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Lauren Brown

If you saw the Google Doodle earlier this month of gaming trailblazer Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, then you’ve gotten a sample of the amazing work of this week’s guest — art director and illustrator Lauren Brown.

Lauren talked to me about the ins and outs of her current role at Wizards of the Coast, which includes doing art direction for the popular Magic the Gathering game series. She also spoke about growing up in New Jersey and attending undergrad there, getting her MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design, and shared how she started her career in animation and gaming from there. Lauren is also a podcaster, so we talked shop a little bit about her show Painted in Color, and she delved into what the podcast has taught her over the years. If you’re interested in getting into animation, then I hope Lauren’s story inspires you to follow your dreams!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Lauren Brown:
Hi, my name is Lauren Brown, and I’m currently an illustrator and art director working at Wizards of the Coast.

Maurice Cherry:
How has this year been going for you?

Lauren Brown:
It’s been a very interesting year, because it’s been a year of a lot of change. I think that I have probably had the most tumultuous year that I’ve had. No, I guess I can’t really say most tumultuous because the pandemic did just happen. But this year, it’s very tricky because I just moved back to Atlanta from Austin, Texas, and lost a job that I really believed in the day before I moved down. And then got another dream job. So it’s been a big year of ups, and downs, and a lot of a big journey, so to speak. But it’s also been a really good year because I’ve learned a ton and I’ve been able to do a lot. So it’s been a roller coaster a bit, but in a good way

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it. I think this has been a kind of rebuilding year for a lot of folks, especially I don’t want to say coming out of the pandemic, but certainly as we are now more normalized to just the way the world is now. People are starting to get back into some sort of a familiar rhythm. So it sounds like that’s what you’ve been trying to do also.

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. But I’ve been disrupted from really reestablishing myself. Because during the pandemic, I’ve really been in my head a lot doing a lot of internal work and doing a lot of self-centering and growing. I also got diagnosed with ADHD in 2021, so it was also a lot of coping and coming to terms with that. And working from home and having that pandemic environment exacerbated that. But from that, I learned a lot about how to master myself and learning how to be in better control of my own inclinations and my own tendencies.

And so I’ve been growing a lot over that course of the pandemic. Because weirdly, 2020 was a good year for me. Even though obviously stress wise and world wise it was awful. But because I’m an introvert and because I was able to be internal, I was able to do a lot of work towards my personal growth and my career that I think I may not have been able to do if not for that crazy, awful year. And a lot of it was the product of a lot of horrible things like the protests and all that. But that’s when people started to really take notice of Black creators and really wanted to elevate them. And so therefore, I had a good year because of that, even though it’s like a double-edged sword, obviously. Yeah, it’s weird to say always.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I’ve heard that from people too with the events that happened during the summer with folks protesting and with companies trying to I guess come to some level of recognition of what people of color, particularly what Black people are going through in both professional and personal capacities. I know a lot of people got an influx of work, so I completely understand that.

Now you sort of alluded to this. You have a really long history as an art director and an illustrator. But I want to start with where you’re at now. You mentioned you’re at Wizards of the Coast. Can you tell me a little bit about the work you’re doing there?

Lauren Brown:
Yes. I just started at Wizards of the Coast in October, late October. So I am the art director on Magic: The Gathering on the marketing side of things. So that means that I get to work on trailers and online content, and art direction with commissioning artists as well for key art. It’s a really exciting opportunity because it’s a chance to work with amazing artists all across the industry, and also impact the fantastic trailers that Magic does. And I’ve also been a huge Wizards fan for probably about over 12 years now. I started playing Match at the Gathering with my best friend, and then I started playing D&D eight years ago while working at Floyd County Productions, which I’ll talk about later.

But both of those games have really changed my life in terms of just making more friends, being more social, and just giving a very enriching, inspiring experience. So it feels really good to be able to work at a company that has directly influenced my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How is the work going so far?

Lauren Brown:
Right now I’m just onboarding. So I think you’ll probably hear a lot of people say this. When you first start at a studio, you have to learn how the systems work and you have to learn how the communication styles are. All of the acronyms, all the people that you’re going to be working with. So I haven’t really gotten to dive deep into things yet just because I’ve been doing onboarding for the past few weeks. But I’m really excited to see the work that I’m going to eventually start on and which project I’m really going to be able to impact. Obviously, whatever project I work on won’t come out for a little bit. But I’m looking forward to seeing that first trailer that comes out that I’ve gotten to have a hand in, and see people react to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, of course people know of Magic: The Gathering as a card game. Of course it’s expanded to more than that. But is it different doing art direction for a card game versus say like a video game?

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. Because when you’re working on a game that already has mechanics and already has such a big following, and also for the fact that it’s a physical card game, there are a lot more considerations of various different teams that you have to collaborate with and communicate with when you’re doing video games. Because you’re handling technology, and you’re handling a player experience and how the player is going to engage with the art in a completely different context.

Obviously there’s similar considerations. It’s very parallel to a card game, because you have to still consider how the player is going to look at the card, how they’re going to interact with it. How they’re going to feel when they experience it and what the story they get out of it is. But in a video game, that story is much more immersive. So you really have to think about a video game on a moment to moment basis, and how the player is going to interact with these different objects throughout space, rather than just a physical card that you hold in your hand. But with a card game, you have to figure out how to think about the whole set as a cohesive unit, and as a whole story. So it’s a different way to think about stories and a different way to think about how the art is going to impact that experience.

But I think from my purview being on the marketing side of things, most of that figuring out is already done. And I have to figure out how the audiences are going to engage with it once it’s out into the world. It’s a completely different sphere I think, of art direction than video game art direction is. So the differences are pretty glaring, but I really enjoyed both so far. I enjoy seeing how players interact with the content that we create, and I get to see that one in both aspects. And that’s really rewarding for me.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like some of that art direction also includes I guess some play testing also, right?

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. On the wizard side, I won’t be play testing anything because again, I’m not working on the core game. However, in video games, there’s a lot of play testing that needs to be done to make sure that everything that we are creating is coming across as intended for the players. There’s a whole team dedicated to play testing. They’re the QA team, quality assurance. And they’re the ones who really make sure that they’re catching all the bugs and catching all the errors that we might have, or anything that shouldn’t be as intended. But the team is also required to play test the games to make sure that everything that we have created is coming across as intended.

It’s my job to make sure that the art is reading as it should be, that nothing is going to be difficult to understand from first read. Is the main character blending into the background? Are these elements standing out? Will the player understand that they have to go through the store? Is that door bright enough or apparent enough?

Things like that are things that video game art directors have to think about, as well as just generally managing the team and making sure that everybody has a clear vision to aim towards. It’s a really collaborative experience with your full team, because you’re talking to everybody who’s making that game. Engineers, designers, producers, tech artists. You have to make sure that all the pieces are coming together. Because again, it’s a massive collaboration. And you want to make sure that everybody understands what everybody else is doing, so that everything is going to come together as a whole. Cause that’s very, very important. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong in video game development.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds a lot like, and maybe this is maybe an abstraction, but it kind of sounds a lot like production work in that you’re really kind of herding a lot of cats almost.

