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  • Ethan Nicolle

Zombie Meatloaf: A Conversation About Creativity and Fatherhood with PvZ Designer Rich Werner



I’ve asked Plants VS Zombies character designer Rich Werner to join me for a discussion of arting and dadding. Our friendship began with mutual admiration of the other’s work, and soon blossomed into full-on Facebook friendship. Through that ongoing interaction, I have seen Rich post regular bits and pieces of projects and artwork he has done with or for his kids. I wanted to talk to Rich about being a dad and an artist.

Ethan: Rich, thanks so much for joining me for a good old fashioned chat. I’m a big fan of your art, but as I have followed you on Facebook I have been fascinated to see how much you embrace being an artist and a dad all at once. I am sure both of us have done plenty of interviews about our techniques and inspirations, so I wanted this one to be all about being a dad who draws.

You rarely hear artists talk about kids unless they are cursing their existence or swearing never to have any. I have met a lot of people in Hollywood who seem to think having kids stifles your productivity and creativity. I had the same fears when I was single, but I always wanted a family. Now that I have one, I feel the opposite is true. I have never been so creative or so productive in all my life. How has having kids affected your productivity and the material you make?



Above - Ghosts in love. A rendering of a drawing my kids left on the whiteboard in the kitchen. (by Ethan Nicolle)

Rich: First of all, I want to thank you for reaching out to me to talk about this topic. I have been such a huge fan of your work as well. I remember the first time I saw a page from Axe Cop online. I about cried laughing and I just loved everything about it!! Anyway, I could go on and on about your many talents, but I suppose I should answer the question.

It is crazy how much inspiration having children can be on your productivity, and especially the material itself. After having my first daughter, I started picking up on all the subtleties of baby and toddler behavior and started implementing it in my art. Just watching her rolling around and playing was fascinating. I had tried drawing kids and what I thought kid actions and situations would be like in the past, but you just don’t really understand it and can’t pick it up unless you are witnessing it on a day to day basis. I look back on some of the older stuff I had done before having kids, and I can tell that it was coming from someone with no experience.

Once my daughter was at the age of playing with toys and using her imagination, it inspired me to do an entire series of illustrations called “Monsters and Me”, all of the illustrations were of kids playing with Monsters. Not being afraid of them. Then at one point, when she started drawing and painting, I would take her doodles and add to them to make full illustrations. It was so fun! I have 3 kids now, and so I have 3 times the inspiration! Sometimes, I just sit listening to them tell stories and I see these pictures in my head. I used to take notes so that one day I could make comics with the stories.


One of the "Monster and Me" series - by Rich Werner

I know that having children has influenced my style and subject matter through the years and I am curious; have you noticed a change in your style and or subject matter now that you have kids? How much of an influence has it been so far?

Ethan:(Thanks so much for the Axe Cop love) When I started dating my wife, she already had two kids from a previous marriage. I jumped right into drawing with them, and I bought them each sketchbooks for us to draw in together. I think if I’ve learned anything from doing art with kids, it’s that art is discovering. We make art to discover, but as we get older, often as adults we get this crazy idea that we’ve got it all figured out. We no longer create art to discover. Whatever we are doing, we are creating to make a point, preach a message, or form something in our own image, or from our own head. I think it’s important to remember that creativity is a process of discovery, no matter how skilled you have gotten. In fact, I think we should think of ourselves as discoverers first, and creators second.


"Dog Cat Shark Rainbow" created with my daughter, Lily - by Ethan Nicolle

I’ve definitely done a lot of turning scribbles and doodles into full illustrations with my younger siblings (I have two sisters who are 17-18 years younger than me and my brother who is 24 years younger) and with my kids. I even do it with my 2 year old, even though she continually scribbles over the drawing throughout the process. I like to go through a stack of paper just drawing and smashing playdough, and making whatever comes out in the moment. She loves it, but to keep her attention I have to keep it fast paced.

"...If I’ve learned anything from doing art with kids, it’s that art is discovering. We make art to discover, but as we get older, often as adults we get this crazy idea that we’ve got it all figured out. We no longer create art to discover. Whatever we are doing, we are creating to make a point, preach a message, or form something in our own image, or from our own head. I think it’s important to remember that creativity is a process of discovery..."

How involved do you get in your kids’ school projects? Do you ever go to their schools to draw for their classes? I’ve earned a good amount of stepdad points helping my step daughter with projects from school.

Rich: First I have to say that I LOVE the idea of being a discoverer before a creator. That is a great way to put it. As you already know from experience, sitting in the wings, so to speak, and watching your kids, little brother and/or sister, just draw is pretty amazing. The free spirit and lack of filter is actually quite inspiring. As you get older you lose some of this, and I think having your kids around you helps get you back to that frame of mind a little. I must admit, I have used some of their ideas in more than one project as inspiration.


Octogeddon and Littlest Daughter - by Rich Werner

I help with school projects for sure, but so does my wife. We both throw in a helping hand when they need it. I do have to admit though that sometimes I want to just DO the project hahaha. I’ll get a crazy idea in my head and want to just make it, but instead of that I started going down another artistic avenue with them. I often volunteer as an Art Docent at my kid’s school. Unlike most docent pre-made lessons, I just go to the class with paper and pencils and use a projector. We vote on what to draw (first requests usually involve Plants VS Zombies), and then on the fly I will go step-by-step and teach them how to draw whatever we had voted on. It is such a blast. At the end of the class, everyone gets up and we walk around to all the different drawings and see how awesome everyone did. Sort of like an impromptu gallery show. In about an hour we get through 2-3 drawings. In the beginning of a lesson I usually try to teach a basic skill like shading, shadows, or maybe some perspective, and then we use some of that in our drawings for the rest of the lesson. I think they get a lot out of just doing it hands on. Having graphite stains on your hands at the end of a class is like a badge of honor to them!


Daughter's first painting, I added to it it - by Rich Werner

I’m pretty sure the answer would have to be yes, but do you think your siblings and/or kids have benefited from having you be around doing art for and with them? I can’t help but feel it has to have a positive impact. They don’t teach enough of the arts in school these days, so having someone like yourself to look up to and who is willing to teach them and create with them has got to be an awesome thing!


A quail made of clay and feathers. -A School Project by Ethan and Lily

Ethan: It’s an interesting question I think about a lot. Malachai has never made much of an attempt to draw, and I often worry that maybe by drawing for him so much I robbed him of that great pleasure, but maybe I replaced it with something few kids get. He may have been detracted from any future in drawing (though I have never seen any signs that he was incredibly artistic), but he has been encouraged to be a creative brainstormer like no other kid I know, and it’s a muscle he has developed like no other kid I have witnessed. Being the Axe Cop guy, I have a lot of people submit their kids’ ideas to me, and they are great, but Malachai, especially over time, has this creative mental spout that has been trained to just gush forth with ideas. If one is shot down, he immediately has a new one. He isn’t precious about them at all. I wonder if, like a child who learned piano early can more easily become a virtuoso, if Malachai will become some sort of ridiculously awesome concept savant.

And, to be clear, I am not claiming credit for his talent. I think it was always there. I cultivated it, I think that is undeniable. The result is a combination of both, I think.

As for my other kids, I often wonder if they will get the art bug like I did. All my kids like to draw, but so far none of them have that hunger for it like I did. It was an addiction from my earliest years. They often say they want me to teach them, but they don’t have the patience for a real-life nuts and bolts drawing lesson. So I do various activities with them, but I don’t try to press the issue. If they are going to draw, they’ll do it. I never want to be the dad who pressures his kids to be miniature versions of himself.


Dog Dragon - by Rich Werner