Interview: Marc Taro Holmes

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by Drink & Draw MTL on October 28, 2011

Marc Taro Holmes is an artist and illustrator who has called Montreal home for almost a year. After working as an art director and concept artist at various US-based game and film studios including Microsoft, Sega, and Disney, he and his wife returned to Canada (he’s originally from Edmonton) where he continues to freelance and pursue his personal work.

Marc’s rich plein-air drawings and watercolours first caught our eye on Urban Sketchers, a website featuring the delicious sketch-work of over 100 talented location artists from around the world. We chatted about location drawing tips, what’s new at Urban Sketchers, and what you do when someone steals your art off the internet and sells it as their own!

DRINK & DRAW: First off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.

Marc Holmes: Ok, well Hello there Drink & Draw readers. Marc Taro Holmes here. I’m an artist and illustrator. Right now I’m mostly doing book illustration and video game design, and of course my own paintings. In my personal work I’m doing a lot of drawing and painting on location. Out in the streets of Montreal, or wherever we’re traveling. I’m art-blogging on my own site CitizenSketcher, and also drawing for Urban Skechers.

I’m in my first year working for myself, which is a big change. I was living [in the US] long enough to use up my work visa. I had to make a decision whether or not to apply for permanent resident status. But honestly games isn’t the kind of business where you settle down and start a six-year green card application. It’s just too unstable. Companies are always closing down or cancelling projects—it’s a very unpredictable environment. And more importantly, I’ve been getting more and more interested in my own art. The more I develop my drawing, the less interested I am in doing other people’s ideas.

So I took an opportunity created by a mass layoff (450+ artists jobless in one swoop!) to move back home. We could have gone anywhere in Canada I suppose, but Montreal seemed like the most seductive city. It feels like being on holiday in Europe every day.


D&D: When did you first start drawing on location? How did leaving the studio and drawing in “plein air” affect your technique and practice?

MH: You could say I got into plein air around 2007—through the World Wide Sketchcrawl events in San Francisco. Sketchcrawl is an international flashmob sketching marathon invented by Enrico Casarosa and a group of artists from Pixar. I was doing those events, and having a lot fun, wishing they were more often, and I realized, “Hey, wow, I can go outside and sketch any time I want!”

A few years back I decided it was time to really learn to draw. Instead of going back to school, I went to life drawing. A lot. Like, two or three times a week. For a few years. That’s about a thousand drawings a year. I was just doing a ton of 5, 10 and 20 minute figure drawings.

That isn’t really plein air, but it’s the same issues. Working on your toes, drawing under an urgent time limit. Drawing from perception, rather than imagination. Learning to harness traditional materials to do all sorts of things you can’t do digitally. Once you start drawing from life, the complexity of drawing really opens up. Drawing from imagination is by definition refining a formula. You’re doing the ‘style’ you do, and just getting better and better at it.

I found watercolour a very natural step from drawing. It just accumulated. From line work, to splashing colour on drawings, to painting. So if you can sketch, you can watercolour.

Recently, right here in Montreal, I took a few months of training with Eric Mannella and Allana Benham at Atelier Brésoles. Tremendously helpful. They have a strict course of academic drawing and painting; it’s a bit of a boot camp. Eric is a tough guy—you have to do it his way. But at the end of the day, you’ve learned things. Very high standards of draftsmanship; very clever ways of working. My accuracy in drawing probably doubled. I would recommend their school to any beginner-to-intermediate artist in Montreal. You can only get that sort of training in a few places. I’ve seen some great work come out of Waterstreet in New York, Safe House in San Francisco. These ateliers are around, but you have to hunt them down.

By the way, I’m not married to watercolour. I like it, it’s super-fast to do. And it’s portable so it works well for me with location work. But I do all kinds of media. I’m sure I’ll be doing oils more in the future, if I keep on the path from illustrator to fine artist.