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. And usually, you want to be able to trust your team to make sure that they know what they’re doing. And hopefully you have hired them because they have skills in these areas. Obviously there’s going to be more junior artists or more junior people who need training and need to learn more. But everybody has something to bring to the table in game development. There shouldn’t be anybody who is sitting idle and not able to contribute to a certain part of the project. And so really, you have to trust that your team can do what they’re setting out to do.

But I really enjoy being more of a guide as an art director rather than a straightforward manager. I like to be a mentor, and really sit with my artists and work with them on growing their skills. And making sure that they’re excited about what we’re working on, and make sure that they have buy-in about what we’re working on. So a lot of the decisions that can be made are made without the input of everybody who’s working on the team, and you can feel like you lose your agency. And so as an art director, I like to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on. Even if they can say something and maybe it doesn’t work for the game, but at least they have the chance to speak and be able to contribute to that.

But I really enjoy that collaboration because it teaches me a lot. Especially working with different teams like engineers and design, because they all have different perspectives of what to bring to a game. And I’m a longtime gamer. And so being able to contribute actively to the process of making a game is really rewarding because you get to see why all these decisions are made. When I see players complaining about a certain aspect of other games that I am a fan of, I just have to shake my head because I generally know why those decisions were made, and why they had to be the way they were. A lot of the requests are things that are completely unreasonable. So being a part of that process is really illuminating, and was eyeopening for me when I first joined the game industry back in 2016.

Maurice Cherry:
So you kind of have to think about the whole experience. You’re thinking about it from the player’s end, you’re thinking about it of course from your end as the art director. And you’re really taking all of these considerations into account at every step of the process.

Lauren Brown:
Absolutely. Because again, there’s a lot of moving parts to a video game. So when you’re art directing, you can’t just say, “I just want it this way, and that’s it.” It’s like no, you have to really consider how that art is going to follow the game play, how it’s going to follow the story. How it’s going to work with whatever the engineers can actually code into the game. There’s a lot of art that you can create that’s not going to be feasible to fit into the game engine even, or be able to run on certain devices. Because I worked in mobile when I first started my career in gaming, and there’s a lot of considerations that you have to take for what a phone can handle versus what a console can handle. So you really have to be careful as an artist to not overload the engine so that people can actually play the game.

But you also have to make sure that if you’re working under a license product, does the art look like the license product? Because the licenser will tell you if it doesn’t. And you have to be very careful about that. You have to be very careful about trying to put your own point of view in where a specific style has already been established. Because a lot of artists can have the tendency to do that, especially when they’re more junior.

There’s a lot of considerations to take in art direction. But ultimately, it’s a lot more technical than working in a field, like say animation would be. And so you have to learn a lot more about what engine requirements there are if you’re working in Unity or Unreal, what implementation looks like. There is so much to consider. But it’s been a really fun experience and I’m already starting to miss it a little bit working on video games proper, even though I haven’t really gotten to dive deep into my side of things yet at Wizards. But I’m looking forward to that too. But I think I’ll always want to make video games.

Maurice Cherry:
Now will you have an opportunity to also contribute artwork as well?

Lauren Brown:
I think I might be able to contribute artwork, actually. I don’t want to say too much, but I’m pretty sure that I will have an opportunity to be able to do that. Which I’m really excited about.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned having to consider all of these different parts. And it actually is reminding me of the last job that I had. I was working for a tech startup, but one of the projects they had was that they wanted to make a print magazine.

And I had never made a print magazine before, but I was like, “I could do this. I’ve done enough kind of creative-ish projects to get a sense of what this is.” And I’m not saying that making a magazine is like making a video game, but I think very much the overall sort of creative direction of putting something together from start to finish, so it can be a singular experience is kind of the same.

With the magazine, I was considering not just the articles that we were publishing, but what’s the order? What’s the journey that I want the reader to take from cover to cover? What do we want to have for illustrations? Do we want to have these full page illustrations that mirror the article? Do we want to have maybe a center spread or something like that? So all these considerations, not to mention the size of the magazine, the paper, all of that coming into the experience.

I really think a lot of people do not understand just how much goes into art direction and creative direction in terms of crafting an experience. Cause because just get it at the end and they’re like, “This is it. They don’t consider everything that has to have been done to get to that point.”

Lauren Brown:
And because that process again, is so involved and collaborative. Like I said, there’s so many things that can go wrong. And people don’t understand the sheer amount of content that they will never see, because there’s so much that I’ve worked on animation and in gaming that has never seen the light of day, because there’s so many things during the process that can just mess up the works. And the machinery will fail in terms of just the process of what it takes to make a game. And then that project will never get picked up again.

And so the fact that anything is out is a miracle to me, because I’m pretty sure that people see about probably 1% of all the content that actually has been made behind the scenes. There’s just really so much. But being able to see it start to finish becomes all that more rewarding, because it’s so hard to create.

And there’s smaller snippets that you can make too. Anybody can make a game. And sometimes what we would do when I was working at EA and Zynga is that we would do game jams, which you would break up into smaller teams over a very limited course of days. I think the shortest game jams I’ve worked on was actually one day, but usually it’s about two or three.

And just five of us who would work together for a few years would come together and make a video game that was playable. It was a requirement that it was a playable game. And I think those experiences out of everything was the most rewarding to me because it was a really focused vision, and it had to be from the beginning because we had so little time to make it. And I was so proud of those little projects, because it was that full collaboration that happened in such a condensed amount of time. And so you really got to see the process from start to finish within that course. And you got to concept it together. You got to brainstorm. You got to come up with our style, and what that’s going to look like, and how the game is going to play and be coded, and what the experience is going to be like, what the core loop is. And you come up with all that in such a short space.

And then coming out of probably not sleeping for a little bit or staying at work late, and then you get to see people experience your game that quickly is so rewarding and so special. Because you get to see it and it’s like, “Wow, we had a nugget of an idea and we really made it happen. It actually came to life.”

And that’s usually how I feel at the end of any big project, not just with gaming, but in animation, and illustration, and personal projects. I always feel that sense of accomplishment in a sense of, “Yeah, we made something. We had an idea and it happened.” Because again, people have no idea how often it just doesn’t happen or it just ends up as a work in progress. So it’s really special to be able to play any game. So I want people to appreciate that experience a little bit more because it’s so hard to make one.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the most difficult part? The fact that you could do all this work and then it just not even be released or something like that?

Lauren Brown:
It’s not the most difficult because it’s not up to me whether or not a game is released. But it is the most heartbreaking experience when something that you’ve worked on really hard or worked really hard doesn’t see the light of day. This happened in animation as well. There’s been several projects where I’ve worked on that I never got to really show anybody. And that was really sad because a lot of us believed in those projects. Same with gaming too. I’ve worked on at least I think three different games that never got made. And so it was a really heartbreaking experience. But we could also see the writing on the wall very often where we’re like, “We don’t know if those things are going to get made because there’s too many miscommunications and things that are not really working that we thought was going to work.” And after a while, there’s money that’s spent on these things. And so you have to consider how much the company is willing to invest in this idea that may not pan out, that may not be profitable. And again, it’s not up to us. It’s up to the company ultimately.

