Meet the Faculty! - Paul Tobin and Nick Keller

Announcing a fabulously exciting event for TLCWorkshops - we have not one, but two Senior Concept Artists from Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand coming to teach a joint workshop this May. Let me show you what you're in for:


Paul Tobin, a New Zealand native has been employed by Weta Workshop as a concept designer on film, television and computer game projects. He has most recently completed work on Sir Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, and has also worked on James Cameron's Avater (2009) and Andrew Hamilton's The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005, 2008). In addition to his role as a concept designer, Paul also conceived, art directed and designed Weta Workshop's book The Crafting of Narnia and co-designed The World of Kong, A Natural History of Skull Island. 

In 2009, Paul created White Cloud Worlds-Science Fiction and Fantasy Art from New Zealand, which currently entails two art anthology books, a touring exhibition and educational workshops. When time allows, Paul also works as a freelance concept designer and illustrator and is a frequent speaker at universities and conventions worldwide.


Nick Keller also currently works as a senior concept artist at Weta Workshop. Since 2006, he has worked on a number of film projects including The Chronicles of Narnia, Avatar, Indiana Jones 4, and most recently The Hobbit trilogy.

He spends his days at Weta working digitally in Photoshop and in his spare time enjoys painting with traditional media, creating fantastical and surreal imagery, mainly in oils. Such projects include collaborations with a variety of bands illustrating album work. Nick has also contributed to Volumes I and II of White Cloud Worlds. His most recent work can also be seen in The Hobbit Chronicles: Art and Design book series.


What is the most exciting thing you've learned recently?

Paul: That I don't suck as much as I thought. :-) Unfortunately once the coffee has worn off and the challenges of the working day hit, this quickly evaporates. You are forced to lift your game again and work harder. I guess the exciting thing about my job is that it's always different which means you learn something new constantly.

Nick: Exploring and developing skills with traditional mediums/techniques in tandem with modern conceptual technology in the digital realm. For example, while continuing to pursue oil painting I have just started to dip my toe into the digital sculpting world of Zbrush. A long way to go, but the possibilities are very exciting.



How do you battle through rough patches? What drives you forward?

Paul: Well, concept design is a lot like a battle; you get wounded, your friends pick you up and carry you back to safety. A break usually allows you to develop thicker skin and your scars-though still visible, heal. At the end of the day you need to have the drive and passion to keep investing in what you are designing, and know that friends who undergo similar creative challenges will be there for you if you fail.

Nick: Quite often the most significant artistic growth comes from the most difficult and painful projects (and quite often mistakes). I know that through perseverance the rewards will be worth it. I guess this is analogous with a lot of things in life.


What do you wish you had known earlier in your career?

Paul: How to draw in the classical sense. With no Atelier-style schools or traditional animation schools in NZ, I was mostly self taught or just got lucky with the odd good tutor. I was mostly self taught or just getting lucky with the odd good tutor. I would have loved to have attended a school that focused on drawing and anatomy. I have always found that the ideas come easy, it's conveying them technically that has been the frustration.

Nick: Don't try to second-guess what a client may or may not want at the outset of a project. They have engaged you to create your own unique vision of their belief. If your designs are timid or generic you are doing yourself and them a disservice. Don't be afraid to throw something out of left field into the conceptual mix. Far out conceptual ideas and rational, deeply thought out design are not mutually exclusive things. You should strive to achieve both.

Also, as a successful artist, you need to cultivate your technical and creative skills as well as your marketing/business skills. For a long time I naively thought that the quality of the former should negate the latter..... Not so much, I'm afraid.


What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?

Paul: So many to choose from. Here's a few:

Guillermo Del Toro: "Give your design a singular conceit."

Richard Taylor: "Finish one train of thought before starting another."

John Howe: "Let the weight of the pencil do the work."

Nick: "Life is too short to be content making a living doing something you don't enjoy. Whatever your creative passion is, you owe it to yourself to attempt to make a go of it."


At this stage in your career, what is your dream project?

Paul: My own project. I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked on a number of my dream projects, so for me now it's about taking all my experience and passion and focusing it upon on my own narrative and design ideas. At this stage, I am not sure if it's a film, a game or just an illustrated book, but for me there has always been the desire to create my own worlds. Hopefully I get to realize this.

Nick: Well up until several years ago I would have said conceptual illustration for a film version of The Hobbit. Since that has become a reality, my dream project would be...remembering my dreams enough to be able to paint them.... Seriously though, I find these days I'm more interested in exploring my own creative visions through illustration. In terms of pre-existing worlds created by others, I'm most intrigued by those that blur the lines between science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes when those two meet the results are not good, but when it's done well...it's something quite special.


What's one thing your students will take away from your workshop?

Paul: Hopefully the love of a kiwi accent, but that might be a stretch. :-)

Instead, I hope they take away two things: inspiration and integrity.

For me, concept design is the sum of your life experiences channeled through your technical ability to a brief. The more knowledge you have in areas outside of design, the richer your ideas and design will be. So seeking inspiration in all aspects of life is paramount.  Once you have the inspiration you need to channel concepts with integrity and conviction. If a client asks difficult questions, wants you to rationalize your design, you need to know that your idea is solid and the design it is based upon has a sense of integrity.

Nick: Hopefully the ability to start thinking deeply about the rational behind what makes for good conceptual design and not just a pretty picture. Concept art and concept design are two different things. We want to create rich worlds that extend far beyond one still image.


Nick and Paul are teaching 2D Concept Design, May 16-18th.  Registration opens on January 25th.

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