Don Castillo, a San Antonio native, turns his love of karate into art through digital drawing.
Don Castillo, a San Antonio native, turns his love of karate into art through digital drawing.

By Scott Mims

A glance at Don Castillo’s drawings will tell you two things—he is a skilled artist, and he is knowledgeable about martial arts.

The San Antonio native, who now calls Chilton County his home, has developed a love affair with digital drawing and digital art. But perhaps what is most unique about his style is that he incorporates his interest in karate into his creations. Oh, and another thing—Castillo holds a black belt in karate; hence the moniker, “The Martial Artist.”

“Back in the samurai days, they taught samurais to be artists,” Castillo said, citing calligraphy as an example.

While Castillo carries around a sketch pad and pencil, most of his finished works involve tools that are a bit more modern—an electronic pen and drawing tablet connected to his laptop computer.

There’s much more to digital drawing than just pointing and clicking. The work Castillo does is freehand, and the electronic equipment he uses is sensitive to pressure. Just like with a pencil, the width and darkness of a line depend upon the pressure applied. A digital palette of colors allows him to “paint” freehand as well, blending different colors to create new colors.

While he says digital drawing is “a lot less messy” than traditional drawing or painting, he said it takes some getting used to.

“A lot of people think digital art is so new because of the advent of the tablet,” he said. “A lot of people are not sure how to perceive it.”

This is especially true where photography is involved. Castillo can even import photographs into the software program and turn them into more abstract creations. For example, he can create a caricature by tracing over someone’s facial features in a photograph. Once the artwork is finished, the photograph is deleted, leaving only Castillo’s marks. This method sort of blurs the line between photography and drawing.

From a very young age, Castillo has wanted to draw.

“I have been drawing since I could literally crawl,” he recalled. “I remember when we got a new washing machine as a kid, the old one had a choo-choo train in crayon on the back that I drew in secret; I must have been around 5 years old at the time.”

In junior high, art was his favorite subject. He collected comic books and tried to draw superheroes, and even made his own comic book. One of his biggest influences was fantasy and science fiction artist Frank Frazetta. Some might be familiar with Frazetta’s work in Al Capp’s comic strip “Li’l Abner.”

“That was really my biggest influence. I always wanted to draw like him,” Castillo said.

At Phyllis Wheatley High School in San Antonio, Texas, he did banners for the football team. He went on to take advertising art at San Antonio College, but it wasn’t quite what he was looking for.

“I kind of felt like the advertising part wasn’t what I wanted,” he said.

Castillo did face painting at Central Market Square, where he would paint cartoon characters on people’s faces. This quickly progressed to doing caricatures.

“I made good money doing that for many years while also doing signs for businesses on the main drag on the city’s South side,” he said.

Castillo’s exposure to the martial arts paralleled his interest in drawing. At age 12, his father started him in karate. He competed in more than 250 tournaments around Texas and earned his first-degree black belt at age 18. He had a third-degree black belt at 25.

For about 12 years, Castillo had his own karate school in San Antonio, Don Lee’s (his first and middle names). It was during this time, while doing his art on the side, that he came up with “The Martial Artist,” which he felt fit him perfectly.

Castillo studies and teaches Jeet Kune Do, a style founded by famous martial artist, actor and filmmaker, Bruce Lee.

“He wanted people to research different arts and techniques and see what worked for them,” he said.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Castillo’s two passions would collide. He started doing portraits of famous martial arts figures and posting them on Facebook. This led to a comic strip, “Tales of the Karate Whisperer,” which were displayed at a gathering for a friend in Houston who wanted to open a martial arts museum.

Castillo has authored two books, “The Littlest Ninja” and “How to Make Money Drawing Easy Cartoons.” Both are available for Amazon Kindle.

He moved to Chilton County 14 years ago with his wife, Tammy, an area native. He taught art and guitar at the Chilton County YMCA, then an after-school cartooning class at Adair Middle School (now Clanton Middle).

“I always wanted to pursue teaching art to kids because I actually love teaching and enjoy the joy that art can bring to a child or an adult. I believe art is in everybody, some just gravitate more to the craft than others.”

One of his methods uses simple stick figures—and the imagination—to unleash creative powers in kids.

“Cartooning is one of the best ways to get kids interested [in art],” he said. “You don’t have to have a lot of skill to draw stick figures, but you can make that stick figure do anything.”

He hopes to teach a course in cartooning at the Chilton County Arts Council building, located on Second Avenue North in Clanton. His goal is to have 20-40 kids enrolled.

To learn more about the course, or to pre-register, contact the Chilton County Arts Council at 205-217-3027. You can also find “The Martial Artist” Don Castillo on Facebook.