My wife and I happened to meet Jessie at CTN Animation Expo and was super intrigued that she was a costume designer for animation. I always assumed that the character designer had to play that role but it makes total sense that you could have a costume designer with character designers. I love the idea that the character designer can lean on her knowledge of how clothing is constructed and moves, making clothing historically accurate, making sure the clothing fits with the occasion or what the scene needs to convey and so on. It was also exciting to hear that she has a book coming on the subject. Keep reading to learn more about Jessie and what she does.
Where did you grow up?
I moved a ton growing up since my Dad was self-employed, and I could write a book on all the interesting houses I’ve lived in, so it’s hard to call one city home. But for the most part they were all in Southern California; Reseda, Newbury Park, and Camarillo were pretty significant among them.
Was there a moment when you decided to be an artist?
I don’t remember not being an artist. I was always drawing or writing stories and saw it as a possible profession from the beginning. My dad, a master craftsman, designed and built one of the houses we lived in, and I got to see him design and create multiple amazing furniture pieces or custom cabinetry. So designing was part of life. I am a super curious person though so as I grew up I wanted to be all sorts of things, before deciding that narrative art was the path that would let me do all of them in a way. Whether I wanted to be a pilot or a paleontologist, fictional stories could provide the excuse to research and learn about all of them. Choosing art was choosing everything ;)
How did art play into your childhood?
My family struggled financially when I was growing up and thinking outside of the box allowed us to transform our limited resources into artful experiences. Making Christmas or birthday presents from scratch, finding ways to elevate thrift store finds, or illustrating my original stories helped me stay focused on joy in hard times. And when I became more and more shy with peers, art and story were both an escape where I could imagine myself as a more confident and daring character, and a way to connect with others as “the artist”.
Were your parents supportive of art as a career?
Completely. I remember a moment as a child, sitting down in front of the tv with a breakfast tray covered in paper and colored pencils my parents bought me, while I watched Bob Ross. They even bought me a Bob Ross painting set and often found ways to help me take classes or get supplies. When I wanted to study more formally, they helped me get financial aid, and my Mom took me on tours of art schools. They have always been passionate about helping every one of us fulfill our dreams and make the sacrifices needed to get there. It was an exceptionally supportive environment which I look back on with gratitude every day. It allowed me to spend my energy on how to do things better and finding a focus amidst the many paths within art.
What role did education (self or formal) play in your journey?
I grew up with a cocktail of education approaches, times where I was homeschooled, unschooled, in public school, community college, university or in online courses or mentorships. Really taught me to customize things for myself by adapting what worked from the different learning styles. I imagined going to a traditional art school like Calarts or Art Center (especially when I heard about their new entertainment design program at the time), but it was expensive and I would’ve needed full ride scholarships to attend so I decided to go to a regular university instead. Because of that, I just got a BA in visual arts where we mostly had introductions to different mediums and techniques. On the costume design side, outside of one costume design 101 class I took in one of my first semesters of college, everything I had learned about costume was self-taught out of random curiosity. When I graduated I was pretty uncertain what to focus on but found a dude, Jason Pruitt, on conceptart.org who offered a free vis dev mentorship and I LOVED it! The iterative process and ways of thinking about how the design in the world all worked together to tell the story…that was amazing.
How did you get your start in professional art?
I worked with my Dad pretty early on helping him do finish work on his custom cabinetry and furniture, working on blueprints for renovations, and collaborating on furniture designs (which I still occasionally do). I also started doing portrait commissions for friends and family while I was a teenager. I was always on the lookout for opportunities and picked up odd jobs like paper doll apps, portraits of the library staff where I clerked, free commissions, and volunteering for an online art academy. Eventually I landed a gig as a production coordinator at an animation studio where I was able to use my art skills for random tasks that came up. I left that to work at a startup where I was excited to use my range of skills to help in more of the developmental stages. It was a scrappy path.
How did you get into costume design for animation/storytelling?
Simply put, because I couldn’t get feedback on some costume designs at CTN-X and it annoyed me lol. But longer story, I loved drawing clothing that I wished I could wear, and costumes were such a fun way to play with my original fictional worlds as well (you can capture so much of the world and character in one go). So when I started learning about visual development, I really enjoyed playing with the balance of shapes in costume. When I was doing a collaborative project in Oatley Academy and costume was an option, I thought why not? That could be fun :) Once I got into it, I found myself getting obsessed with thumbnailing costume options. However as I added more costume to my portfolio, I was excited to get crits and was disappointed with the lack of clear feedback. It didn’t make sense when I compared that to the rich feedback on character, environment, or even props. My obsession to resolve this lack of clarity led to creating the book.
How did Talking Threads: Costume Design for Animation, Games, and Illustration (please correct name if this isn’t the latest title) come about? Was it your idea?
Like I mentioned, the book was the result of some unresolved curiosity haha but I have to give credit to Chris Oatley for telling me to channel the answers I was finding into a book. He had a vision for how all that could help me and the industry :) I was really intimidated by the challenge since I was self taught on the topic though, so when a couple friends, Matt Ashcroft and Josh Tolle suggested I just team up with other specialists, that really kicked it into gear. I reached out to my 4 awesome ladies in my network in 2015 and project directed the team, edited content, created layouts, and did a random assortment of odd tasks as we developed it and worked with Design Studio Press to finish it. It was a crazy learning curve looking back.
