Lots of kids grow up obsessed with cartoons and comics, but few can turn that interest into a thriving art career with a client list that boasts big names like Amazon, Microsoft, and Marvel. But that’s precisely what Nolan Harris, artist and co-owner of Over the Line Art, has done. Even though Nolan’s journey wasn’t always easy, his story provides wisdom and inspiration for anyone interested in creating art.
Having grown up in the ‘80s, Nolan loved watching Saturday morning cartoons like G.I. Joe and The Transformers. He also started drawing at a young age. But it wasn’t until he began reading comic books that he knew he wanted to be an artist. “For me the connection was instant,” Nolan said. “Once I got my first comic book, I was immediately hooked on drawing and art.”
That interest carried Nolan through his elementary and middle school years. By the time he was in high school, he planned to get a summer job as an artist at the local theme park. Unfortunately, Nolan’s application was rejected two summers in a row. “I experienced a couple of years’ worth of rejection, but each summer I applied again,” Nolan said.
His persistence paid off. The summer he turned 18, he was hired as a caricature artist for the theme park. His experience drawing for the park visitors was transformational, or as they say, it was where the magic happened.
Besides being a really cool summer job, working as a theme park caricature artist helped Nolan grow in ways his high school art classes never could. “That summer job was amazing because I got to interact with a lot of serious artists. I felt like I was finally with my kind of people,” Nolan told me. “By working with them each day, I was able to cultivate my skill set. I bounced ideas off of everyone and tried different styles and techniques to find what worked best for me. That experience allowed me to grow and get so much better,” Nolan explained.
After high school, Nolan left his hometown of Cincinnati, OH, and attended Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA. There, he majored in 2D animation. But each summer, he returned home and worked his job at the theme park.
“While all my college friends had summer jobs in restaurants, I was doing art. That helped me stay sharp, so I was ready to take a job as an artist when I graduated and left college,” Nolan said. “Taking summers off worked against a lot of students. I’m glad things turned out as they did for me.”
So far it might sound like things came easily for Nolan, but as we said earlier, that wasn’t the case.
After graduation, he took a job with a retail art company. The problem was the job didn’t pay exceptionally well. “That was the first time I learned what debt was,” Nolan told me. “The company wanted me to relocate to Richmond, VA, but the compensation wasn’t adequate for that type of cross-country move. I had to max out my credit card to buy furniture for my new place. Sales turned out to be lower than expected too. In all, it was a hard time.”
Nolan ended up relocating twice again while working for the same company. First, they asked him to move to Chicago, IL, and then to Columbus, OH. Looking back, Nolan said that job was valuable in terms of the things he learned, although it wasn’t the ideal scenario. “I actually learned a lot about running a business. Sure, it wasn’t the best or easiest experience. But what I learned helps me be successful today,” Nolan explained.
Nolan’s life as an artist changed drastically after his friend, Dexter Rothschild, called him up and invited him to Seattle, WA. “Dexter told me I should move up to Seattle. He said the market was wide open because no one was doing caricatures in a modern way yet,” Nolan said. “I had never been to Seattle, but I was in debt and knew I needed to do something different.”
Nolan moved and joined his friend in a joint venture they called Over the Line Art. “We started the business as a retail booth, doing caricature art at the Space Needle and Seattle Waterfront. Things went well, and we expanded. We are now at 40 different festivals and fairs each year in addition to our permanent Space Needle and Seattle Waterfront locations,” Nolan told me. “It took me leaving my corporate job and starting my own company for me to get out of debt. I’m so glad I took that leap of faith.”
To keep Over the Line Art’s large-scale operation going, Nolan and Dexter employ a significant number of local artists. “Each day, we have about 12 to 14 different artists drawing for us,” Nolan said. “It’s wonderful to be able to mentor younger artists and give them opportunities. I remember being in their shoes, so I’m happy to have the chance to help them succeed.”
In addition to their retail locations and festival appearances, Over the Line Art is a full-fledged digital art company. On their website, you can purchase avatars, high-resolution digital illustrations, and airbrushed apparel. With all of Nolan’s success, I wondered if he had to give up doing art to run the business. He assured me he still gets the opportunity to draw on site, but most of his time with Over the Line Art is devoted to day-to-day management and looking for new booking opportunities.
“Sometimes I can get out and draw a bit. I often work our big corporate events like parties for Amazon or Microsoft. But whenever I’m able to open up new bookings, I’m creating opportunities for our other artists. That’s why I focus so much of my time on bookings these days,” Nolan explained.
One of the best things about talking to PaperLike artists is extracting the great advice they have for newer artists, and Nolan was no exception. He’s worked very hard to get where he is today, so the wisdom he shares is worth its weight in gold.
“My first piece of advice for new artists is to be alright with rejection,” Nolan said. “All good artists struggle with it when it happens, but don’t let it deter you. Instead, use rejection as motivation for getting better, and that will help you grow as an artist.”
“Another thing artists struggle with is charging what they are worth,” Nolan added. “My advice is to do work that distinguishes you from other people. Then charge accordingly. Sure, you will get people who turn you down because they can’t afford you. But when you get the people who can and do buy your work, it’s so worth it.”
This year promises to be another exciting one for Nolan and Over the Line Art, so of course, we asked for details. Nolan explained that the company is expanding its services beyond the Seattle area. “Soon Over the Line will be booking caricature artists for events worldwide. No matter where you are in the world, we will connect you to talented artists to make your event awesome,” he told me.
“I also have a few exciting personal projects in the works,” Nolan added. “I can’t talk about them now, but keep your eyes peeled for an announcement. You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter. I post fun illustrations and updates there.”
There are three themes I love about Nolan’s artistic journey:
And it’s that last theme that truly sets Nolan apart from many artists. Not many people would persist through two rejections for their first paying art gig. Not many people would move cross-country three times to further develop their art careers. Fewer yet would move a fourth time to risk everything on a humble joint venture drawing caricatures for tourists. But it’s those exact risks and that persistence that’s gotten Nolan to where is today.
Nourish your passion. Persist. Be bold. Learn. Repeat.