posted on Aug 30, 2019
Interview: Nathan Fowkes
Nathan Fowkes is a working animation artist with screen credit on 12 feature films as well as a teacher of drawing, painting, color and design. His notable clients include DreamWorks, Disney, Blue Sky Studios, Paramount Animation and many others.
You’ve been working in this industry for a long time now with some of the best studios out there, so as a start, I’d like to ask you, what personal or professional qualities in your opinion have helped you stay in demand though all these years?
It's a good question because with so many great artists out there, I'm surprised I still get plenty of calls for new projects. But the answer is simple, it's because the clients know my reputation and know what they're going to get.
For movie projects, there's a lot at stake, sometimes a 200-million-dollar budget and hard deadlines. If the movie studio finds an amazing new artist with a unique style that seems perfect, they’ll go ahead and take a risk on them, but if they need reliable concept art with good color, lighting and design, they'll call someone like me who they know personally or by reputation. There’s simply not much reason to take a risk on a new artist whose portfolio looks good, because they don't know the answer to these questions:
- Can the new artist work with a team?
- Will they be reliable and on time?
- Will their work be consistent, or did they just do a great job of editing their weaknesses out of their portfolio?
- Will the new artist be willing and able to take difficult art direction notes?
I recently signed on to a project with Marvel Entertainment and was surprised when the production designer told me they were having a hard time finding solid, experienced people. I recommend that new artists start in-house at a small studio to gain experience and build their reputation. For artists whose location doesn't allow this, they should carefully manage their online reputation.
Now, if you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Tough question, because I needed to make those mistakes and embarrass myself, so that I would fight hard for it to never, ever happen again. Some things really do need to be done the hard way. That being said, one thing I absolutely did not understand early in my career was that even though a great environment design with engaging color and lighting is critically important, it’s not the complete package. Character pose and expression communicate emotion powerfully to the audience. Early on there were too many meetings where the creative producer would say something like “Your location painting is missing something, try making it warmer”. I would dutifully make it warmer and it didn't help. What they were actually saying was “I don't feel the emotion that I want to feel, and I don't know why, something's missing”. The thing that was missing was the appropriate expressive characters in the environment. They would even tell me, “don't take the time to paint in characters, we just need environment design”. But by that time, I had learned my lesson, so I would smile and nod but then rough in some characters anyway because I knew the piece would not be approved without them.
To stay this productive in the long run, you probably have a strategy to maintain a work-life balance. Can you share any insights with us?
I believe that an average person like me is able to learn to manage two major life disciplines well. To split attention beyond that risks becoming a Jack of all trades but master of none. I consider myself to be an artist and a family man, so I have had to be willing to sacrifice most other time demanding interests to focus on doing those two things right.
For instance, back in the 90s, when I was in the excruciatingly difficult learning curve of figuring out how to be an artist, I caught myself always turning on the TV when things got tough in the studio. It was a serious dividing of my attention to have that TV always calling to me! So I threw it out the window and went without TV for a decade. But I suppose that is the definition of making a sacrifice, giving up something in hopes of gaining something even better.
A few additional work hacks that have been helpful for me are:
- When you need to take a break from art you have to do, do it by working on art you want to do; this will keep you productive and engaged.
- Keep a sketch book and pencil laying around everywhere you spend time, at your home desk, at your work desk, in the car (so it's handy during errands, in a waiting room for instance), at the kitchen table and in your pocket. You'll get so many more ideas down!
- If you're feeling sluggish while working alone, imagine you're doing a demo with a group of people standing around expecting you to do something great in a short time. This pushes you to focus and to work efficiently.
- keep a folder of a few of your very best pieces handy so that even when things aren't going well, you can remind yourself that you do have it in you to do great work.
You are attending art events and workshops quite regularly. What do you enjoy the most about being at events?
Speaking of making sacrifices, the type of people who are willing to give up their weekends and go through the expense of attending artist’s workshops are my kind of people! And since I primarily work out of my home studio, it's fantastic to get away spend time with like-minded people. So the workshops are a fantastic working vacation away from day to day work.
When you are doing portfolio reviews at those events, what are the first things you pay attention to?
One experience I always tell my students about is when I was working on a Disney project and the production designer went to a portfolio day at a local art school, he was looking for a new artist to help out on the project. When he got back, I asked him how it went, but he just shook his head; he said he looked at many portfolios but did not see any that were hirable. I asked him what the problem was, and his response confirmed what I believe to be the most common problem in portfolios, he said, every single student seemed to be attempting a style and a technique rather than emotionally communicating with the audience.
