The Gallery Stephanie Kao
by Evan Miller, May 16th 2009
Another shameless plug for you this week: Next week, I'll be hosting The Great Debate at Fanime Con in San Jose, California. If you'll be at the convention, come by for some cheap laughs and intriguing arguments about really important nerdy stuff. Better yet, participate!
Speaking of participation, thanks to this week's artist for this snazzy customized banner.
This week, we welcome a Denver artist who went from a life in engineering to working as a video game artist.
Although there are those who try to deny it, seemingly every fan of manga and anime has their own "skeleton in the closet" - that manga or anime title that they are ashamed to admit that they ever liked. I certainly have mine, as does every other male anime fan that watched the Sailor Moon dub on daytime TV in the 1990s. Stephanie Kao's skeleton was the Sonic The Hedgehog manga series, which inspired her to leave behind her doodles of "girly" things and features and take her art in a new direction, towards working with animal and human figures, character driven plotlines and a more "professional" style. Her use of animals and animal features also increased her exposure in a fan community that many people label as more unattractive than any "skeleton" they might have: the "anthro" or "furry" community. Stephanie admits that she gets negative feedback about her anthro art from anime fans from time to time, but that it goes both ways. "A few people at anthro cons have been critical of the anime style," says Stephanie, who refers to her own style as a mix of traditional, anthro, and anime influences. "It hasn't been easy to stick to the style I like," she admits, adding, "compared to other anthro artists, I'm not specific - I just like to draw in this style!" Her desire to never back down to criticism may be behind another major change in her life - getting a full-time job in the video game industry among tough competition from other artists. According to Stephanie, the job has not only helped her maintain her skills with various 2D and 3D art mediums and design tools, but also helped push the depth in her personal work forward. As she puts it, "In the past, I wouldn't have pushed myself as much, but now, I'm a perfectionist."
Like other girls with an interest in art, Stephanie grew up doodling and sketching for fun until she took an interest in comics and manga just before high school. She grew up reading Doraemon in Chinese, but her appreciation for anime and manga didn't quite take hold until Sailor Moon and the Sonic comics showed her just what was possible for someone pursuing a career in popular art. Stephanie's interest in anime only grew as she was exposed to the non-traditional, adult-focused storylines in anime - a trait that inspired her to tackle multiple themes in her own work. Unfortunately, her desire to check out more anime did carry a few shocks with it - one of which she almost got in trouble for. "I rented an anime that was advertised as having the same director as Slayers, which I was a fan of," says Stephanie, "but it turned out to be a hentai anime." And then? "I remember my dad walking in the room and saying, 'WHAT are you watching?' and all I could say was, 'I don't know!'"
Uncomfortable parental encounters aside, as she began to work with more anime-inspired designs in high school, Stephanie started developing an original character named Oni, who adorns her work to this very day. "She's kind of my artistic muse," she says, "but she's not a reflection of my own personality - she's a grim reaper type of character." The drawings of Oni, in addition to other work, started earning Stephanie commissions from friends and people who saw her art online. As she got the idea that art could lead to a steady income, pressure from family led to her enrolling in the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. As art was relegated to "creative outlet" status as she worked through school, Stephanie discovered that the work left her feeling empty. Things came to a head when she broke down in the middle of working on a Circuitry class. She went to her parents and confessed that she wanted to make a change and do something that she loved. "I knew that I could do Engineering, but it wasn't what I wanted to spend my life doing." As Stephanie's parents noticed how motivated she was, they decided to support her move to a completely different venue: the Art Institute of Colorado.
Stephanie found the transition to art school to be both liberating and worrisome: "In engineering, you're either right or wrong, but in art, the idea of 'right and wrong' is quite different." Although it took her a while to readjust her perceptions, the transition also gave her the freedom to experiment and pursue different ideas. This freedom led to a development she wasn't expecting: an increased interest in 3D artwork and computer modeling. Stephanie became interested in 3D after a few classes with friends convinced her it was a worthwhile field to explore. As a traditionally 2D artist, she admits that trying to convert her previous works to 3D was a monumental challenge. In the case of converting her own character Oni, flourishes in the 2D drawings of the character looked odd, which forced her to make significant adjustments in depth and distance. "In 2D, I had her hair magically flow around her," says Stephanie, describing another area where she had to re-design Oni for 3D. "In 3D, you have to focus on things like that more, or they just end up looking silly." In her experimentation with 3D artwork, Stephanie discovered that she could contribute her skills to an industry she had been a fan of since childhood: video games. After doing some networking, she did work with a few independent game companies while she finished her degree. By the time graduation rolled around, Stephanie was armed with a portfolio of work that covered a full spectrum of traditional, modern, and 3D design work. She earned an interview with a small game company called Leviathan Games, which she attended the day after she returned from a month-long vacation in Taiwan. Although she admits that she was suffering through jet lag during the interview process, Leviathan was impressed with her skills and hired her. Five years after wondering if leaving Engineering was a safe move, Stephanie found herself in the video game industry, making a living as she had always hoped she could.
