Ep.86: What it takes to be a great artist with Nathan Fowkes

Iva Mikles
Ep.86: What it takes to be a great artist with Nathan Fowkes

With many years in the entertainment industry, Nathan Fowkes is a veteran artist with screen credits on 11 feature films including The Prince of Egypt, Spirit, several projects within the Shrek Universe, How to Train Your Dragon, The Legend of Puss in Boots, Rio 2, Ferdinand and recently Wonder Park.

Get in touch with Nathan

Key Takeaways

“Being good is not enough. The moment we take that good artwork and we put the shapes, colors, character design, landscapes, light and composition in such a way to surprise and excite our audience, we stood above the ‘good’ crowd – that is our passport to the next level!”

  • Nathan says that experience he had in Dreamworks in the 1990s, ‘made’ him as an artist. He worked with some of the best artists from the US, Disney, Europe. It was a melting pot!
  • Nathan says that until you don’t communicate with the audience through the characters, and you don’t connect with them emotionally, you don’t have a story.
  • Nathan strongly advises taking foundational skills courses at online schools first. Afterwards, you can fork out to color, lighting, environment design, emotions from inanimate objects, picture composition, etc.
  • A team is very important in Nathan’s opinion. Teamwork pulled us out of the dark ages, this is how we survived, created great stuff like have put the man on the Moon and created great animated movies.

Resources mentioned

Special thanks to Nathan for joining me today. See you next time!

All artworks by Nathan Fowkes, used with permission

Click Here For The Episode Transcript

Announcer 0:03



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Art side of life interviews with Iva

Iva 0:33
Hello everyone and welcome to the next episode of art side of life would I chat with inspiring artists five days a week. My name is Iva and my guest today is Nathan Fowkes. And in this episode you will learn what it takes to become a great artist.

Nathan Fowkes 0:47
This is this is probably the best time in history to be an artist. Every city in the world has small animation and video game studios cropping up and getting into that game and Good for them. Because there’s these amazing games and animated projects that come in from all over the world.

Iva 1:07
With many years in entertainment industry he is a veteran artist with screen credits on 11 featured films, including the Prince of Egypt spirit, several projects within the universe. How do you train your dragon legend of putting the boots real to and recently fed in and you can look forward to some of the Nathan’s upcoming projects which are animated feature films from Disney and parama. The animation Nathan is well known as a feature of color and light and design, and he’s regular guest lecturer at Art Center College of Design, and he has started the Los Angeles academia figurative art and the Laguna College of Art and Design. He’s currently teaching online classes at school ism calm additionally, Nathan has been sold out there is a concept and for game studios to enhance the quality of the theatrical presentation He has worked with numerous clients including Blizzard Entertainment Disney Interactive Riot Games, Ubisoft King Supercell, and Rovio. So please welcome Nathan Fowkes. And let’s get to the interview. Welcome everyone to the next episode of art side of life. And I’m super happy to have Nathan here. Hi.

Nathan Fowkes 2:22
It is good to be here.

Iva 2:24
I’m super happy that you joined us and took time from your busy schedule. And let’s just start right away with your background. Then I would like to ask you about your childhood as well. And if you remember how your childhood smelled like

Nathan Fowkes 2:39
what it smelled like, yeah,

Iva 2:40
it’s like a fun question.

Nathan Fowkes 2:43
That’s actually yeah, it’s funny how those, you know, it’s funny you you walk through life and all of a sudden you smell something that you hadn’t smelled since your childhood. And I remember my my house was under construction when I was a little kid. And just just recently, we did some construction here. And all of a sudden about particular chemical, you know, came, came back and it was this this flashback to childhood. So my little kids, maybe they’re they’re having the same experience. But yeah, I can tell you, I can actually tell you if, if you don’t mind the childhood experience that that made me want to be a painter, because I grew up in the central hills of California, very small town. In fact, we lived out in the country. We lived a small town called Coalinga, 7000 people and we lived a mile out of town. So we had room to run kinda, you know, as kids wild and free as, as I wish kids most kids had the opportunity to do. We had a family friend, and he was over for dinner and he told the story about how he moved to our town. He said, You know, I got a job offer here and I drove out in the springtime and as he drove through the central California hills It was like, May, March or April, the hills were covered with wild flowers tall, green grass is gorgeous. And he said, I can do this. I didn’t think of myself as a small town guy, but I can do this as beautiful. And so he accepted the job. He came back in maybe June moved, his whole family came out for the job. And he said, everything had dried out, everything had turned completely dry and yellow. And he said, I wanted to turn around and go back home. It was so depressing. He didn’t realize you know that he wasn’t going to get that look all year long. Because the California heat kicks in and it all changes. I remember as a little kid when he told that story. I remember being up in arms, like know those yellow block grasses. They’re beautiful. You know, that’s there. Because when I would go outside, especially in the evening, this thing would happen every night, where the sun would set and so you’d get those last rhetoric rays of sunshine and the lights would turn red, but the blue sky shining down on the yellow brasses would create this sparkling green. And so he had the red light, the green shadows, and it turned into you know, the complimentary color electrified magic. It just turned magical. And I swore that someday I would learn how to paint that, but to figure out how to make color sparkle like that, and I’ve gone back many times with my sketchbook to paint, you know, that paint that sunset, and to kind of catch it as best I could. But that magic has always been at the core of me wanting to be a painter.

Iva 5:46
So this was kind of the experience where helped you to choose your specification or like you wanted to capture the color and light so you didn’t really thought about like, hey, I want to be character designer. I want to be these days. So was the color in light.

