Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an artist?
I grew up in a small town in southeast Texas. When most people hear that, they think of desert and cacti and cowboys using guitars as clubs, beating each other in dusty bars. But in reality, only one of those is true. When it comes to vegetation, it’s actually one of the richest places I’ve ever seen. So I grew up running barefoot through dense forest and streams with a sword and a pack of dogs- Not even joking. Climbing trees, making stuff, digging holes, shooting a lot of guns, a bunch of guns, lots of camping and lots of killing things. Now I just sit. As for the decision of artisting- I remember the first time I saw a Ghibli film. I walked in on my grandparents watching Mononoke at the scene where Ashitaka sends an arrow through this dude’s arms, severing them to a tree. And I was like “yea, that’s cool.” And so I started drawing stills from Ghibli. Then I grew up playing all of the Halo games, reading the books, listening to the soundtracks like they were ear drugs; basically just immersing myself in this universe. And while most people were addicted to the gameplay, I was just astonished at this world that someone had created. Wow man, look at that tree! And that cloud! Look at the little spaceships fighting 3000 miles away in the sky, wtf?! LOOK AT IT! Little did I know that this was an actual job that I could be a part of. But I guess that was when I decided, whether or not it was a conscious decision. I just wanted to make stuff.
Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
So I moved in with my grandparents and spent my last year of high school at this one school. At this school they had an actual art program which was unheard of to me (my childhood high school class was about 32 kids fat). I entered the program, did a lot of sculpting, and won a full ride scholarship to a local community college. Around this time I found something on the internet. This something I found was a man named Feng Zhu! If you are wanting to enter this industry and you have no clue how to start, his videos are simply perfect. For a free start. So Feng and I laughed together, ate together, and cried together for many moons. I watched every video around 5 times each and just soaked up his elderly knowledge like a baby sponge to an older, informative, water filled bathtub. He talked of this “concepts arts” and “jobs”, so I searched, “concept art schools near me” and the closest one was exactly 501 miles west (if I were to walk). It was Concept Design Academy in Pasadena. I quit that college crap, threw away 90% of my junk, stuffed what I had in my car and told my grandparents that I was leaving. They said “when?” I said, “tonight”. So I drove to LA and lived in my car in downtown for a while, found out about parking tickets, I washed some dishes, I was a baker, then my car broke down and it was put into the shop. Which sucked because my car was where I lived. I put an add on craigslist saying that I needed a place to stay for the night, I met up with an elderly man and… he was awesome! We enjoyed each other’s company so much that I ended up living with the guy for two years for free. I’d say this was essential to my development because- I would wake up at 8, go on my computer and paint all day, go to bed at 10 or so, then wake up the next day to do it over. I basically did that for the next two years. Although the 5 classes I took at CDA were very informative, I made most of my progress through the mileage- and the mileage is all due to the fact that I didn’t have to work a steady job. I was actually going to be a concept artist in the beginning… Kevin Chen at CDA mentioned taking a “Visual Development” class instead of a concept art class- my first thought was, “Pfft, Vis Dev? Cartoons, ha, that junk is for babies. Lame. Concept art is for MEN.” But as it turned out, vis dev was pretty cool. As for the more technical ways I developed my skills- I can repeat what has already been said by much better artists out there, but I think I’ll just say what I found to be most important in my personal experience. Which is- practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. And what I mean by that is if you can’t learn from your mistakes and actually observe, you’ll be stuck doing the same thing. Anyone can draw for years on end and get crazy mileage, but if they weren’t actually thinking and observing during the process, it was all for not. Surround yourself with amazing art, have fun and think. Again, this is just what I’ve found that works for me.
Have you always been supported in your artistic path or has it been challenging to let your family and friends understand your choice?
Not a single dissuasion. Thinking back, I basically just did my own thing- as an adult would do- so they treated me like one. Super supportive all the way.
What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up ( artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
Oh man. I could say Ghibli, I could say all of the amazing books, or even the games! But I’m not. The strongest influence would have to be the outdoors. I’ve spent so much time camping, I’d say that has had the greatest impact on me. Struggling, problem solving, killing, observing, adapting, just learning in general. Pretty fun.
Did you have a favourite subject to draw when you were a child and do you still have one today? If you do, what makes it so special?
I was addicted to WW2 at one point and drew battle scenes like no tomorrow. I watched and re-watched and re-watched every episode of Band of Brothers at a very young age. Good stuff. I still love drawing action. It’s off the chain. Along those same lines, I enjoy drawing realism. What I mean by that is, I like drawing things that aren’t “Disneyfied”. Let’s say, in a Disney movie, the good guy is backed into a corner and there’s a group of big bad guys with swords. Just as they are closing in on him, another good guy comes in and saves the day, scaring off all of the bad guys. In my version, no one comes to save him, no one cares, the good guy gets held down and is stabbed to death, the bad guys steal his stuff and walk away. I get it that animation studios can’t do this, and that’s cool. I just like drawing it. So if you see one of my characters in a tough situation, and you think “maybe they’ll be okay…” it’s best to just assume they’re not going to make it.
What is your process in colouring your art and what type of tools and media do you use?
I use photoshop. The way I color all of the “still shots” characters is pretty much how animators have always colored in 2D. First you put down the “local color”, meaning the actual color of the object without hard light or shadow, then you simply add a hard light, or instead, a shadow. Back in the day, people actually painted the hard light or shadow with their own color, but here, in the future with Photoshop, I just add a multiply or overlay layer. If you want to hear someone talk about this in greater detail, go check out Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo’s tutorials. The reason I color this way is purely because it’s the simplest and most clear way to get a mood across- and that’s exactly what I’m striving for in my work, simplicity and clarity. Still getting the hang of it.
