Technology and visual arts: John Sullivan at First Friday

For someone who thought of computers as glorified typewriters, John Sullivan has come a long way. “I’m probably the worst person to talk about technology,” John admitted at our August First Friday breakfast. “Technology and I are friends, but we fight.”

PageMasterJohn’s talk focused on how the field of visual arts has changed with the use of technology. He is a former art teacher, animator, set designer, and member of the Turner Pictures/ 20th Century Fox staff which in 1994 created the animated feature, The Pagemaster. He was inducted into the National Teacher’s Hall of Fame in 2004.

“My grandfather saw the Wright brothers fly and saw the first man on the moon. That’s an unbelievable amount of technology in a lifetime,” he said. “I’ve had that too. I went from hand drawing and coloring posters to creating them on my tablet.”

In the summer of 1982, John saw ET and wanted to make one of his own. He made a creature (a prototype for those in the Barnstable High School Haunted Houses) which he then traded for a computer from Tandy. Despite his best efforts, underwhelming results made John realize he is not a coder. So he went back to drawing. When Macs came around, John realized he could use it to make artwork with Paint, (which became Super Paint and then Photoshop). He learned to draw with a mouse, not on a tablet, and created images with up to 187 layers.

His transition to digital began when he was art director at Cotton Pickin’ Ts. They wanted to do a catalog, which would have meant five weeks worth of work cutting out pieces for the color. With a computer it took no time at all.

30th-Haunted-HouseThe downside in the early days was the lettering, which came out pixelated. Pre-computer he had used sheets of Letraset, which was a pain when he needed to letter things like Barnstable High School Drama Club. Jobs went out pixelated until technology caught up.

John brought the first computer into Barnstable High School, insisting on Macs instead of HP for the graphics lab. A former student was VP at Disney at the time, and helped him make the argument for Macs. He also got a modem when they first came out, saying it was “like magic watching the characters appear on screen.”

“I’ve always tried to stay at the front, but there’s always a cost. Technology has made my life easier, but sometimes it’s complicated,” he said. “I’ve been happy about it. I’ve been angry about it.”

The trouble for John is that he keeps getting dropped into the deep end of the pool. He gets to a point where he wants to do something his current program can’t do, and someone recommends another program – which he has to learn.

Fortunately, he has help. “Surround yourself with younger people and you’ll never have a problem with technology,” he advised.

When he illustrates, John starts with blue pencil and then fills it in with red sable brush. He then scans it and paints it on the computer. “I’ve always worked fast,” he said, “but now I’m even faster.”

He brought several examples to First Friday from his book Dragons. He also gave us a sneak preview of an episode that will be on Quahog Corner, but we were sworn to secrecy. Quohog Corner (inspired by his Quahog Beer t-shirt from Cotton Pickin Ts) was going to be a t-shirt shop in Hyannis, but became a show that teaches kids how to draw.

“I wanted to learn as much in my second 30 years as I learned in my first 30,” John told us. “Because of technology and computers, I’m doing that.”

But he still has his old Smith Corona, just in case.

An art teacher at Barnstable High School for 33 years, John taught a wide variety of subjects including fine arts, cartooning and animation, sculpture, ceramics, arts and crafts, illustration, graphic arts, and theater. He served as director for the award-winning Barnstable High School Drama Club, which Stage Directions Magazine voted Best in the Northeast and one of the five best in the country. His club was also chosen out of 20,000 schools by Warner Brothers Studios to produce the first original online series called “High Drama” which earned an A+ from Entertainment Weekly.

John has a Master’s Degree in Education and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Illustration from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He also studied film with the British Film Institute at the University of Sterling in Scotland and studied animation at the California Institute for the Arts. Since retiring in 2012, he has been working on a project, Quahog Corner, a show that entertains and helps children learn to draw. Now working out of an office at the Cape Cod Community Media Center in Dennisport, his work for the show has earned two Regional Emmy nominations.

Skip to content