Make sure to Enroll Today!

All articles

Painting to the Prompt

Illustrator Jenny Tan recalls how she challenged herself with the diverse homework prompts and rigorous schedule in the course Narrative Illustration and Characters.


Hey there! My name is Jenny Tan. I’m a constantly learning artist who has dabbled in animation, illustration, and commercial TV. I was previously an accountant, but I made the switch when I realised that I could potentially be just ‘good’ in a career I wasn’t passionate about, or I could potentially be ‘exceptional’ at something I loved. I chose the latter.

After leaving accounting, I did a digital media degree and worked at a post-production studio, making TV commercials. Wanting to do more illustrative work, I took a position as an illustrator creating children’s illustrations for The School Magazine. A chance connection brought me on board as a background painter at Flying Bark Productions where I worked on Nickelodeon’s ‘Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’. Now I’m a colour stylist on another production for Flying Bark but freelance on other projects as well. I love what I do and I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I can pursue my passions.

Throughout it all, I’ve constantly been learning and seeking out workshops to further my skills. The convenience of online learning means I can work on upskilling while maintaining a busy lifestyle. CGMA is one of the online schools that I always come back to, because of the great variety of subjects and instructors. One of my favourite classes is Mitchell Malloy’s Narrative Illustration class, which I took back in 2017 and which I have the joy of talking about below. Mitchell Malloy is not only a great teacher, but he is well versed in the foundations of art too. He’s also kick-ass talented, so check his stuff out for inspiration!

Composing the Story

The prompt I chose for my assignment was a fantasy setting with a High Noble elf amongst a crowd. I wanted the focal point to be on the Noble elf and how celebrated she was. For that reason I wanted her to have the highest contrasting elements (value, colour and shape) but also to have the eye lead to her compositionally. I also wanted her to be showered in light to really push the holy aspect.

I had fun doing these thumbnails as keeping things loose is quite liberating. Not having to worry about perfection allows for quick design changes. I was aiming for something dramatic and eye-catching, and that would sell the narrative. I tried to keep in mind to be intentional and purposeful in how I placed my shapes. I ended up narrowing the selection to the two options below. Either one could have worked for the brief, but I chose the top. There are many different ways of describing a story moment, and I think that’s the beauty of art.

Characters and Acting & Setting Up for Success

In week 2, we ended up gathering a lot of references for our chosen thumbnail, some of which we even took ourselves. Pinterest is a great place to collate all your references and quite an easy rabbit hole to fall into. When I’m choosing a reference I tend to find something about it that speaks to me. It could be how the lighting hits the subject or the textures and materials of a certain fabric. It can be the mood that’s conveyed. These serve as a small mental note for me to keep in mind for later and a great tool to see what can work well together.

I don’t think there’s “bad” reference perse, but definitely “better” reference. If possible I’d like something which is high resolution as you are drawing on the information and detail from that picture. Alternatively, filtering out which references that don’t serve the narrative can be just as helpful. Knowing what you don’t want is a step towards knowing what you do want.

In this week we also dabbled in colour selection and cleaner line work. I used to be incredibly guilty of jumping straight into rendering, but I’ve since realised that you can solve a lot of decisions in line art and the value pass, which will save you a lot of time in painting later on. Breaking things down into smaller steps also means I won’t be overwhelmed by solving every decision at the same time.

Bringing It All Together

This was my first pass on rendering using the gold colour scheme ‘D’. The elves were supposed to have long elongated hands and arms, and I struggled a bit with the foreshortening of them. Mitch would kindly make adjustments to help me, but my struggle here also re-emphasised the need for good references.

In terms of my rendering process, Mitch had us convert our black and white value paintings to a sepia version, which effectively made it into an underpainting. I then applied local colours first and then did a material/texture and lighting pass. I wanted fresh eyes/feedback, so I wasn’t too concerned with perfecting and finalising it quite yet.

Pushing, Pulling, Clumping

The next week we were given new genres to try and I chose cyberpunk/sci-fi, as it was a theme that I hadn’t experimented with much at the time. I think personal work is a great time to explore things that you might not normally do as it allows you the freedom to grow at your own pace. I also find that I grow the most when I do genres/themes that are outside my comfort zone and I hope that by challenging myself I can evolve a bit more as an artist.

At this point, other things in life were getting busier, and my homework got a tad rougher as I had to prioritise my work commitments. I would have loved to have spent more time on the next bit, but have since discovered that life does not always give you an optimal amount of time for things. I put my perfectionist self to the side and opted instead for progress in what little time I could offer.

Setting the Mood

I wanted the moment that was represented to be right where you made eye contact with the character on a busy street. To do this, I wanted everything to be a busy blur with the biggest contrast and sharpest details being on the main character. I also used backlighting to emphasise her silhouette.

I experimented with a medium and close upshot. Either one could have worked. The close-up shot was more intimate, but the medium shot allowed for a little more world-building which was why I chose the latter.

Moving the Eye & The Last 10%

With the ‘final’ render pass, we took what we had done and tried to push it even further, whether it was through lighting or detail. The students also gave each other feedback which was great for gathering fresh new perspectives! I learned a lot from these assignments. Looking back roughly two years later, there’s a lot I’d change now, but at the time I was happy with the journey that I had undertaken during the course. I find it a challenge these days to make enough time for personal portfolio work, and the course definitely gave me some time to dedicate, reflect, and grow as an artist. I’ve slightly adjusted the elf piece over the years, with a few other instructors from other schools/classes giving their feedback. I find that it’s worthwhile to revisit pieces to see what new decisions you’d make.

Final Thoughts

Coming to this class, I wanted to give it all I could with the time I had. If I were to have any advice today for future students, it would be this: be a curious sponge, soak up as much information as possible, and be as inquisitive as you can. Ask questions, learn from your fellow students’ feedback, and network. More importantly be kind and self-aware of where you’re at as an artist, if you discover an area you want to improve on, make a mental note of what steps you might want to take to do so later on.

Don’t fret if you don’t understand something straight away, feel free to seek out further help from your teacher/colleagues, but sometimes it is just a combination of practice and theory for something to ‘click’ later on.

I hope you are as lucky as me in your classes. My fellow classmates were wonderful people, some I still keep in contact with even today. I actually flew out and met one in Canada. More importantly, enjoy the journey! Time is so limited, and every little bit that you allow yourself to further develop your skills, and your personal work is a gift to you.

To see more from Jenny visit her website www.jennytan.com.au  and Instagram  https://www.instagram.com/hijennyt/