networking events and conventions as possible, big or small.

This is a great way to meet other talented artists, connect with recruiters, and even get some feedback on your work.

There are many great events out there, namely; CTN animation expo, Light Box expo, Comic Con, Designer Con, and the list goes on.

In terms of getting featured in galleries, it all comes down to your online presence and the consistency of your outreach. Don’t hesitate to contact galleries you are interested in with minimal expectations.

Sometimes you won’t get a reply because they are busy and are receiving tons of emails as well. If that is the case, don’t forget to follow up after some time. Consistency is key, but you don’t want to force the issue either.


How did you get into working on The Tom and Jerry Show? How was it like to work on your first episode?

I was recommended by a dear friend of mine. However I did have to test for the show.

It was slightly nerve-wracking in the beginning because we were working in an open space environment. Which meant that everyone could see what I was doing. The first few weeks on the show was a bit challenging because there was a lot to take in all at once.

I started out doing background painting on my first episode because my art director wanted to get me adjusted to the different styles of the show. It was a very collaborative experience and everyone was very accommodating to different ideas.

While on my first episode I was able to learn how the production pipeline worked from start to finish, as well as getting involved in the storyboard meetings.

It was really great to be able to understand how all the different parts work together to create one final product. After I got the hang of things I slowly transitioned into doing background and prop designs as well.

It has been an enjoyable experience thus far, especially since I am not limited to doing just one thing. I’m thrilled to be able to do what I do on a day to day basis and being continuously inspired by the talented people that I work with.

Leon Lee The Silent Night stuffed doll in old shop
Artwork by Leon Lee

Typically, how long does it take to finish work on a single episode? Can you describe what your typical workflow is like from start to finish?

In terms of design, usually within a week, or sometimes two.

But in terms of a fully animated episode it usually takes months. My typical workflow usually starts out with me watching the animatic for the episode to get an understanding of the story.

After that I’m usually provided with the callouts/screencaps of specific shots from the animatic to inform me of what needs to be designed.

Typically for backgrounds I’m assigned anywhere from 5-7 backgrounds per week.

The deadline for everything to be completed is always by the end of the week. I like to pace myself and try to get the brunt of the designs completed by early Wednesday so that I have the next day and a half to paint them.

My process always begins with me searching for reference images that inspire me. I usually only spend about half an hour researching before jumping right into the design.

When designing a background I always keep in mind the staging of the character and where the action will take place.

Leon Lee Stuffed rabbit sold in shop
Artwork by Leon Lee

Other than The Tom and Jerry Show, have you done similar work for other shows or films? What is that work like as a whole?

So far I’ve spent the last year working on seasons 4 and 5 of The Tom and Jerry Show.

I have done some contract background design work for another show as well, however I must apologize because I don’t think I am allowed to talk about it yet.

I can say that doing background design work in TV animation is very fulfilling because the process and style varies from show to show.

I am able to expand my visual library and learn new things on each project that I work on. There are times that I will encounter something that is familiar, but more often than not, each show will have a slightly different approach in the way that they do things.


Since art is often used to convey messages, what sort of message do you want people to get when they look at your work?

Art is a form of release for me. An avenue for me to express my personal interests and feelings.

Most of the inspiration for my work stems from my interactions in daily life, travel experiences, and personal hobbies.

With that, I hope to inspire people to explore the world more, learn about the different cultures, history, and perhaps find something they are interested in while doing so.

But sometimes I do enjoy making work just for the sheer enjoyment and passion of creating something beautiful.


What final tips can you offer to aspiring artists who want to enter the industry?

Work hard, stay curious, put your work out there, stay connected, and keep creating!

But most importantly, be consistent with whatever you do, whether it’s reaching out to studios, maintaining the quality of work, putting yourself out there, or even sleeping. Consistency is key!

Also, don’t forget to give yourself a break once in a while and have other hobbies outside of art. This is also important to avoid burning out.

Special thanks to Leon for making the time for this interview and for sharing so much insight into his amazing journey.

If you want to learn more you can check out his portfolio site or browse through his latest posts on Instagram @leonlee.art.