Nathan Fowkes 6:02
It was the color and light I never wanted to be a character designer which eventually got me in trouble because I didn’t realize how important character design was, you know, early on in my career, but that was no I’ve always been. I’ve always been about places color light that’s always been at the forefront of what’s interested me.

Iva 6:23
And so we took kind of the biggest turning point we kind of went through in order to get where we are now.

Nathan Fowkes 6:32
The biggest turning point of course was an amazing opportunity. I got to work a DreamWorks started up in the mid 90s 1995. DreamWorks started up and they were looking for people. So it was a great time, because there hadn’t been a lot happening in animation but then Disney it hit big in the 90s with some of their big hits the Lion King and so other studios took notice and and recognize that there was a huge opportunity there. And so they were We’re looking for people and I had an opportunity to show my portfolio and, and I got in the door. I’ve been working so hard as a painter and they were looking Prince of Egypt was our first show. In fact, I like to keep my poster right right here proud, proudly because what an amazing time. And the thing that was particularly amazing about it, is that Steven Spielberg, one of the course one of the founders of DreamWorks, he had an animation happening in Europe. In London. They had hired the some of the best artists from all over Europe, had him come to London to work on on projects and movies. And with the start of DreamWorks, they close that down. But they invited all of those artists invited them to come out to Los Angeles kind of smooth the way for them to come here and work. And we had some of the best artists from from America from, you know, Disney from the Los Angeles area where so much animation has happened. The best artists from all over Europe it was this melting pot. That was absolutely incredible. So that that made me that opportunity absolutely made me because I was the new guy. And I got to learn from these people. I will throw in though a here’s a big here’s how much of a melting pot it was. This was kind of a laugh out loud and cringe at the same time, kind of a moment. Because one of the one of the French artists was talking to one of the people at DreamWorks, we had, I’m not sure what the reasons for but there’s a production designer he worked on a lot of movies have been the production designer some of the Star Trek movies, and famous production designer from live action. And this man was now in his 80s I think he was like 85 years old. And he had an honorary office at DreamWorks. He wasn’t working on the animated movies, but he had an honorary Emeritus office. And so this old school guy bumped into one of the French artists on campus. And the the old guy said, Oh, I recognize by your accent that you’re from France. We’re in France are you from? And the French artist said, Oh, yeah, I’m from Brittany. And the old timer said, Oh, Brittany, I bombed your town during the war.

Iva 9:21

Nathan Fowkes 9:23
Great. Yeah. Wow. You know, what do you say to that? Now? To his credit, you know, he was not bombing civilians. Apparently there were was a ubo installation, a German u boat installation, back in back in World War Two. And that was his target, not the town, but oh my gosh, you know, that was a that was one of the little moments that you you kind of remember.

Iva 9:47
And Nick, can you maybe mentioned some of your biggest influences like mentor because you work with some of the great people when you started out, right?

Nathan Fowkes 9:56
Oh my gosh, they were all great and I hate I hate To mention anyone person because there were there were so many. And like I said, I had never worked in animation before. This was my first project. And so I was the new guy. And so everyone with experience was a mentor to me, but on the Prince of Egypt, our our, our look, supervisor, and the supervisor bar department were two artists policy, and Ron Lucas. And Paul was was the painter and the stylist you know, the scene look artists, and Ron Lucas was the color stylist. And they were extraordinary. And they were absolutely mentors to us, and I had the chance to work with them on many projects over the years. And that was an amazing mentorship.

Iva 10:48
And do you remember like a best advice you ever received during this time when you were learning?

Unknown Speaker 10:57

Nathan Fowkes 10:59
best advice.

You know, I can tell you the best and the worst advice that I’ve gotten actually came before I started at DreamWorks. And I didn’t understand this advice even until after like the Prince of Egypt. Because when I was in art school, I loved I love technical ability understood, you know, you know that you know that emotion really carries day you understand, but I thought that if I was a great painter, if I got the color and light magical, and if I had good draftsmanship and really made things, you know, sparkle and luminous. I thought that was all that I needed. I thought that was my ticket. But some of my teachers and there was no entertainment design program, no animation program back at that time I went to the Art Center College of Design, good school, very good school in Los Angeles. But my, my better teachers would tell me Well, you know, maybe you should paint a story moment or some characters in here interacting in a way that elicits a story kind of emotion. And I remember even in one particular painting, thinking, well, that would mess up, I got this perfect watercolor, you know, wash that kind of kind of sprinkled in, and kind of had this sedimentation with the interesting texture in it. And I remember thinking, if I paint characters in there, it’ll mess that up. Why would I do that? What an idiot. I was. It took it took until many it took until I became a visual development artist to really understand the importance of connecting with the audience through story because initially I was a painter. I was painting the scenes that appear in the movie, I was not doing the characters. And so what started to happen to me after DreamWorks transitioned from the traditionally animated movies, The CG movies, I transitioned to visual development position, which was great because I got to have more of an influence on the look of picture. And so we would, we would work we would paint we would create concept artwork to visualize the story. Typically I would work on places, character designers, we work on characters. And what would happen is we have we’d work up to a big meeting, a greenlight meeting, greenlight meetings were a huge deal because you go in there and it’s the top brass the head of the studio, and you present your work to them. And it’s almost like, you know, the Emperor, you you present your work and then they put their thumb out. And if it’s thumbs up, you’ve got a movie, okay? We’re going to put 150 million dollars behind this movie, and you get to keep your jobs and it’s going to be amazing. If it’s the thumbs down, you know, I’m sorry, we don’t feel like we have a moment movie, thank you very much. We’ll find places for some of you other ones, you know, thank you for your service. Good luck elsewhere. That’s what was at stake. So much so that we would do a rehearsal before we would get everything done, get everything printed up on the walls that the projected presentation ready, we would do a dress rehearsal the night before to make sure a presentation was perfect. So we’d go through and present the artwork and and i would show some things that I was very proud of, you know, I show my epic landscapes that had the light, you know, that have the god rays coming down and the light and the warms and the cools. And I had these delusions of grandeur that they would say something like, oh, wow, Nathan. Yeah, exactly. I put my work up. And they would say, Nathan, you know, we didn’t have we didn’t know we had a movie until you showed us this place beyond our imagination that we know we have a movie thumbs A green light, you know, it’s going to be it’s going to be beautiful. You’re beautiful take the rest of the day off. That would be my delusion. What would really happen is they would say, oh, wow, huh? Yeah. I like it. I mean,