So I think that’s why it’s special to be able to make a game jam because that one is up to the team who’s making it. And so the fact that the team can come together and agree that this is going to be good enough to create is something that’s very special.
I think the hardest parts of game development is honestly the starting of it. The pre-production. Because it’s funny because it’s also the most fun. Most of the games that I’ve worked on have actually been live service mobile games. The Simpsons Tapped Out, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Words with Friends. And those games had already had a preset cadence with which they were releasing, which is very fun and comforting because you kind of generally know what the player’s going to expect and you can add new things to it. But the process has been already established.

But when a game is just starting, you have to establish the full process, how the production is going to run, what engine you’re going to use, what art style you’re going to use, which is really hard. What the game design is going to be, which is also very hard, and how the code base is going to be set up.

And so building the game initially is difficult because you need to make sure that you can maintain that game, or whatever you’ve committed to in the beginning can be scalable. Because if it’s not scalable and you’re trying to add more things to it, things are going to break really quickly. And it’s going to be really difficult to update, and edit your game, and add more things to it, and have it be playable on all these different engines. So there’s so much that has to go into when you’re first starting the game in pre-production or I guess in prototyping, because you’re throwing a bunch of stuff at a wall and you’re just hoping things stick. A game jam condenses this because you don’t have enough time to consider and mull over the details, and you don’t have the time to noodle over whatever could be. You just have to decide on something and make it happen.

But when you’re working on a full game, I mean it’s your playground, but it’s also difficult that it’s your playground. Again, that brainstorming collaboration comes into key. Because people can have buy-in, but they also can say, “Well that’s cool, but what if this?” [inaudible 00:22:24] last forever and ever. And you could end up not making anything because you’ve done what if this too many times.

So getting people to agree on a vision is really, really difficult. Especially when you have time to disagree. And so that’s really I think the hardest part for me. But it’s the most fun because you get to be the most creative. And if all the roles are correct and if people have their wheelhouses that they’re entrusted to, that can go really smoothly. I’ve had it go really not smoothly too. So it just really depends on what kind of team you’re working with and how much everybody trusts each other. It’s really an exercise in trust I think as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I 100% agree with that. Just to go back to the example I talked about earlier with the magazine, the company sort of had an idea like, “We want to start a magazine.” But they didn’t know what they wanted to call it, what they wanted it to look like. They’re just like, “We want to start a magazine and we want to publish it in four months.” It’s like okay, so I’m building it from the ground up, like Khadijah on living single. I’m trying to build flavor.

And even the initial ideas we had for, it kept changing in that pre-production process to the point where it took us longer to eventually get the first issue out because there were like, “Well, we want the cover to be this, and we want to do this.”

And all this sort of stuff. And even getting the internal buy-in from people to write for the magazine, because initially they’re like, “We want community members to write.” And then they switched it and said, “We want employees to write.” And employees were like, “That’s not in my job description to write articles.” And it during the holidays and someone would write an article and then say, “I’m taking the rest of the month off for Christmas.” And I’m like, “What? I need my edits. Where are you going?”

Lauren Brown:
But I think that’s the whole thing too with understanding what your roles are supposed to be on the project. It was something I had mentioned because when that happens, when people were like, “But you can do this, right?” That’s when things can really start to get a little bit… Again, depends on the team that you’re working with. But if people were like, “That’s not in my job description. Why am I doing this?” Then it’s going to be really hard to make something that’s cohesive because all the lines are blurred. If you are not expecting that to already be the process. If you are to come into a studio with the idea that you’re going to probably wear a lot of hats, that’s probably fine. You’re more of a generalist. But if you’re not inclined to doing various different things, that’s going to be really difficult to get adjusted to.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yes. Oh yes. And even most of the team that we had for the first issue, we kind of changed it up for the second issue. And I felt like okay, we’re getting on a really good rhythm with this. I’m excited about the third issue. We were in production getting it ready. And then they laid off the entire team and it’s like…

So to that point about working really hard on something, I was working hard on the third issue of the magazine and they laid us off. And I’m like, “Well, is the third issue even going to happen?” And the company’s like, “I don’t know.” So disheartening would that happens. They claim that they’re going to release it maybe by the time that this interview goes out. They said that they’ll release it in December. I don’t know if they’re going to do that.

But also this has happened, and I don’t know if you maybe feel like this too, but sometimes you just have to take the L. I’m just sort of like, “Well, it’s above me. I can’t do anything about it. Oh well.”

Lauren Brown:
No, I have a lot of experience in that. Because a lot of those decisions that were made, we don’t have any control over as a development team. So we had to take the L a lot and not by choice.

I think an essential part of the creative process though sometimes is learning how to take that L. Because you can hammer it away at something and sometimes it’s really not meant to work. And I think the difference between if it’s meant to work or if it’s not meant to work is the amount of effort that you’re willing to put into it and the amount of effort that you have the budget to put into it, if the project is dependent on budget. But I think anything can be made. It’s just if it actually gets finished or not. But any art is not finished. You just say, “I’m done.” There’s no such thing as finished. You can work on anything for an infinite amount of time. But when you say, “I’m done,” that’s when the project is finished.

And so it’s just like people have to learn when walk away from something, and sometimes the effort is futile, and you have to accept that, and move on to something that is better. Because what you do is you take that learning that you got from that last project and you apply to something that could work.

And so taking the L is not always a bad thing, but it is a heartbreaking place you consider all the time that you put into it, and you consider that somebody could have seen this and enjoyed it. But ultimately, you take that experience to go to the next thing and hopefully that next thing can get made. Sometimes it never gets made and that’s really frustrating too, but it’s all a part of the process.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. Very true. Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. I know that you’re here in Atlanta, but did you grow up here?

Lauren Brown:
No, I actually grew up in New Jersey. I was from a little town in South Jersey called Willingboro, New Jersey, where there was not really much going for it in terms of culture, or art, or anything. Yeah, that’s where I grew up. It was essentially right outside of Philadelphia where most of my family is. But yeah, my hometown is in Willingboro, New Jersey.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of design and artwork as a kid?

Lauren Brown:
Actually, yes. So my dad used to be a fashion designer. He’s always been an electrical engineer for 35 years, but on the side he did fashion design. And I would sit with him as he was picking out his ties, and I would help color coordinate his ties because he was colorblind, which is pretty funny. And I was always really good with color.

But he also designed a lot of dresses, and he did fashion shows for people around the neighborhood and in Philadelphia. And I think that’s essentially how my mom and dad had met was because he used to be in that fashion industry in Philly. And so I would help him design some of his outfits too. And really getting to see him doing that process of drawing something, and then creating it, and bringing it to life was really inspiring for me.

But I had the inclination to draw ever since I could hold a pencil really. I was unstoppable. I’d draw on everything. The walls, on homework, just anything I could get my hands on. Because I had a very, very creative imagination. And I always had stories in my head, and I just desperately wanted to get them out. And watching cartoons, anime, Sailor Moon, Pokemon, all these ways that stories could come out was super inspiring for me. And I just wanted to make my own things that made me feel the way that those things make me feel. But my creativity was highly encouraged at home because my dad was creative. And my mom understood what it was like to be creative, even though she wasn’t a creative. My parents kind of made an effort to make sure that my talent was cultivated, and they enrolled me in art classes, and made sure that I wasn’t really tamped down.

