16 Questions with Concept Artist Marc Taro Holmes

Marc graduated with a BFA from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1995 and enjoyed a 12 year career Art Directing video games. He’s now living and working in Montreal, doing concept art and illustration for games, books and films.
Past projects include Dragon Age, Halo Wars, Age of Empires 3, Lord of the Rings Online, Neverwinter Nights, and Baldur’s Gate.
1. How did you first get
involved with Urban Sketchers? Tell us a bit about what it is.
Urban Sketchers is an international, grass roots drawing movement.
We call our artist/writers correspondents. We have people in
every country, and most major cities. Artists go out on location, sketch from
life, then share their drawings online, usually with some writing to tell the
story.  Some people post daily, some just
as ‘often as possible’. It tends to be on a blog or sometimes a flickr stream,
or lately on the facebooks and the twitters. My own blog is at: http://citizensketcher.wordpress.com/
We have one international blog with 100 handpicked artists
in (very) slow rotation (http://www.urbansketchers.org/), and hundreds of  city-focused groups. Google any major city and
you’ll find someone doing urban sketching. Here’s the global directory: http://www.urbansketchers.org/p/global-sketchers-directory.html).
We’re known for meeting and drawing with anyone who wants to
come out. All skill levels, no special materials required. One of our basic
goals is building visual literacy. Introducing people to drawing as a
communication skill they can add to any part of life.
We also have a workshop program – some are local events, but
once a year hundreds of people gather in one city. This summer it’s in August,
in Paraty Brazil (short bus trip from Rio or Sao Paulo). Registration for that
just opened: http://paraty2014.urbansketchers.org/
How I got involved:
I was living in San Francisco, drawing for Sega at the time,
and later for Disney. An animator at Pixar (Enrico Casarosa) had started a Bay
Area drawing flashmob he called World Wide Sketchcrawl. (It’s still going on
today, they are a great group, based on a web-forum rather than individual
I was going to their events, along with all the other social
drawing I was doing, and found it a great way to experience this new city. Only
problem was they only held meet ups quarterly – so when I heard about Urban
Sketchers (a chance to do it ‘every day’, not just every so often) I jumped on
board! I had already been blogging my drawing activity (is a common thing in the
games industry – blogs come out of programmer culture), so it was a natural
thing for me.
Turns out, I like writing as much as I like drawing, so I’ve
kept at it for years.
2. Do you find yourself being more vulnerable with your
drawings on location than in the studio? Do you think this affects the overall
truthfulness of your drawing in terms of the emotions it evokes or the overall
feeling of the place/person?
“More vulnerable” – hmmmm – I don’t think so – in
the sense that drawing on location is a rush of activity for me. It’s intensely
focused, no time for any stray thoughts – I get deep in the zone. I feel a bit euphoric
when a drawing is going well. And just irritable when it isn’t. So I don’t think
I’d describe it as a vulnerable feeling. I’ve never been shy about working in
front of people if that’s what you mean.
Drawing in the studio on the other hand is more leisurely,
and I generally have higher expectations, so I have more time for perfectionism
and anxiety about results. That’s why I much prefer working on location.
“Truthfulness” is one aspect of the Urban
Sketchers manifesto that I never fully understood. Does that have some
implication that one can make a false drawing? If I drew it, then that’s how I
translated reality through my eye to brain to hand coordination. It’s
automatically true to my understanding in the moment, even if it’s nothing like
the actual scene. (If you go back to where I stood and compare, I’m not
actually a very accurate sketcher. I’m after an impression, not a
I feel like you can’t make a false drawing. Unlike a
painting, where you can work in a labored style, a drawing is direct –
unfiltered. Ok, I guess I mean an ink drawing. I suppose I can make a rendered pencil
drawing that’s so perfect it’s devoid of personality – but when I draw directly
in ink, especially with a brush, I feel more like a conduit than a filter.
3. I love the idea of sketching as a form of journalism or
documentary. Do you feel a sense of citizen-of-the-world duty when you are out
commenting on the world around you with lines and washes of colour?

I am starting to think a lot about this. Initially I drew
simply to get better at drawing. These days I’m thinking a lot more about what
I’d like to be capturing. It’s tricky, cuz you can’t always be where you want
to be on any given day. There’s pesky problems with time and money. So yes, I’m
much more conscious now of planning my locations.
When you look back through your sketchbooks, can you associate
an emotion or flash of memory from when you initially sketched the image? (Much
like one does when feeling nostalgic from hearing music that represented a
certain time in one’s life.)
Definitely. Drawings recall for me all sorts of abstract feelings.
That music analogy would be perfect if I was a big music fan 🙂 Looking at a
drawing I remember what I was feeling about a place, if it was inspiring (like
Angkor Wat), or shocking like Havana, grungy or annoying like some of New York
City 🙂  I always recall the physical
experience (the weather, the food, the effort of drawing), At least I think I’m
remembering it – it’s possible I’m remembering it the way I wanted to. I know I
edit, romanticize – give my version of a place. So I’m probably writing down
the memory the way I want to recall it. That’s why it’s a journal, rather than
a documentary.
4. Sketching seems to have become part of your daily life
– as though your sketchbook and pen/brush have become extensions of your arms.
In thinking about that, what would you say is the most important aspect or
process of what you do that makes you want to wake up and do it again the next