What’s the gist of the book?
An introduction to costume design. We cover five simple functions of costume: to connect to plot and theme, establish the structure of society, put in a specific time and place, indicate personality, and reveal a passage of time. We explore various questions and techniques we use to fulfill those functions. With lots of examples sprinkled through to help you see how we applied everything.
What do you hope to accomplish with it?
In the long term, I’d love it if the book could inspire more animation and gaming studios to see this task as important and challenging enough to deserve its own position in their teams. There are so many talented designers with amazing critical thinking and research skills that go under the radar because the true (and expansive) impact of their skills aren’t understood as well.
In the short term, I’d be jazzed if it sparks some meaningful and passionate conversations about the rich role of costume design in elevating a story. The more we engage in those conversations, the more we invite designers to develop and share their own unique approaches to costume design in animation, gaming, and illustration. Among my co-authors, we already have more books in development to dive into more intermediate or advanced techniques and I’ve love to see others adding to the library of content as well!
When’s it coming out and where can someone get a copy?
January 11th, on Amazon or Design Studio Press. If you want to support me in creating more books like this, feel free to use this affiliate link! :) https://amzn.to/3yNsNOr
You also teach some courses, was that an easy or difficult shift to teaching others?
I always enjoyed helping others (or maybe just answering questions lol), and when I was homeschooled and unschooled with my younger siblings, I got into the habit of answering their questions to help them. Add the exposure to different learning styles in my education and I just ended up with lots of techniques that made it kind of fun to do. I’m a bit addicted to creating and customizing exercises to aid a breakthrough. The difficult shift had more to do with developing and refining the structure of my courses (since I had to commit for consistency's sake) but that’s been a puzzle in and of itself and its super intriguing to solve.
Your page mentions you use “personality psychology” as a tool in design projects. Can you explain in a few lines what that means?
I primarily draw from Enneagram. The 9 motivational archetypes (stemming from fear, anger, and shame) help me motivate my designs with more clarity. I can align the costumes, environments, props, and characters with the themes of a story more confidently, and make faster connections in my research to elevate my reference. It’s really a study in the power of articulating with clarity. As humans, we can feel things out and build a library of reference from our memories and experiences…but as artists, when we have clear words for the abstract feelings, those keywords can supercharge our creative process and make collaborating smoother. I also use Carl Jung’s cognitive types with the Myers Briggs type indicator (based on Jung’s types) for quick styling.
You were involved in a podcast last year. What’s the story behind that? Is it on hold or did you shift to a different medium?
On hold at the moment, the pandemic threw a wrench in the works and schedules, and my co-host just had the most lovely baby so we’re recalibrating to see how we want to move forward.
You seem like you’re interested in a lot of things, how do you balance it all? Do you divide your time in a certain way?
My curiosity is endless! But creating a focus and hard core routine has been my latest passion. I’ve tried lots of things in the past and want to keep learning but I’m seeing the benefits of prioritizing so I can channel my energy in a more productive way. Especially after working on a crazy intense project for so long, I want my life to be more balanced. And when you make time for food, fitness, family, and downtime to recover each day…sacrifices must be made. Tools like Ikigai and tactics from personal branding have been a HUGE help in showing me how to focus my goals and interests without sacrificing the deeper joy and satisfaction.
When it comes to time management…In the past, I haven’t been able to keep a consistent routine (a 2 week flame-out of a strict routine is a familiar cycle in my past), but in the last year, I’ve been chipping away at the blocks that have made it difficult to maintain. One of the most recent breakthroughs was that since I was so transient growing up and changing routines so often, I got in the habit of living on the fly. So, without the experience to back it up, the idealistic routines I would concoct were mostly theoretical. So I’ve recently set aside 3 months to focus on mindful routine creation and testing. Instead of setting up unrealistic expectations and “failing”, I’m developing my routine as seriously as I develop a story or process. Knowing that it’s the daily minor adjustments that will set up realistic expectations and eventually result in a routine I can confidently execute.
Can you describe your workspace?
Maybe it’s because a lot of what I do is mentally taxing, but while I have a formal desk for working and teaching, I also like to move around and work in different areas of the apartment to change things up. I love my trusty old MacBook and iPad for this reason. There’s something about just moving to a different setting, energy, or lighting situation that refreshes me and keeps me going. In a way, the more focus I bring to work and life, the more I find variety in the little things; my workspace, or the original projects my mentees are developing.
Is there a type of art that you haven’t tried but would like to?
That crazy VR/3D painting thing! Whatever that’s called XD
If money and time weren’t an issue what project would you tackle?
Making my original story Parallax into a limited animation series for adults with a companion game and comic series. I plan to do it nonetheless, but money would make it go faster ;)
Thanks for taking the time to allow us to get to know you better. Where can people find you?
Thanks right back!
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