Episode 131 — Thierry Lafontaine — From Wine Expert to Master Artist


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Episode 131 — Thierry Lafontaine — From Wine Expert to Master Artist 

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 131! I’m speaking with Thierry Lafontaine from Schoolism. This Episode is really cool!

I just interviewed Bobby Chiu: allanmckay.com/130/. Bobby and Thierry do a program at the Schoolism House, which is a 30-day immersion course. Selected students stay at the house and absorb all of this knowledge from Thierry and guest instructors.

This Episode is going to be a lot of fun. Thierry goes over other ideas and practices. He is a really insightful guest, just like Bobby. What I love the most about Thierry is that he came from being a wine expert. He talks about wine being an art form and how he was able to transfer all of that knowledge into his current art.

Let’s dive in!



I. [-1:18:39] I just got back from a conference in San Diego — and I’m off this week, to do the IAMAG Master Class in Paris: http://www.iamag.co/features/iamag-master-classes-18/. I will be talking about Branding:

– How to build your name;

– How to build your name;

– How to take actionable steps.

Maybe, I can make this a future Episode. Let me know if you’re interested!

II. [-[1:17:47] We just finished construction on my sauna and ice baths. This was the goal from the first day I moved to Portland. I’ve been talking about ice baths / cold plunges a lot. I’ve been doing them consistently except for last year. By not doing them, I noticed there was something missing. I miss having all that energy! So I’m excited!

If you’re interested in hearing more about the hacks on how to get more energy, let me know. I also love all the F-You’s from you, when you actually try out a ice bath.

III. [-1:13:31] If you would like to get on my Inner Circle Email List and get more free information, please go to: allanmckay.com/inside/. I have over 50,000 subscribers.

IV. [-[1:10:12] If you would like to follow me on Instagram, my handle is @AllanMcKayOfficial. I’ve been experimenting with stories and posts. I’ve been excited about using Instagram for quick videos, and maybe quick tutorials, with critical bits of information.

V. [-[1:08:03] Once I get back from IAMAG, I plan to do a lot more social media and channels, including YouTube. I’ve been getting inquiries from listeners and followers who are not 3D Artists who want to receive mostly career-related information. I want to set things up to where you can choose what subjects you want to view.



books. He also teaches at the Imaginism Studios and runs a 30-day training program at the Schoolism House, in Sainte-Julienne, Quebec. Thierry studied art at Sheridan College. He lives and works in Toronto.

In this Episode, Thierry talks about his journey of becoming an artist, the discipline and mindset that it took to succeed — and the experience of the immersive art program at his Schoolism House.


Thierry Lafontaine’s Profile at Imaginism: http://www.imaginismstudios.com/artists/Thierry%20Lafontaine

Thierry Lafontaine’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/papielafontaine

The Schoolism House: https://www.schoolism.com/house.php

Thierry Lafontaine at CG Society: http://thierrylafontaine.cgsociety.org

Thierry Lafontaine on Instagram: @thierrylafontaine

Thierry Lafontaine on Twitter: @ThierryArt


[-[1:06:15] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to do this. Thierry, could you introduce yourself?

Thierry: So, I’m a Concept Artist and Illustrator for children’s books. The most special thing that I do is — I run the Schoolism House which is an amazing place where we host and train artists for 30 days. It’s a completely immersive experience, and very unique.

[-[1:05:47] Allan: That’s awesome! Do you want to mention how you got started? Everyone has a different journey and it sounds like you had a few other journeys before this one.

Thierry: It’s a long story. I always drew as a kid, like everyone. There is this amazing quote from Picasso that I love: “Every kid is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist as you grown up.” My mom is an architect and my dad imports wine. There were always pens and pencils lying around when I was a kid. Drawing was really easy for me. I used to draw in school, but I never thought of art as a profession. I love cartoons, but to me, Bugs Bunny was a real character.

[-[1:04:33] Allan: I’m going to jump in. Maybe, Picasso should have said: “Every kid is an artist but the tricky challenge is to remain a kid, as you grow up.”

Thierry: Exactly. He has another quote that says that it took him 3 years to learn to paint like Raphael — and a lifetime to draw like a kid [again].

[-[1:04:10] Allan: I like that! 

Thierry: To me, this whole animation art things wasn’t made by artists. I thought these were real characters. When I was in high school, they asked me to choose a profession and I said I wanted to be a fighter jet pilot. But I wore glasses so I couldn’t do that job. Plus, at 16, I thought I was too young to know what I wanted to do. In high school, I didn’t do any art classes. I did math, science, physics. And when I got to college, I studied science because it was the hardest. After that, I could go into any other program that I wanted.

