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My name is James Elston. I am a freelance illustrator living in Johnstown PA. My professional career as an artist started at Disney Animation in Orlando FL in 1995, where I worked in the clean up animation department on such films as HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, MULAN, TARZAN, EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE and LILO AND STITCH. Due to a lot of restlessness, I decided to cut the cord and go back to my roots and pursue Illustration shortly after Lilo and Stitch wrapped (2001). Good thing too, because after the next film (Brother Bear) Michael Eisner pulled the plug on that studio and laid everyone off. (!)
After a couple rocky years while I was trying to figure out what the heck I was doing, my business has grown and I am now enjoying success as a freelance illustrator.
I have a fantastic wife and 4 kids. I currently live in my hometown of Johnstown, the flood city (about 1 1/2 hour from Pittsburgh). I love it and hate it at the same time, it's like the land that time forgot...If any of you want to see what life was like in the 50s, you should come to jtown. Gobs, halushki and chipped ham for all yinz.

When did you first decide to become a graphic designer/ illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?

I was extremely interested in drawing from a very early age. I knew I wanted to be some kind of artist some day, but I didn't know that there was such a thing called an Illustrator until I was a freshman in college. At that point, I knew immediately that I wanted to be one.

Who or what inspires you?
Good animation character design, and for some reason, looking at graffiti really gets my motor running.?Probably it's because of the design and linework, as well as creative color usage.

Funky Animation from the 50s... like UPA cartoons, Jot, old Tex Avery cartoons, and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. That one is pure magic.
I also dig the style of Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, Teen Titans and Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi (for the design work)...
My wife and my kids are an endless source of inspiration (because they're so funny)
I gain a lot of inspiration from my relationship with God. Not to sound corny or cliche-- I don't sit in my studio with a serene smile and dream up images of doves and crosses, but I feel that I am most creative when I am in right standing with God.

Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?

I went to The Columbus College of Art and Design from 1989-1994 (majoring in Illustration), and I received a lot of training when I worked at Disney Animation in Florida. It was kind of like a second college for me. Just being in a production studio surrounded by tons of super-talented artists did a lot, in terms of training.

How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?

Fresh... hmm. I spend lots of time looking at blogs of animation character designers and illustrators.? I like to be involved with group sites (like Sugar Frosted Goodness and Illustration Friday among others). I guess I inadvertently pick up the pulse of the industry that I'm interested in.
Also, it helps me to be current on the technology. I love my mac, and I try to keep it happy.

What are some of your current projects?

I am illustrating a book series about spy kid type stuff for Scholastic. That takes up most of my time. I just finished up some illustrations for Lifeway Christian Resources, and I'm doing something or other for Great Source... 6 illustrations for some space story.

Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?

Any time I get to do animation character design. (sorry can't show you any)
Most of the time, I look at past illustration projects and say ,"Ewwww."
I really like some of my self-promo pieces, or things I did for Illustration Friday, because it's so open-ended. I like having a topic that I can launch off of.It's also satisfying for me to experiment with color schemes.

I am pretty attached to my character, Bubble, or the Bubble girl. I did the first illustration of her 3 years ago, after having a super yummy bubble tea ( from China Town in Philadelphia. I initially did the illustration to get myself more familiar with Adobe Illustrator. I liked the combo of graffiti-style lettering and cute bubble tea girl. So I took that concept another 2 steps with the second "bubble" illustration (now that I'm way more familiar with Illustrator), and "Rain", which was an Illustration Friday topic. I think I'm gonna keep illustrating her and see how she evolves.

Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?

I've used a lot of mediums in my day, before settling on my current computery look. I kinda want to do more painting, just for the heck of it.
I'm planning on getting my animation skills back up to speed. 2D of course- I'd like to be excellent at using Flash and Mirage. That's the direction I want to go in-- character design/visual development/animation but for TV - not for feature films...But right now I'm way too swamped to explore to the extent that I would like to.

Any advice to the novice designer/ illustrator?

-Don't listen to people who tell you not to be an illustrator because the market is saturated.
-You HAVE to spend money on advertising. (group sites like,, etc. are good, as well as printed advertising)
-Freelance is the way to go. (in my opinion... of course I'm biased)

What makes a designed piece or illustration successful?

Sheesh, I dunno. I would guess it's in the sense of design-- a good balance of complexity and simplicity and direction.

What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?

Doing character designs for the heck of it, or cranking out fast, shoot-from-your hip illustrations that come right out of my gut and have nothing to do with anything, looking at character designer blogs, looking at graffiti... that helps. I try to never stop drawing, even if I'm burnt out.

Also, being self-employed is good, because I can just check out and play with my kids, or skip work, or take my laptop to a coffee shop or out of town. The freedom of the freelance life is notably awesome.
As far as motivation goes, there's also something about being self-employed that is just motivating. When I worked at Disney, I had built up so much tension inside about wanting to do my own thing that by the time I left the company, I had enough self-motivation juice to last me for a long time. It also helps to have career goals that are bigger than what I'm doing now.

And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?

Project Runway is captivating. I watch Conan O'Brien a lot, as well as SNL.
Battlestar Galactica is freaking awesome, and I usually watch the Apprentice and House, but they don't start up again until fall. My favorite TV show (or sitcom) of all time is NewsRadio. I don't know why I love that show so much, but I have the first 4 seasons on dvd and I watch them over and over.

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