Mark Fearing Q&A

November 22, 2021
Mark Fearing keeps his creative juices pumping by working on 20 projects at a time.

“The most valuable aspect of drawing is being able to share your unique experience of living. If that requires drawing well from life, by all means pursue that. But I most want to see the unique personality and POV of the artist, not just technical know-how. We’ve had realistic rendering and perspective down since the mid 15th century. I want to see and experience an original voice in work. That’s not to say well-crafted and intricately rendered work isn’t valid or worthwhile. It’s just one approach for a human being expressing themselves. And the tools you get from drawing from life may help you better express your idea, just as proper punctuation makes for easier comprehension of your writing. But we all know that a correctly punctuated piece of writing does not make it the most affecting and intriguing piece of writing. So how well you draw from reality isn’t as important as asking — am I communicating effectively my point of view? Can I make another person laugh, or smile, or cry, or see a bit of this thing we call reality in a new way. There is no right way to draw.”

You’re a visual genius, but your friends in high school also remember you as a dominating speech champion. Did you ever want to go in that direction? Do you get to use your speaking skills much in your career?

I don’t know about visual genius. I feel the struggles with my work too deeply to accept that term. But the short answer to the above question is yes. I was a theatre major in my first year of undergrad. I was cast as a freshman in U.W. Madison plays, but then I just lost interest. I think creative types tend to have many interests. But with acting, I think either you do it or you don’t. I felt it must be my singular focus or I best move on. Since I don’t have a good singing voice — Broadway might have paid me to stay away — and I am not leading man material, I didn’t see how I could build a career. I’m still not sure why I lost my interest in performing. I had one or two opportunities when I was living in L.A. to try out for things, one was as a host for a game-show type project but I didn’t do it. By that point I really didn’t want to be in front of a camera. And I don’t think I can memorize lines anymore. I do use my performance skills. I speak at schools, bookstores and libraries, teach classes on writing and drawing and pitch TV shows to individuals and groups. My history on stage and in speech and debate comes in handy for all of those encounters. I am not afraid of getting up in front of a crowd but I am way too distracted to want to focus on performance.

Your father was a legendary editorial cartoonist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Was drawing and paying attention to the news a big part of your childhood?

I was acutely politically aware as a kid. Way too aware. I was that kid in class that always won the current events quiz. I knew who the Prime Minister of the U.K. was, or what the name of the agriculture secretary was. I sound pretty, pretty cool, don’t I? And while I certainly loved to draw from an early age my father never pushed one aspect of creativity on me. He brought more than political cartooning to my attention. He loved a host of creative activities. From sculpture to painting and film making. Drawing is a fundamental aspect of a host of creative activities so his attention to drawing was inspiring as a jumping-off point into all kinds of creative undertakings.

You are so prolific. Can it be difficult to decide which idea to work on? 

Honestly, it’s kind of a nightmare. I’ve learned that deadlines and guardrails are often the only thing that tethers me to a project. Left on my own I wander down endless paths filled with distractions. I wish I had some wisdom to share here but all I can do is force myself to finish things. If I have an idea and I’m not sure if it is a graphic novel, a short story or an animated show — I force myself to pick one and create it as close to a final product as I can. So I might write a short story or a script or create a book dummy. And then I realize, it’s not that great in that form. And you start again. This is depressing. I have dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of malformed projects that don’t quite work. I always thought that one day I will be a real professional and won’t need to spend so much time getting things wrong. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened. I just keep having to do 20 projects for every one that can find a marketplace.

You spent many years as an art director at Sony and a production manager at Disney. Did you enjoy these positions? 

I did love those jobs, in general. But they are jobs at the end of the day. The talented people I met at those jobs still inspire and intimidate me. I am a Minnesotan at heart after all. But working in TV production you realize very quickly, it’s a fast-moving train, and deadlines are constant, and you have to wrangle dozens and maybe hundreds of people to get any one thing done and there are unimaginable obstacles each day that have to be overcome. If I was always age 25 I’d love doing that forever. But I’m not.

You both collaborate with authors, such as Middle School Bites with Steven Banks, and write and illustrate your own books. Was The Book That Eats People the one that jump-started your literary work?

The Book That Eats People was written by John Perry and we remain friends. It was the first book published by a large publisher that I was hired to illustrate. I suspect it’s because they couldn’t get someone else to do it. (Minnesota insecurity on display.) What it did was open a door to get a second book, a third book and a literary agent. The first book I authored and illustrated was a graphic novel called Earthling!. But I feel my writing has always been a somewhat uncomfortable fit in picture books. My picture book The Great Thanksgiving Escape is one of my most successful books as an author/illustrator and it is, let’s say, not an ordinary picture book at all. I have published five books that I have written and illustrated (another 19 or 20 that I illustrated only). Middle grade material better fits my voice as a writer and illustrator. I have a new series of middle grade graphic novels, the first one out next year, that take place in a small town I invented called Feral. (It’s Feral, Minnesota, but we never say Minnesota in the books.) The books are a weird mix of gothic horror and small town news, mixed with a kids POV. I think they are the closest thing I’ve come to in my writing to getting at the themes and elements I most enjoy.