maybe she’d be a little bit warmer, maybe there should be some more warmth and it make it 20% warmer, and then I think we have a direction that we can go in, Okay, next. Well, that’s good enough if they feel like you have a direction that you can keep going in. That’s a good sign, not what I hoped for, but, but then the character designers would come up. And they might even show a 20 minute sketch of a couple of characters interacting together in a funny way. And the people you know, the people reviewing our work, as soon as that came up, they would laugh, they would clap, they would cheer they would say, you know, we didn’t know we had a movie until you showed us these characters is fantastic. We believe we have a movie. Now we can build franchise around these amazing characters that you’ve designed. You know, you I know you’ve been working hard on these 20 minute drawings, you’re beautiful, take the rest of the day off. That’s what would really happen. You know, it almost felt like it almost felt like hey, Nathan, you’re not doing anything, go over there and get these beautiful character designers go get him a cup of coffee. That’s, that’s what it felt like. And so I started to understand that until you until you communicate with your audience, on that character level, until you do that. You don’t have the story. You haven’t connected with them emotionally. But what that turned to was, was the real turning point in my career. Because I learned and recognized. I always make sure I paint characters into my scenes to add that additional story. When they were saying make it warmer. They didn’t really mean make it warmer. They meant something about Emotional was missing. And so I learned that often that was character but not only that I came to understand and recognize a tree can have a sense of character you can pose a tree to make it happy, sad, a rock a shape, inanimate objects can be designed so they have a sense of character and they can carry whatever emotion is needed for that scene. And that’s when my work actually became usable that’s when I that’s kind of the the moment I became a real artist that emotional connection with the audience. Yeah.

Iva 17:34
And do you have like a priority when you are creating your art pieces? Like is it the emotion story, composition, color or everything just needs to work at the same level?

Nathan Fowkes 17:45
That’s absolutely the first the first thing you know you you read the script you that you identify what the scene is, what’s the emotion you know, is it enough moment down any and every emotion that is present This story in a good story will have a full range of emotion, you have to have ideas on how to hit that emotion, the color design, the lighting, design, the shape language, the character pose, every one of those things has to work together in concert, to carry whatever emotion is needed for that moment. And that’s what a visual development artist has to have the ability to do. Yeah, and

Iva 18:23
then you also work with the color script and the whole kind of balancing out of the car moments and action moments and these kind of story points, right.

Nathan Fowkes 18:34
That’s the best part of my job. I get to do color script work. I get to do contribute to the color script, on on most projects, and on some projects, I get to do the color script in its entirety. And as a very difficult but it’s my favorite thing is the thing I take pride in, because it requires that range. And that’s always my target.

Iva 18:56
Yeah, and so maybe what was the time when you decided, Okay, I want to have a change from the big studio life and maybe what was going on in your head when you were in this transition

Nathan Fowkes 19:10
that they came about for a very specific reason. I had twins, my wife and I, we had twins. And I’ve been at DreamWorks for 15 years. And it was just a fantastic 15 years. And when I you know, when I would go on and on about how fantastic it was, it was but every job is difficult. There are ups and the downs. There were the layoffs and there were some shows that didn’t do nearly as well as we hoped they would. There were some shows that were just bone crushingly painful, stopping and starting and, and How to Train Your Dragon was one that was just bone crushingly difficult. We went through three different sets of directors on that show on How To Train Your Dragon and morale was extremely low at a certain point but Chris Sanders came in and kind of turn the show around. And it was one of our big, you know, great hits. And so going through those highs and lows and, and pulling out of them was one of the things that made it such a great thing. But like I say we we had twins, there’s lots of twins in the world. I didn’t realize how very difficult for my wife or for someone to actually bear twins. She was at home going through recovery. She needed my help. I got a call from Blue Sky Studios. They were doing Rio to they needed someone I really liked organic stuff in painting. And they needed someone who could go in and do concept and visualize some of the new environments for that show. And they were willing, they’re on the east coast of America. I’m on the west coast. They were willing to let me work from my home studio. And I thought about that and I thought, you know, I could work from home I could be there. I needed At home and so I made that break. I thought that after a while, that I would go back in house. But being at home and working in my home studio has been so great that I’ve decided I’m never going back. I’m never going back in house full time just to be able to take a nap or go play with the kids, you know, take a break, and no one can tell you otherwise. It’s still hard. It’s still very long hours, but I can do that anytime and no one’s going to tell me I can’t. So that’s that’s the thing that that made me made that break and that’s why I want to keep that dream alive.

Iva 21:42
And so how did it start for you to do the courses online? Was it like a smooth transition when you are you decided one day like okay, I want to do this.

Nathan Fowkes 21:52
It was a smooth transition.

