Sunday, February 8, 2009

Friends and Mentors: Jeff 'Norton' Norwell

There aren't a lot of people in this business who can claim they got there entirely under their own steam. Let's face it, without the help and guidance of good friends and mentors, most of us wouldn't be where we are today.

I've been exceptionally fortunate to have met and befriended some wonderful, talented and giving artists over the course of my career. But even beyond all those great folks there are a few whom I owe everything to - people who were so influential that I love them like family. One of those people has been my best friend for a quarter of a century, Jeff Norwell (AKA 'Norton').

Jeff and I met pretty much on the first day of art college. He came roaring up on what he would later affectionately call a 'rice rocket', decked out in leathers and looking just a bit like a latter-day James Dean. Not only was he cool and good-looking, he could draw like he was born with a pencil in his hand!

I hated him immediately.

Jeff loves cars.

He LOVES cars. He LOVES 'EM! If Jeff could mainline motor oil he'd have track marks up and down both arms. He loves classic cars even more, and hotrods most of all. He loves driving them, he loves drawing them... hell, he even builds them!

And unlike my pathetic car drawings, which I can only do with exact photo reference that I can trace, Jeff can draw cars out of his head, any kind, any angle, and they look perfect. Perfect! Now do you see why I hate him so?

About ten years ago, Jeff and I shared a studio in Toronto. I had been out of the storyboard business for years at that point (that's another story) and was doing finished art exclusively. Jeff, meanwhile, had become one of the most sought-after renderers in the city.

Sought-after... and feared!

Jeff's always been a "take no BS" kinda guy, and woe to the client who might try to screw him! At the time when we shared that studio, I loved listening to him blast whomever happened to be pushing his buttons on any given day.

I can recall sitting in his studio, sipping a coffee (I did that a lot). Jeff would be hunched over his drawing board, a cigarette in one hand, coffee in the other, pencil in the other and the phone in the other (yeah man, I told you he was good!) And he'd be shouting into the phone, "WHAT THE @$%&!!! YOU TOLD ME YOU NEEDED THESE ON &%$#@ING WEDNESDAY!!! WHATTAYA MEAN YOU %$@@#& NEED 'EM BY 2?!?! @#$^%@!!!!"

(For you kids who didn't grow up reading comics, those little groups of symbols above? Those are swears.)

Yeah Jeff is kind of known in the business for being a hothead. But be that as it may, he's also a consumate professional. If you tell him you're now expecting 150 full colour frames that you said you needed next Wednesday but actually need by 2,Jeff will let you know that he's a little annoyed by your unrealistic deadline.

And then he'll somehow manage to get everything done and out the door by two.

That's because not only does Jeff draw extremely well, he's also lightning fast.

And he may be a little gruff on the outside, but he's actually a teddy bear on the inside. A teddy bear with a heart of gold. And big sharp teeth. And razor-like claws.

Now, there are a lot of rumours that, due to the tremendous speed at which Jeff draws, he wears out Wacom tablets, actually causing the plastic housing to melt under his blazing stylus, and thus has a standing order with Wacom that a new tablet be delivered to his door each month. I'm here to tell you, that's a bunch of hooey.

Its every other month.

For example, I remember the day Jeff was drawing these frames below. I was sitting in his studio (as usual) drinking a Timmies, as he rapidly sketched out the frames in pencil.

I tipped up my cup and it momentarily blocked my view. When I finished my sip and looked again, a clean sheet of bond paper had been dropped over top and the whole damn page was inked!

But this... this is the drawing I always come back to. Remember those horrible Canary Wharf frames I shared with you a couple of posts ago? The day I saw Jeff so effortlessly draw this animatic frame was the day I knew I was done.

Though I'll never be half as good as my buddy, Jeff, I thank God for him - he's helped me out more times than I can count over the years. When, a few years ago, the finished art market collapsed for me ( like I said, that's a story for another day ), Jeff saved my butt by sending me a huge storyboard job. After a decade of doing nothing but finished art, I was almost frozen with fear at the prospect of having to draw 70 full colour frames in four days! And in those years, the business had gone totally digital. Meanwhile, I was still pencilling and inking with , you know, "pencils" and "ink"! But Jeff said, "Don't worry, buddy, you can do it - piece of cake." Since that day, he's always been in my corner, sending more work my way than I could ever have snagged on my own. And he's coached me along, advising me on how to make my stuff look stronger and more effective.

So here's to my buddy Jeff Norwell - my friend and mentor. I'm sure when he sees this he'll call and say, "WHAT THE @#$%$# DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, YOU $#%#ING $%#^!!??!!

And I know he'll mean it in the nicest possible way.

* Is there somebody who helped you get where you are that you'd like to tell us about? Send me an email to the address in the sidebar and I'll make you a guest author!


  1. He is a JERK!!!

    I hate him too!

    Leif,...thanks for the VERY kind and endearing words.......
    I can't believe is been 25 #$&^%%#@! years.....

    I feel very old
    ha ha

    Well, you will have to excuse me,...I gotta go hunt down some prick that is over 45 days........

    (insert smilie here)


  2. I agree with Jeff: "Jeff is a jerk".

    I can't disagree with Jeff on Jeff!

    Yeah the guy's got talent but we can all agree: we're so glad he moved up north: let them be scared for a change!