[-[1:03:04] Allan: Just to stop for a second. You specifically took science because you knew it would open up more doors?

Thierry: Absolutely. By doing this, I could switch into any other program and I would already exceed the standards to get in.

[-[1:02:37] Allan: I like that. It’s taking the harder path now because it will be the path of least resistance later. I think that’s great!

Thierry: That’s exactly what I did. I also used to play American football, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was just exploring life. After science, I went to study films. I did a film class in college. My real passion at that point was to learn. If I could be a millionaire, I would just learn different things throughout my life.

After studying film, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I wanted to learn more. I did a wine class because my dad imported wine. I did a summer job at his wine store. I did the wine sommelier class — which was awesome! I learned a lot of stuff.

[-[1:01:00] Allan: I would just do that class, just so that I could brag later on. That’s a good life skill to have!

Thierry: It is a useful skill. I love wine and I know what to choose. I met a lot of artists [while studying]. People who make wine are artists, just like painters and sculptors. It’s a real art. After I studied wine, I worked with my dad for a bit.

What I really liked was to study things. There was nothing I wanted to commit to for my entire life. I used to do Capoeira which is a Brazilian martial art; and right next door, there was a comic book class. I thought I would take that class until I figured out what I wanted to study next. I could never draw hands or faces. Drawing was just a hobby. All this time that I was in college, I used to draw all this stuff. I had a hard time studying because I was always drawing.

When I was doing this comic book class, my teacher was talking about this prodigy student he had who went to Sheridan. For him, it was a hard school to get in. My teacher told me, “You know what? You could do art for a living!” The first time he told me that, I laughed. There is no way I could do that!

[-[58:45] Allan: It’s not a real career!

Thierry: Yeah. And now, when I think about it, there is a bottle of wine with a label that was designed by an artist. The chairs, the table, the windows — everything has been designed by artists. But we take this stuff for granted.

[-[58:25] Allan: It’s kind of mind blowing now but one of things I’ve seen was making wine labels as an augmented reality. I have a friend who send those as gifts, and you have to wear the goggles to see it. There is so much you can do and build upon the traditional genre. It’s amazing to see all that happen!

Thierry: I saw some business cards like that. I didn’t know there were wine labels like that.

[-[57:37] Allan: It’s kind of creepy but also kind of genius to see how you can apply that!

Thierry: When I applied to Sheridan, the grade they gave me on the portfolio was 10 out of a hundred. So it was a really low grade. I did science because it was the hardest. Sheridan was the hardest to get in, so I thought, “I’m not going to give up!” They suggested [that I] do the course on Art Fundamentals, to get a stronger foundation. My comic book teacher told me it was the most important skill to focus on live drawing. I went to Sheridan for Art Fundamentals. I remember my first live drawing class was a really big shot.

My first language is French. I went to college in Toronto without speaking English. When I went to Sheridan, I had to speak English. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an Animator, but I saw that the best artists were coming out of there. I wanted to draw like those people. I remember everyone was sitting behind the easel in a circle. I was trying really hard to understand a foreign language. I remember the model took his clothes off and then I realized that’s what a live drawing was. It was a bit of a shock.

[-[54:26] Allan: I can imagine. It’d be like, “Wait! Did I get in the right room?”

Thierry: My school was offering live drawing classes every night for free, so I started going every night! I used to go 6-7 times a week, for 3 hours a night. I really enjoyed it. I started getting better and better. I needed to understand why I was doing something. I used to get tutors at the school. After you understand why you’re doing something, it’s easier to explain it to people. So I started helping my classmates. People told me they liked how I explained things, so I started teaching. 

I met Bobby Chiu (allanmckay.com/130/) at school; he was one of tutors. I met Kei Acedera too, she was a classmate. You started meeting all the hard working students. When you stay at school after class, you start to see familiar faces.

[-[52:22] Allan: With you finding all of those tutors, like Bobby, was that easy to do? Or did you have to look for them?

Thierry: That’s a really good question. The school had a tutoring program in place that was wonderful! If you had a problem in math, for example, you could go to the career center and they would get you a third-year math student to help. You would pay the school $20 for 10 hours. So it would cost you $2 an hour. And the school was paying the tutors $10 an hour. So it was a wonderful thing the school was doing. I went there to get a tutor for live drawing. I had a few tutors assigned to me. Then I started to track down the best students in class and recommend that they register for that program — and get paid to help me. I used to have 2, 3, 4 tutors at the same time. That was my passion: to track people and figure out the best live drawers.

[-[50:26] Allan: I like that! You’re basically recruiting people but for your benefit. I think in a way there were some roots for Schoolism there too. You had the best people invest their knowledge in you.