Because I was a weird child. I was real weird. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and I was very, very different than everybody else. And no one really understood me. Which was fine by me because I found my little corners to draw on. And I found a best friend when I was seven years old, who was also really creative. And so me and her would just spend all our time together just making crazy stories and characters, and bringing a lot of our stuff to life. So it was a very inspiring kind of childhood even though it wasn’t a very inspiring town or culture to grow up around, just because no one really understood what we were doing. But we forged on forward regardless of that fact. So that was really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
And now eventually, you ended up going to college and studying illustration and animation first at Montclair State University. And then from there, you went to Savannah College of Art and Design. What was your time like at those schools?

Lauren Brown:
Oh man, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Because when I went to high school, it was a vocational school where they had career majors. And I was in the advertising, art, and design career major. So I really got to work with other artists then and start to dive into what it was like to kind of work as a professional, do a graphic design and doing illustration.

But at Montclair, I feel like that’s where I really started to understand myself as a person. Because for the first time, really for the first time, people started to accept my weirdness for what it was. Just this creative, artistic child. I guess not child anymore, but this person who just wanted to express themselves. And I was surrounded by all these people who really wanted to express themselves, and was fully accepted for that. Not just accepted, but appreciated for that. And I made some really amazing lifelong friends at Montclair. And I actually went to Montclair with my best friend, that same friend who I met when I was seven.

I really got to explore a lot of different areas in art, sculpture, and ceramics, and painting. I didn’t do photography, but a little bit of photography and graphic design. And got to see what all these different areas in art had to offer and be very tactile with art. Because I was doing digital for a lot of the time in high school. And so that was a really great learning experience.

But the problem was, is that I was really interested in animation. The aforementioned shows that I used to love to watch. I thought I always thought I was going to be an animator in some regard, but Montclair didn’t really have an animation program flushed out yet because they just started their animation curriculum. And so when I went there, I was hoping that I could learn about animation and that was kind of opposite from the case. So I ended up rerouting my course and going full into illustration instead.

And so when I was a senior in college, SCAD, Savannah College of Art Design had come to North Jersey to do a kind of seminar about what the school entailed, and they gave me a brochure. And when I read that brochure, I saw that they had all these different majors like sequential art, which was comic books and illustration. And animation and game design. And they were like, “As a part of our sequential art program, you get to go to Japan for two weeks and you get to learn about the studios that are in Japan.” And I was like, “Well, this is everything I wanted to do in the first place.”

So I remember that there was a London trip that I could have gone to that I chose not to because I wanted to work on my portfolio to apply and get into SCAD. And so I spent those full two weeks just heads down and making art for that because I really, really wanted to get in. And so after I graduated that next year, I applied for SCAD and got into their grad program for illustration. And that was a really crazy experience as well. Yeah, I really wanted to go for that because I think that even though Montclair gave me so much in terms of personal growth, I really wanted that professional side of things too, because I was starting to get more focused in terms of what I wanted to do.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would imagine it was probably just a different city environment too. Montclair State University of New Jersey is going to be a lot different than Savannah College of Art and Design. You went to the Atlanta campus, right?

Lauren Brown:
No, I actually went to Savannah.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you went to Savannah campus. Okay. So I would imagine even just the creative community around you was different because it inspired you in different ways.

Lauren Brown:
So Montclair was interesting, because everybody was really talented there. But I felt like I was very on par with the high ceiling of talent. I was like, “Okay, I can run with most of these people. This feels good.” There was some people who were above and beyond for sure. But I still felt like a fairly big fish in a medium pond. I know it sounds cocky to say, but that’s really how it was. And I think a lot of us felt that way. When I went to SCAD, I was a really little fish in a really big pond, and was surrounded by incredible talent. And all of my friends were just rock stars, and people who could make some amazing things like crazy illustrators. And I’m like, “I don’t think SCAD told you anything because you were naturally this gifted. There’s no way anybody could have given you this. You’re amazing.” And animators who I was like, “They’re destined to work at Disney and Pixar. They’re just crazy good.”

And so the fact that I was suddenly surrounded by a high ceiling of talent, a space high ceiling of talent. It was both really inspiring and really intimidating. I actually kind of went through a little bit of an artistic crisis when I went to SCAD because I started to try to make work that was everybody else that was in the illustration curriculum. And I didn’t really have a well-developed personal voice when I was at SCAD because I kind of rerouted myself to try to fit into the mold, fit into what I thought people had expected of me.

But when I went over to animation, my first year, I was solely really in the illustration department and really just learned from all my peers there and my friends there. But two of my really good friend, my best friends came to SCAD the year after I joined scad. And so they were animation majors and I hung out in a mission building a lot more. Which the ammunition building is a renovated coffin factory with no windows, which is really funny. It’s also open 24 hours, sorry SCAD Savannah.

But it was an environment where we all were really heads down and worked really hard on our projects. And it was the first time that I really got to experience collaboration at school as well, because illustration is a very independently focused type of field.
Animation relies on a team. And not every student opted to do this, but some students built teams of up to 60 people that were full scale productions. They had actual producers. They had storyboard artists, and layout artists, and background artists, animators, compositors, 3D modelers. They had everything. And they ran it just like you would when you were in the industry, which I would find out later.

But when I would go into animation and work on my illustrated projects, people would come recruit me. They were like, “We like the work you’re doing? Come work on my film. You want to do character design for my film?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. That sounds like fun.” And I got to meet a lot of people that way, but I also got to learn a lot about how the industry actually ran and how it functioned. And so I feel like that experience out of anything, because it wasn’t even a class I was taking. It was just extra stuff that I was doing outside of my classes. That taught me the most I think about what it looked like to actually work as a professional in the field.

And then I also did the Japan trip that was aforementioned in that brochure. I went to that Japan trip, and that was amazing too. So I got to meet a lot of friends, I got to go to Japan, I got to see animation studios up close. And that was just a really incredible experience. So SCAD gave me a lot. It’s also a very expensive school, so I can’t recommend it to everybody. But it really taught me a lot about what it looked like to work in the field. But also just that networking that I got from SCAD in particular was very, very valuable. Because a lot of those people cropped up in the future, and still are lifelong friends today.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And I’ve heard that SCAD has a really robust alumni program too, just in terms of not just the people who went there of course as alumni, but getting in touch for other opportunities and things like that. I’ve heard SCAD is really good about that.

Lauren Brown:
Oh yeah, they’re really good about it. But I haven’t even tapped into the surface of those alumni programs yet. I have done their alumni Gaming Fest and Animation Fest, and I’ve done the alumni panels on that and talked about my experiences as a professional to the students.

And I actually had applied to teach SCAD. And this summer, I mentioned at the start of the episode that I had just went back to Atlanta. I had lost my job. And I knew that even before I had lost my job, I wanted to go teach eventually at SCAD Atlanta. It’s funny because they actually got back to me right after I got hired at Wizards so it was too late. I was like, “No, you got me just too late.” But yeah, that environment is like nothing else like that. Very creative, just very focused. And it reminds me why I love art so much, just being around students and being around all that creativity.

