Friday, July 29, 2011


 I have previously written about the work of Nathan Fowkes, a talented artist for DreamWorks Animation, a fine landscape artist, and an art teacher at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art.
I ran into Fowkes at Comic-Con, where he was demonstrating charcoal drawing for an enthusiastic audience.

I have always been impressed with how Fowkes works seamlessly between different media. He uses Photoshop to create wonderful concept, visual development and production art for state of the art CGI movies:

copyright DreamWorks
He also works in oils:

My favorites are his watercolors.  he creates light and elegant landscapes, each one a tiny gem:

At Comic-Con, he displayed his approach with charcoal:

At this point in the demonstration he is saying, "I'm desperately trying to keep it simple. You've got to keep it simple."

I think one reason Fowkes is so successful with a variety of materials is his philosophy,  "There are dozens of ways you can apply the medium. It's the principles of value (light and shadow), structure, edges and composition that really matter."


Jesse Hamm said...

Fowkes is great. Dave Stevens was taking painting lessons from him before he passed away.

Fowkes posted that sketch he was working on in the above photo here.

MORAN said...

I have followed his blog since I first read about him here. He always shows excellent work. I agree about his landscapes. Fowkes really stands out.

kev ferrara said...

He makes his knowledge look so conversational. But his work is so much more difficult to execute than it appears... a truly dedicated talent that always serves his audience rather than himself. I love his oil work and wish he did gallery paintings in the Mian Situ vein.

Anonymous said...

He is indeed a master!

Anonymous said...

I love his oil work and wish he did gallery paintings in the Mian Situ vein.

I like Situ's work; was expressing that on an artist's forum one day and got rather shouted down by a fairly well known plein air/portrait painter (a Sargent imitator basically) who said he had painted with Situ and that Situ could do nothing without photo references.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- I didn't know that about Dave Stevens, but I understand why he did it. If Fowkes was on the east coast, I'd take lessons from him too.

MORAN-- agreed.

Kev Ferrara-- yes, particularly those landscapes are masterpieces of economy and sensitivity. A lot of wisdom and restraint goes into them.

David Apatoff said...

BRAO-- I'm glad you see it too.

Etc, etc-- one of the things I really enjoyed about Comic-Con was the discussion of photo reference by working artists. Ashley Wood said, "any artist who says he doesn't use reference is full of shit." And in a panel about Jeffrey Jones, one artist talked about how Frazetta traumatized a generation of artists by claiming he never used reference. This artist said, "I know for a fact that Frazetta used reference. I don't know why he would say a thing like that, but a lot of younger artists who looked up to him, such as Jeff Jones, thought they were supposed to be able to paint like that from their imaginations, without any reference. It set back their work, as they tried and tried. They thought there was something wrong with them. And gradually they all went back to using reference."

None of this has anything to do with Fowkes, who does those landscapes on site. But in terms of the larger point about reference, it was good to see a lot of practical, accomplished artists openly dismissing qualms about photo reference.

Jesse Hamm said...

Frazetta used reference occasionally, but he usually avoided it and I think his work is better for it. (The speaker on the Jones panel was not an artist but Louise Simonson, btw.) Painters like Carlson and Henri recommended working from memory for good reason: "your best work will come from dealing with the memories which have stuck after what is unessential to you in experiences has dropped away." (Henri)

I think the debate about the role reference should play in art would benefit from added category: indirect reference. For instance, I doubt all of the Fowkes pieces above were done on site, or even from photos. His evocative landscapes for Dreamworks appear to be flights of imagination. But they are drawn from his considerable prior experience with actual scenery -- indirect reference -- without being limited by any actual scene.

Laurence John said...


which Carlson and Henri are you referring to ?

Jesse Hamm said...

John F. Carlson and Robert Henri.

Carlson, in the "Painting From Memory" chapter of Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting:
"In painting from memory, the whole stress is laid on expressive agents. In direct-from-nature painting, much useless lumber insinuates itself, interesting for its own sake, but derogatory to the whole."

Henri, in The Art Spirit:
"Very few life-studies are strong enough to live. If you work from memory, you are most likely to put in your real feeling."