You got an MFA in animation from UCLA, culminating in The Thing With No Head. Is animation as painstaking as it seems?

Animation is amazing and yes, it is as painstaking as you imagine it is. I love storytelling. And animation was a platform that let me tell stories in a slightly more immersive way. I never took the step into 3D animation techniques. I like hand drawing, and honestly I don’t think I have the intellectual vigor to work in 3D production. The amazing folks I know who do that have skill sets across technology and the arts that blow me away. But as a platform for telling a story, wow. I love it. I was also quite old when I went to grad school so I was looking at it very differently than I would have at 20. I didn’t finish my MFA; I accepted the job at Disney after my first-year project (The Thing with No Head) and at that point thought I wanted to go into development or be a creative executive. But I’m afraid I’m still addicted to actually doing the work. I realized I didn’t want to just attend meetings to decide on what work to do. So another career I investigated but ultimately didn’t want to stay in. That’s the theme of my life. Often to my detriment. I did create three animated shorts for DreamWorks Online called Book Reports which are on YouTube. I think they are owned by Paramount now. But you can look those up. Great fun to write and direct.

You live and work in Portland. How does the city inform your work?

I enjoy Portland, truly beautiful and awe-inspiring. But we are boring suburban parents now with a kid in high school and swim meets to drive to and dogs to take care of and — I don’t really get out into the Portland scene anymore. But it’s a fascinating city and a comfortable place to live. As long as you are OK with gray skies.

I’m someone who can’t draw at all and has always just accepted it wasn’t something I could do. But is that true? Could you teach someone like me to be at least passable?

There are many ways to teach drawing. I think some work better than others and anyone can improve with practice. I think drawing as taught in animation school is the best way to build confidence as it concentrates on gesture and form and thinking in 3D space. It’s how I teach drawing. But there’s a lot of confusion and miscommunication about drawing. And when I teach I try to address that. If you want to draw at a professional animation studio like Disney, and make that your career, there are technical aspects you will be expected to know. And a fairly high level of drawing from life is needed. Understanding form well enough to break it down to draw quickly. Historically, drawing well — quickly — is the key, not just drawing well. This was true when animating by cells and having 12-24 drawings a second. So a student who tells me they want to work at Pixar or as a professional in animation I would recommend life drawing, life sculpture and painting classes. Learn perspective and all that stuff that’s in every drawing book and get to a good animation school if possible. I think most people can greatly improve their drawing but I also think we all hit a wall at some point. But there is also great beauty and importance in drawing for fun, to share your POV, and as a way to experience living in this world. Commercially, too much emphasis is put on life drawing and the technical aspects of reproducing what we see on a 2D piece of paper. I have little interest in finely rendered work. I’ve seen too much of it. What I most enjoy when I see student and adult work is seeing the POV of the artist. The most valuable aspect of drawing is being able to share your unique experience of living. If that requires drawing well from life, by all means pursue that. But I most want to see the unique personality and POV of the artist, not just technical know-how. We’ve had realistic rendering and perspective down since the mid 15th century. I want to see and experience an original voice in work. That’s not to say well-crafted and intricately rendered work isn’t valid or worthwhile. It’s just one approach for a human being expressing themselves. And the tools you get from drawing from life may help you better express your idea, just as proper punctuation makes for easier comprehension of your writing. But we all know that a correctly punctuated piece of writing does not make it the most affecting and intriguing piece of writing. So how well you draw from reality isn’t as important as asking — am I communicating effectively my point of view? Can I make another person laugh, or smile, or cry, or see a bit of this thing we call reality in a new way? There is no right way to draw. And commercial success isn’t about technique, though there is an inherent marketplace push to enforce that idea. But look at the animation, commercial art and cartooning styles that find fans and success. It’s not all about that classical, life drawing inspired,1940’s Disney look (though I will say again, I very much enjoy that!). There’s all kinds of styles/ways to draw but the most important aspect is the ability of one human to reach across time and space with lines on paper and emotionally engage another human being. Have fun drawing and people will have fun looking at it.

What is next for you?

I had an animated show at Disney that was in development but it just got killed, so obviously that is not next. Book one in my new graphic novel series I wrote and illustrated will be released next year from Holiday House. I’m currently outlining and starting to write the second book in that series. I’m about to illustrate another middle grade novel and I have the usual three or four books (picture books and graphic novels) with notes from my agent on what I need to do to get them in shape for a successful submission. I have a few new animated pitches floating around and — who knows. I spent over 20 years in corporate work situations and while I relish my current schedule and the work I get to do, I do miss the structure at times. Freelancing means you do more work. I think we all know that. It’s as if there is an open field in front of me and most of my effort goes into picking a direction to run. Once you get moving, it’s all butter I tell you, but the responsibility, the effort and the energy you put into taking that first step is exhilarating, exhausting and scary. But so is life. You can check out my website @: markfearing.com and follow me on Instagram @markfearing.