Unknown Speaker 21:56
I have

Nathan Fowkes 21:59
with my Traditional artwork and my background because nothing was digital, the I was in college in the late 80s, early 90s, no, nothing digital. And so my training was in that direction. And of course, you have to get into the digital environment as a concept artist and so I did that. But I always try and keep the traditional artwork going. Love landscape painting, and I love sketching people, you know, portrait drawing, costume, costume painting, that sort of thing was always, always exciting for me. And so I’ve always kept that going on the side. I started teaching I I’m just I’ve been a fanatic about life drawing sketching people and places from life. So I started teaching a class. In fact, if you don’t mind, here’s how that started. This is going to be the long answer to how did you start teaching online but maybe I can mention something that’s been helpful for me and maybe maybe two people out there will appreciate it after week Did the movie spirit stallion of the Cimarron at DreamWorks I knew I still I loved portrait drawing and portrait painting, I’d look at these professional portrait paintings. And and I’ve been working hard at that on the side. But I knew it would never get there unless I gave it a deeper focus. I went to DreamWorks and I asked them for a six month sabbatical. What my idea was is I can skip the next movie DreamWorks next movie and pick up something after that. Well, they agreed, you know, things were a little bit slow after that movie ended and they’re kind of slowly ramping up to the next. The next thing, it was kind of like, Oh, we don’t have to pay you well, things are slow and you’ll you’ll be available. You know, when things get busy a little bit down the road. Okay, we can agree to that. So I had a contract to come back. I had this six month period where I knew I had a job waiting for me at the end. I went to a local art school. And I went to the director of the art school and said, Hey, I’m like, my name’s Nathan and I work at DreamWorks. And would you be interested in me teaching a class on, you know, our visual development artwork for DreamWorks, I could teach what I do and what we do. That might be interesting for your students and an exchange. I can sit in on your life drawing sessions, your classes, the uninstructed. And he was excited about that. You know the name, DreamWorks carries some weight, and he thought that would be helpful. It was a small attilio here in Los Angeles. And so I did that every day, five days a week, I showed up at 15 till nine. And I was I was a fanatic about this. And in hindsight, I I, I envy the focus that I had back then I’d show up every day before nine o’clock, and I stayed every day until 10pm. Took a lunch break. Classes ended at four but then we did another session from seven to 10pm. So I don’t actually go off around the neighborhoods and go sketching in my painting sketchbook and go out, you know, we students and teachers, we’d go out and have dinner, we go out sketching, I come back till 10pm. I did that five days a week, I go out painting every Saturday, and then of course, you need a break and take Sundays off. I did that rock solid for six months. And that helped me get over that hump kind of get to the next level in my portrait drawing and painting. It also was the beginning of my teaching career. I really enjoyed teaching. And so since that time, I think that was 1999 since that time, I’ve always had maybe one cloud You know, I’m always teaching one class and evening class a week in class. And after I’d kids, it was harder to get away. Bobby Chu, one of your favorite artists and one of my favorite artists, we had a chance to mention Bobby and and the school ism online courses you and I have before we started the video Here, Bobby approached me about teaching online and I jumped at that what Bobby was doing with school ism was amazing. The idea of teaching online being able to do it on my own schedule was amazing. And it was time for me to switch away from teaching life drawing to teaching concept artwork. And so ever since you know, what the things I love the most color and light design, environment design, picture composition, I’ve had a chance to, to work with students all over the world in doing that, and, you know, the chance to be able to talk to you and Switzerland and have students and just about every country in the world has been utterly magical.

Iva 26:40
So how do you combine now your income streams? Is it mainly from teaching online? Or do you do also different things on the side like teaching live? Or like book selling art brains and maybe you can share some of these?

Nathan Fowkes 26:56
Yeah, I try and do all of those things. You know, you kind of need you kind of need to really be out there. It’s kind of the idea where you do one thing, which hopefully draws people in. And then they’ll jump from that one thing to the second thing that you do, maybe your book. And then there’s a third thing that you do, and some people jump to that. And so each one of those things, and I think it really does take three different three different things that we do as artists, each one of those things if we do it, well it attracts people and if we do a good job of it, then they’ll be interested Oh, what else? What else does this artists do? What else do they offer and they’ll jump to the next thing and there’s a little bit of a circle there. So obviously, you know I’m still full time in animation I animation art, still loving working on animated movies. I’ve even had the chance to do a little bit with video game design, do some concept art for video games and such. But I teach the online classes always have a class going each term And I’ve also put a book together of my portrait drones, and it’s how to draw portraits in charcoal. And I have that out there as well. So I kind of, you know, I’m kind of juggling these different balls, and hopefully there’s something in there that is helpful for somebody. So those other things, of course, are they’re very minor income streams, but it helps and, and, you know, after each project, maybe I can take a few weeks off and I’m working on a new book on landscape painting, which I’m very excited about. It’s going to be it’s slow going, Ivan, it’s, you know, just a little here a little bit there. It’s not going to be out for probably a year and a half. But, you know, I hope there’ll be something in there that will be interesting, exciting, helpful for somebody

Iva 28:50
and it will be traditional paintings or kind of combination of digital and traditional.

Nathan Fowkes 28:55
A traditional Yeah, the the thing for me is going And sketching and watercolor wash and just doing one hour sketches because the light changes, you know, in the sunshine, you have about an hour and then the light changes enough where you’re not doing the same painting anymore. And so my idea has always been, how can you catch what you’re seeing in one hour? Because you see a billion details, you literally see millions of details. So what do you do you know, how do you edit that down, distill it down into a one hour painting? It’s a huge challenge as hard as it will always be hard. But that’s what my book will be about.

