Interview with PencilKings.com founder Mitch Bowler
Artist and entrepreneur Mitch Bowler introduces the PencilKings.com art learning platform and talks about his work as a digital artist.
Mitch Bowler Bio
Mitchell Bowler is an author, mentor and coach for up-and-coming artists. After a successful career in film and video games he created a private online community PencilKings.com, where artists from all over the world can develop their skills in a safe, positive environment. He hosts a regular podcast where he interviews and breaks down the processes of experienced artists for the benefit of younger students.
He is passionate about empowering people to live more creative lives by making quality art education accessible to all. His first book titled “Digital Artist Career Blueprint” outlines the process of finding your focus as an artist and turning that into a viable career. These days he is focused on helping everyday people develop realistic art skills via the breakthrough training being offered at EvolveArtist.com.
Please tell us about PencilKings.com?
Pencil Kings is a private art community for artists who are ready to get serious about improving their art. We have an exclusive course library of over 100 courses, but the real heart of everything is in the monthly challenges and workshops that we run and the bonds that members form by participating in the private forums and chatroom.
Pencil Kings has a very vibrant community, what do
artists get out of the forums?
The big thing that artists struggle with is getting clear on what they should be learning. There’s so much information now that it’s completely overwhelming as to what your next step should be. The community is where you can go and get real answers to your questions, as well as get help to improve your art.
What is your art background?
I knew that I wanted to be a video game artist from the age of 7. My friends and I heard a rumor that there was going to be a game that would let you make your own games. The idea that we could make our own ideas come to life was all I needed to get busy making designs for characters, levels and stories.
The game to make your own games never did come out in North America (as far as I know), but I just kept creating however I could. We didn’t have a computer back then, and there was no internet, so the first real tool that I had to create any kind of digital art was Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo. Then I received a hand me down computer and there was a manual for GW Basic, so I read that and started making my own simple text based games at about age 11.
The big change however was getting the internet, where I found chat rooms online where other artists were talking to each other. It was there that I learned which software I needed to get started, and then bought books to learn how to use the digital art software. There weren’t really many schools at this time to learn digital art, so everything I learned was self taught with the help of many generous artists who helped me develop my skills along the way.
I studied fine arts in university, but because digital art for film and games was such a new field, most of the education I received in this was self-taught from online sources and many, many books.
Even today I think there is a knowledge gap between what is being taught and what you actually need. Unfortunately, my experience is that many students in art programs probably shouldn’t be there and because of this you are surrounded with students who don’t possess the drive that it takes to really make it into the entertainment industry – if that’s your goal.
There are exceptions of course, but you really have to do your homework to know if the program you are going to take will actually help you, and what the calibre of students is going to be. Otherwise – you are better off just learning on your own, or joining a dedicated community like Pencil Kings where you can get access to people with experience like myself that can guide and push you.
What kind of work did you do before Pencil Kings?
Before Pencil Kings I worked as a Technical Art Director at Activision | Blizzard in the central technology group. We mostly dealt with outsourcing to help Activision’s many studios supplement their in house teams with overseas talent in Shanghai, China. My job was to make sure that the technical specifications for the project were clear and that the digital art assets being produced met the specifications. It was a lot of fun but also a lot of stress being responsible for teams of up to 50 artists to make sure that the quality was consistent, files were delivered on time and on budget.
Previous to working in video games, I worked as a visual effects and previs artist. This job was a lot of fun because we had an opportunity to influence the action that you would actually see on screen, but because of the nature of previs we could work really fast which I liked.
What was it like working on a Hollywood movie?
To be honest, it isn’t not much different than any other project aside from when you tell people which projects you work on and they immediately know what the project was and may have even seen it. The one project that was kind of cool was working on Call of Duty – when I would tell border agents what I did for work they would immediately loosen up and flash a smile – apparently customs agents know and love CoD!
The first big project I worked on was X-Men 2, which was a pretty amazing thing to list on my resume as my first 3D project. Everything that I did on that project was created in Winnipeg, Manitoba, so there wasn’t really a Hollywood experience there.
When I worked on Superman Returns I was part of a team working down in Los Angeles right across the street from the Warner Brothers main studio. This was cool, but I was never on set or anything fancy like that. It may sound glamorous to be working in Hollywood, but to be honest – the office wasn’t much different than any other office I’d worked at.
What I do think was cool about this whole experience is just that a kid who grew up in a little village (population 650) in Canada could work like crazy and have an opportunity to be working in Los Angeles. My dream was always to work in games and not in Hollywood, but it just goes to show you how far you can go with following your dreams. It doesn’t matter where you are from – you can always make your own opportunities no matter where you are. I like to joke that it took me 20 years to get to the top of the video game industry because from age 7 I worked on my dream and at age 27 I was working at the world’s largest video game publisher.
