Cartoons are a quintessential part of childhood. Whether you were loyal to Disney’s One Saturday Morning programming block, Cartoon Network, or something else, chances are you had a favorite show or two — or 10 — and they influenced your childhood in some way. For Charles Thurston, that influence was significant.
Thurston, an artist based in Orlando, Florida, is increasingly known for his intricate, painstakingly detailed paper cuts. Using little more than paper and time, Thurston has recreated everything from Beauty and the Beast’s Cogsworth and Robin Hood’s Prince John to Scooby-Doo and Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, using layer upon layer of colored paper to reimagine the characters we all know and love.
He credits his voracious childhood appetite for cartoons — all cartoons, no matter how cheesy or unknown — for sparking his creativity and lifelong passion for art.
“I think my love of art is centralized around … cartoons,” Thurston says. “When I think of cartoons that I watched as a kid, I don’t think of like, ‘Oh gosh, I had to get home to watch Transformers, or I had to get home to watch G.I. Joe.’ Pretty much, as a little kid, if there was a cartoon on, I would give it a chance.”
Some of Thurston’s first paper pieces were homemade toys inspired by those same shows: DIY Transformers he made for himself. While his parents certainly bought him toys, they stuck to more moderately priced items — not necessarily the hottest, trendiest picks — and instead invested heavily in his education.
“I went to a private Catholic school; I know my parents worked hard to get me there,” he says. “So I had GoBots, and my friends had Transformers, if that makes sense. It wasn’t the pricey, pricey toy; it was the middle-of-the-road toy. I used to make a lot of my own stuff. My main medium that I use right now is paper, but I remember as a little kid I used to make paper Transformers.
“It’s cute to tell now, but I’m just picturing myself as a little kid: I would draw the robot on one side, draw the car on the other side, then cut it out so that it’s folded in half,” he adds with a signature, hearty laugh. “Like here’s the car, and then I would fold it again like here’s Optimus Prime. So I’ve been using paper for years and years.”
If cartoons and a natural penchant for creation took Thurston half of the way, Disney took him the rest. He began working at Walt Disney World when he was still in high school, sometimes even skipping school to spend more time at the park. (Who can blame him?) He was a character and a puppeteer for 16 years, and he did parades, too.
“I puppeteered as the Little Mermaid, Bear in the Big Blue House, the Lion King, the Disney Crew, Pocahontas and her Forest Friends — basically every puppet show on the property in the early 2000s, I did,” Thurston says.
In fact, his first paper-cut piece was conceived while he was there.
“I wanted to make something for my mother for Christmas, and Disney didn’t really pay that much,” he says. “So I was trying to think, ‘OK, what can I make her?’ In every theme park break room, I guarantee you’ll find at least four copies of old Entertainment Weeklys, so I would take those from all the break rooms and cut them up. I decided I was going to make her a ‘Last Supper’ and treat it like a tile mosaic — but with paper.”
While Thurston credits Disney with a lot — his first career, meeting his wife, and being the single-largest influence on him creatively, with the exception of his parents — he was so busy and fulfilled while working there that he put his art on the backburner, sketching occasionally at best. Eventually, his desire to start a family — and the extra money that requires — led him to work as a programmer at Carley Corp., an Orlando-based custom training solutions company.
“I bluffed my way into a job,” Thurston says. “I got a job programming. I was there for five years, and the money was great. It helped us afford to have my daughter, my oldest, Lily, and it was great in that aspect, but I hated it. I hated the work. I’m an entertainer, I’m an artist, I like performing, making people laugh, making something, and the work I was doing, although the money was very good, it was soul-crushing.”
Although Thurston was unhappy with his programming job, there was a silver lining: It pushed him back toward art. He started drawing more, desperate to do something creative — to create something. At the same time when he found himself getting reacquainted with his art, a friend of Thurston’s encouraged him to attend conventions.
Initially, Thurston says he primarily saw conventions as a big money suck, paying for entry into an event where you just spend more money. Nonetheless, he dove in, saving up enough money to attend MegaCon. He happened upon a little thing called Artists’ Alley — and it changed his life.