Iva 29:33
Yeah, so like a grouping the values and just the simplifying and observation. Yeah, absolutely perfect. And the classes you teach online, do you have a favorite one? It’s like asking which baby is your favorite but they have like the one which is your close to your heart. Oh, I

Nathan Fowkes 29:51
you know, I don’t I kind of consider I picked my three topics because I consider them to be the big three, you know, of course. So everyone knows you need the foundational skills perspective drawing draftsmanship the foundational skills. After that, if you’re going to be a concept artist, if you’re going to visualize from imagination, what something might look like, take your audience to places that they can’t go to in real life. And by the way, I kind of consider that to be the thing that that potentially can make a special as an artist, if you create a place in a story that people cannot experience in real life, they have to come to you to get that that makes you important as an artist that gives you opportunities. I think that’s our passport, to to career In, in art, and storytelling. And so after the foundation, like I mentioned, we have to be experts in how color works, how lighting works. If you’re going to create places you have to have a grasp of the environment design, how to as we were mentioning earlier, how do you elicit emotion from inanimate objects and advice have to be an expert on that. We have to be expert picture makers composition, if we’re going to present our work in the form of pictures, we have to have a mastery of how to make compelling pictures. So that’s the big three color in life design, environment, design, pictorial composition are my three classes. But I’ve also been teaching and maybe this will be the answer to your question. I am teaching a landscape sketching course online, so I have my lessons. And then I send them off wherever they live. They go out into the landscape, do their paintings, and then they they scan them and send them back to me. And I do critiques and online critiques with them, do screen capture where I paint over their work and make suggestions. And so actually have you know, from from halfway around the world at school ism, I also have a landscape sketching class going, and that was fairly new just in the last year. So maybe that’s the one that I’m having the best time with right now.

Iva 32:00
And then people can see you also on the live events right when you travel around the world.

Nathan Fowkes 32:04
Yeah, yeah, that’s that’s the other thing. That’s amazing because I have to, I have to give credit to to lock mean, obviously, we have to get our skill set up so that were useful for people. But this is this is probably the best time in history to be an artist. Every city in the world has small animation and video game studios cropping up and getting into that game and good for them. Because there’s these amazing games and animated projects that come in from all over the world. But a lot of these places, they don’t necessarily have local experience. Animation game design is new in these places. And so they reach out to people in groups who have had that experience. And so I get these invitations to travel, maybe come and do a workshop. We do this school ism. We do live events for those specifically those kind of people in studios. And so it’s been the opportunity to travel to some of these places, places that I would never have a chance to go to people that I wouldn’t have a chance to meet. And, and go and do a little sightseeing, do a few sketches. And that’s, I’m glad you mentioned that, because that also has been a high point.

Iva 33:22
Yeah, it’s definitely really nice for people there just to meet their heroes and see how it works and maybe go for workshops and talks in real life because you just have a different connection. Well, you know, my wife made a point recently that I really appreciate it the way she phrased it

Nathan Fowkes 33:40
was was interesting. She said, because I’ve been teaching on school ism for quite a while now. And we really have you know, we have students from every city in the world, you know, joining us for school ism. And for the last three, four years, we’ve been traveling to a lot of cities, you know, maybe maybe four or five times a year I’ll go and do this. So my wife said, she said, You know that she said, what’s interesting about that is that you could be anywhere in the world and get thrown into jail. And if you ended up in jail, wherever you were, you know, there’s someone you could probably call anywhere in the world is probably someone you’ve met as a student, or you’ve been in that that country, that city, you know, you could if you had, you know, call someone to say, Hey, remember, you took that class from me? Well, you know, here I am in a Turkish jail. And I remember you live here in Turkey. You know, you live here in Turkey. Do you know anyone? Could you give me a hand? Could you put me in touch? You know, but it’s kind of that’s that’s a great thing. These people you know, they’re, they’re unique. They’re special. I wouldn’t have ever met them. It’s great. Fantastic. great time to be an artist.

Iva 34:50
Yeah, so definitely good to take your class. I will put the link down below so everyone can check it out because it was really nice. I really enjoyed your class. And, yeah, let’s go maybe back to your art career and think about like, maybe Is there something you wish you knew before you started the whole art career? Something like advice to young self?

Nathan Fowkes 35:14
Yeah, you know, I’ll mention because you were asking about advice. And, and I can I can mention, I can also mention, because I had excellent advice. And I can mention bad advice as well. But the I would fall back, you know, the positive thing, I would fall back on that idea of emotion. You know, I thought, I thought, as I mentioned, technical ability would would get me there. And it’s only it’s only a little piece of it. In fact, you and I met at CTN CTN animation Expo. And Pete Docter gave an amazing speech about communicating with the audience. And that was the realization whatever that were Good at and whatever, we’re not yet good at the moment that we learned to reach out and emotionally connect with the audience. That’s the moment that you’re a real artist, no matter what you’re good at no matter what you’re still not good at. That’s, that’s it. And so that’s, that’s the very best advice that took way too long to sink in. The bad advice, of course, and I think this is improving. But you know, there’s there’s always the bad advice that, hey, absolutely. Be an artist. Sure, you know, in your free time, but don’t quit your day job. You know, and we know that’s bad advice, because this is an all or none thing. But I remember and I got that exact same advice from some of the people that you know, I love most dearly in life. And that’s their job. There are people whose job it is to kind of remind us to be reasonable to be sensible. But there’s something that gradually dawned on me. Because we think of that is no, that’s terrible advice, if you’re going to be an artist is it’s all or none. There was an artist not not an artist, actually, there was a guy at DreamWorks when we started on the Prince of Egypt. He was a production assistant. And so his job was to support the artists and he would literally part of his job, he would push the supply cart around making sure we had the paints, the brushes that we needed, and he’d come around and see if we needed anything. And he mentioned one day, we were just talking and he mentioned to me, he said, You know, I actually really wanted to be an artist, I wanted to go to art school. And, you know, I, I was told no, you be sensible. You got to go to business school. And you you, you got it, you got to do that. And he said, and I let myself be talked into that I went to business school, and he said, Here I find myself at DreamWorks working for artists Who are earning something like triple the salary that I’m earning? And I’m the one who went to business school. And he was kind of upset and bitter about that. And at the time, I remember thinking, Oh, how sad. You know how sad that he got pulled from the thing that he wanted to do and pushed in a different direction, and found himself with this deep regret in life. But I have since changed my mind about that point of view. That was absolutely the right advice for him. Because if he didn’t have the fire to say, No, I am not going to business school. And there is nothing you can tell me otherwise, I am an artist. I’m going to be an artist and I will burn my candle at both ends until the sun goes out to be an artist, and no one can tell me otherwise. So someone did tell him otherwise. And he didn’t do it. He made the right decision. Because in this business, it can burn, you can burn you hard I’ve been going on and on about, it’s magical. It’s wonderful. It is and it’s also crushing. And you have to care about it so deeply that you can see past that and work past it. And so it’s actually very important for people to tell us Don’t do it. Because if we end up agreeing with them, we know that we weren’t meant to be an artist.