Is it difficult to get work as a movie effects
This is just my opinion, but it’s really easy to get work in the entertainment art field once you are in and have a bit of a reputation. Studios are always hungry for hard working talent. The hard part is breaking in, and I see a lot of artists struggling with this.
I was lucky that there was a growing studio in the city where I went to university and I had the right skills at the right time. That said – I have interviewed many talented artists and have learned how they broke into the industry.
If you are willing to work like crazy and devote a year to your craft you can get your skills to the level they need to get in. The thing about working as an artist and breaking in is that it’s a full-on endeavor for that year where you are developing your skills. While I would guess that most people would like to be able to create nice looking art – the reality is that few people have the determination and drive to make it happen. That’s ok though because we can all still enjoy and support the arts by playing these games and watching these movies.
Are there many opportunities for artists to work in
video game design?
Totally! Games aren’t going anywhere, and the games industry has surpassed the movie industry in terms of revenue a few years ago. When people think of games they often think of only the big budget AAA games, but there are many levels to this industry. One of the highest paid artists I know wears a suit to work and creates games for the casino industry – so there’s lots of opportunities that span way beyond what people initially think of when they think of games. If you want to work on that well-known title, it just may take you a while as you work your way up through the lesser known companies and have a shot at your dream job. If you keep your vision set and you keep working at it – it will happen.
Does running an art training site get in the way of
doing your art?
Sadly yes… I bring the same complete devotion to my craft of improving art education for art students that I did to learning how to create art and have a career in video games. Now that I think about it – I don’t think I was ever interested in creating my own art so much as I was interested in learning the nuts and bolts of how things were made. This curiosity really suited my job as a technical art director where my job was really to help other artists make the best art that they could and guide them. I still sketch a fair bit, and am working on creating a line of meditative prints. It’s a pretty far cry from what I was doing while I was employed, but now I just create for fun.
If you were to get started in animation or digital art
today, what would you do?
I would set a goal for myself of getting into a specific industry, and then learn what tools would be needed to create the work for that industry. Next I would use the art that is currently being produced as my benchmark. For example, if I wanted to be a Disney animator then I would work like crazy to get my skills as high as a Disney animator. I’m not sure why, but many people think that they need to go to school to learn this, so they are waiting on that school opportunity before they start. This simply isn’t true because you can start right now, and there are free or low-cost software tools that you can use these days to get started. It doesn’t matter if you are 15 or 50 – you can learn most of this on your own and you don’t have to wait for anyone. Using existing high-quality work as your benchmark is a way where you will always know if you are hitting your quality bar or not. It also means that you will be creating art that is actually usable in commercial projects. I often see artists creating their own strange projects that have no real world application, which is fine, but it makes it almost impossible in most cases for an art director to look at what you are creating and know if you would be able to work with their team.
Next, I would find a few artists to work with who are interested in breaking into the same industry and form a mastermind/accountability group to keep pushing each other and learning together. 5 minds really are stronger than 1 and this is what I did, and have heard many times of other artists doing the same. These accountability buddies could be local, or in my case they could be located all over the world – it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are all serious about improving because you don’t want to waste time with people who aren’t as dedicated as you are.
To give you an example of what this would look like – I joined a mod team to create a new version of a popular game at the time – Unreal Tournament. We had a programmer, and a few artists and we all worked together as a team for free. Similar projects exist in the visual effects space like the Mila Film project where artists from all over the world come together for free to work on a project. What this does is it builds your portfolio with real assets, and also exposes you to other artists who share the same dream as you.
Lastly – you will need to start developing your network – which if you have followed the advice above you will have already started to build your network. Great art only goes so far… but when you have a friend or someone you know that can make the right introduction at the right time you end up getting the job – often even if your art isn’t as good as some of the other candidates.
If there is one mindset among artists trying to get their careers started that I could stress the importance to – it’s this idea of building your network. Every single art job that I had came because of people I knew. I was never the best artist in the studio, but I might have been the most cheerful and hard-working, and believe it or not – these ‘nonart’ skills count for a lot.
Where do you see art education in the future?
Education is changing rapidly and there really are no secrets anymore – everything you need to learn is freely available online. Despite this, art remains one of the most ‘mysterious’ subjects to learn because it’s difficult to connect the dots and there are many different paths one can take.
I see art education changing by moving away from a top-down approach where the students watch demonstrations from their instructor and going to a bottom-up approach that focuses on measurable student results and a clear path of progression.
This approach will allow anyone with the desire to learn the opportunity to develop technical mastery of the tools and give them the skills necessary to create without limitation.
We are actively working to make this shift in art education a reality through the program we offer at EvolveArtist.com.
PencilKings.com most popular course teaches you how to construct the face using Reilly Rhythms. You’ll learn the anatomy of the face and the important muscles to remember, lighting techniques for added realism in your drawings and how to draw the face from any angle. At only $15, this is a great deal.
Mitch Bowler Links
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