Thierry: Yes, that was the core of what I wanted to do. It started with that. I didn’t have a lot of money [while I was in school]. When I got to the 2nd and 3rd year, I started being a tutor and that’s how I could eat, pretty much. Bobby used to be that student who graduated but he would still come to do the live drawing at night. He would teach my tutors. I asked him to tutor me but he wasn’t interested. One day, I had a really good drawing night. I really wanted to learn and I knew what I wanted. One day, Bobby became my tutor. Then we became friends. At some point, he heard that I was paying him instead of eating. He told me I didn’t have to pay him anymore because we were friends.

[That’s how] I got experience teaching people. Bobby had a subway sketching group in Toronto: We’d meet at the subway, in the same spot, and ride the subway and sketch people. I found that technique really worked for me. I never thought I would be a teacher, but I found that I loved art and it was easy to explain things to people.

While I was still at Sheridan, I was supposed to do a big internship, but it didn’t work out. [By then,] Bobby started Imaginism Studios with Kei. He told me I could do an internship with him. I was learning so much! Kei and I were both in the third year but we never went back to school. Bobby and Kei went to some convention in San Diego and there were all these big studios that wanted us to do some work for them: I think there was Universal and Valve. I was learning a lot more with Bobby and Kei. At some point, I got my first teaching job. I taught Character Design for people who did 3D.

[-[44:50] Allan: So you were doing 3D at that point?

Thierry: No, it was a 2D Character Design course for people in their 3D design program. I made friends from that who started coming to our subway sketching.

[-[44:33] Allan: To go into subway sketching, I really like that! You’re going to have a high traffic and you can find the right subject. Did you ever get any weird looks from people? On a subway, you’re always aware if someone was staring.

Thierry: Everyone asks me that. I think it’s more in how you do it.

[-[43:38] Allan: So don’t look creepy? Is that the secret?

Thierry: Exactly! If you look creepy doing anything… I personally never had a bad experience, but some people told me [they did]. People aren’t aware of what they’re putting out. I’m happy when I do it. I have a smile on my face. I can tell when someone is thinking if I’m sketching them or not. If I look away, they look at me and assume I’m not drawing them. Often time, everyone used to draw when they were a kid. So instantly, you have that connection with people. And people can talk to me and tell me they used to draw. If people are bored, you’re some entertainment for them. But some people told me they got attacked. It’s more about the energy and the image you’re putting out. You can make their day.

[-[41:47] Allan: When it comes to the perception of other people, most people on the planet aren’t aware that they’re in control of how people perceive them. It’s about that emotional intelligence and how you respond to people. All of that subtle communication is important. You could look creepy in any situation.

Thierry: To me, art is a form of communication. I find that it’s really important to be good at communicating. I want people to perceive my characters a certain way. The worst thing that happened was people would move and change position. But that’s great for me too: I then think of them as a 3D form. The more they move — the more I’ll be able to draw them. But you don’t want to push it!

[-[39:42] Allan: I think I would personally be uncomfortable. It’s a different mindset. That’s why I love the idea of you getting together and finding the right subjects. 

Thierry: We are not there to harass people. It’s been a great experience for me! And it’s like going to the zoo — for people: You see people in their natural environment, not posing. That’s where you get the best characters! It doesn’t have to be the subway. It can be any public place.

[-[38:26] Allan: When you first applied at Sheridan, did you see it as a challenge? Did you dive into it more? How did handle it at that moment?

Thierry: To me, it was just challenging. [I thought,] “It’s not how it’s going to go”. I went there and I started working really hard. I had this reputation of doing good live drawing. So while I was in animation, I was still doing live drawing.

Bobby used to teach live drawing at Sheridan and he wanted to stop. It was about 6 months after I dropped out of the program. So after I dropped out, I became a third year teacher. It was my first really serious teaching job. My passion was to do art. I like studying different things and I like to change my mind. So for me, art was the perfect thing. Art was a never-ending learning experience where I could jump from subject to subject, without changing jobs. To give you another quote from Picasso: “The meaning of life is to find your gift — the purpose of life is to give it away.” So to me, teaching and art are the meaning of my life. To be able to teach that and to give my skill to other people — that’s the purpose of my life. And I really found myself in that. But it took me years! I still studied all the time, until I was 28. I started drawing when I was 24. So it’s never too late to start. I kept searching for myself and never gave up.

[-[34:56] Allan: A couple of questions about your moving to north Quebec to Toronto. Most people learn French there. What was it like to go into an environment where your first language isn’t spoken? Many people are scared of that. I think, if anything, it’s another new experience. You get humbled by it. You have build your way back to what you take for granted.