What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
Nothing is really hard anymore, just time consuming. Most fun is the creating of the sketch, the idea! Then you have to color. Every. Little. Thing.
What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work/collaborate with?
At the moment I work at DreamWorks TV as a vis dev artists for a 2d tv show. I typically wake up in my bed then I’m at work somehow. I sit at a pod with my cintiq, then I look at a list and find what episode our team is completing this week. I watch the episode’s animatic (the rough animation) and look at the props and backgrounds that the characters interact with. Then I talk with my boss and my boss says, I want you to draw these backgrounds like this and then I want you to draw these props like this. I say ok then I do it. Other than that.. I spend the rest of my time creating all the junk you see on my Tumblr. When I go home, I’m typically making music or hanging out with my girlfriend.
What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
Simplifying this answer will be tough, mainly because I’ve taken so many important things from so many artists, but one guy sticks out a bit more than others. Simon Stalenhag is possibly my greatest idol when it comes to art- I’ve learned so much just by taking the time to stare at one of his paintings for a while, and sometimes that’s all it takes, just a bit of brain. Where most people may think that they are drawn to his paintings because of the massive amount of detail, in reality, I’d say the paintings are so enticing specifically because of his simplicity. He gives room to breathe, huge areas of nothing. Every silhouette is clear, simple, and readable. Clarity, simplicity. I could do an entire class on just one of his paintings, but instead, I’m just going to expose his secret. And it’s not really a secret, being that it’s basically in every single painting he’s done. You may have heard of the rule (though most people underestimate it’s power)- Big, Medium, Small. I noticed it in his paintings from very early on and thought that I had found some amazing secret style of painting, but I later found out that it was an actual rule that many artists go by. BMS is my number one rule, I swear. I’ll get it tattooed on my face. It’s just so amazing. But I’m not going to get technical. Basically, his objects come in Big Medium Small sizes, all of the negative spacing between the objects are BMS, the details within his objects are BMS, it’s how he gets so much depth… I could go on. The main thing I took from this is just how gosh darned simple it all is. And if you think, “oh, that’s just for background painting… that has nothing to do with character design or anything else,” you are wrong! I live Big Medium Small!
Is there something that you have designed that you are most proud of?
Once, in my high school art class, my buddy Conor made a plasma grenade out of clay (sphere), and I made a flat triangle (triangle). The teacher got so mad at Conor for making something as simple as a sphere… she loved mine though. I laughed.
What is your longterm career goal and what would your dream project be?
Other than calling up Hayao Miyazaki to ship our new feature film together, I’d say Disney would be nice. One of those suited characters at Disneyland, yea.
Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
I honestly love waking up and going to an actual job for a company. Sitting at home in my undies is cool too, but I’d say (from my one and only experience with Dreamworks) in-house jobs work better for me. Free coffee and steady pay.
What advise would you give to an artist who is dealing with an art-block? How do you boost your imagination and keep yourself creative?
I’ve never had an art block- they sound horrid. But I do know that when my head is reeling over and over and I’m doing the same thing like a zombie, if I take a day or weekend and go outside for quite a while, it clears me. I’ve seen a lot of Californians hiking around here… and typically they just talk to each other and look at the ground. I mean that I spend a long time out there. Bang rocks together. Build a hut. Climb a tree. Get hurt.
If you had to recommend only one art book (a comic book, graphic novel, children book, ''how to'' book) to a fellow artist, what would it be and why?
Books are so important. I’d go so far to say that I believe in books more than Big, Medium, Small. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But with a book, you can learn a lifetimes worth of lessons in only one day. And ladies dig that. But artistically speaking, if I had to choose one, I’d say the Last Man books have literally exploded my head. It’s the French comic by Balak, Sanlaville, and Vives. It’s not the American comic…no it’s not that one. And as for why, becuase.
Who are the artists who inspire you the most today and what are some of your favourite designs out there?
I’ve already freaked out about Simon Stalenhag. So I can’t mention him. Cory Loftis is awesome, Helen Chen, Ryan Lang, Suheb Zako, Anna Cattish, Jin Kim, Alexandre Diboine, Shiyoon Kim, Sophie Li, Alex Cho, Amei Zhao, Jake Wyatt, Snatti, Sean Galloway, Ian Mcque, all of the awesome people here on Voltron (team Korra) and studio MIR, Sun Creature Studio, Miyazaki, Phobs, Nesskain, Eytan Zana, Shaddy Safadi, Dice Tsutsumi, Robert Kundo, Bill Perkins, Robh Ruppel, all of the old school people… I could go on. But this is so important guys. You have to know what professional art is before you can create something on a professional level.
Finally, Where can we see your art online and get in touch with you? How can we buy your creations and support your work?
You can check out my Tumblr ( ethanbecker70.tumblr.com ) or Instagram ( instagram.com/ethanbecker70 ) and then send me every money you have. Also, on my tumblr, there is a Q&A page where I go into more detail about technical questions if you wanted to check that out. Lastly, I would like to note that everything I’ve said is based on my own personal experiences- I’m still trying to learn, so I can’t really teach anyone, I can only share my observations at most. I’m still a young thing, I honestly don’t know nothing.
Thank you Ethan :)