Profiles in Art: Lizzie Nichols

Lizzie Nichols is an illustrator based out of Los Angeles, California. She is currently a Visual Development Artist at Sony Pictures Animation, has worked as Lead Set Designer at Rubicon Group Holdings (RGH), and is a former Disney Imagineer. Lizzie is responsible for creating animated worlds and characters that help tell a specific story. You can find more of her character work, two dimensional background design, and much more in her portfolio here. 

Interview conducted by: Tiffany Chan

Edited by: Morgan Moore and Tiffany Chan

All images courtesy of Lizzie Nichols

Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with animation/visual design?
I grew up with an art teacher/ceramicist mother and a product designer father, so art and design were always around me growing up. I used to kill time in my mother’s classroom endlessly drawing and making up stories.

As an adult, I originally wanted to go into editorial illustration (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc). But when I went to art school, I found I didn’t love illustration as much as I thought I would. I took a class called “sketching for entertainment,” and the professor showed us some work that he had done as a Visual Development artist for Disney. I came up to him afterwards and said something like “I want to do that. How can I do that?” I don’t remember his response, exactly, but it started me along my path. I briefly considered going into games instead of animation (and I have since done some freelance work for games), but I realized I love animation as an art form almost above any other, and I love feature animation above all. It’s such a great art form, because you get nothing for free–if you want something in your environment or your shot, you have to design it and paint it (and model it and texture it and light it, etc etc). You have to build a whole world from scratch, and it’s completely exhilarating when you get to see your work on the screen.


Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?
As mentioned above, I went to art school (Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, CA). I worked harder than I’ve ever worked before (or since!), because it felt like such a huge gamble; I had moved across the country from Boston to go to school, and I felt like it was my one chance to learn everything I could to succeed as an artist. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and very expensive, but I wouldn’t change it. I learned what I needed to.

After I graduated, I freelanced for six months while looking for a full-time gig. I finally ended up as a paid intern at Imagineering. It wasn’t animation, but it was kind of animation-adjacent, and I would be drawing and painting all day.  Plus I thought that the Disney name and experience would be a good thing to have on my resume. After that, I found a job as a background designer for TV at Rough Draft Studios. I worked on two episodes of Futurama, as well as a show for the BBC called Full English, and a pilot episode for another series which I don’t think ever aired. From there, I followed a co-worker to a studio called RGH Entertainment where I worked on a movie for two years that will never see the light of day (not uncommon in this industry). While I was at RGH, I ended up getting an email from the recruiter at Sony asking me to come in for an interview, and a few weeks later I was at Sony! After a year at Sony I got laid off for two months, during which I went to DreamWorks TV, and then I went back to Sony when they had an open spot for me again. I’ve been at Sony now continuously since July of 2015.


Q: What was the quirkiest side job you’ve ever worked?
I have been lucky enough to never have to take a side job after having entered the art world, but before art school I worked for two summers driving boats in Provincetown, Mass. I had a license from the Coast Guard to drive customers to and from Long Point (across the harbor from the town) and to their boats on moorings in the harbor. I learned a lot about boats and tides and wind and water. It was a fun job, and I thought briefly about going to school to become a commercial boat captain, but ultimately decided I needed to do something creative.
Q: What does your normal day look like?
I work roughly 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, sometimes longer. My assignments typically take anywhere from a day to several weeks to complete, so if it’s a day where I’m getting a new assignment, I will meet with my bosses (the production designer and art director of the movie) and occasionally also the director, to get what is called a “launch” on my assignment. They will tell me the relevant story points, give me any reference they want me to use, and (if they exist) show me the storyboard or script where my design or painting will be used. Then they send me on my way to start sketching rough ideas or painting rough color. Once I have a pretty good draft of what I want, or a few variations on an idea (this could take anywhere from a few hours to a week, depending on how complex the assignment is), I meet with my bosses again to figure out next steps. We repeat this process until we’re happy or until we run up against a deadline, whichever comes first.


Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?
I think the hardest part has been learning to keep going when it isn’t fun. Sometimes work is just work–the hours feel long, the work is uninspiring, etc. After all, this was supposed to be my dream job, so why isn’t it awesome all the time?? But even the most exciting job can still feel like drudgery at times. Coming to terms with the less-fun aspects of the job helps to set you up to succeed in the more-fun parts.
Q: How would you describe your design aesthetic?
In the work I do for clients, I work pretty hard to be adaptable–that is, to have a flexible style that can go in several different directions, depending on the needs of the client. But in my own work, I try to make things as appealing as possible in terms of color, light, and mood. I try to make environments that make the viewer feel something–either a kind of longing to go to the place, or a sense of foreboding or tension in a less “friendly” place. Light and value is how I start almost every piece, and then I will often do line drawings on top of a rough grayscale sketch.


