Visual Arts

Paul Sullivan’s Ideation to Creation Shows the Art Behind Popular Entertainment

You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

“Entertainment art is kind of foreign to a lot of people,” says Paul Sullivan, a Colorado born-and-bred illustrator and one of the creative and conceptual forces behind 20th Century Fox’s 2014 animated film The Book of Life. Sullivan also worked on Megamind (released by Paramount Pictures in 2010), and he’s been big into the gaming scene, involved with popular titles like Tomb Raider, Iron Man and X-Men.
Still, some people don't consider digitally animated films and video games an art form, he says, and that's a misconception Sullivan plans to deal with at Ideation to Creation: The Art of Paul Sullivan, which opens at ArtGym Denver with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 18.
Often the real creative work behind cinematic entertainment is hidden because viewers only see the final result of an artistic process that can take years to complete. “Everything starts with a pencil on paper," say Sullivan. "You create this stuff in 2D, and a lot of times it just gets translated into 3D and you don’t see the original artwork that was behind it.”

To complicate things further, Sullivan adds, “There are a lot of extremely talented people in the entertainment industry, but because of ownership rights studios own everything you are working on until you’re finished, and sometimes the products are never released.”

This show will give viewers “an inside look at the pencil-and-paper creation stage,” says Sullivan. From the initial drawing to storyboards and final shots in films, the exhibit will showcase art from the various stages of development, and viewers will also have access to a sketch wall of looseleaf paper sketches and time-lapse videos revealing his digital painting process.
The exhibition coincides with the launch of ArtGym’s digital programming. Says curator Elke McGuire, “We wanted a local artist who could show the process of how digital art is made, and we couldn’t think of anyone better than Paul.”

This is the artist’s inaugural showing in the American art scene, though in 2008 Sullivan was asked to participate an international video-game art show in Northern Italy with twelve other entertainment artists. The exhibit at ArtGym is a really great opportunity to bring awareness about entertainment art to the Denver community, and to show the value of it in a gallery setting," says Sullivan. “I love design, I love playing with shapes, and I love color,” he continues. “I think about things in a very general way before going into detail.”

No matter what he’s working on, Sullivan always researches his subjects thoroughly (that’s the nature of entertainment art). After that, he notes, “it is about applying design knowledge and color theory to that." 

Local fiber artist Karen Sullivan nurtured her son’s passion for drawing, encouraging him to pursue art from a very early age. After graduating high school in Arvada, Sullivan went to the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he studied illustration under Larry Kresek and minored in animation. From there, Sullivan began exploring entertainment art while working with area filmmaker Alexandre Philippe, perhaps best known for his 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas.

“I really launched into my career when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2003,” recalls Sullivan. That’s when he started doing concept art for a video-game company — a gig that “spring-boarded me into working on animated films."

Sullivan went to DreamWorks Animation to help produce Megamind and then he bounced between games and films, squeezing young adult book-cover illustration for HarperCollins Publishers and Penguin Random House into his nights and weekends. In 2009, Sullivan had the opportunity to work with director Jorge Gutierrez, and he was intimately involved with The Book of Life from the early developmental process on, eventually coming into the roles of art director and co-production designer.

After a few exhilarating (and exhausting!) years of splitting time between Dallas and Los Angeles, Sullivan and his family moved back to Colorado, where the entertainment artist is currently conspiring with Gutierrez on his next project, an untitled kung fu space western.

Sullivan's show will run until August, and he'll give an informal talk at ArtGym at 3 p.m. Saturday, June 27. “This is for people who want a more in-depth look at the process,” he says. For more information on Sullivan and his work, visit his website

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Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer, and author of the forthcoming Falcon Guide Hiking Wth Kids, Colorado: 52 Great Hikes for Families.
Contact: Jamie Siebrase