College for Creative Studies: Illustration


Chris Houghton


Character Designer

To be a successful artist, you need creativity and talent. But to make a career doing what you love, you need to understand the business side of the art/design world too. Just ask Chris Houghton (’10), a storyboard artist at Disney in Burbank, California. 

“I learned a lot in school, but what impacted me most were the business/client relationship lessons I learned from teachers like Dave Chow and Erik Olson,” he said. “It's hard because when you're in school, you're trying to learn as much as you can about drawing, painting, designing and so forth that it's easy to forget about the business side of things.

“The scary thing is that the day after you graduate is the day you need to start making money. Every artist needs to learn how to adapt, think quickly, negotiate and confidently meet and greet clients of all diversities. Business practices are some of the most beneficial lessons any artist can learn, yet the easiest subjects to overlook.”

In addition to his work as a storyboard artist on Disney’s “Gravity Falls,” Houghton has been working on an original pilot episode for Disney TV that he and his brother Shane created. He also recently illustrated a cover for MAD Magazine (a dream come true) that spoofed “Adventure Time.”

“I enjoy the fact that I get paid to draw,” said Houghton. “That's really amazing, and I feel very privileged. I enjoy telling stories and working with talented people who are passionate. I've been able to go places and meet people I would've never thought possible. And that's exciting.”

Prior to becoming a storyboard artist, Houghton worked as a character designer and a storyboard revisionist for Disney and Nickelodeon. As a character designer, he was responsible for creating new characters in the style of the shows he worked on; drawing turnarounds of the characters as well as mouth charts and special poses of characters to help aid the animators; and “draw overs” (corrections) of overseas animation. Storyboard revisionists assist storyboard artists by addressing the comments of the network, creator and director after the storyboard artist has pitched his/her final board. This involves cleaning up rough drawings, re-staging or re-storyboarding certain scenes and performing an array of other tasks like labeling and identifying characters in crowd shots.

“One of the biggest challenges to me as an artist has been trying to figure out what I really want out of my career,” he admitted. “Working for a big name studio is great in theory, but every artist needs to figure out what will truly make him/her happy and satisfied with their work. The flip side is that those studio jobs pay handsomely and regularly. It's hard to find a balance between doing your own work, which is satisfying (but doesn't always pay), and getting paid for your work (even though you may feel like you're a ‘wrist’ on someone else's project).”

While Houghton enjoys his success at the “big name studios,” he is making a name for himself as an independent artist/illustrator as well. He and his brother, Shane, have collaborated on several projects recently. His favorite is Reed Gunther, a comic book series published by Image Comics.

“We've built that comic from the ground up, and I couldn't be more proud,” said Houghton. “Plus, I get to work on it with my brother, and we have complete freedom over the book. I can't think of anything better than that.

“Shane and I have a few other side projects in the works, but nothing we can really announce yet.  I'm currently doing covers for the Adventure Time comic book series, and I just had a short story released in the newest issue of Atomic Robo. Those projects have been a lot of fun to work on.”

Houghton is a member of the National Cartoonists Society as well as a member of the Animation Union.

“Artists who work at big studios like Dreamworks, Disney, Fox, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and so forth become union members to receive health benefits and better pay,” he explained. “Be sure to ask whether or not the studio that wants to hire you is union.

“My other piece of advice to new artists is to start getting paid work as soon as possible. I started making money from my art the summer after my senior year of high school working as an illustrator and layout artist at a T-shirt printer. And all throughout my schooling at CCS, I was freelanced for any client I could get. That client list started out small, but because I attended comic conventions and took advantage of similar networking opportunities, it quickly started to grow.

“Plus, if I ever ran into problems with my freelance work, I had plenty of teachers with years of experience that I could go to for advice. The stakes were real, but I felt safe in my environment and it was all very exciting. The lessons I learned from working as soon as I could were invaluable and helped get me to where I am now in my career.”