I felt the happiest at SCAD because really when you’re a student, you’re in a bubble. And you’re in a bubble of all this creativity and all this positivity. And so as an alumni, I do want to tap back into that, and find those resources, and meet my fellow alumni who are tapping into those programs too. But yeah, ultimately I also want to go back and teach, because you can take classes too, and I just want to learn more.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned that part of the SCAD experience in terms of how they set up working on projects and things like that was very similar to how it was in the industry. So once you graduated from SCAD and you got out there in the field, you were working for Floyd County Productions. That was sort of right after SCAD?

Lauren Brown:
Yes. So after I graduated SCAD, I opt to stay in the city because I didn’t want to go back to New Jersey. I love my family a lot, and they’re awesome people. But the environment of Jersey is not a creative environment at all. And I was like, “I don’t think I want to go back to Jersey where I’m leaving all these people and all this creativity. I want to really build my portfolio and cultivate my professional appearance, and what I’m going to be.”

So I stayed in the city at Savannah, which is an awesome city by the way. Everybody should visit it. And really got to hang out with my friends and develop my portfolio. And I started to post on various different freelance websites and got a few small freelance projects as well. But because I had put my portfolio on all these websites, I was also noticed by a background director at Floyd County Productions, which is a studio that makes Archer in Atlanta, Georgia.

The manager had reached out to me and she said that, “Hey, I saw your work on freelance.com. I really like what you do. We would like you to take an art test for us and I want to see if you would be good to work as a background artist here.” And I was just like, “What?” My mind was blown. Because I didn’t know what I was going to do after I graduated. It’s weird because I didn’t remember having a bunch of anxiety around it, but I also just did not know what I was going to end up doing. I thought I just needed to develop more skills. But I was really fortunate to be able to get that email.

So she sent me an art test. It was a 24 hours to work on this art test. I took that to mean you do this art test in 24 hours right now. I used all 24 hours at this time too. I made sure that that thing was bomb. And it’s funny because it was like you had to treat a background like a bomb went off in it. It was already painted and then you had to really mess it up. And so I had a lot of fun doing that. I got critiqued from my friends and made sure that it was looking good, and submitted it. And I was like, “Okay, I hope I did a good enough job. I hope I did it.”

And also, I was going to have a trip over to Atlanta for Dragon Con. So that still happened to fall around that same time. And so I messaged her all shyly and I was like, “Hey, I might be in town in two weeks. So is it okay if I visit the studio too?” I didn’t want to say it was Dragon Con because I didn’t know if that was acceptable or not. And she messaged me back and she was like, “You’re going for Dragon Con. Yeah sure, absolutely. You can come to the studio.”

I was such a little baby. It was really funny to think about me around that time because I just did not know. Because as soon as I walked into that studio environment when I got to visit, I was like, “This looks like just all of my classmates. This feels like college again.” Because everybody had toys on their desk, and everybody was really cool. And everybody was again, creative.

When you’re a student, you think that professionals are this different breed of people. You think that they’re on this elevated, very buttoned up on this pedestal. And we’re really not. We’re so not. We’re not corporate, we’re artists. And it’s just like working with artists that you would work with as a student. We’re all creative and we’re all nerdy. We all have our own interests that we nerd out about and geek out about, and we get really obsessed about certain things. And so everybody really had that just laid back, chill kind of personality. And so it was very easy to get along with everybody because I’m like, “I don’t feel like I’m out of my element actually at all. This feels like SCAD.” And so I ended up getting hired after that trip two weeks later. And packed all my stuff, moved over to Atlanta, and found that the animation production cycle was exactly like how it was on films that I worked on at SCAD, where everybody had their different roles, there were different departments. It was a really collaborative environment there as well. And you had your team. That’s how I got over to Floyd County.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds fun. Even the environment that you mentioned, like working with all those artists and creatives is fun. I’ve mostly been a creative at tech startups. Not fun. They’re not fun. I mean if you want to nerd out about code or whatever, which I don’t really care about. But I remember I worked at one startup, and we would have our weekly all hands. And I mean these nerds would just go in on code for two hours straight. I’m like, “I have work to do.” And they’re excited about it talking about containers and frameworks and I’m like, “I have work to do.” I don’t know. I’m still looking to for that working with creatives experience like that, because it sounds like it would be a lot of fun.

When you look back at your experiences with studios though, I would imagine it probably wasn’t all fun. I mean after Floyd County Productions, you worked for four years at EA Mobile. You worked for two years at Zynga. What were those experiences like?

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, I can get into those. But first I just want to address something too. It was definitely fun to be able to work in that creative environment with a bunch of creative peers, but it’s still work and you still have to show up and do the work. So after a while you’re just like, “Oh man, I’ve been working on the same background for two weeks now. I just really want to move on.”

And also the hours can be a lot because you’re in animation. You’re in a strict production cycle, especially for TV. And so sometimes, I think I’d worked once up to 80 hours one week. So it can be crazy. Yeah, I know. So that part’s not fun. It was my first experience becoming a lead, and a manager, and a director. Because I was promoted to background director shortly before I had left Floyd. I really wanted to protect my team from a lot of the brunt of that work, of the editing and of the long hours. And so I took on a lot of that myself with my lead. And that was a lot.

Then also after a season ends, you go on hiatus, which is basically laid off for about two or three months, which can happen in a lot of animation studios. And so you had to understand how to fend for yourself too during that time. And so it was really fun to work in an environment like that, but it can also be very stressful. And so that’s something to consider as well. I don’t want to sugarcoat what it’s like to work in animation, because there’s definitely drawbacks to certain studios and certain environments. Other studios that have union, you don’t have to deal with that as much. But I’ve never worked under a union studio before, so I can’t speak to that as well. But it’s just something to look out for and something that people have to determine whether or not they want to go into.

I felt like I could handle it because I was young. I can’t handle that now. I’m too old for that. I really can’t. But back then I had the stamina to deal with it, but there was also burnout. And so I was kind of thankful for hiatus because it was an opportunity to really recharge my batteries and do personal work as well. Because when I was working full-time, I couldn’t really dedicate that much time to personal work. So there’s definitely a lot of give and take.

I will say I do miss the people and I miss the kind of work that I did. Because when I went over to EA, it was my first time going into game development. I decided to leave animation just because I was ready to explore something new. My friend told me, he went over to EA a year prior and he told me how the environment was, and what they were working on, and that I would be a good fit.
And so when I interviewed there, I realized that the experience was very parallel to what I was already doing in animation. And so I was like, “Okay, I think maybe I don’t fill all the qualifications for this, but I fit most of them. And I might as well go for it anyway.” And ended up getting hired at EA.

So I left Atlanta, which I was really sad about. I was not ready to leave Atlanta. I loved the city, and that’s why I came back. I realized that I’d fallen in love with it right before I left. So I was like, “Oh no.”