Iva 39:29
So you have to be really passionate about it then just say going through everything just to do it every day.

Nathan Fowkes 39:36
Otherwise, it will never happen.

Iva 39:38
And have you ever felt lost if you kind of made the right decision to go on this career path video ever? Like had these kind of thoughts like, okay, maybe it wasn’t for me or you always knew like,

Nathan Fowkes 39:50
this is this is it? You know, it’s never happened. It’s never I it’s just it’s it’s the thing that I’ve never questioned. It’s always been the right the right road doesn’t mean doesn’t mean I’ve done the best job at it, but it’s always the decision. It’s always been the right decision to to try to do this as best I can figure out

Iva 40:11
but as you mentioned, as well going to business school, it’s quite important as well to know how to market yourself and be kind of on the Yeah, the business side of the art career as well. Did you have some help from someone advise, like, Okay, how should I do the networking and kind of promote myself and just maybe to do kind of your own thing?

Nathan Fowkes 40:34
Yeah, that’s another thing where I’ve done that kicking and screaming, because I, I don’t want anything to distract me from my work. And so all of all of the social networking, all of the all of the all of those things, you know, they they pull you away from it’s time away from actually doing the artwork, but I did You know, we do artwork, we want people to see it, we hope to get noticed. We hope to get approval. You know, as artists, we really want people to look at our work and say, Wow, you know, in some way say wow. And so when blogs first came around when people first started doing art blogs, I thought that was fantastic. And and put my my blog up. And of course, eventually that transition to people didn’t no longer want it to go to a blog when they had Facebook, which automatically brought it to their own feed rather than going to some other website. And that kind of bugged me because I hated the format of Facebook, the idea of spending all kinds of time should I friend these people should I not, you know, all of that bugged me. So I actually I held on I stuck with the blog for too long I still I still keep a blog up, but I probably waited a little bit too long to do Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and all of that. Because you know, on the blog, you can put your artwork up like a gallery and put the backdrop you want presented in a way that you feel like gives your puts your artwork in best position. And then Facebook comes along and wants to put your artwork in a certain way and, and, and, and certain, certain ways they deal with their audience. And it’s set against a white backdrop and you can’t control that. And that’s not how your work is meant to be seen. And that stuff bugged me so much that I waited too long to get on there. But we’re here to reach an audience, right? We’re here to put our artwork out there. And so I came around and we’ve we’ve mentioned Bobby Bobby to one of the great character designers and frankly business people in in art. And Bobby kind of helped me about when we started with school ism. You know, I needed to get the word out Bobby really had Me Out with the best ways to approach social media kind of expanded I was on Facebook I got on Twitter and Instagram and the you know that the the big platforms and it’s very important I post something every single day almost without exception you know there’s always we go off to China so I’ve been working with some Chinese companies lately and sometimes that connectivity doesn’t allow me to post but with the with those exceptions I post something every day because it’s very important not only for one to have my artwork out there and get see what the responses to it but I need to be i’d people I need people to be aware that I exist. So when they say that we have this project who can we call those calls will keep coming in. You know, I mentioned I have twins. I also have a daughter. There’s there’s going to be college. There’s going to be I gotta keep out there. You know, I have to have people remembering that I exist. So I’m glad you mentioned social media, because it’s not natural to me. And yet, we really need to do it.

Iva 44:11
Yeah. Even though it’s not super enjoyable for maybe like, Okay, I have to do it just to be out there and see potential clients at some point in the future. It’s true. And maybe Can you mentioned like a What is your best experience with working within the team, something you you learn like you have to have or maybe what some starting artists to avoid, like if they never work within the team as only as a freelance.