Thierry: It was terrifying! It was really hard but it was a nice challenge and adventure. When I was in high school, I changed residence so that was a nice experience. When I was studying film, I also lived away from home. Going to study at a place that speaks a different language, it was challenging. The essay writing classes were really hard. I learned to speak English from hearing.

[-[33:09] Allan: At least, UK English is closer to French than American English.

Thierry: A good reason I passed those classes was communication. Most people in animation program didn’t care for essay courses. So they skipped class a lot. The teachers didn’t like animation students. My trick to pass that class was to come up to the teacher and promise to be a great student and participate, to give my 100%. I made them aware of my situation. You start out by them liking you. They knew I worked really hard.

[-[31:32] Allan: Just to jump forward a bit: When Bobby started Schoolism, did you come onboard at the very beginning?

Thierry: I used to live with Bobby before Schoolism. I used to sleep on Bobby’s floor. I was there to learn and Bobby was an amazing tutor for me. He took me under his wing. All I needed to do was to learn. I didn’t need to worry about living expenses or food, or stuff like that. I was helping him with a bunch of stuff.

We started Schoolism as our version of the perfect school. Our passion was learning. We started from scratch in Bobby’s living room. We had a programer. We love to learn so we got all these teachers onboard. They don’t have time to teach when working full-time, but because [of the the way Schoolism is structured], they can teach there. And you want to learn from people like that: Their full-time job is not to be a teacher — their full-time job is to be an artist. That’s how we started Schoolism.

Bobby is a great thinker. We had this location opportunity and we came up with this workshop idea where it would be like Schoolism but a live version. People would move in with us for 30 days. It was meant to recreate that experience of when we started Imaginism: We all lived together and learned from each other. There was art from the time you got up to the time you went to bed, no distractions. This is the most rewarding and interesting thing I’m doing right now: I’m living my dream — which is to do art all the time and meet artists from around the world. 

For the Schoolism House, we hand pick four students through applications and Skype interviews. They move into my house in the province of Quebec. We recreate for them the experience of how we started Imaginism:

– We live together, we eat together.

– We draw together from the time we get up to the time we go to bed.

– The artists get feedback and lessons.

– They do their homework.

– They see me work on children’s books or movies.

The house is beautiful. It’s situated by a lake. There is a beach in the backyard. Everyone has their own private bedroom and washroom. It’s in the country, so it’s beautiful. I don’t know if you know what a sugar shack is.

[-[27:19] Allan: No, I don’t. What’s a sugar shack? 

Thierry: It’s the place where they make maple syrup.

[-[27:09] Allan: Which Quebec is very famous for.

Thierry: Yes, and our area is a sugar shack area. There is about 100 of them. It’s a barn and the sap flows to the maple trees about 10 days a year. You can go have lunch or dinner there that time. There is so much wild life, it’s beautiful! Basically, not only do I get to meet people from around the world, but every year I get an amazing visiting artist, like Nathan Fowkes and Armand Balthazar, Stephen Silver. They come for a few days and the students get workshops from them. They have dinner together and we have fun. So, I’m living my dream: I teach, I do art and I get my favorite artists to come and hang out — and I learn from them. I’m living beyond my wildest dream!

[-[25:10] Allan: I love that that came from the success of the experience you had. And the best way to learn — is through complete immersion. Your students are getting to live in that environment, learning from people who are better than you. That makes you stronger at what you’re doing.

Thierry: A great thing about it is that they don’t have any distractions. They come out and see live different, they think and paint differently. Most people told me that it’s the most amazing experience they’ve had in their entire life.

[-[23:33] Allan: That’s so cool! I guess for a lot of the students, what has their experience been like after those 30 days of living and breathing their art?

Thierry: The workshop is open to all levels. I teach in a very unique way and we go from simple to complex stuff. Art is a never ending experience. It opens the students to be more receptive. A lot of students tell me that they understand stuff on a different level [after Schoolism classes]. After, they just keep learning. Everyone comes out of it changedThey just keep going toward what they want to do.

[-[21:51] Allan: That’s great! What does a typical day look like?

Thierry: A typical day:

– Every day, people have homework. At [10:00] in the morning, I give them feedback on their homework. The benefit of having just a few students is that I get to know them on a personal level. I give them feedback everyday.

– Then we have lunch.

– Then we do a lesson.

– After that, I design some exercises they can do and I help them. The homework is due [10:00] the next morning. People get to keep their own work schedule.

– After the exercise, we cook dinner together. After that, they work on their homework.

– On Fridays, I cook for the students in my part of the house and we play boardgames or video games, or watch movies.

– Weekends are more relaxed. We do some local trips.

