Artist brings stunning visual style to ‘Niko,’ ‘Adventure Time,’ new DreamWorks series

The moment I discovered the art of Chrystin Garland, I was smitten by her dark, playful, fairy-tale-like images of feisty black heroines on wild adventures, gentlemanly monsters dancing with masked princesses, and “Pickled Mermaids.”(Yes, “Pickled Mermaids”! They are my new obsession.)

Raised on early ’90s anime — before anime was cool — including badly dubbed versions of Sailor Moon, Chrystin eventually channeled her childhood love of drawing into an impressive career as a visual development artist, working in the fields of TV animation and comic books.  

She’s contributed to the Emmy-winning animated series “Niko and the Sword of Light,” worked with BOOM! Studios on “Adventure Time” and “Steven Universe” comics, created a short story for Kazu Kibuishi’s “Explorer” anthology, and did some background painting for a “She-Ra” reboot for Netflix. (We can’t wait!)

Currently, Chrystin is working on the upcoming DreamWorks series “Harvey Street Kids,” slated to air on Netflix, all while fangirling over Studio Ghibli and CLAMP and playing too much “Overwatch” and “Animal Crossing.”  

You’re going to want to see more of her work, which you can enjoy at and

You’re a visual development artist. For those of us who aren’t familiar with that title, what does a visual development artist do?

Visual development artists help create the “look” or style of a particular project. This includes feature films, television, video games, and many other forms of consumable media. Some artists focus on developing backgrounds, while others help define the style language for props or characters.

What media, techniques, and equipment do you use in your professional work and in your personal projects?

Both at work and at home, I use a Wacom Cintiq and a digital painting program called Photoshop.

Were you an artistic kid? What were some of your early influences?

I always loved drawing as a kid! My parents figured out pretty early on that they could give me a pad of paper and some markers and I would entertain myself for hours. Sailor Moon was definitely my first love, but I also really gravitated towards a series of children’s books by Fred Crump Jr. He was well known for retelling classical fairy tales with African American characters, and his designs inspired me in those early years.

I understand you were an anime and manga enthusiast. How did that interest begin?

There was a period of time in the early ‘90s when anime wasn’t “mainstream” yet. Before Cartoon Network’s Toonami was a thing, I remember having to wake up at 4 a.m. every morning to watch Sailor Moon. (That was probably the only period in my life where I willingly got up that early!) The show absolutely blew me away! I loved the fact that all these girls with different personalities were so strong, funny, and had loving friendships. Needless to say, I was hooked. By the time Pokemon ushered in a new wave of dubbed anime, I was primed and ready to consume as much content as I could.

Heavy is the Head by Chrystin Garland.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue art as a career?

I always knew that I liked drawing, but didn’t think I could pursue it professionally until high school. One summer, I was fortunate enough to attend an animation class at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Seeing my drawings come to life solidified the concept of becoming a professional artist.

You earned a bachelor of fine arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. What was the most important thing you learned during your studies?

The importance of collaboration! At SCAD, each senior in animation is required to create a short film that would eventually become a major highlight piece for their demo reel. It’s a lot of pressure, and working completely alone meant that the scope of my short would to be very limited. However, by working with a team, especially with skill sets different than my own, the possibilities tripled. It’s so, so important to be able to get along with others because teamwork is the backbone of the animation industry.

The Dancing Princesses by Chrystin Garland.

Your art is stunning. It has a fairy tale quality, but it’s also very modern, and obviously influenced by manga with a darker, gothic sensibility as well. How would you describe your style?

Thank you so much! I try not to define my style too much because I feel my work is constantly evolving as I grow as an artist. Giving a hard label feels like I’m putting boundaries on what I can explore or express. Perhaps I feel unnecessarily superstitious about it, kind of like getting a lover’s name tattooed on your body?

Who and what are some of the biggest visual influences on your art?

I’m really inspired by creators who develop rich, lush worlds like Hayao Miyazaki. His point of view is always so refreshing, I feel like I’ll always discover something new when rewatching one of his films. I also really enjoy the phenomenal Enrique Fernandez. His shape design is absolutely incredible, and I admire the way he was able to mimic watercolor in “Aurore.” CLAMP and Ai Yazawa’s works are also a constant inspiration.

Drown by Chrystin Garland.

How did you come to work in the field of television animation? I understand you’ve had to adapt to find your place in the animation industry.

Yes, when I first graduated from SCAD, it was incredibly difficult to find job openings for a traditional animator. A lot of companies were outsourcing 2D animation overseas, or were focusing solely on 3D. I still wanted to create for a living, so I pivoted to comics for several years, building up my story and digital painting skills. I also attended an animation convention called CTNX every November in order to showcase my work. It was at this convention that a former classmate of mine introduced me to Peter Emmerich, the man who would become my future art director on “Harvey Street Kids.”

BOOM! Studios’ Lumberjanes.

What about your work in comic books? How did you break into that field?