After spending her whole life doing art on a strictly commission basis, the move to Leviathan placed Stephanie in a world where she would be required to work with multiple styles and tools on a daily basis - a change which she happily welcomed. "I'm kind of like an artist jack of all trades," says Stephanie, who has designed user interface menus, 3D models, texturing, traditional concept artwork, backgrounds, and more during her time at Leviathan. "You get to do anything and everything - one day you'll be working in Flash, the next in 3D modeling." Stephanie admits that some of the work is less appealing, such as the arduous process of "rigging" and rendering character movements. However, such tasks have not taken away her love for the job or art. She credits her experiences in the video game industry for helping reinforce her personal work, especially in terms of technical design, color use, and design motifs. "At work, I have to keep pushing myself to come up with ideas the Art Director likes," says Stephanie, adding, "with my own work, I've started pushing my own boundaries more and don't settle for less." There's no doubt that her efforts at Leviathan haven't made an impact. In her time with the company, Stephanie has helped work on menus for a Nintendo Wii title, designed environments, user interface tools, and handled texturing for a contract project from Disney, and designed backgrounds and animation for a flash-based baseball title.
Even though one might expect Stephanie's professional work to be her biggest challenge, her personal artwork has presented a unique set of challenges all their own. As she worked her way through school, her artwork worked its way through both the anthro and anime fan community. As one might expect, her work has won her fans - and critics - from both groups. "I tend to internalize the negative feedback more," says Stephanie, who first sold her work publicly at Anime Central 2006 and has been attending anime and anthro conventions ever since. With characters like Oni and a long history of presenting detailed animal characters in a manga-influenced style, Stephanie admits that she has been pressured to shift her style away from her roots. In her recent sketchbook, Eldritch Sky, she admits that she moved some of the "anthro-esque" art away from the front of the book so the reader would be drawn in more. Still, in deciding between popularized art and the style she's built upon since high school, the decision was easy for Stephanie. "It makes me sad when artists feel like they must do fanart that they have no passion for," she says, referring to recent trends in the Artist's Alley scene. "I go in and out of fandoms - I like Hetalia now, I like Full Metal Panic and Gurren Lagaan - but I always stick to what I like."
It's no lie that dealing with two very different, opinionated fan circles can be a hassle, but Stephanie still sees it as a positive experience. "The anthro community loves art," says Stephanie, who adds that the older "furry" community is often more appreciative of detail and fine art. That can be a double-edged sword, however: "my look is pretty generic, which makes detailed commissions difficult. I like the flow of the lines and the silhouette of [animal art], so that's why I draw it." As for the anime crowd, Stephanie echoes the concerns of many other artists who try to sell original work at anime conventions: "It's hard. Sometimes it feels like the community is attracted to just shiny things, but there are still people out there who appreciate original work." One group that has been happy to embrace Stephanie's work is Denver anime convention Nan Desu Kon, who asked that Stephanie handle all badge art for the 2008 convention and design the convention's main image, seen above (Amaterasu). No matter who she is drawing for, Stephanie admits that she is stubborn about getting the image right. "For Amaterasu, I wanted something that would stand out," she says. "No matter what I draw, it has to be something I am proud to present to the public."
Today, Stephanie continues to branch out - not just in terms of her artwork, but in other craft work as well. For example, she's started experimenting with craft sales at anime conventions. Her first sketchbook was printed this year, and she still does commission and sketch work from time to time. There's no doubt that we can expect Stephanie Kao to continue tackling new styles - just don't expect her to leave behind the characters, themes, and projects that have helped her get to where she is today. "If you can't be proud of [a piece], why should you sell it?" she says. "In anything you do, there has to be an element that you yourself are pleased with. You have to believe that it is worth your while."
Caine Oni Abel
Stephanie Kao: In an RP I was part of, my character Oni is involved in an undead army that borderlined on villainy. She serves as a Special Advisor under General Caine, a gruesome, undead reptile leader with a face that is half bone and half flesh. Major Abel, the General's right hand man and a dead man, was also involved and a love interest for Oni, even though they were both surprised either one was capable of love. Caine and Abel belonged to friends of mine, and yes they'd worked out their characters so there was that dynamic between them as well as the designs. So I had no hand in how they look. But the people behind Caine and Abel always crafted these wonderful stories and plotlines, I had to give them some fanart! As for uniforms and the dark themes of this piece, it seemed fitting that they'd have WWII German-esque uniforms. The General was a man of rational thought, and that often lead to discussions and acts that were pretty unsavory for his underlings to carry out. The eeriness and green hues highlight that they were certainly not normal people here, and likely not even alive.
