Nathan Fowkes is an animation industry veteran who has worked as a background and visual development artist for Dreamworks, Blue Sky and Disney. However, if you’re familiar with him and his work, it’s probably not from the films he’s contributed to.
The funny thing about animation artists is, despite being some of the most talented artists in the world, they tend to be anonymous. Enthusiasts may know who Hans Bacher and Michel Gagné but those aren’t names that resonate outside of animation. When you do hear about these artists, it’s for their personal projects.
Fowkes has built a reputation on his distinctive charcoal portraits and watercolor landscapes which are a departure from his professional work. These have a inimitable quality that makes it impossible to mistake them for the work of another artist. Both his drawings and paintings emphasize the effects of light on the subject, giving them an impressionistic quality that is built upon a strong foundation of structure and form.
In addition to his work in visual development, charcoal, watercolor and gouache, he also has extensive experience as a teacher. He has taught at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art since 2004, given workshops at major entertainment studios such as Blizzard, Ubisoft and Disney, and been a guest lecturer at Art Center College of Design, Laguna College of Art and Design, Concept Design Academy and 3kicks Studio. Schoolism.com hosts three of his courses: Designing with Color and Light, Environment Design, Pictorial Composition, and Landscape Sketching in Watercolor and Gouache. Finally, ArtSchoolVideos.com hosts his online Portrait Drawing in Charcoal class.
Building on the interest in his work and teaching, Design Studio Press has published How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal. The book acts as both a illumination of Fowke’s portrait drawing process as well as a showcase of his work.
First of all the book is beautifully produced. The reproductions are detailed and given plenty of space on the page to shine and each section is organized in a very logical manner.
Those looking for a detailed how-to guide are going to be disappointed by this book. The The focus here is on a few fundamental principles, specifically structure, light and value, edges, and composition. This isn’t a tutorial on how to draw like Nathan Fowkes.
I can’t really fault the author too much for the lack of depth in the instruction. Without one-on-one guidance there’s only so much that can be communicated in this format. Sometimes giving too much information without the benefit of further explanation or demonstration will just confuse the reader. Sticking with core principles like working from general to specific, or look for simple shapes may be as specific as any art instruction book can get.
For example, in the section on structure, Fowkes introduces his version of the Reilly head abstraction. Frank Reilly was an instructor at the Art Students League for many years and created a unique way of organizing the figure. It’s similar to a wireframe mannequin you might use in 3D software that acts as the basis for adding the muscles and surfaces details. One of Reilly’s students, Fred Fixler, worked and taught in California, and that’s why many West Coast painters like Jeffrey Watts, Mark Westermoe, and Glen Orbik use this method.
My point is, this one little piece of information that is introduced in How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal with little explanation. An entire book could be written on the subject (the closest thing we have right now is Jack Faragasso’s book) but here it’s introduced and just as quickly dismissed.
One thing that bugs me is his frequent use of his fingers for blending. I get why he does it, and he lets the reader know that you need to wash your hands with soap and water. However, the oils from your hands can seriously damage your drawing surface and effect the longevity of your artwork. Find some other way to blend, whether with a brush or cloth or whatever.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the instruction that’s in the book, I just wish there were more of it. Each section offers solid advice, but because of the book’s short length it’s like you’re being rushed along to the next topic before the clock runs down.
As I mentioned the second half of the book is dedicated to showcasing Fowkes’s drawings. While many of these same drawings are used throughout the instructional portion of the book, they are accompanied by text and used as examples to illustrate core principles of drawing. There’s minimal text in the second half, so the images are given lots of room to shine.
Many of these drawings I had never seen before, and it’s great to have them collected as high quality reproductions.
One drawing in particular impressed me with it’s controlled use of high key lighting and subtle shifts in value. Most of the drawings are side or rim lit leaving much if not all of the subject’s features in shadow, so it was a surprise to find this drawing with such a distinct look to it.
Is How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal worth buying? If you’re a fan of Fowkes’s work and would like a little insight into his process I would say yes. Just know beforehand what it is and what it is not. It’s definitely not a comprehensive portrait drawing guide. If you’re looking for a more in-depth guide to drawing the portrait in charcoal check out his course on artschoolvideos.com. Otherwise, it’s a nice book with some decent instruction and a lot of great images.
At the start of the book there is a suggested materials list. I’ve linked those here for those interested in following the exercises in the book.
- Blending Stump
- NuPastel pastel stick – white
- Stabilo CarbOthello pastel – titanium white
- Cretacolor Chunky Charcoal – black
- Alphacolor Char-Kole – black
- Pitt Charcoal Pencil – soft
- Ritmo Charcoal Pencil – B, 3B
- Prismacolor Colored Pencil – pumpkin orange
- Kneaded Eraser
- Rives BFK paper, white or ivory (Blick, Utrecht, Jerry’s Artarama)
- Canson Ingres toned paper (Blick, Utrecht)
- Strathmore 500 toned paper (Jerry’s Artarama, Blick)
- Newsprint (Jerry’s Artarama, Blick, Utrecht, Amazon)