But I went over to Austin and Austin is also really cool, but it was a lot of change as well. I went over to EA, which was so much more of a corporate environment. Because EA is a huge studio and it has a lot of systems in place, and process in place, and a lot of very clear defined roles, and clear defined things that you’re supposed to do. And you can’t say everything that you used to say in a very informal environment like an animation, and you have to make sure that you’re careful about following all the rules. And so it was an interesting adjustment. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, but I found that I could roll with that as well.

Also, the people that I worked with too. Again, really awesome people. Gaming nerds, which I am also a gaming nerd. But like you were saying about your tech startup, it’s a lot more technical. And so there were a lot of things at first that really went over my head. I didn’t know what Scrum was. I was like, “What is agile? What is code base? What is all this stuff?” Working in an engine for the first time, and understanding that you had to make art a certain way to fit into the engine, and you had to optimize stuff. I’m like, “What is all this integration?” I’m like, “What does all this mean? I don’t know what any of this means.” But I learned all of that probably within the course of three months. And just letting you know, even what I learned is different from game to game. So a lot of that experience can translate and a lot of it doesn’t.

I was really determined to do a good job at EA and to really work hard because I was a senior and lead environment artist. And so I had people to manage as well. And so I was learning a lot, and they were teaching me a lot about the process as well. But I really loved working with my fellow artists and my team.

And the games that we were working on, I can’t talk about the first game that we worked on, but we started working on The Simpsons Tapped Out shortly after, which was a live service mobile game that had been out for a while. And so being able to meet the people who had made the game and then understanding what it took to make a live service and talking to a licensor for the first time. That was just a lot of new learning experiences.

But it was also the first time where I really started to see the disparity of the industry, and the fact that it wasn’t very diverse. I started to really feel that in the city of Austin in general, and my environment reflected that. And I was working in Atlanta. So before, it was a very diverse place. And now I was like, “I feel at times, very isolated.” And I wanted to work to change that.

So I think at EA is really where I started to develop my professional voice as well as my sense for advocacy, and really started to want to actively work to make change in the game industry. Because I wanted to see more people who look like me, doing what I was doing.

Because I felt very fortunate, but I don’t feel like I’m that special. I feel like everybody can do what I’m doing if they really work towards it, and they really go for it. I feel like again, I’ve been fortunate to be able to get these opportunities and to be able to make these friends. But I wanted to start teaching people how to get to where I was.

So what EA has are things called employee resource groups where there’re groups to advocate for a certain underrepresented group of people. So there was a pride one, there was a Latin one, there was a Black one. And there was a disabilities one as well. There wasn’t an Austin chapter of the Black ERG. And so I started it with a few coworkers. And we made a Black EA Team Austin, BEAT Austin, and started to do advocacy work around the city, around the industry. And that’s when I really started to do mentorships and started to do work like this where I actively did panels at Dragon Con and other conventions, and started to really talk about my experiences and be visible as one of the people who was a leader in the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
How did that experience go?

Lauren Brown:
It was really interesting. Because at first, I felt very shy. I said this story on a SCAD panel, but I feel like I started my end career very quiet because I was a Black woman, and now I’m leading it loud because I’m a Black woman. Because I really had the sense that people didn’t quite know how to handle me. One of my managers had told me that he felt intimidated by me. And I feel like I’m the opposite of an intimidating person. I’m a very huggy, affectionate, just dorky person. And the fact that he felt intimidated by me, I was like, “It’s probably because I’m Black.”

But also, if I am going to have somebody feel intimidated by me and he expects me to be intimidating, then I’m just going to be intimidating and ask all the questions that I really want to ask, and start saying the things that maybe I wouldn’t have said if I was feeling a little shyer. Because with that intimidation, I was like, “He must respect me a little bit too. So maybe I can just say some things.” And in a professional way always, of course. But maybe I can start to speak my mind a little bit more and start to talk about the things that I’m observing. And I started to do that. And it was actually well received.

And so that experience was really enlightening for me because I was like, “I actually have a voice now.” At Floyd, I was a young creative. I just started, so I didn’t really want to express myself. I didn’t really want to be a contrarian, because I was just afraid of what people would say. I just didn’t have the confidence yet. I started to build the confidence at EA and started to really start to call people out and, “Hey, why are we not thinking about these things? Why are we not thinking about what this Black character is doing or saying, or the fact that we’re even having Black characters in this game?”

The designer that I started doing the ERG with, we used to do a Valentine’s event for Tapped Out every February. And he was like, “This time we should do a Black history event.” And I was like, “We should do a Black history event. Let’s do it.”

And so things like that are things that I would’ve never thought to advocate for when I was working in animation. And I really started to advocate for it and started to really gain my identity too as a Black creative, when I started in the game industry. And it felt very empowering. And I really felt like I could really use my voice, because there were so few people who looked like me. There were no other Black female game developers at the time I was working at EA. And also when I moved on to Zynga four years later, there was still no other Black female game devs except for, I think there was the VP art director, which was really cool to see a woman like that in management and leadership. But that was the first time I had really seen someone like that. And it shouldn’t have taken that long. It shouldn’t have taken five years for me to see that. So I really wanted to work to change it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, good on you for really stepping into that. Stepping into that sort of, I guess vacancy that you saw. And being an advocate not just for yourself, but for other Black people, Black women particularly in the industry.

Lauren Brown:
It wasn’t easy because I also had to deal with people not understanding why things were important, not understanding why I prioritized the stuff. I didn’t let it get in the way of my workload. But we actually started to advocate at EA for all of our advocacy work and all of the things that we were doing to actually count towards our year end reviews and performance, and to be an actual positive mark. And so it actually became a company mandate. Through all of our being vocal, it became a company mandate for ERG work to be considered as a part of our performance review. And so it encouraged more people to join ERGs, and more people to advocate. And I think that it ultimately funneled up to become something really positive.

And so it worked in spite of any pushback that I got and any misunderstanding that it received, because then the company started to really back it. And that was really, really rewarding. So I feel really grateful to have a voice that was respected and had been a part of that change. But I still want to continue to do that in my work at Wizards as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do? What is it that keeps you empowered and motivated?

Lauren Brown:
I think when I was talking to a student at an event that I was doing, this was when I was still at EA. I was talking to him and he was like, “These are the things that I’m interested in, but I don’t know if I even fit in the game industry or where I could go.” And he was like, “I really like engineering, but I also like doing art.”

And I told him, I was like, “Hey you know, there’s a whole field just for you called tech art, where you get to be an engineer for artists.” And to see his eyes light up in that moment was the takeaway for me, because I got to help somebody realize that there’s space for them in the industry, and that there’s somewhere that they can fit. And so something that I love to do is to see, and mentor people, and give them reviews and give them advice. And then see them sometime later, actually break into the industry and do the job that they always wanted to do.

So being an influence for people to go for something that they would not have previously thought they could go for is such a rewarding experience for me to be able to give somebody that, because I feel like I’ve been really fortunate in the people who have supported me, and my parents being a support for me, but also my friends standing by me and advocating for me, recommending me to these things. I wanted to be able to provide that helping hand for other people. I wanted to be able to give back. And so that’s what really keeps me motivated is to be able to give back and see it really come to fruition.

