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DisneyRIP

Richard Williams, Neil Gaiman, Hans Bacher, and Other Colleagues Remember John Watkiss

Fans, friends, and colleagues are remembering the life and work of John Watkiss, a British painter, film concept artist, and comic artist who passed away from cancer on January 20, 2017. He was 55 years old.

John Watkiss. (Photo: Richard Wolff)
John Watkiss. (Photo: Richard Wolff)

In addition to his other work, Watkiss worked for a number of years in animation, including at Walt Disney Feature Animation, Fox Animation Studios, and Nickelodeon. His most prominent work in the industry was during the 1990s when he contributed visual development to the Disney features Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, and Treasure Planet. Watkiss’ mature approach to the material rarely found its way into the final Disney films, though his large-scale painting were reportedly popular with Disney execs who enjoyed hanging them in their offices.

Among Watkiss’ admirers was film director Richard Williams, who attended anatomy and life drawing sessions that Watkiss ran in London during the 1980s. “I was very keen on John and his brilliant work,” Williams told Cartoon Brew. “He was a great fellow and a real original who kept developing. Awful to lose him.”

“His knowledge about anatomy was scary,” recalled Mulan production designer Hans Bacher in a tribute he wrote to Watkiss. “He would never look at a model or other reference and criticized artists who did. [L]ike Michelangelo and Da Vinci, he told me, he had studied anatomy the only ‘real way’, joining medicine students, dissecting muscles and bones in opened dead bodies.”

Bacher has posted numerous examples of work by Watkiss on his blog. Below are some examples of work by Watkiss for Tarzan and Kingdom of The Sun (which eventually became The Emperor’s New Groove):

"Tarzan" visual development by John Watkiss. watkiss_tarzan_d "Tarzan" visual development by John Watkiss. "Tarzan" visual development by John Watkiss. "Tarzan" visual development by John Watkiss. "Kingdom of The Sun" visual development by John Watkiss. "Kingdom of The Sun" visual development by John Watkiss. "Kingdom of The Sun" visual development by John Watkiss. "Kingdom of The Sun" visual development by John Watkiss.

His comic credits included Batman, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Conan The Barbarian, Silver Surfer, the Ring of Roses graphic novel, and most recently, Surgeon X for Image Comics. Among his live-action credits: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the 2009 feature Sherlock Holmes, and the tv series Walking Dead. Below, you can see his boards on Sky Captain:

His wide influence among contemporary artists and writers can be seen in the following tributes posted online since his passing.

Author and comic book writer Neil Gaiman:

Animation writer Micah Ian Wright:

Video game and animation artist Mindy Lee:

Animation artist Bojan M. Đukić (if the video doesn’t embed properly below, you can watch it here):

Storyboard artist Malcolm Wilkie wrote:

Comic book writer Kurt Busiek:

Comic book editor Tim Pilcher wrote:

Artist Tula Lotay:

Comic artist Steve Lieber:

  • Jack Rabbit

    I loved his work on the Disney Features, and also for Gaiman. I re-read The Sandman every 3 to 4 years from cover to cover, and it’s about time to revisit the universe of Morpheus.

  • Incredible artwork. He will be missed. :(

  • Paul Donnellon

    I was lucky to have known john and used to attend his drawing classes in London , he introduced me to Richard williams who is an animation hero of mine. John did concept art two years ago on a ballet project film I was making and I will miss him a lot,he was a genius in the real meaning of the word I loved his great sense of humour and his funny little magic tricks he would perform mid conversation.