Working in comics happened very randomly. Another former classmate of mine was working as a background painter for Kazu Kibuishi, the creator of the “Amulet” graphic novels. I was working at Best Buy at the time, when my friend called saying he recommended me to work on an “Amulet”-themed app they were developing. The initial position was illustrating specifically for the app, but I eventually was reassigned to render backgrounds for “Amulet: Prince of the Elves.” I was taught so much about storytelling and digital painting during that time period. It really was a life changing experience.

You’re currently working as a background artist on an animated series for DreamWorks that will premiere on Netflix. What does a background artist do?

Background Artist can be broken down into two different positions: Background Designer and Background Painter. Background designers first define a scene with line work and shapes, then a background painter goes in and renders the same scene with lighting and color. On “Harvey Street Kids,” I work as a background painter.

Can you tell me more about that project?

Sorry, not much! “Harvey Street Kids” has yet to be released.

There is this synopsis from the show’s announcement though: “From its never-ending games of kickball to the infinite flavors of its ice cream truck to the greatest climbing tree in the universe, every day on Harvey Street feels like a Saturday. And that’s largely thanks to the Harvey Girls – Audrey, Lotta, and Dot – the block’s self-appointed guardians and the world’s bestest BFFs. They will do whatever it takes to keep Harvey Street the best block to never grow up on and transform every afternoon into a wild adventure. The series comes from executive producer Brendan Hay (Dawn of the Croods, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and Emmy-winning Aliki Theofilopoulos (Phineas & Ferb, Descendants: Wicked World).”

Is it true you also worked on a “She-Ra” reboot for Netflix? (If so, that is amazing!)

Thank you! Yes, I did some background painting for them last year. The show is going to be absolutely fantastic, and the creators behind it are incredible. Please look forward to it!

You previously contributed to the Emmy-winning series “Niko and the Sword of Light.” Tell me about that experience and your specific contributions to the show.

When Titmouse Inc. first reached out to me, I was creating educational children’s games for a company in North Carolina. Even though I was excited to work on “Niko,” I wasn’t in a position to leave the job I already had. So during the day, I would work my usual nine to five, then have to switch gears at night to create character model sheets for “Niko.” It was pretty challenging, working both jobs (I didn’t get much sleep during this time period). However, the people I worked with were amazing. You could tell that everyone was really excited to help translate Bobby Chiu’s comic into a series.

I see that you received an Emmy certificate for your work on “Niko.” That must have been exciting. How did that feel?

Pretty surreal! I knew that I loved working on “Niko” and that it would be successful, but I never expected this. I feel incredibly fortunate to have contributed to such a fantastic show.

You’ve also worked on the “Adventure Time” and “Steven Universe” comics. That sounds fun! Tell me more about that.

It was! Working with BOOM! Studios on “Adventure Time: Pixel Princesses” and “Adventure Time: Bittersweets” was such a great experience. Both stories were absolutely hilarious, and I love all the princesses, so getting a chance to draw them was a dream come true. “Steven Universe and The Crystal Gems” was also an incredible opportunity, because the script called for a brand new character design. The Glass Ghost may never appear in the show, but creating her was definitely a career highlight.

Those are some pretty popular series you’ve contributed to. Have you dealt much with fans or their reactions?

Contributing to an already wildly successful series can be pretty intimidating. There’s a fear that your work won’t be valued as much or that you won’t do the series justice. However, everyone that I’ve spoken to at different signings and conventions have been incredibly sweet. It’s a great experience, geeking out with total strangers about a series you both love!

“The Mask Dance” from “Explorer: The Lost Islands.”

You were a background painter on Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet” series and you did a dazzling short story, “The Mask Dance,” for the anthology “Explorer: The Lost Islands.” What was that experience like?

I definitely had a “freak out” moment when the project was brought to me. Kazu’s “Flight” and “Explorer” anthologies always featured such talented artists, many of whom already had prestigious careers in animation and comics. Being new to the industry, I felt like I didn’t belong. However, that feeling of inadequacy really pushed me to work twice as hard in order to create the best work that I possibly could. I needed to prove to myself that I was competent. (I’m not sure if anyone else has this kind of fear based thought process?) Regardless, it really paid off. Seeing “The Mask Dance” in print, alongside the artists I had admired for years, was incredibly gratifying.

Are there many women working in your field? What has your experience been like as a black woman in the industry? 

I can’t confidently comment on the exact percentage, but I doubt there is a lack of women in the industry as a whole. What deserves further scrutiny is whether or not individual studios are hiring and promoting said women.

My experience as a black woman in animation isn’t too different than being a black woman in any other profession. When speaking on diversity, some have stated that there aren’t more black women in the industry because they don’t exist. I think this concept is ridiculous! If there is to be more inclusion, then a concerted effort to look outside one’s community or social circle is imperative.

#drawingwhileblack on twitter is full of fantastic artists! With social media, accessibility has never been easier. I hope people will take advantage of this.

I’m a big fan of many of your personal projects, like your “Pickled Mermaids” series, which is kind of like Lady Cottington’s “Pressed Fairy” books (but I like yours even better). How did you come up with that idea?