Q: What inspires you? What motivates you? How do you get yourself out of a creative rut?
I am usually inspired by something visual: the way the light falls across trees or buildings, or the design of a space or a building. Or natural phenomena; rocks, waterfalls, forests, mountains. I just got back from two weeks in Thailand, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I have so many ideas I want to draw and paint based on what I saw there! But even closer to home, I like to go for walks in Los Angeles or go to a park or a cafe  and sketch. Occasionally I’ll read a really good story with good world-building, and the images that come to my mind through the words of a good writer can often jump-start a piece also. But my normal “primary source” is visual.

As for motivation, I am generally motivated by the need to stay current and competitive. I never feel like I am working hard enough. I love looking at other artists’ work, but if I’m not in a good space, then it can be hard for me to feel like I’m “good enough.”

But beyond that,  I am largely motivated by the absolute best part of my job, when I get to see something I’ve designed or painted make its way through the pipeline at the studio.  I love seeing my work get built by a 3D team. I feel a huge responsibility to people further down the creative pipeline on a movie; I want to design something that the modelers are excited to build. Modelers are amazing artists in their own right, and seeing them take a sketch I did and turn it into something “real” (at least, as real as a digital model can be) is always awesome. Plus, when you’re making a movie for a larger studio, there is a lot of money and time and effort behind building the things you’re designing, and you don’t want to screw it up. If I’m not feeling especially excited about an assignment, I try to keep the end goal in mind; I will see this on the screen, and I will hope to be proud of it. And the best part of all is seeing my work on a big screen in front of an audience.

To get myself out of a creative rut, I like to look at the work of the masters, both new and old. I try to analyze what they’ve done and see if I can apply their techniques to my own work. I don’t usually have the luxury of waiting for “inspiration,” so usually I just have to work my way through it, either through a series of sketches or just pure sitting and staring and trying to figure out how to fix a piece.

If I have the luxury of time, especially in my own work, sometimes it’s best to walk away and come back the next day. I’ll go do something else; hang out with my partner, go climbing, chat with a friend. Sometimes turning your brain off and letting things process in the background is the best way to get unstuck.


Q: What is the funniest/snarkiest/most memorable response someone has had to your work?
I don’t think anyone’s ever been snarky, at least not to my face. A touching, memorable thing that happened was at an outdoor art fair last year. I was selling mugs with a design of three goofy cats on them, and a girl in her teens came up and said that she loved the mug because she was one of three kids, and the cats on the mug seemed to capture the personalities of her and her siblings. She passed on the mug, though, and seemed a little sad. Later on, a guy who I quickly realized was her dad came up to my booth and said “my daughter says these cat mugs are her favorite thing at this whole show. I think I’m going to buy one for her and surprise her.” We then realized that she was only a few booths away, and I said “try to surprise her where I can see!” He agreed, bought the mug, and brought it over to her. The look of sheer joy when she opened the box and saw her mug was the highlight of the weekend for me. She turned and waved with a huge grin on her face. It was a very sweet moment.


Q: In your opinion, what are the most important considerations that make up good design?
In my field, beyond the design basics of good composition and good drawing, I think you need to have a good sense of place. Does the space feel believable, even if it could never exist in real life? Is this a place our characters can walk around in? Is this a place our audience wants to stare at for the length of time that the scene takes place?

There’s a principle in character design called “appeal,” which is kind of an elusive thing to get right. Even if your character is a bad guy, they have to be sort of pleasing to look at. It’s possible to check off all the good design boxes and still have a character lack appeal. I think that designing environments and props is similar–at the end of the day, it has to have appeal and look cool. Great environment design cannot save a bad story, but it can really help establish a mood and sense of place and make a good story great.