And from Harold Speed, while I'm quoting stuff:
"Memory has this great advantage over direct vision: it retains more vividly the essential things, and has a habit of losing what is unessential to the pictorial impression. ... For in the continual observation of anything you have set your easel before day after day, comes a series of impressions, more and more commonplace, as the eye becomes more and more familiar with the details of the subject. And ere long the original emotion that was the reason of the whole work is lost sight of, and one of those pictures or drawings giving a catalogue of tired objects more or less ingeniously arranged (that we all know so well) is the result—work utterly lacking in the freshness and charm of true inspiration. "
~The Practice and Science of Drawing

Laurence John said...

thanks Jesse,

like those quotes, i also prefer to see what the imagination can produce when observation of fact isn't the guiding force.

kev ferrara said...

etc. etc. I find the notion that Situ can't work from life absurd, given what is just available online about workshops he has given. Can you provide some clue as to the Sargent-clone's identity? I think we may have an acute case of "goddamn Mian Situ's paintings go for a hundred grand" on our hands!

On the subject of reference... Jesse has pretty well covered it in his quotes from the classics that most imaginative illustrators have read. I would add the Brandywine take on it, which is that models can't hold living poses for more than a split second and photos freeze action rather than express it. Therefore, if you don't base your pictures on a product of your imagination (and actual lived experience) they will be aesthetically dead.

(The fact that Mian Situ's paintings are so good further defies the notion that he lacks imagination and is wholly reliant on photos. Millions of terrible artists are wholly reliant on photos and none of them approach Mian Situ's quality.)

Anonymous said...

In all honesty the painter made the comments about Situ probably because he was somewhat provoked by contentious comments from me (I know it's hard to imagine such a thing). The Situ diss was genuine, but I think we both agree Situ's work needs no defense.

kev ferrara said...

etc, etc,

What is spoken against a fellow artist, and the internal psychic trigger point which actually produces the negative emotional reaction, are not always one and the same.

I was perplexed by your comment because I can't think of any artist who posts on online art forums who can be compared to Sargent. Is there a reason you don't want to reveal his name? Did you suddenly get discreet on us?

Anonymous said...

It was a few years ago and the forum is now practically defunct. There are lots of portraitists who imitate Sargent but I never meant to go so far as to say "can be compared to"...think "Schmidites". I enjoy spirited and scrappy debate, but I don't particularly want to (re)stir up something between two professionals; that's a whole other ethical dimension in my mind. Additionally, I now recollect the diss occurred in a private message and it would be betraying a confidence. When you hinted at jealousy you probably hit center target of all that really matters.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- Thanks for the correction about the speaker on the Jones panel. I came in late and wasn't sure who she was. (If you were in the room, I'm sorry I missed you!)

I am one of those who sees no problem with the use of reference, as long as it is kept in proper perspective (like all other art tools). I agree there are many types of pictures best created by relying on memory. We see them, for example, in Frazetta's loose and free flowing pen and ink drawings or his simpler, monolithic figure paintings. However, there are other pictures that will inevitably look stilted and artificial without the benefit of reference. I've seen about half a dozen instances where Frazetta used photo reference, and he seemed to have a good sense for when it was required (for example, with the tighter drawings for the story, "Squeeze Play"). But every once in a while, you can see pictures where he tried to fake his way through without reference (The Disagreement, for example, or Conan the Destroyer before he went back and repainted it, or Conan the Indomitable) and you can see the limits of memory, even for a master.

To bring this topic back to Nathan Fowkes, one of the things I like best about his landscapes is that he doesn't rely on memory, but keeps his eyes wide open and picks up important new information no matter how many times he has painted the same scene. If you check out his blog, you will see a dozen paintings of the exact same view from his window, each fresh effort newly worthwhile, none of them relying on memory.

Rav said...

He's a damn alchemist.

David Apatoff said...

Rav-- amen.

Chris Chien. said...

cool man - i'm the asian dude standing behind nathan in the first picture you have on this post. is it cool with you i post that photo on my blog?

David Apatoff said...

Chris Chien-- Sure, thanks for asking. I enjoyed your sketchblog.

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