Nathan Fowkes 44:40
Yeah. Being a team player, let me let me mention two things because it’s an excellent question. I saw something recently that made me think about animation teams and it was something completely separate from that. I was watching one of those cooking shows, you know, it’s kind of popular. There’s these shows where there’s Cooking competitions that’s kind of popular kind of TV show. I was watching one of these shows, and there was this guy a competing on this show, and I’m not a cook. But, you know, we we all understand that to be an to be an expert cook an expert Baker. There’s that technical expertise, like there’s a deep technical UFO almost science. And there was this guy on the show that was this technical expert, all of these complicated, you know, things that you have to combine and time and bake and put together, you know, just very difficult to do. And he was everyone agreed the judges agreed that he had amazing technical expertise, the other contestants all agreed, yeah, this guy is the best. He’s more experienced. He’s better. And yet, he was the first person who got kicked off of the competition. And here’s why. They had to do three things. They yes had to have a technical expertise in their baking. But number two, part of the competition was teamwork. You were part of a team. If you’re a baker, a cook, you’re part of the kitchen. And that is a team, always your whole career in that business would be that way. He couldn’t get along with anybody. You know, no one was good enough. No one could do anything. Right. He was on everybody’s back, whether he was meant to be the boss or not. He acted like the boss. You know, everybody hated this guy. And so he utterly failed in that. And then they had clients come in. And so a client would come in and make a request. And then they had to create the client, you know, a cake or some sort of a big event that he was meant he and the team he was thrown together what they were meant to cater. And so clients would come in and say what the event was about and what they wanted. And instead of following the clients wishes, he was simply fall back on what he was best at. He would do What he was good at regardless of what the client wanted. So he was hitting one out of three requirements. That’s a failure. And he immediately got kicked off the show. And I thought about art. And I thought about a few artists that I’ve worked with, who were that guy. They were amazing artists that couldn’t get along with people. They wanted to do what they wanted to do. And they’re amazing on their own doing their own work creating their graphic novel doing their personal illustration. And some of them very successful. You know, it’s not even a criticism. It says that, that personality belongs in a certain genre doing a certain kind of a thing. For the rest of us. It’s teamwork. Because it’s kind of teamwork that pulled us out of the the dark ages of primordial the primordial You know, you’re you’re living 100,000 years ago and you come up with a saber tooth tiger and you’re dead. You’re dead in three seconds you are. But if you’re in a group, seven people, and you seven people are experts, and you are your experts at surviving. The tables are completely turned. The Seven of you come across that saber tooth tiger. It never had a chance. It is down in three seconds. It’s over. That’s how we originally survived. It’s how people put a man on the moon. It’s how people make an animated movie and amazing video game. It’s teamwork in this business, the ability to do that is everything

Iva 48:44
and what they value your team works in the future. Do you have already like a dream scenario in five to 10 years What would you like to be doing?

Nathan Fowkes 48:53
And that’s the great thing about this. This is it for me. I I mentioned, you know I get a don’t have much free time. But I find a little to work on, you know, a book project, I find a little time to teach an online class on a subject I care about. And I’m working on on, you know, few animated projects that are imaginative. And so, five years, 10 years, I hope I have the opportunity to keep doing exactly the same thing.

Iva 49:24
Oh, perfect. I know, what about like a big question in hundred years? What would you like to be remembered for?

Nathan Fowkes 49:31
Yeah, you know, I actually I have a very specific answer to that because I’ve had I had the experience before the internet. Here, you know, moving to LA and going to art school. We would hunt use bookstores, we’d go to use bookstores all over town. And you go to the you go to the art department, and there’s a bunch of badly printed art history books that you have to ignore because they were printed in the 60s and they look terrible. But there always seem to be a book somewhere in there some obscure book of an artist that you never heard of. Maybe it was an illustrator kind of in the 70s and 80s that were doing some unique, I don’t know, album cover artwork or doing some kind of strange fantasy illustration. And you’ve never heard of this person, but you stumble across this little limited press book that they had put out, and you thumb through it. And you think, why have I never heard of this person? This is you know, it’s kind of weird. It’s kind of different, but it’s exciting. It’s different. It’s really engaging that I should have heard of this person, you take it home, you’re poor through it, you’re inspired by it. And it kind of pushes you to to try and do something special yourself. And it will be good enough for me. It will absolutely be enough. 100 years down the road. I don’t know these blogs, the social medias hopefully they’ll be archived somewhere you know on the internet and you know because used bookstores you know it’s that’s that’s not where we look for art anymore maybe someone will be going through those old archive blogs and they’ll stumble across a you know Nathan Fox are and say I never heard of this guy but this is kind of cool there’s some fun stuff here Why haven’t I heard of this guy? I kind of like some of this stuff that will be enough for me if somebody has that experience I will be satisfied.

Iva 51:34
Perfect Yeah, it might be digital, you know bookstore like now they made this a sketch book bookstore. So even though maybe from your sketchbooks in this digital form that might be interesting.

Nathan Fowkes 51:46
I hope so.

Iva 51:47
And do you have maybe some books which are kind of inspiring for you now you would give as a gift to someone.

Nathan Fowkes 51:57
Actually, no

I am, I’ve started shying away, there is so much great influence out there. There’s so much that sometimes it feels like you know, we look around and even now, you know, I have the same experience too, but it’s especially true for young artists. There’s so much out there and it’s a good thing where we look at and say, Oh, I’d love to do something in that direction. I’d love to do something in that direction. And it starts feeling like you’re a ship on the ocean with your sails up but the winds coming from all the different directions so you go nowhere. And so it’s a little tricky to get that your influence all going in one direction. And so I I have students asked me, you know, will, will what, what books do you recommend what, you know, what artists do you recommend that I look at, and I can absolutely say well, you know, if you love draftsmanship combined with a beautiful Lost and Found kind of a quality where the artwork is really about something and other stuff is really edited out. Richard Schmidt is one of the great painters as as ch mid, you know, one of the great oil painters who has it, and I can point them in directions to people who do different, different things. But to say, look at this artist, you should be inspired by that person. I don’t like to do that so much anymore because my personality is not their personality. And so they’re going to look around and different artwork is going to grab their attention than what I might recommend. And it’s so accessible, that I almost don’t need to do that. The you know, the, the the young guys and girls, you know, coming up. They’re more plugged in to media. They’re more plugged into what’s going on more plugged into the internet than I am. And people business people have been talking about reverse mentoring, turning to young people, you know, who are really on top of that, you know, as, as the rest of us start getting a little bit older, we actually have to be inspired by the young people because they’re so plugged in. And so I actually sometimes ask them for their advice. And the thing I actually asked, I don’t, I don’t suggest art books so much anymore. I actually always ask people what their favorite science fiction novel is. Some people don’t love science fiction the way that I do. But that’s kind of my favorite genre of reading for pleasure, you know, reading, reading books that combined science and imagination and wonder what might be somewhere out there someday. And so that’s the question I always ask them. Let’s just set art aside and talk about imagination. You read you know, do you read fantasy or science fiction? Give me a recommendation because I’m Always looking for something

to spark the imagination.

