An Interview with Professional Illustrator + CE Faculty Member: Matt Stewart

Please tell us more about your art and design background and what made you become an illustrator?

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, even before I realized I could make a living out of it. I used to buy Dungeons and Dragons manuals and magazines just for the covers. It wasn’t until I was in art school that it hit me that if I was going to make art my living, my best chance at success would be creating the art I love and to emulate the artists I grew up looking at. After graduating from Parsons School of Design in 1999, I worked with Duirwaigh Gallery, where my art was used for the products and prints they sold. They also worked as an agent for me, securing my first private commissions and then my first book covers. I spent a lot of time during that period creating samples for clients I wanted to work for and just trying to get better. It took time to get my stuff out there (and a lot of work) but it paid off in the end.

Your work is full of fantasy + creativity. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

My love for fantasy was cemented by the great fantasy art I grew up looking at–Keith Parkinson, Jeff Easley, Alan Lee, the Hildebrandt Brothers–all those guys got me hooked. (That, and the fact that I’m as big a Tolkien fan as anyone can be). In college I would go to the Metropolitan Museum of art a lot and look at many of the medieval and 19th century paintings. They inspired me not only in the subject matter, which dovetails nicely with what we think of as fantasy, but in the craftsmanship and emotion in the painting. Observation of the real world is also probably the biggest inspiration for me. I love history, science, geography, and literature and fantasy is a place where I can indulge and utilize all those interests. It’s wide open. Anything can exist in fantasy; you’re only limited by what you can imagine.

Could you describe for us your typical ‘start to finish’ work flow when working on a project?

Everything starts out in a sketchbook as thumbnails–small drawings no more than a few inches in size. From there it’s scanned in and the drawing is developed in Photoshop as far as it can go just from imagination. Then reference is gathered to aid in the solidification of the image, whether it is photo reference, maquettes, studies from models, etc. Next, a comprehensive drawing is done to really nail down what I want. Then the drawing is transferred to a primed board, and the painting can begin. If everything goes right, the finish should be done relatively quickly and easily, with all the hard work being done in the preliminary stages.

What are your tools of the trade, both hardware and software?

Probably the most important tool is a drawing pencil. It’s the workhorse. My finished paintings are done in oils, usually on MDF (medium density fiberboard, aka Masonite). I use Liquin as a painting medium, to speed up the drying and to control the viscosity of the paint. Photoshop is also invaluable to me, both in preliminary stages of images, but also for reference, and for refining finished image files for clients.

What, for you are the pros and cons of being a designer?

As a freelance artist many of the pros and con are two sides of the same coin. Being my own boss means I have no one to blame when problems arise. There are no working hours, stuff just has to get done, regardless of how long it takes or how much sleep I might not get. I’m also responsible for managing my own schedule of work, so I have to be very aware of what I can and can’t take on. Waiting to get paid can be frustrating as well. It’s all worth it, because it lets me spend my day doing what I love to do.

How does your job as an illustrator influence your life? Do you feel that you see things around you differently for example?

I’m always thinking about art. I might see a gnarled up tree in my neighborhood and think, “I’ve got to do something with that tree in it.” I see people in the street and think, “That person’s face would make a great wizard or hero or whatever.” And being someone working in the fantasy genre, it gives me an excuse as a 34 year old adult to still remain a 12 year old at heart.

What are you working on now?

Aside from Magic: The Gathering cards, which I can’t show until publication, I just finished a portrait of Strider from The Lord of the Rings. You can see it in the studio shot on the easel. It’s a personal piece of mine, inspired by the NC Wyeth and Howard Pyle painting.

What are your favorite 5 websites, and why?

To name a few that I like..

  1. Gurney Journey, the blog of Dinotopia artist James Gurney . I’ve learned a ton of useful information about art techniques, art history and science from his blog.
  2. The Illustration Exchange. It’s a meeting place for artists and collectors.
  3. Jon Schindehette’s blog Art Order. Jon, the art director for Dungeons and Dragons, blogs about great art as well as the business end of illustration.
  4. Underpaintings. Great blog if you’re into 19th century and contemporary realism.
  5. Creature Spot All about creatures, featuring incredible art by some of the best concept artists and illustrators out there.

What does your workspace look like?

My wife Gina (who is also an artist and a University of the Arts grad) and I have a small house where the entire upstairs is our studio. We basically bought the house because of the space upstairs. It’s a great space to work in. We intentionally never refinished the hardwood floors so we don’t have to worry about spilling paint or anything. I have an easel and drawing table, along with bookshelves full of books for reference and inspiration. On one side of my easel is a moveable taboret where I keep my palette and brushes. On the other side I have a computer where I can bring up photo reference. There’s a big closet in the back to store all my paintings and some equipment and supplies too.

What is your typical day like?

It’s pretty simple. I start the day by trying to get all the busy work–emails, paperwork, errands, etc.–out of the way in the morning. Then I paint or draw from the late morning until the afternoon. After lunch I go back to the drawing board or easel until my wife Gina gets home from her day job as a graphic designer. After dinner, I do the dishes and spend some more time with Gina. Around 9 it’s back to work for a while. The end of the day depends on how up against the deadlines I am.

As a final word, do you have any tips for upcoming artists and designers hoping to break into the business?

I guess the most important thing is to work hard, draw a lot, and try to find that balance between what’s hot out there and what you personally like to do. Just don’t regurgitate what you see. That way, you separate yourself from the herd, but you still satisfy the needs of the market.

Visit Matt online by checking out his website.
Matthew Stewart will be teaching CE 1006 Illustration Portfolio this spring, Wednesday evenings, 7 pm – 10 pm, Jan 26 – Apr 6. For details about this course visit the Continuing Education website

2 comments on “An Interview with Professional Illustrator + CE Faculty Member: Matt Stewart
  1. This is my first time I visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. It really serves great inspiration for us in web design industry. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *