Meet Roanoke-based illustrator and animator James Newton

Growing up in Illinois, one of James Newton's favorite movies was the 2004 animated film, “The Incredibles.” Specifically, he was drawn to the special feature on the DVD where Pixar took viewers behind the scenes to show how drawings of the superhero family were turned into a film.

“I didn't really understand how it all worked and so seeing that behind the scenes really gave me an idea of like, okay, maybe this is something I could actually do,” Newton says. “It was really cool to imagine that where I was as a kid, drawing on pieces of printer paper, could eventually become something like a big Pixar movie or something.”

His love of animation meant he spent a lot of time as a child drawing. Newton says he would draw animals he saw at the zoo, scenes he observed outside, and creations he imagined. 

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton works on sketching a picture book concept at his home studio in Roanoke.“I think I am a summation of the pouring out of love of thousands of people into this one thing and I kept doing it because I liked it but also I saw it as something that I could do professionally because people continued to believe in me,” he says of his artist journey.

Newton moved to Indiana to attend Huntington University to pursue a degree in animation. He says the small classes there allowed him to form meaningful connections with his professors and classmates, who he’s still in touch with today. 

“That was really a unique experience,” he says. “It's hard to replicate anywhere else.”

During college, one of those professors recommended Newton explore illustration, as his style lent itself well to picture books, but he was resistant to the idea. He says he envisioned himself moving out to Hollywood to be involved in the animation industry instead.

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton works on his picture book concept in Adobe Photoshop at his home studio in Roanoke.But after graduation, with an internship secured and then cut short by the pandemic, his trajectory changed. He decided to pick up and move to Austin, where he taught multimedia. Netwon says he enjoyed the work and the city but ultimately felt Austin wasn’t the place for him.

Instead, found himself tied to the human connections he made in Northeast Indiana, so he moved back. He and his wife, who is from the area, settled in Roanoke, a small town located southeast of Fort Wayne.

Here, he found himself doing more illustrative work than animation as his Huntington University professor suggested.

Much like “The Incredibles” led to a love of animation, reading picture books to his nieces sparked something for Netwon. To him, it felt like the books marketed to children were often just screenshots from popular animated series or minimal-effort illustrations.

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton works on sketching a picture book concept at his home studio in Roanoke.“It really felt like the child wasn't being respected,” he says. “We were pulling the wool over their eyes, like, ‘Let's just throw something together. If it has this brand on it, then they'll want it.’ It kind of just got me fired up about nurturing young readers and giving them something that tells them that they're respected and that they can appreciate good art.”

Now, Newton works full-time creating illustrations and he’s passionate about bringing meaningful art into picture books. He connects with authors through various channels and helps them bring their writing to life. He also illustrates his writings, though he has yet to publish his own book. His work can be seen in books such as “The Tale of Salvatore and Cecilia” and “He Meant You to Be You.”

He says connecting with the authors, building a relationship, and understanding the creative vision is his favorite part of the process. 

“You would get together, share a meal, get to know each other, and then I start drawing in front of them and I show them how quickly I can throw together just little sketches,” Newton explains. “And then from there, you just move down the pipeline, you increase in detail, increase in scale as the details are all ironed out. It's been a process that's worked really well and I've had to learn it through a lot of mistakes as you do with a lot of things.”

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton works on sketching a picture book concept at his home studio in Roanoke.When he sits down to draw, it typically begins with a pencil or colored pencil– two of his favorite mediums to work in. After adding in details, he scans the illustration with a high-resolution scanner and imports the file into Adobe Photoshop, where he colorizes them. Digital tools like Photoshop have been a tremendous asset, Newton says, as he is partially colorblind.

“Digital illustration has been a really helpful accessibility tool for me,” he explains. “I don't have to read the labels on all the colored pencils. I don't have to fumble around and try to figure out which one's green and which one's red, which one's blue, which one's purple. There's a color picker in Photoshop that is a lot more clear no matter what the lighting situation is because it's all LED.” 

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton works on his picture book concept in Adobe Photoshop at his home studio in Roanoke.Those tools help him create bright, colorful, and whimsical illustrations that are true to his style. 

The cross-over between animator and picture book illustrator is not common, but Netwon explains the mixed background gives him a unique perspective. When illustrating, he often includes dynamic camera angles and a cinematic storytelling style, both of which are influenced by his animation background.

He’s also influenced by the few other animators who have journeyed into picture books, like Nick Henderson, who does concept art for Pixar, has illustrated picture books and has a graphic novel coming out next year.

Rachel Von Art LLCJames Newton removes a Copic multiliner.
“He works traditionally and he will colorize also in Photoshop,” Newton says. “I borrowed a lot from his technique.”

Newton also looks up to the work of William Joyce, an award-winning illustrator, writer and filmmaker, who worked on popular films like “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story.” His books “Rolie Polie Olie” and “A Day with Wilbur Robinson” were turned into a television series and a movie, respectively. (“Rolie Polie Olie” which aired on Disney Channel and “Meet the Robinsons.”)

“I think that's really cool that you can start in one medium and then be recognized just for your creativity, your ideas, and that can bring you into another one,” Newton says. “So his career is one that I would love to follow in those footsteps.”

Newton has also returned to his alma mater, Huntington University, as an adjunct professor. Currently, he’s teaching animation and hopes to explore other subjects, like digital illustrations, during his teaching career too, but he says ultimately it doesn’t matter what subject he’s teaching.

“I really just care about getting excited with the students and connecting with them and building relationships,” he says. “Getting plugged into that stream of creative energy is so exciting to me and just empowering those people and reassuring them that they are talented and they are hardworking and there is space for people like them in the industry.”

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton holds up a piece of his pyrography.And while he’s teaching the next generation of artists, he’s also continuing his own personal education and development as a creative. He’s been exploring new mediums to expand his creativity, like taking a course in woodburning from artist Ash Rudolph

“What I'm starting to learn about myself is that I really care about art that has function,” he says. “I like I appreciate the beauty of art just for the sake of art, but I think especially nowadays people love to see handmade things that have a function.

He makes family crests and dice towers for games. He says the hands-on feature of woodburning adds a satisfying element to his work and hopes one day he might be able to add wood carving to his repertoire too.

He hopes to one day publish a book that features his own writing and illustrations, so he joined a local writing group for support. His wife, who is a teacher in North Manchester, often provides feedback on how what words might be too advanced for the target audience of a book.

For Newton, his passion for art is all about connections– whether it’s authors, students, or other creatives.

“The reason I do what I do is not to necessarily express myself but to connect with people,” he says. “Even though I spend 90 percent of my time in my office, the most important work comes whenever I sit down with that client to get to know them, try to figure out their vision, talk shop with them, or share my work with other people and see how it resonates.”

Rachel Von Art LLCArtist James Newton works on sketching a picture book concept at his home studio in Roanoke.James Newton will be the Featured Creator at Creator Space's event on July 24 at the Allen County Public Library from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Follow James on Instagram or visit his website.
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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.