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Spotlight Artist – Nathan Fowkes

Nathan Fowkes is a veteran entertainment and fine artist who is currently working as a visual development artist at DreamWorks. Nathan has taught in all of LAAFA’s Programs for many years and is one of our students’ most favorite instructors.

1. What inspired you to become an artist?

I was the same as just about every other kid growing up. I absolutely loved to draw and paint; I just never stopped loving it.

2. When did you first realize you were an artist?

When I was in 7th grade I was on the school bus sitting across the aisle from a girl that I liked. There was this one moment when her blonde hair was backlit in the sunlight and I thought to myself, “that light on her looks so amazing, I wish I could draw a picture of it”. I have no recollection of what her name was, but I’ve been trying to draw and paint things that I think “look amazing” ever since.

3. How has your fine art background helped you in the entertainment art industry?

While I was in school in the early 90’s the big push was towards an editorial illustration style that was very dark and symbolic. Some of those designs were very interesting and compelling but I wanted nothing to do with it in my own work; it was a bit of a fight to keep from getting pushed into that trend. A few people I knew did very well with it and were successful in the short term but I’m glad that I focused my efforts on the basics: draftsmanship, drawing, painting, color, and design. It’s made all of the difference for my work in the entertainment industry. In entertainment art, artists have to have the ability to make their work believable. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a high sense of inventiveness or fantasy, it’s just that you have to make the fantasy believable enough that people feel immersed in the world that has been created. So my background in traditional art has been tremendously helpful in my work in the entertainment industry.

4. What artists have had an impact on you, and why?

When I was 16, I got a hold of a copy of Western Art Magazine. The lead article was on an artist name Richard Schmid. I absolutely fell in love with his work because even though it was highly realistic, it was as if he was picking and choosing what was fascinating about his subjects and emphasizing that while editing out anything that might distract from it. In essence, distilling down what was interesting about his subjects. I’ve always had a love for that kind of artwork, something that’s realistic and believable and yet has some mystery to it as well as a strong sense of color and design. Some other art that I’ve very much enjoyed are the landscapes of James Reynolds and Randall David Tipton. The golden age illustrators like Dean Cornwell, Tom Lovell and Harry Anderson were absolutely mind blowing and illustrators from the 60’s and 70’s like Bob Peak and Bernie Fuchs are inspiring in their sense of inventive color and design. And the last thing I should mention is that I’m exceptionally lucky to work in an environment where we have some of the best artists in the world. My day job is doing concept art for animation, and all I have to do is walk down the hall and peek into a couple of the other artists’ offices to see examples of world class artwork.

5. What inspires you to teach and how do you keep the students motivated?

Every year, thousands of people go to art school and take art classes with high hopes of someday reaching a professional level of artistic ability. Some of those people end up finding the success they were hoping for. As a teacher, I have watched every single student I’ve ever had make the same series of mistakes as they learn to make art, especially in the process of working from life. So I have developed an approach where we address those difficulties right up front to get us through the gauntlet. We learn how to observe what we’re seeing and recreate it so it reads clearly and with artistry on a 2-D surface. So what is my approach that helps students navigate toward greater success? Well you’ll have to come and take my classes! But creating art and being inspired by life can be simpler than we want to make it and I love bringing those ideas across to students. As far as motivating students, let’s just say that I’ve worked very hard at developing my “I’m so disappointed in you” look when students tell me that they didn’t find the time during the week to do their homework.

6. How has your work developed throughout your career?

As artists, we’re very lucky that, for instance, we don’t have to be born with an athlete’s body and then have to give up our career in our 30’s. We can study and practice and make little incremental improvements day by day, year by year, and decade by decade throughout our lives. The biggest transition that I’ve gone through is the transition from traditional media into digital art. When I started my work in animation, all of our work was drawn in pencil and painted primarily with acrylics. But then the digital media came onto the scene, especially Photoshop. And I have to admit that the transition was hard for me, Photoshop felt counter intuitive and other people seemed to pick it up faster than I did. So I adopted the same approach with Photoshop that I did when I was learning to paint scenes with acrylics. I would mostly do quick thumbnails just trying to get a feel for the medium, for the color and the design of the painting. And after numerous thumbnails, I got more comfortable and more familiar and was ready to work a little larger and a little more polished, gradually getting better and better. I had to start simple to learn how to make that ridiculous electronic stylus tap and bang on a little electronic tablet to create artwork that looked the way I wanted it to look. But I have to say, I’m embarrassed at my initial reluctance because digital media has turned out to be a blessing for artists in its flexibility. When you think about it, all art is made out of the simple properties of color; it’s made out of color hue, color saturation and value (the lights and darks of the color). Everything that we ever see is made out of those things and the digital medium gives us the tools to manipulate each of those things individually or together to create the exact look and effects that we’re aiming for in our artwork. I honestly believe that we’re in a golden age of commercial and entertainment art and it’s the computer and digital media that has opened up so many possibilities to artists. But I have to add, after working all day at my job in Photoshop, I go home and I find a little bit of time (maybe even a large bit of time) to break out the charcoals and the watercolors and splash around those good old traditional mediums.

7. What is the best thing about being an artist?

The best thing about being an artist is being able to have a day job where I do something that I enjoy.

8. What advice do you have for emerging artists?

Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more.