Q: Were there every moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those moments resolve?
The worst six months of my career were the six months right out of art school. I graduated without any job offers (not unusual, but many people do graduate with job offers, so it felt discouraging not to be one of them). I felt suddenly completely adrift, having to create my own structure when for four years I had had tons of structure put in place for me. And, suddenly, I had to find my own work and be my own boss and teacher. This would have been hard on anyone, but four weeks before I graduated, my close friend, professor and mentor Norman Schureman was killed by gunfire. It was (and remains) the hardest loss of my life, and I was plunged into a surprisingly deep and unshakeable grief that I wasn’t able to come to terms with for nearly a year. On top of that, I had ended (rather suddenly and inadvisably, in retrospect) a five-year relationship with the woman who had moved to California with me and who had been an incredibly stable and supportive presence in my life. In short, I had no anchors and no support and I suddenly had to find my way through the intimidatingly tough and competitive world of commercial art.

What got me through was the same thing that has gotten me through a lot of tough spots: not giving up. I had come too far and given up too much already to go to school. I did NOT want to be someone who had gone to art school but had been unable to find work in the arts. I sent out emails and applied for at least two or three jobs a week, took literally any paid freelance job I could in order to pay the bills, and tried to keep polishing my skill set and my portfolio in any way I could. I also made sure that I did things I enjoyed; I strengthened my friendships, I did a lot of yoga and running, I read, I did crosswords, I talked to my parents and sister a lot.


Q: What is the best advice that someone ever gave you? Alternatively, what is the advice you would give your younger self?
The best advice that was ever given to me wasn’t exactly advice–it was more in the form of a philosophy imparted by my mentor Norm, mentioned above. He taught me (and all his students) that to make it as an artist, you can’t treat art like a fun hobby. It is closer to a sport or a martial art–it takes practice, discipline, and perseverance. The advice I would give my younger self is: don’t give up! It’s going to be tough sometimes! Find the strength to keep going when it’s hard and you feel like you’re not getting it. Find time to do your own work, apply yourself hard at whatever creative jobs you do land, because very often your next job comes from contacts made at your last job (this last bit has happened to me no less than three times, and I expect it to happen again). Seek out feedback when you can, but don’t let too much coaching throw you off your own path to finding your artistic voice. Networking is important, but you need to have a good portfolio to back it up.


Q: What is one (or two) things you would like the general public to know about the design world?
That the beautiful design and art work you see in the world are not the result of “talent.” “Talent” is what gets you in the door of an art school, or what gets adults to notice you as a kid. What matters far, far more than talent is the study, discipline, and mastery of a craft. Beautiful art and design is the result of years of work and thought and effort and feedback and failure. Good art and design is *hard,* and it should be. It’s fun and thrilling too, and that’s what keeps most artists and designers going, but at the end of the day it is a craft that is difficult to master. The catch is, really good art and design looks effortless, and hides the years of training that goes into it, so people don’t always see the work behind the beauty.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
I think that financial stability is a huge worry for everyone who isn’t independently wealthy nowadays. But I would say that being fulfilled and successful in any field takes hard work and commitment. I don’t know a lot of, say, doctors who slacked off through med school and are now raking in the cash. But I would say to parents that if your kid shows talent and passion for something in the arts, encourage them to work hard at it. They’re correct to assume that “talent” in itself won’t get you very far, as I mentioned above. But talent combined with consistently applied discipline can go much further than most people think, including financially. Living and working in the capitalist dystopia we seem to be creating is hard enough–at least let your kid try to earn her living by doing something creative that allows her to use her brain.

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine and cheese (any alcohol+food combo) to us?
I’m not remotely a wine snob, but I love a good Rioja, Tempranillo, Montepulciano, or Malbec. Any of these combined with blue cheese (with a little fig spread on top, or maybe sliced apple) is one of my  favorite hors d’oeuvres.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
I’ve become obsessed with sport climbing (indoor rock climbing) lately. It’s a blast–it’s like solving a puzzle with your body. It’s the best workout I’ve ever gotten, and I’m barely aware that it’s happening because I’m just trying to stay on the wall! I go two or three times a week, and it has been immensely good for my focus; my brain is nowhere else when I’m climbing because, again, I’m just trying to stay on the wall. It’s also been amazing for my self-esteem (“holy shit I just climbed the hardest route I’ve ever climbed! I did a hard thing!”). In addition,  I like to read (mostly non-fiction, though good fiction is always welcome), take naps with my partner Chrissy and my cat Twizzler, go sketching with friends, and talk on the phone to my family back in New England.


Love Lizzie’s work? Follow her on Instagram!


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