“What’s an Artists’ Alley?! I had never even heard of it,” he says. “A friend of mine [told me] it’s where local artists and big-name artists can go and get a table and sell their stuff. They do sketches, and it’s great. … I did the math in my head and was like, ‘Wait; it’s only $50 more for an Artists’ Alley table than a three-day pass to the show next year. If I spend $50 more, I get an Artists’ Alley table, I can bring my stuff to be seen, I can sell stuff, I can come to the show, and I get an extra badge for my wife?’ Yeah? Alright, where do I sign up? I’m gonna do a show next year!”
That was about seven years ago, and Thurston’s been hooked ever since. Needing inventory, he started drawing more and more — every day — and thinking about what it would take to make art for a living.
Thurston didn’t have to wait or think too long. After working at Carley for five years, he was laid off.
“I went home; I was super depressed, and I was talking with my wife about it,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to try finding something else; don’t worry.’ My wife had a great job at Disney, and we had benefits through her, so it was really great. When we had talked about having kids, we both wanted one of us to stay at home with the kids. So she said, ‘You’re already doing art. You’ve been at Carley for the past five years, and it’s killing you. You hated it. So why don’t you try doing this full time? Why don’t you try art full time? And just work out of the house because that’ll allow you to be home with the kids, and also do something that you’re passionate about, and something that you love.’ God bless her. She’s always been so supportive — incredibly supportive — of what I do.”
So, what started as an anxiety-filled period of change quickly saw Thurston following his dream: Working as a full-time artist — and a stay-at-home dad. Although he’s dabbled with children’s book illustration, paper mosaics, and other art forms, Thurston’s papercuts are his current focus.
“Right now, all my prints are all my paper work,” Thurston says. “I retired all my other prints — almost two, three years ago now — at shows. And I [decided] to focus just on paper. For like a year, everything I did was just paper, so that I could work on it and focus on it and make bigger and cooler things.”
When he first started selling his art at cons, Thurston says he couldn’t give the paper away, that’s how unpopular it was. But that’s far from the case now. Today, he creates not just original pieces or those inspired by classic and obscure Disney properties, he does a fair amount of commissions, too — including some for big names, such as John Leguizamo.
“It’s been so amazing,” Thurston says. “I’m just so happy that people appreciate the art form, and they appreciate the time it takes to do it.”
When you look at Thurston’s paper work, you may find yourself asking if it’s really just paper as you wonder about the shading and pops of color.
“It’s all paper; I don’t touch it up digitally at all,” Thurston says. “I’m always trying to push myself to do something new with it.”
Using his iPad Pro with an Apple pencil or his Wacom Cintiq, Thurston does a rough sketch, goes over it about three more times, adds in the line work, arranges it all, and then prints it. That drawing becomes the basis for the final paper cut, which features natural shadows and foam core for depth.
“I wanted to set myself apart,” he says. “I try not to do shading with any paints or the pen or anything. I try to shade just with the actual paper or use natural shadows. I’ll layer it inside the shadow box with foam core. The only pen that I use is if it’s a fine-tip line that I need to get; … I’ll use a Micron pen to get that little detail, or a white gel pen for like the white in their eyes, like a little white dot.”
While the paper is still Thurston’s primary focus, he recently created a limited-edition set of enamel pins based on Cosmo from The Iron Giant. They sold like
hotcakes burgers, and if he can monetize them well, he says he’ll make more. Thurston’s also newly into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). A visit to his Instagram page reveals a cutesy series of tiny dragons and dice inspired by the game.
When he’s not sketching his latest piece or fanboying over obscure, old-school animation and D&D, you can find Thurston gearing up for his latest con. Dragon Con was most recent, but he’s headed to New York Comic Con’s (NYCC) Artists’ Alley next.
“NYCC is my favorite show to do,” Thurston says. “Don’t get me wrong; I’ve done some other conventions that are just wonderful, wonderful shows, … but NYCC is almost like a validation to artists. Those people are art connoisseurs. They appreciate the value. They respect it’s an art form, and it’s a skill. It kind of reassures me that I’m making a correct choice in wanting to be an artist because these people appreciate and value my work and realize that it’s gonna cost money to make this.”
If you find yourself with a few extra minutes to mosey down Artists’ Alley at NYCC, stop and see Thurston at table C-5. And when you do, make sure you ask him about his favorite pie.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!