Drawing from observation has really changed my view on life.
I used to work entirely from reference and imagination. I
was a big reader and gamer, and later a game designer professionally. I’d often
say, I don’t care where I am, everything important is in my head.
I come from a small city in northern Alberta, so this might
have been self-defense 🙂
At some point it completely flipped. I realized what I
really wanted was to be out in the world, experiencing things first hand.
Drawing on location is a way of absorbing the world. It’s a lifestyle where
you’re constantly seeking new things. Living in permanent composition mode – just
walking to the grocery store I’m seeing paintings in the making all around. It’s
a really satisfying way to move through life. Being receptive to things,
finding the art in everything.
5. Is boredom a motivator, or inspiration generator, for
your creative process? Do you allow yourself to grow bored? I ask only because
of something I read once about boredom being a possible key to creativity. Or
do you see it a different way?

I’m very easily bored – that is, if I don’t have pen and
paper.  (Or my phone. I write and draw on
the phone all the time).
As long as I can be drawing, I’m good. So I would agree with
that. Sketching is a defense against ADD or ennui or what have you. I’m sure
I’m very annoying to people – drawing while talking to them. Like going out to
dinner with people – unless my wife physically stops me, the instant I’m done
eating I’ll pick up a sketchbook and start to use the ‘down time’ at the table.
Very anti-social really. I like to think I can talk while I draw, but I bet it
doesn’t make for good conversation for others. 
I like to hang out with artists, as we tend to understand the impulse to
get together and not talk. I’m probably part way down the autism spectrum in
this respect.
6. Do you think that living a
creative life is a calling, or more of a determined choice? Some feel like they
couldn’t escape it if they tried, but I wonder if it could be more mechanical
than that, as well, or simply a matter of forming a disciplined habit. Perhaps
it’s all of the above. What are your thoughts?

It seems to be a calling, for which you need to make
determined choices.
I often think, “What do people do with themselves if they’re
not artists?”. It seems like you’d have so much empty space in your life.
Then I also think, “Man, look at all those easy jobs. You could just work
somewhere. People just give you money to talk to other people. What a concept!”
So I don’t understand what goes on outside of the artist life, but sometimes I
have a “greener grass” reaction.
I think art is not actually an important or responsible
Nobody needs-needs it, it’s self-indulgent, it’s the
ultimate luxury. Society’s need for art sits way down the hierarchy of food and
shelter, and for most people, further still below entertainment and
distraction. So it’s a hard way to make a living. It’s both difficult to do,
immensely time consuming, and not tangibly valuable. Not a smart life choice. Unless
you’re getting something from it that can’t found any other way.
7. Do you find that there is a digestion process even
after your work is “completed”? Describe what it’s like for you when it’s time
to walk away from something you’ve been working on.

I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t like overworked
drawings. I think you can develop an instinct for “one more thing and I’m
going to wish I’d stopped”. I’ve heard other artists say that too. It’s
like a spider sense. “Mmmmmmm, better stop before I lose what I got”. Working
on location, or from the model, enforces a time limit. I prefer it, being kept
on a clock, knowing the pose or the light is fleeting.
I know if I do ten pieces a day, every day, one or two will
be good, one a week will be really satisfying, and the rest were just part of
the process. Sometimes I just keep the best few drawings a day and toss the
The “digestion” process is an ongoing culling –
curating what I came away. That’s why I prefer drawing on loose paper to
working in sketchbooks. Though, I do use books when I’m traveling – but I cut
out pages or paste in new drawings. Whatever it takes to be satisfied. I’m
quite a ruthless editor.
8. You used to direct art in the video games industry, now
you work freelance. Do you feel the freedom you now have trumps the job
security? Is it something you would recommend to others, given that they have
the skill and fortitude to dig in and find contracts?

Hah! No, no, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone. It’s
terribly insecure and doesn’t seem to give you a whole lot more creative
freedom. Though it is exactly as advertised on the flexible schedule. That’s
nice. But overall, I couldn’t honestly recommend it to people with any responsibilities.
I was ruined at an early age, directing my first projects
right out of art school. It made me a terrible team player. I’m only suited for
Independent production these days, or a limited type of design work where they want
exactly what I do.
It is, as they say, quite a pickle! So the theory is,
sticking with my own work will be worth it in the long run 🙂
9. Speaking of which, how do you find contracts? Do you
think you would have gone freelance without first spending time in the industry
that you did?

No, I couldn’t have managed it without personal contacts.
Everything I get seems to be via people I’ve worked with in the past.  My corner of the industry (historical and
fantasy RPG games) is fairly small.
10. Describe a day in the life …

What’s consistent is that it’s not consistent. I’m working
on those unannounced projects, keeping up with my blogging, I’m trying to build
up a studio art practice at the same time, I’ve been teaching art part time to
test out my theories on humans. Lots of long term projects, no set routine
right now. Suffice to say any given day involves a few hours of drawing though. 
Who/what is your biggest influence?