D&D: You recently participated in the International Urban Sketching Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal. Tell us a bit more about Urban Sketchers, and what you got up to in Lisbon.

MH: Urban Sketchers is kind of a passion of mine. I’ve been involved since the beginning. We’re trying to do something cool with that. At the most basic, it’s just a lot of great artists sharing drawings of where they live and travel. Which is fun, and seems to be attracting a lot of attention on the web. But we do have some higher goals. We’re trying to build it up to where we can use our artwork to educate and enrich people’s lives. In the social, ‘understanding other cultures’ way of course, but also in direct ways, like teaching drawing skills that could be an income for people in poor countries. Or here at home for that matter.

We have plans for more workshops, and there are some thoughts about supporting individuals who are doing interesting projects. I guess I shouldn’t say much more than that right now but I have some high hopes for what we can do as a community of artists.

My recent trip to Lisbon was the second of our annual symposiums. I have to say it was pretty awesome. We had over 200 artists from 25 countries on hand. We did a full four days of drawing in the streets of this fantastic historical city, with some of the best views, weather and food you could ask for. A lot of us stayed on longer, so there were sketchers everywhere you went for well over a week. Locals were starting to come up and ask what was going on.

I was co-teaching with Filipe Leal De Faria of Lisbon, but also had time to take classes from Nina Johansson (Sweden), Gerard Michel (Belgium) and Florian Afflerbach (Germany). And had an epic 14-hour drawing day with Liz Steel of Australia.  It was a super experience. The chance to see that many people drawing in front of you, and to work on the same view together and see their solutions. It’s a tremendous way to learn. And it’s inspiring and validating that there are all these other people that want to do location drawing.

The best thing about Urban Sketchers, it’s the whole world in a sketchbook. There’s so much variety. Just aspects of people’s lives, or their favorite pub. This one guy, Peter Scully of Davis CA is obsessed with drawing fire hydrants. It’s amazing how many different kinds of fire hydrants the guy finds. I suppose I might call out the time last March when Kumi Matsukawa of Japan was painting and got interrupted by the earthquake. The unfinished drawing is quite eerie. Or Veronica Lawlor of New York who actually drew during the 9-11 towers collapsing (images below).

D&D: Most artists rarely think twice about posting their artwork online these days, but you recently had the experience of someone illegally printing and selling your paintings and drawings under a different name in Phoenix, AZ! How did you find out about it, and what did you do?

MH: I was quite lucky, a random person who bought a print from the imposter gave all the evidence to me on a platter. He’s from Australia, but happened to know a model I had drawn in Montreal, via Facebook. He saw my drawing of her and connected it with the print he had just bought from Arizona. He then went and did a bunch of legwork for me, and gave me all the dirt, and the emails and IP addresses of the culprits. The bad guy used over 100 sketches from my blog, many of which were simply ‘exercises’ I’d never intended to sell.

I managed to reach the bad guy’s web designer. I just got lucky this person was a nice guy, and not in on the scam. They took the site down when I proved what was happening. I don’t know what I’d have done if they had just refused to reply. I heard you can go to Google or to their ISP and ask for a block (if you have proof of IP theft). But it was enough work to do it the ‘social network’ way.

So its true what they say—wide spread self exposure is the best defense against image piracy. You need a world wide team of narcs. That or letting the bastards win and not broadcasting your art at all.

The bad guy actually still has an art show up in a coffee shop in Phoenix. It must look terrible—a whole show of printouts of low res jpgs.

D&D: Do you have any events or things of note coming up?

MH: This is a good time to plug our upcoming book, The Art of Urban Sketching: Drawing on Location Around the World. (The author is Gabriel Campanario, founder of Urban Sketchers and otherwise known as The Seattle Sketcher). It contains 600 illustrations, tips, interviews, and bios covering over 50 cities in 30 countries. It will be coming out very soon, I don’t have an exact street date but you can already pre-order on Amazon.

Interview by Aimée van Drimmelen

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