Sunday, March 5, 2017

Remembering John Watkiss 1961 - 2017

John Watkiss 1961-2017
John Watkiss, the brilliant animation artist famous for his stunning visual development work on "Tarzan", has been taken by cancer at the far-too-young age of 55

I first met John when I was just 16, when I used to tag along with my sketchpad at the life drawing classes that he taught at my father's old animation studio in Soho Square, and later at "The Diorama" Arts Centre in Regent's Park.

John wouldn't just tell you how to improve your work - he would sit down and show you how to make it better.  Anyone who attended his class took home his drawings - on the corner of the page, mocking your own unskilled efforts, and encouraging you to do better.

At the time I thought all art teachers did this.  It was only later that I found out how few teachers have the confidence and ability to personally correct their students' work. John knew he was better than the rest of us put together, and he didn't hesitate to show you where you had gone wrong.

John Watkiss, photographed by Richard Keith Wolff
Later, in the pub, John would surround himself with his admirers, and demand that everyone tell them if they were for Plato or Aristotle - "are you a Platonist or an Aristotelian?".  I didn't even know what the question meant, but I definitely felt I ought to, and pretended that I did.

I ran into John again in the 1990s, when I moved to Los Angeles to work in Hollywood on animated films. John was there doing fabulous visual development art for Disney's Tarzan. The look and feel of that film owes much to his talent.  

John was good friends with cinematographer Richard Wolff, and he often came to Richard and Odile's house in Glendale for Sunday lunch - just across the street from where I was living at the time.  One Sunday I took his son for a hike in the canyon above the house - and returned him to his appalled parents covered in the rash caused poison oak. I felt like an idiot for not knowing what poison oak was - or how to avoid it.

Returning to London in 2007 I tried (rather half-heartedly) to get in touch with John - but unlike most of us in the creative industries, neurotically connected to social media, John didn't do Facebook or Linked In. So I never did track him down.

And now it's too late.


To see more of John Watkiss's work, follow the link to his official site. And you can see his Wikipedia page here, with an excellent photo generously provided by photographer Richard Keith Wolff.

There is also a tribute to him at Cartoon Brew

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