It’s very challenging but it’s also fun. It feels like a week.

[-[18:39] Allan: I love it! Bobby originally told me about it. When someone is there day and night to give the students that attention — that’s really cool! For people who go on: When doing more traditional art, it’s a very competitive art. Do you have any advice for people on how they can stand out?

Thierry: I find the best skills that you can have is creativity. Way back, there weren’t a lot of people who could render stuff. Nowadays, the knowledge is on the internet. But finding people who have good ideas is harder. You need people who have the technical aspects but also the creativity which comes from exploring the world and being inspired. I work really hard but I also take time to do little things. I’m lucky to have people come visit me and it’s a great source of inspiration. I get a lot of ideas from them. I hang out with my niece and nephew who are 4 years old — and I get so many cool ideas from them. Everyone can learn how to write, but not everyone who can write interesting stories. The content is really important. If you don’t have good ideas, it’s not as important.

[-[15:11] Allan: Otherwise, you’re just a button pusher, in a lot of ways. Apparently, you tend to work a lot with boxes.

Thierry: Bobby taught me how to draw boxes when I was a student. It really stuck with me. A cube is everywhere and it’s a 3D object. If you understand the essence of a cube, then you can understand every single object in the world. If you can learn a cube, there is nothing you cannot draw.

[-[14:05] Allan: There was a book I found in a thrift store. It broke down a lot of traditional faces, and it had a lot to do with anatomy. But everything was broken down into boxes. I think it’s not something I followed but that’s how I started pursuing that art form. It brings a lot of clarity.

Thierry: Boxes changed my life. I teach that to my students.

[-[12:34] Allan: It’s the beginning of 2018. Do you have any big goals for this year?

Thierry: I got a lot of stuff about the workshop planned. I have a personal goal: I’m writing my own children’s book. It’s a new challenge! Before I tackled my own, I wanted to learn illustrative other companies’ books. I do fun personal projects. A good way to get jobs is to create imaginary jobs for yourself. If I want to do covers for children’s books, I can illustrate for books that I love or that don’t exist. If I want to work more on movies, I can imagine that I work for a movie that doesn’t exist. They make for great portfolio pieces, you get to practice, attract potential clients and who knows where that goes.

[-[10:27] Allan: Neill Blomkamp, when he was shooting Chappie, ended up teaming up with Sigourney Weaver about what if they did an Alien film themselves. They knocked our some concept art, as if they owned the rights. It’s about entertaining the what-if’s. With art, it starts there. You need to build that portfolio. You can’t wait until you get paid to do that. 

Thierry: Don’t wait for people to tell you’re a Concept Artist — to be a Concept Artist. Just do it on your own. 

[-[09:09] Allan: I had a student ask me a few months ago if he could put TD on his LinkedIn, or if he had to wait until he IS one. There are things like being a Supervisor that you have to get knighted into. With other things, you have to give yourself permission. Just to end this: What would be the two bottles of red wine you would recommend, in the $20 range and a $100 range.

Thierry: What country are you in?

[-[07:44] Allan: I’m in Oregon right now.

Thierry: There is a great Portuguese wine called Duorum. I had friends in the U.S. who bought it. It’s great! My challenge when I was a wine advisor would be to find the best wine between $15 and $20. I don’t buy a lot of wine within the $100 range. Do you know Francis Ford Coppola? His Director’s Cut is unbelievable.

[-[06:35] Allan: He is down in Santa Barbara. The reason I ask within the range, is because a $100 bottle is a good gift. I think most bottles, you can’t tell the difference until you’re a wine expert. Prisoner is definitely my favorite red. It’s more of a $45 bottle of wine. 

Thierry: In my opinion, a $100 is not a better bottle of wine. I’d rather buy 5 bottles of $20 wine; try one and if I like it — keep the others in the wine cellar and wait a few years. If you send me an email, I can send you a list.

[-[04:03] Allan: I think I bought more bottles of wine as Christmas gifts than anything else. It’s a really good symbolic gift. You can put a lot of thought into it. It’s really great to chat with you!

Thierry: Thank you! It’s an honor to be part of your Podcast.


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Thierry for doing this. I have the other half of Bobby Chiu’s Episode coming up in a few weeks.

The next Episode will be with Kat Evan about Exiting the Industry. No one ever talks about this subject a lot. We talk about that and a lifetime, if you will, of visual effects artists. It might give you some idea on your endgame.

I will also be hanging out with the guys at Unit Image in Paris. (Check out their Episode: allanmckay.com/115/). I’m also having drinks with students from my Mentorship, the day before the IAMAG Master Classes.

Please review this Episode on iTunes.

Rock on!



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