But I also really want to make a more diverse game industry. I grew up playing games where very few people in those games look like me. And the more people we have behind the scenes making these games, the more diverse it’s going to get, and the more inclusive it’s going to become. And then the more accessible games will be for people who look like me. And so maybe we won’t think of it as an impossibility once we start to see faces to these games, and see people on the stage talking about what their experiences were making these games. And I think eventually, we will start to see that more and more. We’re already seeing it more and more.
So if I can get at least one Black person in the industry, or one Black woman in the industry, or somebody who didn’t believe in themselves to believe in themselves to do it, then I’ll have succeeded at my job. And I think it’s already happened a few times, so I feel like I’ve succeeded at my job. But I want to keep that going. Because I really believe that paying it forward is really our step to a better future in gaming, but just in the world in general. So I want to be a part of that change.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of paying it forward, I have to bring this up that you’re also a podcaster as well. You have a show called Painted in Color. Tell me about that.

Lauren Brown:
Yeah. So we started Painted in Color in 2020. And previously, I kind of always wanted to start some kind of YouTube show or podcast, but I was always too afraid to do it or I was like, “What could I say that anybody would even listen to?” But after doing all that advocacy work in the game industry, I realized that I do have a point of view that people don’t get to hear that much. And so I really wanted to take the opportunity to share that.

Around the time we started Painted in Color, this is in 2020 right after the protests were happening. And people started to really take notice for the first time, some for the first time that Black game devs, or Black animators, or Black creatives in the industry were really not getting their dues. Started to really reach out with different opportunities. But I found myself both feeling pleased at this, but also frustrated that it took this long. And there was also a show that I was on, like a podcast. I’m not going to mention them by name, but they had run for six years, and I was only the third Black person on the show. Yeah, I know right?

And they interview people all the time. And I’m like, “Why did it take this long?” I actually called them out on the show about this too. It was live, so they couldn’t do anything about it. It was something that really needed to be called out. But I really thought about that and took it to heart. I’m like, “Why was it that I was only the third Black person on the show?” There are so many Black creatives out there, and so many people who have great stories, and people who are highly talented, who haven’t really gotten a platform to share it.

And so when all these things were happening, we had a female fantastic art group about fantasy art. Somebody was talking about, “We want shows that are really uplifting, like women, and minorities, and creatives.” And I commented in that post saying that I really wanted to start something like that. And one of my friends who I had met at a convention had also commented on that post saying that she wanted to start something like that. Until she reached out to me on Facebook and said, “Hey, I saw that you commented that you wanted to start a show. Do you want to start a show together?” And I was like, “Heck yes I want to start a show together. That sounds awesome.”

So we started it with Esther Wu, Mia Araujo, and ended up pulling Eric Wilkerson, who’s also a fantasy artist, amazing painter, into our show. But we wanted to make a show that was dedicated to uplifting underrepresented artists in the industry. And we wanted to tell their stories, and interview them, and really get them to talk about the true experiences of what it was like to be an artist. We didn’t want to run it like a typical art podcast where people tell you, “You have to do this to succeed. You have to be like this.” Because it often comes from a white male perspective, and that’s not everybody’s perspective. And people can also feel very down on themselves when they can’t do all the things that people are prescribing them.

So we wanted to talk about all of our nuanced perspectives, and we ended up talking about a lot of mental health aspects as well. Because we were all going through it. Obviously it was the pandemic. It was a really hard time mental health wise for each of us and everybody. And it kind of ended up becoming that too organically, even though that wasn’t a part of the goal. But I’m happy that it became a part of the show, because it really showed a perspective from professionals that were still struggling in some kind of way. So we wanted to talk about our struggles and talk about how we were working to gain better mindsets around those struggles, and better perspectives around it. And a lot of the artists that came on our show also talked about those perspectives as well. And we got to hear about so many different journeys, and it was so inspiring to be able to get their sensibility and how they learn and grow. And so we started in 2020 at LightBox Expo Virtual. We had a panel discussion about what it was like to be a creative in the industry as an underrepresented group.

And we kept going from there. So we air biweekly on Mondays. We’ve been doing it for two years now. We’re about to air an interview soon with somebody amazing named Michael Uwandi, who started something similar, 9B Collective, which is a creative group over in LA that employs underrepresented artists and Black artists who work in the film industry, which is really awesome. We got a chance to really start to exercise that voice and grow our presence over time. And it’s been really, really fun and rewarding, and super inspiring. So that’s what I’m currently continuing to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’ve definitely checked out the podcast, and I’ll make sure that we put a link to it also in the show notes. I know 100% that feeling of being on a show that has not had a lot of Black guests, and you ask them. And then there’s all this hemming and hawing and, “Well, we tried.” Yeah. Okay, sure.

Lauren Brown:
A lot of the excuses too from recruiters as well and from shows is, “We don’t know where to find them. It doesn’t seem like there’s that many of them.” There are a myriad of us. We are everywhere. It’s really sad what’s going on with Twitter right now, because Twitter was actually how a lot of places had found me to interview me. I didn’t an article with Apple on the App Store. And so when people opened the app store, they saw my face. And that was because of Twitter, because there’s hashtags called drawing while Black, Black and gaming, I am POC and play. All these hashtags that really elevate the presence of underrepresented artists and minorities in the industry. And I hope that we don’t lose that platform because that was a really big presence for us. And so it’s a shame that has happened, because it was proof that we were out there. And we were present in droves, and a lot of really amazing talent too.

And so that excuse was really invalid. It was just because companies and people didn’t want to put the effort forward to look in different spaces than they were used to looking. If your spaces are only netting a certain kind of artist, then you probably need to change up the spaces that you’re looking in.

So I really want to emphasize that a lot in the show and as well as all the panels that I do, because I really do think it’s a matter of effort. There’s a lot of excuses that go around about it, and people, they’re not used to making that effort.
And we’ve had to make that effort for years. We’ve had to code switch, we’ve had to be twice as good, four times as good in order to get into the industry. So if people don’t want to make that effort, it’s time to start now. Because we’ve been doing that for a long time, and we know what it’s like to go above and beyond constantly. So we would like to be met halfway a little bit please.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Listen, I did a whole presentation called Where Are the Black Designers in 2015. Because so many companies were asking me that. They had found out about the show, and they would be like, “Where are you finding all these people?” And I’m like, “On LinkedIn, on Twitter. I’m just reaching out and talking to them. Are you not doing the same things? My melanin doesn’t grant me any special search powers. I don’t have Black spidey sense or whatever. I’m just talking to people. Are you not talking to people?” And they’re not. They’re not putting forth even the baseline amount of effort.

Lauren Brown:
The minimum amount of effort. Yeah, and my LinkedIn started to also get very diverse because I just started to follow more people who were talking about these things. And that’s really what you have to do. When you follow people who discuss these issues, people who are in the industry will respond and comment. It’s very easy, in fact, to find these people. Just follow a few DEI experts on LinkedIn to start with if people are listening to this and wondering how. Follow people like Crystle Johnson who talks about DEI issues in the industry all the time. And people will comment and say like, “Hey, this is what my experiences are.” People share their stories in these LinkedIn posts. And so that’s a great way to start finding more Black talent and Black creatives. Or maybe make a post yourself and be like, “Hey, I’m doing a search for Black creatives. I just want people to comment and see who I find.” I’ve just done that on Twitter as well.

