Mitch Bowler set up Pencil Kings to offer affordable art training to everyone
“I believe we really can make a difference to people’s artistic careers!”
In this podcast, award-winning artist, Shane Madden, talks to Mitch Bowler about Pencil Kings, art and inspiration.
As a seven-year-old exploding with excitement at the prospect of a new Nintendo title, the young Mitch Bowler already had a clear vision of what he wanted to be when he grew up. His vision of becoming a video game (VG) artist may have changed over the years, but his will and determination remain the same. When it comes to art, Mitch is in it for the long haul. And, since launching Pencil Kings a few years ago, he’s been overwhelmed by how many people have got on board and pursued their dreams, too.
His childhood ‘aha’ moment came with the launch of Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo in 1992. Although basic by today’s standards, this program allowed users to create custom stamps pixel by pixel and simple animations. Many of today’s leading video games developers have cited it as an inspiration, and the young Mitch was no different.
He soon began producing short animations for friends, before moving on to more advanced software such as 3D Studio Max and finally studying animation at uni in his native Winnipeg, Manitoba. While studying, he and his friends heard about a local production company, Frantic Films, who were looking for people to work on such titles as X-Men 2. Feeling pumped by this potential opportunity, Mitch and his buddies stayed up for three nights solid, perfecting their animation skills and producing a short film as their job application.
It worked. Mitch and his friend landed jobs at the company, and put everything they had into their roles. “I knew I wasn’t the best,” says Mitch, “but I was self-assured enough to think I could be if I put enough work in!”
Inspiration From The East
It’s a philosophy that’s stayed with Mitch ever since. And, when a career in the visual effects industry turned out to be not quite as fulfilling as he’d once thought, he jumped at the chance to move to China and become an English teacher. While working there, he was inspired by the country’s enthusiasm for art and video games – so much so, he incorporated it into his teaching!
“I remember one student in particular, ” he recalls. “He was dyslexic and there wasn’t really any provision for this in the Chinese education system at the time. Through talking to him, I discovered he had a real passion for 3D animation – it was like he was able to express himself through this in ways he found impossible with language. I started mentoring him and he made amazing progress – in fact, he’s now one of the top VG artists in China!”
Once his contract ended, Mitch moved to LA, where he worked on numerous big projects under the expert guidance of Chris Bond. Feeling inspired, he then returned to China to set up a VG art studio with a friend.
“They were some of the best times I’ve ever had”, he laughs. “We set up our company working from one small apartment, and we’d spend many a night just playing video games and having fun.”
Tragedy and Starting Again
They were great times indeed, but the party was soon cut short. Life has a nasty habit of throwing a curveball sometimes, and the tragic loss of his girlfriend after falling into a coma prompted Mitch to move back home and start again. It’s a traumatic experience he says he’s yet to get over fully.
Unsure of what to do next, he applied for a job at Activision and tried to cope by throwing himself into his work. While here, he got to work on big titles such as DJ Hero and Transformers, but it was a small sideline project that was to pave the way for the future.
“I originally set up Drawing Coach for fun in my spare time,” he says, “but I was amazed at how popular it became! In truth, I’d started to feel like my passion for working in the games industry had gone, but this provided me with a whole new direction.”
It was around this time that Mitch got another idea. Having looked in disbelief at the average cost of an art education ($40,000 per year), he started to wonder if there was another way. And, with that, Pencil Kings was born.
“It’s been almost four years since we started,” he says, “and I’m constantly amazed at how far our members have come. There are lots of free art tutorials on YouTube etc., but how do you decide what’s good or bad? Who do you talk to when you need help? This is something we can offer at Pencil Kings – I believe we really can make a difference to people’s artistic careers!”
Pencil Kings And Looking Towards The Future
So what does the future hold for Pencil Kings? “We’ve worked with professional artists for eight years now, so I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on what people want,” explains Mitch. “I like to read a lot, and I’m always fascinated by the psychology of education. The success of our recent Figure Drawing Challenge was truly inspiring – it was awesome to see just how much progress people can make in a short time if you give them the tools to do it!”
Looking back at the Nintendo-crazy seven-year-old he once was, Mitch says he’d probably do things a little differently if he could have his time again. “I’d ask the young me ‘how would you change things?’ or ‘is what you’re doing helping anyone?’”
“Working in the VG industry was fun and financially rewarding…but unfulfilling. When I get an email from someone telling me how Pencil Kings has changed their life – now that’s what I call rewarding!”
Mitch’s advice for young artists is to never give up on their dream. He says: ” I’d encourage anyone who wants to become an artist to have clear goals, find role models, and reach out to them. You’ll be amazed at how many established artists out there are willing to help!”
Listen to this week’s show and learn:
- Why self-belief can help you as an artist
- Why you should never be afraid to try new things
- How role models can help you find your direction
People on this Episode:
Mentioned in the episode:
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