This is a primary topic of discussion in the classes that I teach, for instance, a few things we look carefully at are:
- The emotional qualities of color and light.
- The emotional qualities of shape and line.
Also, I mentioned the great importance of character pose and expression to create engaging, emotional story moments. These are some the topics I believe hopeful artists should carefully study to get beyond the surface qualities of style and technique.
Do you think being involved in a community of like-minded people can help an artist develop? Has it helped you on the way?
When I started at DreamWorks, the level of artists I was thrown in with was extraordinary and frightening. Steven Spielberg had closed down his Amblimation studio in London and invited those artists to join us in Los Angeles. So we had some of the best artists from all over Europe as well as from the major LA studios like Disney etc. That was a learning experience beyond anything that I could have hoped for, and the relationships I developed with those people has paved the way for my career. It was a rare opportunity, but today, unlike then, there are online resources taught by many of the same artists that are available for up and comers.
So the like-minded community has been critically important and supportive. At the same time, I've seen art department's get a little bit inbred, meaning, we all look at the same books, watch the same movies and have all the same influences and we start designing for each other instead of for the story and the audience. As much as we hate having non artist, creative producers giving notes on the artwork, I’ve found that it's incredibly important. An art department needs someone who is a stand-in for the audience and is willing to say, “I don't get what you're doing, it has to be redone”.
A big part of what you do is teaching, and you’ve helped many artists on the way (including myself). What is that special thing about being a teacher that makes you keep going?
I think the teaching is a basic human impulse, that there is a compulsion to pass on experience from one generation to the next. It's something that naturally feels right and rewarding to do.
Currently, I'm teaching online at Schoolism.com, and we get students from every corner of the world. At what other place and time could a teacher have a class with students from Nepal, Louisiana, Hangzhou, El Salvador, New Zealand etc. all at the same time. It's incredible! I'm careful to keep my classes on point, but I always want to ask them what they had for dinner and what kinds of things they did and places they visited over the weekend at these distant locations where they live. It's amazing to work with these people!
Being an artist you also have to always learn new things and develop. Do you still do studies and if so what has been your focus lately
Twenty-four years ago, I made a personal commitment that I wouldn't let a day go by without doing some kind of a personal study/practice, this is something that I have always stuck too. It means that no matter what challenge comes up, there's a good chance that I have dealt with a similar problem in my regular work or personal studies. It has made an average person like me into a capable artist. As for my focus, I'm always fussing with color and composition in my studies, but it also helps me to keep in practice with the ever-changing digital tools.
I know you are doing a lot of amazing work apart from working digitally, for example you paint landscapes and draw portraits. What is your most favourite medium and subject matter at the moment?
It's a perfect question because I've just completed a new book from Design Studio Press (to be officially released online, and in conjunction with Light Box Expo in September 2019, at Pasadena CA) all about my favorite medium and subject called How to Paint Landscapes with Watercolor and Gouache!
There's a very specific reason why I prefer this medium. Starting back in art school, I tended to use oils for fine art painting, and acrylics for commercial illustration related projects. Although I believed myself proficient in both, when I took up landscape painting, they were both a disaster; the oil paint materials took too long to set up and the amount of care to transport wet paintings was taxing. But I loved oil paint, especially the way you can combine washes and opaque painting, I wanted that quality in my landscapes, but I also needed convenience. I experimented with acrylic and gouache on location but found myself constantly fighting the medium as the paints dried out in my palette, despite all kinds of schemes to keep them wet. Watercolor dries out just as quickly, but it just takes a spritz of water to bring them back to life, but the quality of opacity that I like in other mediums was mostly absent. For that reason, I've been willing to take on the extra trouble of using white gouache with the watercolors. I just squeeze out fresh white rather than trying to dig into the dried white on the palette. This approach gives me the quick convenience that I need, while allowing a technique not too different from my approach with acrylics and oils.
And a question to wind down. At those rare moments when you are not doing art, what could one find you doing? Do you have any hobbies?
As you can imagine, there’s not much time for hobbies but I'm an absolute fanatic for hard science fiction. I'm not talking movies or TV, those formats just don't have enough time or focus to really dig in and do it right. I'm talking about the type of novels written by astrophysicists (or at least heavily grounded in the sciences) who are also excellent writers and storytellers. I can't visit the vast expanse of the cosmos, but there is a rare breed of writers who can take me there and make it feel real. If you’re interested, a few such writers to try are:
- Alastair Reynolds
- Nancy Kress
- Gregory Benford
- James S. A. Corey
- Cixin Liu
- C. J. Cherryh
- Iain M. Banks
- Charles Stross
- Peter F. Hamilton