I do several times a year when these hashtags start to go around. I’m like, “Hey, drop your portfolio in the comments. I would love to be able to follow these artists, and be able to follow you, and see what you’re creating.” So there’s so many different ways, like the hashtags I dropped earlier, so many different ways to find Black creatives or just creatives of color, diverse talent, underrepresented artists, people with disabilities. Any group that you’re looking for, you will find them. We are around, and we talk about these things all the time. So it really, really isn’t that hard. You just have to know where to look. You just have to do some research, find places to look. And then you’ll start to open up your dashboards and broaden them. And you’ll learn something along the way too. So please do that. Cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to tell people this, too.

Maurice Cherry:
What have you learned along the way from the podcast? What has it taught you?

Lauren Brown:
I can’t even go into all the things that it’s taught me. But I think one of the most important things that it’s taught me to be curious. Always be curious about learning something new, and growing, and being self-aware of who you are, and what it is like to work in your own mind, and how to work with yourself to be the best you.

Because again, a lot of shows will talk about, “Here’s what you have to do to be successful.” But if being successful means that you have to get up in the morning every day at 8:00 AM and you know you’re not a morning person, you’re not going to do that. You’re forcing yourself to do something that you hate doing. So what do you do instead? If you’re a night owl, then maybe do the bulk of your work at night where you know that your brain is awake during, and that you work with your own body. You know you get bored about working out? Then maybe switch up your routine every now and again. The fact that you’ve fallen off of a routine is not a failure. You just need something new to mix it up.

It’s the same way with any kind of aspect. Know yourself and work with yourself to be your definition of success, because success means something different for every single person. You can’t follow one set prescription of success. And so work with yourself the way you need to in order to get to your brand of success. That’s what I’ve learned about the show the most, because every single person who’s started to do the things that really make them happy has followed not the rules of society, but their own rules of how they best function and what makes them happy. And that’s what I’ve taken away the most from the show.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you worked to stay your authentic self throughout your career? I get this very strong sense of one, I think determination. But also, it’s coming from a very earnest place. It’s not grand-standing or anything like that. It’s coming from a real, genuine place. How have you worked to keep that authenticity?

Lauren Brown:
I learned not to compromise myself anymore. Not just in my art, but just personally as well. If there is something that I feel very strongly about, I know automatically that it is not for me, or it is for me. And I pursue it, or I reject it however I need to. But I’ve learned that the person who I am will attract the people who I want in my life. And compromising myself and being inauthentic is going to bring around the wrong people that I don’t want to be involved with.

And even though I’m an introvert, I thrive around people who understand me. And in order to be understood, I have to share myself. And I have to really share who I am as a person, not just a veneer of myself. And so I think that’s what keeps me authentic, because being authentic just makes me happier. And sharing my point of view makes me really understand who I am. even more.
So I have a little anecdote. There was a convention called Gen Con that it was a prestigious convention. And they had amazing fantasy artists that had been in the industry for 20, 30 years. And I got in somehow. Somehow.

And I was so intimidated by this convention. I was just like, “Oh my God, I don’t have art that looks like anybody else’s. What am I going to do? I don’t know what to create.” And I psyched myself out so hard that I didn’t make any new work for this con, and I was meant to sell my artwork there.

And the last few weeks before this convention had started, I was like, “Oh my God, I haven’t made anything. What do I do?” And I was like okay. I had a moment with myself. I was like, “I got in not because of what other artists looked like, but because what my art looked like. They accepted me for me. So why would I not make anything that looks like me? Why would I want to make anything that looks like anybody else’s, if they asked me to be in the show for what my portfolio looked like?”
And so what I ended up doing was making the most self-indulgent piece ever, which was the Mushroom Queen piece that’s on my website if anybody wants to look at it. But it was just fully 100% my authentic viewpoint. And I was like okay. I went to the show. I set it up. I was like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen.”

And that was by far my best show that I had ever done. I’d been doing conventions for about 10 years at this point, and it was the most successful, the most positive experience ever. And that piece that I made was the most sold print. I sold out of that print. And it went to show me that being authentic is really what is going to get me that far. Because people are there for my voice, and so my voice I will give them. And that’s why I’m authentic. That’s why I try to be authentic.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or something that you’d love to do one day?

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, there’s so many things that I want to do. I am ADHD, and so I want to bounce around between many different things. But what I’ve always wanted to do is make a video game, and an animated pitch, and a comic, and a graphic novel, and an art book, and a tarot card deck. So I have so many different dream projects.

Because I think the thing about dream projects is that once you’re done, you have to find a new dream. And so I have several dreams, and I want to pursue each of them one by one. And so the tarot deck is coming first. I’m going to be making a deck called the Avant Garden, which it’s a part of the Mushroom Queen series and the Rose Queen that I’ve made. They’re all different plant queens that have their own gardens. And I want to make a full deck based off of those, that project.

So that’s what I want to do first. I would really love to make a small game with a small team. But something that is meaningful, and special, and beautiful. And many different stories I have in my head. So I want to just work towards each of these different goals as I go forward in my journey as an artist. But I have several dream projects that that I want to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I feel like there’s this sort of wellspring of creativity that you could really just dive into.

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, there’s so much that wants to get out of my head, and I really just think it’s in the doing. But with the podcast Painted in Color, I really want to create it as a community in the future, and start to do live events, and start to have art retreats, and create classes around the podcast so that it’s an actual active learning experience for students. Where a lot of the people who are on the show can mentor and we can mentor as well. And really create something that is a positive environment that starts to cultivate talent of color and underrepresented talent for the industry.

I also would love to eventually start my own studio. I would like to say at Wizards for a good while, but eventually my old hermit plan is to start my own studio and to draw together a bunch of wonderful people who I’ve worked with in the past who I know are amazing and are good people. And start to create products that really inspire and uplift the next generation of gamers or animators in the industry. So that’s where I start to see myself. But in the next five years, I really want to make my podcast a really good, strong network, and a strong presence in the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Well just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, your artwork and everything? Where can they find that online?

Lauren Brown:
Yeah, I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible. So I have a Linktree. Everywhere online is LAB illustration. Labillustration, that’s my initials, Lauren Brown. And so labillustration on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Patreon, Etsy. I have an Etsy store. Everywhere you can find me, it’s labillustration. I have a Linktree to make that easier. So it’s linktr.ee/labillustration. That’s where you can find all of my links.

Painted in Color is on YouTube currently. We’re looking to expand it soon, but right now it’s only on YouTube. And that is youtube.com/c/paintedincolor. And so that’s where our channel is. And so that’s mainly where you can find me. So I hope that you do.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope people do too. Sounds good. Lauren Brown, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you for just really sharing your story of being a Black woman in illustration, in art direction, and sort of giving I think a really good behind the scenes look at what it looks like to not just be in this industry, but also to be an advocate for underrepresented voices in the industry. I mean, you’re doing that not just in the media you’re making, but also with your podcast. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do in the next five years. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Lauren Brown:
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate this, Maurice.

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