Lady Cottington was a huge inspiration while creating Pickled Mermaids! My first couple of passes left more room for the mermaids to swim around, and that felt a little boring to me. So, I started the exercise of doodling random shapes, and trying to fit the mermaid inside that specific outline. The results were pretty silly, but I loved it! Making them “pickled” probably came about because I watch too many cooking shows.

You also have a web comic, “The Wind Children.” What kind of efforts go into making a web comic? Why was this something you wanted to pursue?

Oh man, I haven’t updated that webcomic in quite some time! I’ve always enjoyed reading other people’s webcomics and creating your own is a great way to get your personal stories out in front of an audience. However, if not planned properly, it’s easy to fall behind on updates. I guess “Wind Children” is a good example of that, ha ha!

Sunday Witches from “The Wind Children.”

Do you have any other personal projects in the works?

There are a couple of ideas floating around, but nothing concrete …

Tea Ruckus by Chrystin Garland.

I love that many of your personal projects feature black heroines. I imagine you probably didn’t see a lot of art like this growing up. Can you speak a little bit about what representation means to you?

I like the story of Oprah deciding to pursue her career because she loved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It’s a good example of how media has the power to inspire and bring about change. Sometimes you don’t realize things are possible, until the notion is presented to you.

You bring your art to a lot of conventions. How does that experience benefit you as an artist?

Conventions are so much fun! They provide a venue for artists to network, learn from professionals, and showcase their talents. Over the years, there have been several instances where tabling at a convention has led to some freelance work. If approached correctly, conventions can be very beneficial to artists.

Parade by Chrystin Garland.

Let’s talk about some of the fandoms you’re into. One of them is Studio Ghibli. What’s your favorite Ghibli film?

“Howl’s Moving Castle”! The imagery is astounding, and I love angry Calcifer.

Last year, you visited the Ghibli Museum in Japan. I’m very jealous. Please tell me all about your visit so I can experience it vicariously.

It was absolutely mesmerizing! There were several rooms filled with development work from Ghibli movies, a Catbus for kids to play on, and a mini theater where one could watch a short that was exclusive to the museum. I wish we were allowed to take pictures inside. Now, the entire experience feels like a dream!

You’re also a big fan of CLAMP. Can you explain what that is for those who don’t know? How were you introduced to the group and why do you admire them?

CLAMP is a team of female manga creators! They’ve been around since the ‘80s and are really well known for series such as Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth, and XXX HOLIC.

I picked up Cardcaptor Sakura randomly at a Borders Bookstore (now out of business) and have been hooked ever since! Their works are always beautifully designed, have great characters, and heartfelt stories that really influenced me when I was younger. I also admire the fact that each creator switches up their particular role in production, depending on which book they’re working on. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a part of a cool, creative team like that.

You also like “Sailor Moon” and the “ridiculous ’90s dub holds a warm place” in your heart. Please elaborate. 

Okay, so when anime was being dubbed into English in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of the content was edited for various reasons. For example, execs didn’t trust that kids would relate to a 14-year-old girl from Japan named Usagi, so they changed her to a ‘90s valley girl named Serena. Instead of letting characters eat rice balls or pork dumplings, they would instead declare loudly that they love donuts. (But would still be holding said rice ball.) Perhaps the most notorious change came with the introduction of Sailor Saturn and Sailor Uranus. Instead of letting the two be lovers, they were instead deemed “cousins”… and there was an awkward and confusing time to be had by all.

Also, Molly (Naru) had a Brooklyn accent for some reason.

It was a really weird time, but that was all a lot of us had, ha ha. I think there’s a compilation of the whacky ’90s dub on YouTube somewhere. Highly recommend.

I heard you’re a horror movie fan. What are some of your favorites?

I really enjoy “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Saw,” and most recently, “Get Out.”

You’re also a gamer and like “Overwatch,” though you say you’re “bad at it.” What is it that makes you want to play it anyway?

Even though I’m terrible, the people I play with are super fun, so we all have a good time together. Also Pharmercy!

What’s the deal with your “Animal Crossing” obsession? I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately who are into that.

Unlike other games, “Animal Crossing” isn’t based in competitive or really goal-oriented gameplay. You’re never punished for not completing a task or repaying your loans to Tom Nook. In that aspect, it’s really relaxing, and it’s comforting to know that you can take things as slow as you want. However, there comes a point when players like me switch from casual, good natured mayor to outright monster. Next thing you know, you’re writing creepy letters at night, pleading Fauna to stay forever and callously pushing unwanted villagers into the nearest sinkhole.

Chivalry is Dead by Chrystin Garland.

You also enjoy swing dancing and vintage clothing. How’d you become interested in these things? Do you feel like you’re nostalgic for the past?

My aunt was really into collecting vintage clothing, so I suppose I picked up the habit from her. We’ve come a long way from the 1950s though, so I’d say the only thing I’m really nostalgic for are the clothes.

Looking to the future, what are some of the goals you’d like to accomplish as an artist?

Creating stories and characters has always brought me joy. I think it would be a fantastic experience to pitch a television series and have the opportunity to develop that concept to its full potential.

What’s left on your geek bucket list?

I’d love to do a Sailor Cosmos cosplay!

The Dancing Monsters by Chrystin Garland.


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