Art runs in Nicholas Kole’s blood; he’s been roaming the world illustrating and crafting character designs that run the gamut from cute to quirky to epic - words which also happen to describe his facial hair. Over Nicholas’s journey he has created for clients such as Disney, Dreamworks, Blizzard, Nintendo and Hasbro, and so many other household names we don’t have space to list them all!
We recently spoke with Nicholas about his tips for refueling inspiration, his work in reigniting Spyro, and the joy of drawing wrinkly old men.
Where are you from?
That’s a trickier one to answer than you might expect- I’m from the states originally - Detroit, specifically. But I grew up in Europe, France, Holland and Austria before coming back to the USA for college. I’ve been here since! Except now I’m moving to Canada! It’s a mess.
How long have you been drawing?
As the cliche goes: for as long as I could hold a pencil. My mother is an illustrator as well, so the markers and materials were around from an early age, and I had her support to explore. She didn’t especially care for my turning every page of my coloring books into dragons and monsters, but we’ve reached an understanding since.
Do you draw or paint in traditional media as well as digital?
I do! Though I haven’t as much lately, I love to watercolor, use brush inks, and draw with a very specific Bic soft grip ballpoint pen. I find that when I’m tackling large illustrations it can help to start traditionally before moving to the iPad. I do small, super loose sketches in pencil to get the layouts started - that way I can’t zoom in and get too detail-oriented too quickly.
I also had a job for Play-Doh a few years back that involved me sculpting and creating half-3D concepts in the Doh itself! I love switching mediums, I think it can shake loose new ways of problem solving.
What’s your absolute favourite thing to draw? Your “go-to” for mindless sketching?
I always seem to find myself drawing knobby old men. There’s something really relaxing in how far you can push the shapes and wrinkles.
Do you have any tips to offer to aspiring artists? Plenty! Mostly I advise people to pursue situations where they can be held accountable to make a lot of work really quickly - life drawing classes and artist collectives can be great places to start. A professor used to say that all your best work is buried under a pile of your worst work, and you can’t get to those pieces without drawing your way through the awkward stuff first.
When your inspiration is running low, how do you refuel? I like to take breaks and go for walks. Sometimes, if I can swing it, I’ll go to places that inspire me like aquariums, zoos or nearby parks. When I walk with a design question on my mind I often find that nature offers a few answers I wouldn’t have thought up on my own.
In general it can help to give yourself permission to walk away, visit with friends, pursue a different interest for a little bit, and remind yourself that you’re more than just a wrist. Ideas an inspiration tend to hit more readily when your mind isn’t on fire with work anxiety.
What do you do when you’re not painting?
Nothing too dramatic – I love my family and friends, love to watch movies and play video games, to travel when I can, and to explore the culture of the city I’m in when I can’t. I draw a lot of strength from my faith, and the communities that form around people looking beyond their daily grind and into questions of the spirit. I’ve also really been passionate lately about filling in gaps in my education with reading – it’s a piecemeal process, but going to art school with an intense focus on illustration meant that I missed out on a lot of historical, cultural and sociological education I wish I had more of! The things I learn from designing feed my other interests, and those interests feed the design process.
Are there any artists who have inspired your work, either currently or in the past?
Absolutely! I always mention Hayao Miyazaki when asked - his body of work is an enormous inspiration, and the stories he tells have such emotional honesty and humanity to them. There’s an enormous list of talented folks whose careers I follow. A few particular inspirations include Man Arenas, Kilian Eng, Alexandre Diboine, Ovopack, Shiyoon Kim, Evan Monteiro… the list goes on!
Why do you use Procreate?
I initially picked up the iPad Pro a month or two after it came out because I was looking for a mobile solution to the work I was doing stuck at my desktop. In particular, I had just started a long-distance relationship with my now-wife, and had a serious emotional need to get on the road in a big way. Procreate was waiting for me when I arrived, and I fell in love - the streamlined UI and experience in general does away with the clunky menus and feels so right for the touch-screen format. There was a bit of a learning curve initially, but now I use it for every piece of work I do!
Do you have a favourite tool or feature in Procreate?
I still just love using gestures to colour-pick and undo/redo. I’m at the point now where I’m so used to it that I’ll tap my physical sketchbook with two fingers when I mess up.
Is there a particular skill or technique that you’re currently trying to develop or improve in your art?
I’m really interested in developing my portfolio towards work in visual development and character design for feature animation. Lately I’ve been working on poses and expression sheets - it’s really motivating to work on my weaknesses and expand my comfort zone! Overall I’m just hoping to show in my work how much I care about storytelling. The recent years of animated movies have been so inspiring, and I want to be a part of that!
What were some of your professional highlights in 2018?
This year was a big one! The biggest professional highlight was the release of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. I had the opportunity to do a lot of character design with Activision/Toys For Bob to bring the purple dragon back, and the launch was really rewarding. The release of Sleep Tight, an indie game I designed for on the Nintendo Switch, and the announcement of Soundfall, an upcoming indie I had a lot to do with, have both been really exciting as well.
Can you tell us about any projects you’re looking forward to this year?
I wish I could say as much as I’d like to say… but there are a number of secret projects I’m involved in currently that I’m excited about. I can say that I’m working on a series of covers for a re-issue of the Wingfeather Saga book series that I care about a great deal. Also, I’m aiming to finally produce an art book from the personal work I’ve been pouring into Jellybots - a story I’ve conceived and chipped away at for years - by the end of 2019!