Mickey mania: Disney artist John T. Quinn leads workshop for illustration students

Elizabeth Lamark

Students were able to ask John T. Quinn questions throughout the three-day workshop.

John T. Quinn works out every day. 

Pen and paper are his treadmill. 

Whether it’s drawing in his living room or drawing coffee shop customers from direct observation, those daily exercises are in service of his creativity. 

Quinn, a longtime Disney artist who is the director of character art for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, finds routine drawing to be fundamental to the work of an artist. 

“I always say drawing is like going to the gym,” Quinn said. “I have to stay nimble, I have to stay informed, I have to constantly work these muscles. You can’t give up on drawing from life because the more you focus on drawing from life, the more it gives you the tools in your brain to then make stuff up in an informed way.”

Quinn shared that advice and other insights with College of Art and Design students during “Presto,” a series of Quinn-led workshops, demos and lectures sponsored by RIT’s illustration program from Jan. 29-31. 

For the workshop, illustration students (sophomores-seniors) designed concepts using the most popular Disney characters on a poster showing cross-branding between Disney and a sporting goods brand. Quinn’s teachings guided the students’ ideas as the event culminated in a critique. 

Break-dancing Goofy, a stylized Mickey playing tennis, Donald leading a sailing excursion, and Minnie playing baseball were among the active themes explored.

Quinn and illustration faculty selected 13 finalist concepts that will be refined and serve as subjects of another virtual review by Quinn later in the semester. The students are: Hartley Bauer, Morgan Greeson, Ava Guarino, Lydia Krager, Calypso Kunkle, Ray Lindsey, Zoe Nast, Amy Nguyen, Morgan Odom, Audrey Plumb, Kayla Rowe, Victoria Wong, and Randy Zou. 

Quinn cited the importance of having both drawing and graphic design sensibilities when generating illustrations that resonate with audiences. 

“I hope the students start to think about connections and how everything in their image relates,” Quinn said. “In a character, when they’re drawing the fingertips, they should be thinking about the relationships those fingertips have to the whole pose or where the toes are in the pose. And then go beyond that if you’re drawing a big design on a poster and you’re going to incorporate type — how do all of those elements work together?”

Quinn said working with the students and faculty, RIT’s facilities (the workshop and demos took place in MAGIC Spell Studios’ Wegmans Theater and the brand-new SHED), and a trip to the RIT Archives were rewarding highlights of his time on campus.  

Illustration student Calypso Kunkle gave a layering effect to an illustration of a character in multiple basketball poses. In making the piece, Kunkle kept in mind Quinn’s advice of being unafraid to pull inspiration from anywhere. 

“John spoke a lot about how you have to feel the mood of the piece and make sure everything is unified and looking to the main idea of the piece,” Kunkle said. “I think the fact that we need to be constantly working to expand our artist database and our own inspirations was a really key point."

The visit was facilitated by Jeff Harter, assistant professor of illustration. Earlier in their careers, Harter and Quinn worked together when Quinn led Disney’s apparel team. 

Quinn’s work as a Disney artist is everywhere. Over the years, countless variations of Disney characters Quinn illustrated — from Mickey and Winnie the Pooh to The Simpsons, Star Wars and the lovable princesses — have appeared on countless products.

Quinn’s success at Disney is the result of focusing on developing a portfolio tailored to career aspirations mixed with a penchant for lifelong learning. Still today, Quinn regularly enrolls in professional development workshops in areas such as digital sculpting and oil painting. 

“If you have a specific dream, then you have to build a portfolio that is preparing you for when that opportunity arises,” Quinn said. “I graduated from art school in 1992 and have not stopped taking classes since then. I am constantly trying to build my skills. Being challenged creatively feeds my soul.”

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