ANN: Your work at Leviathan often requires you to work with multiple programs, styles, and projects at once. What is the typical work day and work week at the company like for you?
Stephanie: It's a pretty loose work environment with really cool people at Leviathan. I come in around 9-9:30am and check any work related emails that might have been sent overnight. Usually I'm working on at least one and a half projects at a time. I'll have my priority project and tasks laid out for me by my art director (AD). It's pretty straight forward there. Just knocking off one task at a time, then moving onto another as I wait for feedback on a previous assignment. For example, I'll submit user interface (UI) design ideas and while I wait on what my AD thinks, I'll move onto the icon designs that are needed. Then I'll go back to UI once feedback is received. My technical director will usually come in needing something too. This could be placeholder artwork, documentation designs, fixes on art from someone else, etc. After a brief chat with my AD, I'll shuffle those tasks in. So my task list is almost always changing. Sometimes this can get frustrating, especially during crunch times! Somewhere around 1, I'll take a quick lunch unless I decide to go out for a walk too. My office has windows but they only go into my TD's office (laughs), so it's nice to get a little bit of sun in my day. Then I'll work until I get my 8 hours for the day, unless something just has to be done by the end of the day or I don't think I'll make a deadline somewhere later in the week. Sometimes things can be confusing with multiple projects, particularly the projects I'm not fully involved with. I'll do something for it, like conceptual work, but then while I'm doing something else, I won't see it. When I get back to it to work on final art renders, it looks like a whole different project and I have to get caught up and remember what I was doing exactly. Sometimes switching styles back and forth can get hard too. The whole week is pretty much like this. And sometimes, like when the whole company is waiting on debugging results from a 3rd party company, we play LAN games. :)
ANN: Could you walk us through how you design your landscapes and backgrounds? What kind of references do you use for pieces like the landscape seen here?
Stephanie: I have a lot of trouble with landscapes and backgrounds. So I study a lot of reference photos and backgrounds done by other artists to help me pick up on landscape design. Thierry Doizon is a big influence of mine when I do my conceptual backgrounds. When I start my own, I'll gather allot of my source material as it's still a learning process for me. I may keep one photo around because it has a certain flow to the land that I really like, another because I'm really interested in how this artist handled the impressions of rock without actually going in and painting individuals rocks. Depending on how detailed I need to be, I'll gather detail references, like how the leaves of certain trees look. But overall, I usually go for impression and how the eye flows visually through a landscape rather than exact details. That was how I went about creating the landscape image here. As you can see, there's few solid details, and it's more the impression of rolling hills and pastures that I wanted out of it.
ANN: As your style develops, what kind of changes do you anticipate for your original characters? Is there a storytelling style that you would like to experiment with?
Stephanie: I anticipate that my characters will have more of a sense of believability - not realism, but more believable. Over the past several years, I can see that as I have gained a better understanding of anatomy and expression, that's been incorporated into my style. You can believe that they have arms that bend at the elbows, and chests that contain organs. That they can still manipulate objects because their are bones in their fingers and that having huge claws for hands is normal to them. For expression, they have a deeper character history and sense of who they are, rather than being the shallow, cool guy or the villain who does things just because it's evil. There are all sorts of storytelling styles that I want to experiment with. Perhaps that's one reason I haven't been able to start a comic like I want to, because I can't decide! I think when I do start a comic, it'll be an experimental playground. Sometimes told with the usual comic panels, sometimes in single illustrations, other times words, and everything in between.
ANN: You're an artist whose work has been embraced by both anime fans and anthro fans. We touched upon this a bit in the interview, but what do you think are the best and worst trends in the art communities for each fandom are?
Stephanie: It's really hard for me to say what's best and worst in each. Certainly a love of art is what's great in both communities. I feel this particularly strongly in the anthro community - that sense that we're all in this together. Sometimes the anime side of things can feel pretty shallow in what art they like, particularly if it's from a popular fandom. A downside to both communities is the likelihood for drama and art theft.
Want to see more of Stephanie's work? Point your browsers toward these links:
Stephanie's official webpage contains an extensive collection of sketches, commissioned work, and a video of her early 3D animation work. Some of her more recent work can be found on Deviant Art here.
Are you an aspiring manga artist looking for some extra page views? Do you have a friend or loved one who draws extremely good original manga but needs a boost? Don't just sit there! Submit two links to your work, including one original piece (no file attachments please! File attachments will give you up, let you down, run around - and even desert you, if given the chance), to evan [at] animenewsnetwork dot com, and you could be featured in a future Gallery column!
All works © Stephanie Kao.
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