Ooooo, that’s hard. It’s a wide field. In the post-web era
things are more diffused. From old master artists to comic book illustrators,
to writers – it’s never been one thread. I take a lot of inspiration from
artists who did things their own way, became entrepreneurs – from Rembrandt to
Steven King, from Sargent to Katsuhiro Otomo. I like what Audubon did, so I
like Walton Ford. I’m a fan of Banksy, but I think he’s a bit of a smarty
I like painters that have visual guts – Jenny Saville, Alex
Kanevsky. Illustrators that evolved in front of our eyes like Brad Holland. Or
that cross over to fine art, like Phil Hale. I’m following this one guy Kent
Williams – started in genre/comics art, branched out. James Jean is another
like that. Tomer Hanuka, Jason Shawn Alexander are two more. Paul Pope for this
too. I like this artist Jillian Tamaki, for her seeming ease crossing between editorial
 illustration, comics and teaching in the
In other ways, I’m going to say the whole urban sketching
phenomena is a huge inspiration. We’ve created a never ending lifestyle of art.
Social media gives us a whole new spin on art movements. It’s not just the
Group of Seven any more (Canadian reference!).
Do you have any tips to help us be present and mindful in our environments?
For me, the answer is learn to break the pen and paper
barrier quickly and often.
Have a book in your bag at all times. Never hesitate to make
a five minute sketch. Push aside any judgment about quality. Judge yourself in
page count not by the success of individual images. Become part of the
conversation, get your work out to people. You’ll be rewarded by the constant
engagement with the world.
What has been your favorite project that you’ve done so far?

This is easy – whatever I’m doing at a given moment. Every
drawing is my favorite when I’m doing it! So right now it’s the latest book
project I’m working on, – but unfortunately I can’t talk you about yet, it
would be a little premature. I’ll be able to make an announcement in a few
I’m fairly proud of my past video games, particularly
Neverwinter Nights. It’s funny thinking about it now – it was a Dungeons and
Dragons adventure RPG, but it kind of shared a lot of mindset with Urban
Sketchers – in that it was a community driven, peer to peer phenomena based on
free sharing of peoples’ stories.
Can you tell us what you are currently working on?

Whoops, like I said – actually I can’t! It’s not yet
announced, but I hope to be able to talk about it soon.
Of course, there’s the work with Urban Sketchers, which is
ongoing. We’re making plans to expand the site and deepen the kind of reportage
we’re doing. There are regionals constantly forming. A big group in Hong Kong
just launched the other day. So we’re trying to stay ahead, building a useful
infrastructure to keep inspiring the movement.
I’m also working on a small ebook venture to be completed
this summer – kind of a mini sketching documentary, but that’s in the early
stages. I’ve been hinting at that for a while now, but now I’m actually working
on it, so that’s a start 🙂 I’m still deciding if I’ll take it to crowd funding
for wider publication or leave it as a free download. Will see!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as an artist?

Draw every day. Pretty basic I suppose but that’s my core
I’m not big on taking advice – just not smart that way, but
that one stuck. The 10 thousand hour rule and all that.
I like something Kanevsky said in an interview, to the
effect of, act as if your work is earth shatteringly important, while at the
same time hating everything you do. I think it’s true, you need simultaneous
complete confidence and a self-critical drive to do better. People who only
have one of either of those get stuck for differing reasons.
Also, “Burn your boats”. An artist who has some
other choice as to their manner of making a living will probably end up doing that.
It’s easiest to stick with art if you leave yourself no other options.

When is the next meeting for Urban Sketchers Montreal?
  How can people get involved?

USK:MTL meets the fourth Sunday of every month. We usually
have the next meeting place up at the top of our blog here: http://urbansketchersmontreal.wordpress.com/
Anyone is welcome! Just show up with some kind of pen and
paper, and a desire to draw.
We also have small, but growing flickr group up here: https://www.flickr.com/groups/uskmontreal/
So, people can get started posting there even if they can’t
make it out to the Sunday Sketching events.
And thanks very much for having me over for a chat –
virtually speaking 🙂

Wow Marc! Thanks for indulging us. Now that spring is actually showing up in Montreal, I hope to get out there and sketch with you. 

Find Marc all over the inter-webs, including at Citizen Sketcher and Tarosan

More about Julie Prescesky

Julie spends much of her time paying attention to what's happening around her. At Design Inkarnation, she's head designer, illustrator, writer and creative problem solver.

    1. Excellent questions and excellent answers. Spooky how the themes are the same for all urban sketchers, either we've all been bodysnatched or it's all true and real. Congratulations on a great read.

      1. Thanks for you comment Róisín. I find the whole idea of urban sketching to be very alluring. My goal is to head out more this year. It was great "chatting" with Marc – very inspiring.

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