Meet Tony Foti: A Freelance Illustrator

By Iva Mikles •  Updated: Dec 31, 2021 

Tony Foti is a freelance illustrator from the Bay Area, California USA. He is most known for working on books, magazines, video games, tabletop games, trading cards, and concept art.

“… personally, my journey has been about figuring out what I love. The more art I consume, the more opinions I have. The more opinions I have, the more I am able to figure out what kind of art I want to make

(c)Tony-Foti-3
Artwork by Tony Foti

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Can you please tell us a bit about your background?

I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Ventura County, which is right outside of Los Angeles.

The first decade of my life was your standard Wonder Years season, but somewhere around the age of 10 my parents split and I began to move around a lot with my mom. The constant relocation was rough, but when we eventually settled in Orange County I started attending The Southern Orange County School of the Arts. The schools in Ventura didn’t have many art classes, so it was a big deal to have enrolled in a high school where you could essentially “major” in visual art, drama, writing, sculpting, or music. 

One year there was a drawing competition, so I decided to enter a couple of artworks I’d recently made. One was a Bruce Timm-inspired Two-Face, and the other was of Tezuka’s Astro Boy, and they came in first and second place respectively.

Aside from how awkward it felt for one student to be getting both prizes, the experience helped give me the confidence to pursue art as a career. 

What inspired you to make art?

Little Tony was wildly obsessed with the Christopher Reeve Superman movies.

I would actually wear the full costume (in PJ form) under my street clothes as a toddler, just in case action broke out. This eventually led me to comic books, and after that, my dad started taking me to the San Diego Comic Con.

This was in the mid-to-late 80’s before the convention grew into the pop culture hydra it is now. Back then it was easy to meet people like Jack Kirby, George Perez, and Neil Adams by just standing in line for a little while. I had conversations with Adam West, Julie Newmar, and saw the pencil test pilot for Batman the Animated Series over a year before it was released. All that stuff built up inside of me, and as the years passed I started to idolize artists and romanticize their difficult lives.

Soon I was copying panels out of comic books and writing my own. The dream was to be a comic book artist, but somewhere deep inside I got the feeling that was an immature choice so I’d tell my parents I wanted to be an illustrator. That sounded much more responsible. It’s funny how things work out.

Did you study at art school(s) or are you self-taught? What did you study? What were the “aha” moments? What did you find the most beneficial?

I had a private art tutor in elementary school, but it was mostly trying out different kinds of fine art mediums. We made reliefs, woodblock prints, and things like that. No actual figure drawing or anything.

I continued to study by copying comics and reading the tutorials in Wizard Magazine. That continued until I attended SOCSA, at which point more teachers came into my life who encouraged draftsmanship.

My mom suffered from mental health and addiction issues, so at 17 I left and began working to pay the rent. Years passed, and it wasn’t until a mild existential crisis at 24 that I realized how much work was still ahead of me if I wanted to become the professional illustrator I’d been telling everyone I was going to be.

On the recommendation of a friend, I enrolled in the Illustration and Animation program at San Jose State, which is where I got most of my formal training.

(c)Tony-Foti-2
Artwork by Tony Foti

How did you develop your own art style? Where do you go for inspiration? How do you keep your creativity flowing?

I try not to think too hard about my style.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t, but personally, my journey has been about figuring out what I love. The more art I consume, the more opinions I have. The more opinions I have, the more I am able to figure out what kind of art I want to make.

The most important thing is to always keep your love of drawing and painting stoked with new artists, movies, books, games, etc.

If anything, I try and adjust my style to fit the genre of the illustration, but since so much of how I draw is about subconscious preferences, eventually the pieces circle around back to what has organically become my style.

How did you start making a living as an artist? What was your first paid art job?

I first tested the waters of professional art out by browsing listings in the “Gigs” section of Craigslist.

I’d find companies looking for store decoration art, tee shirt designs, and more than one character mascot.

It didn’t pay great, but at least I felt like I was making a little bit of money with my passion. After a few months, I upgraded to art bulletin boards, and that led me to doing trading cards.

The trading cards led to me being picked by Fantasy Flight Games for their Star Wars card/roleplaying game line, and from there I went everywhere else.

What do you live from as an artist now? What are your main income streams and what is the approximate % split of each?

Now I live in Oakland, which is in Northern California next to San Francisco. My income is split between my studio job with Konami and my freelance career, though the studio makes up about 75% of my income.

What are you currently working on?

I just finished quite a few Magic cards, which should be coming out in 2022. I’ve also been doing some advertising art for the FXX network, along with other usual freelance clients like Scholastic.

What do you think are the most important characteristics of an artist?

I think the single most important character trait of an artist is the drive to draw on a regular basis.

If you have to force yourself, I’m not sure the career is worth it. Art isn’t something you do for money and fame.

Some people get that, but most of my favorite artists were marginalized into the ground. The art itself has to make you happy, regardless of how successful it is.

It’s so easy to become discouraged in a field with this much competition, so focus on keeping your love for art strong.

(c)Tony-Foti-1
Artwork by Tony Foti

What are the art tools and other products and services you can’t live without?

My laptop allows me to be mobile and work while traveling, which helps in a lot of ways.

I have a large Wacom Cintiq, and since using it my digital linework has become much cleaner. I used to have to draw things on paper and scan them if I wanted great lines, but now the Cintiq makes that part of the process irrelevant.

There’s also the deluge of playlists and podcasts on Spotify that keep my ears busy while I work into the wee hours.

What are your favorite art and other books (fiction, non-fiction)?

Color and Light by James Gurney, along with his other book Imaginative Realism, are always close by on my shelf.

Mostly, though, my book collection is based around the art of others. John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell, and James Jean show up on those pages a lot.

I also own a lot of production art books from movies and video games, along with whatever catches my eye in Japantown that week. If I visit a bookstore, there is a good chance I will be walking out of it with some “collected works” books by a new artist.

What advice would you give yourself as a beginner artist? Or alternatively please include your favorite quote and the author.

Pace yourself.

For years, I saw hard work as a virtue in and of itself, but I burned the candle at both ends for years and if anything it slowed my career down.

I was in such a hurry to work for everyone that wanted me, always hoping for new opportunities. Some did come, but I missed just as many due to my chronically overbooked schedule. If I could go back and do it again, I would have been less concerned with making money via art, and more concerned with making a perfect portfolio.

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Get in touch with Tony

Thank you, Tony, for joining us today!

All artworks by Tony Foti, used with permission.

Iva Mikles
Hi, I am Iva (rhymes with “viva”). I am an artist, illustrator, teacher, and the founder of Art Side of Life™️. I've worked as a commercial artist since 2009. I believe that we are all creative in infinite numbers of ways so I’ve made it my mission to teach you everything I know, to contribute to waking up your creative genius.

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