Iva 55:04
Oh perfect. So now people can send you emails with recommendation I’m

Nathan Fowkes 55:08
always I have a challenge though. The challenges send me a sign I send me a great science fiction novel that I haven’t read yet because I like I say there’s very little free time but that’s one of the few pleasures I had a lot of them are audio books because you can do chores and things that need to be done while you’re listening to audiobooks But yeah, I hope they can find a good one that I haven’t read yet because once you set artist side and just something that that people do for pure pleasure, that one’s mine.

Iva 55:45
Yeah, definitely. Okay, Challenge accepted. I will send you something as Oh, yes, good, perfect. And before we say goodbye, maybe you can share last piece of advice or key takeaway and then we will finish

Nathan Fowkes 56:00
Yeah, you know, let me think about that for a second. Because here’s, here’s what I’ll say. And I’m pausing because I’m afraid this is a bit of a long winded answer. And so I’m thinking about how to how to condense it. You know, we we we have a, we have a podcast here we want everyone to stick with us. So there’s something I’ve been watching lately that his his kind of kind of grabs me a little bit. There’s this TV show called The voice. It’s, it’s probably most people have seen it or heard of it. And I’m, we all love music. I’m not so much into pop music. That’s not what I watch it for. I don’t have time to watch that show. What I end up doing is watching YouTube clips from the show. And for people who aren’t familiar, it’s a show where they’re looking for pop stars and so they cannot see the singer The singer goes to the mic and sings their song and the judges don’t see him. But if the judges like what they hear, they hit this button where they turn around and they can see the singer. But they have to really wait. If they hit the button. That means they’re making a commitment to the singer. Potentially, they’re agreeing to mentor the singer. So they don’t want to turn until they really believe in the singer. Because then they’re kind of be stuck. They have to mentor the person and carry them through the show. And so they’re listening for something special that they’ll really want to invest in. So here’s what I love about that show. Even though it’s not really my genre of music, I admire it, though. Someone comes on and they start really strong. They seem like you immediately know Wow, this person can sing. And so you see the judges and they perk up they listen and what they’re waiting for. There’s this moment where the singer if they do their job if the singer really Does something special. There’s a moment where they do something with their voice. That is a completely it’s a surprise. It’s an It’s amazing. It goes up or down or all around. I’m not a singer. I can’t tell you technically what that is. But they suddenly they start off great and strong, but then they do something with their voice that you know, you’re hearing someone special. You’re hearing someone unique. You’re hearing someone who can do something that not very many other people in the world can do. And I love that I even I turn it off. If I’m satisfied at that moment, I turn it off. Because it makes me think about what I hope for most and what I think all of us have to strive for. We got to do good artwork. Of course, being good is not enough. There are so many good people out there. You’ll get lost in a sea of good artists specially with the power of digital artwork and so much can be done. The moment that we take that good artwork, and we put the shapes and the colors and the character design and the landscape and the light and the color and the composition, put it together in such a way as to surprise and excite our audience, just that little extra thing that might be a little bit more unique and a little bit more rare. The moment that we hit that mark, we’ve stood above that crowd. And that’s the moment that is our passport to the next level where we have opportunities as artists, so we can’t strive to be good. We have to strive to do even better than that.

Iva 59:41
Yeah, definitely. I totally agree. And thank you so much for being here. It was a great advice and great talk. No absolute pleasure. Thank you. And thank you so much, again, for everyone who joined then hope you get inspired and just continue inspiring each other. So thanks, everyone. Thank you Nathan again, buddy.

Nathan Fowkes 1:00:02
Thank you.

Iva 1:00:07
Hope you guys enjoyed this interview. You can find all the resources mentioned in this episode at art side of life.com just type a guest name in the search bar. There is also a little freebie waiting for you so go check it out. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review on iTunes, hopefully five stars so I can read and inspire more people like you. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our side of life podcast because I post new interview every single word day. If you want to watch the interviews, head over to art side of life .com slash YouTube. Thank you so much for listening. Don’t forget to inspire each other. And I will talk to you guys in the next episode. Bye.

Announcer 1:00:47
Thanks for listening to the art side of life podcast at WWW dot art side of life. com


Hi, I am Iva (rhymes with “viva”). I am a full-time self-taught artist behind Art Side of Life® and a Top Teacher on Skillshare. I have 15 years of experience in the creative field as a concept designer, illustrator, art director, and now freelance artist, content creator, and art instructor. My goal is to help you get your creative groove on with Procreate and make awesome art through practical classes, tutorials, Procreate brushes, and guides on art tools, supplies and resources. About me »

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Hey there!

I am Iva (rhymes with viva), and I'm the artist behind Art Side of Life. I'm all about helping you get your creative groove on with Procreate and make awesome art! So on my website, I share Procreate classes, tutorials, brushes, and guides on art tools, supplies, and resources such as these interviews. Ready to create and make amazing art? Then explore, join and have fun ♡

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