Mike Thompson is an award-winning digital artist who has illustrated for Marvel, Hasbro, the Cartoon Network, DC Comics, Mattel, and Warner Brothers. His work has been featured on video game covers, movie posters, and advertising campaigns. He has recently branched into the exciting new realm of NFT sales.
Highly regarded in the industry for his impressive body of work, professionalism, and attention to detail, he has won Clio Awards for Hidden Figures and Deadpool 2. He is also a Wacom partner, Corel Painter Master, as well as a ZBrush Live presenter for Pixologic.
Mike is also a CG Spectrum mentor, teaching our industry-approved course in Concept Art for film, games, and publishing. We spoke to him about his 30-plus year career and how he has evolved from a brand designer to an expert in 3D sculpting.
You began your career in fashion design with labels such as Timberland and Nike. How did you make the transition to becoming a full-time illustrator?
I actually began at a young men’s brand named Ecko Unlimited. While there I was the Art Director for the t-shirt department. I addition to overseeing the development of t-shirt graphics I created paintings used in the print ads. The ads featured hip-hop artists such as Mos Def and Method Man wearing Ecko clothing. That led to my being featured in a Coca-Cola television commercial. That campaign gave me the confidence I needed to begin working full-time for myself back in 2004.
How did you end up working with Wu-Tang Clan? Did you approach them? The images are amazing, were they happy with the final result?
Thank you. I actually was approached by Sideshow Collectibles for the project. The Creative Director there had taken notice of my earlier hip-hop work and thought I’d be a good choice for this piece. I worked with him and the ODB Foundation to dial in the design and eventually bring the print to the public.
Ol' Dirty Bastard - illustration by Mike Thompson
You’ve done a lot of work with celebrities. Do you feel more pressure in getting portraits right with real people than with fantasy characters?
When I was younger, I could NOT get likenesses in my artwork. I made it my mission to practice them whenever I had time until I finally started to get better in college.
The fact that I was so bad a portraits early on makes it pretty ironic that I’ve made a career painting them now.
Eddie Murphy in Coming to America 2 - illustration by Mike Thompson
The concept art you did for Black Panther for Civil War was one of the character’s early iterations. What was your process for getting this important piece done?
I was contacted by Marvel for this piece. They provided a lot of great references for me to use, however, the suit design was one angle of the concept art. I remember working on the pattern for hours. Once it was dialed in and I got approval, I moved on to the paint. This piece was pretty easy compared to the battle scene I painted for Civil War.
Black Panther - illustration by Mike Thompson
You work a lot with ZBrush and partner with Corel Paint. What is your favorite software to work with?
You named them. I love sculpting in ZBrush and do most of my illustration with Corel Painter. I usually use Photoshop for color correction and composition. Although I use several other apps, I probably spend the most time in ZBrush and Painter.
If you could talk to the developers what would you advise them to streamline their products to make things easier for artists?
I am a partner for Corel, Wacom and Pixologic, so it just so happens I do give a lot of feedback on the applications and hardware. I usually talk to Corel and Pixologic about cleaning up the user interface and making it less confusing for new users. I like that both applications have a highly customizable UI, so you can show only the features you want and hide the ones you don’t use. For Wacom I test their units and talk about features I’d like to see in future versions of the hardware.
You started digital sculpting six years ago. How has this changed the way you draw in 2D and your illustration in general?
Sculpting has made my drawing and paintings so much better. I can see why the old masters practiced both 2D and sculpture.
My anatomy work especially has improved. By being able to visualize the way light and shadow play on the forms of the body, I can apply that to my paintings to get much better results without exact reference.
Michelangelo, the last Ninja Turtle - illustration by Mike Thompson
You do a lot of physical sculpting and 3D printing of your work. How important is it to bring your concepts into the physical world?
I am a statue collector and overall fan of all things superhero-related. That being said, one of the reasons I got into sculpting in the first place was to create my own physical statues. Also, you can’t really hide mistakes in your work when you view the piece from every angle. I like the unforgiving nature of the work since it forces you to improve.
Is there something freeing in getting off the computer and getting your hands dirty in the real world?
I have to admit, I haven’t painted traditionally in decades. I do sculpt with Monster Clay frequently and love the feeling of sculpting IRL.
You have managed to maintain good relationships with clients and product partners that you’ve worked with. What is the best advice you can give to upcoming artists? What work disciplines do you suggest they establish early in their careers?
The best advice I can give new artists is to just be patient.
I have an 18 and 20-year-old, so I know that everyone wants everything now. People only notice you when you are successful, so they think it comes overnight. It normally doesn’t. I am a 25 year, overnight success.
Get your 10K hours and never burn a client. It is paramount to maintain good relations with clients, no matter what your experience is with them.
You never know where a referral may come from, or if someone you “phoned it in with,” is talking to a potential client. Establish good habits, like good communication, meeting deadlines, and maintaining a good disposition with clients and bosses.
You recently sold your first NFT in collaboration with Epix which features a card series of hip hop icons. What are your thoughts on NFTs?
NFT is the latest way for artists to get their works into the hands of interested collectors. It took me a minute to wrap my head around the idea of selling .jpgs, but once you realize that it isn't the quality of the image as the token of authenticity that is being sold, it makes more sense.
I have a friend who is an art collector who was telling me how he didn't like the trend. He wants a physical piece. My reply was look at music and movies these days, how many people still buy physical media? I'm sure a lot do, but even gaming is working toward doing away with physical disks. With 4k and above monitor prices dropping, there is no reason why you can't have a digital gallery in your house if you wanted to.
Hip Hop Icons NFT - illustration by Mike Thompson
Do you think they will become a viable source of income for artists in the future?
Absolutely. I don't think the million-dollar sales are sustainable, but I absolutely think they will allow artists to grow the sales of their work.
You toured South America in 2019 as a Wacom partner. How was that experience? What is the best thing about interacting with students around the world?
It was one of the best experiences of my life. My Wacom tour to China and the one to South America allowed me to meet hundreds of “up and coming” artists. The best part, aside from visiting these countries for the first time, was being able to influence these kids.
I think back to being a young artist and remember feeling like I was in a vacuum. I didn’t know anyone else who wanted to do what I did and didn’t see anyone doing it who looked like me. It didn’t help that my parents were worried that I would be a “starving artist”.
Being able to guide artists at the beginning of their careers and show them that you can not only survive, but thrive as a creative has been incredibly fulfilling for me.
What made you decide to take on a mentorship position with CG Spectrum? What are some of the highlights of your classes so far?
See above answer, hah. The highlights have been meeting and mentoring the students who aren’t necessarily the most naturally gifted but are so hungry that their work is the best in the class.
What kind of anatomy research would you recommend for students? What are some vital resources students can access?
What are the most common challenges for students? What is your advice for anyone trying to establish themselves in the industry?
I think the most common challenge for students is feeling like they aren’t good enough. It is very easy to see someone’s work without knowing what went into it and have “imposter’s syndrome.”
My advice is not to measure yourself against other’s work, but by your own. Strive to make each piece better than the last and remember that we are all works in progress.
I’ve been at this for 30 years and I am still learning new things every day. You can appreciate your growth as an artist, but never become complacent. The minute you feel like you have arrived, your skills suffer. Finally, I would say never settle or compromise when it comes to your craft.
If you're interested in a creative career like Mike Thompson's take a look at CG Spectrum's Digital Sculpting courses. All classes are led by industry professionals like Mike who provide customized training and advice on how the industry works. You will exit the course with a professional portfolio and follow-up assistance with the job application process.
You too can forge an exciting future in the career of your dreams!