Matthew Woodson’s work showcases a technical ability for drawing scarcely seen while also maintaining a consistent level of beauty to the work that propels it to the realms beyond normal creative output. I recently jumped at the chance to ask Matthew some questions about his work and life, what Matthew replied with displays the thoughts of an intriguing individual whose point of views are one of a kind, just like his art. Check out the Q&A with Matthew below and check out more of his art:
1. When were you born, where are you from and where are you now?
I was born and raised in rural southern Indiana. After moving to Chicago in 2001 to attend The School of The Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I have yet to find much of a reason to leave…other than the winters, and the summers, and the amount of people, and the cost of living, and did I mention the winters?
2. What can you tell me about your studying of Natural History Illustration and how it has inspired your current body of work?
My passion, long before illustration and art in general, was biology and natural history. It is something that has influenced me personally as well as my work since as long as I can remember. When I was attending art school, I never particularly felt like I fit in. At the time, SAIC was more of a conceptual school. There was not a lot of focus on technique, and very little available to those interested in illustration. I quickly fell in with the Natural History Illustration classes, especially the Scientific Illustration classes. I spent the majority of my time at school hiding in The Field Museum here in Chicago, drawing preserved bird skins and taxidermy dioramas of deer. It felt natural. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing. Most of all, it felt like home.
Fast forward to being a professional full-time illustrator, and I now have to fight myself to not fill every illustration I do with specific plants and animals that I feel somehow emotionally or aesthetically fill in space within a piece. At this point the influence seems almost unavoidable, and in all honesty it is what I really enjoy about being an illustrator: the ability to sneak in these little natural nuances that don’t really mean anything to anyone other than myself, but still somehow resonate in a viewer and help inform the piece.
3. What’s the art scene like in Chicago?
I am unfortunately the wrong person to ask. After school I purposely removed myself from the art scene here in the city. Since graduating in 2005 I have only shown work in one space in Chicago, and that was as a favor to a friend. I am not particularly one for going to gallery shows in general, unless it is to support a friend.
However, I do miss working larger. Anymore, most of my work is done small enough that I can scan it without too much hassle. I would love an outlet to be able to work larger, and fortunately/unfortunately, doing work for galleries and shows seems to be a good option. So it is something I am slowly warming up to.
4. Your Tumblr is a great place for artists looking to find tips and ideas that inspire you. What are three of the main things you’re asked by other artists and what is your answer for them?
Ha, I am not sure if I should choose the questions that I find most earnest and compelling, or the questions that annoy me the most. But to keep it simple, let’s go with the questions I get asked the most:
1. Do you use photo reference for your work?
Yes I use photo reference. I also use film reference, and life reference, and book reference, and stupid conversations with my friends reference, and video game reference, etc. etc. etc. The photo reference is a silly question. I imagine that you would be hard pressed to find an artist who doesn’t use photo reference in some capacity or another. But I can guarantee that I use a lot less photo reference than the people asking that question are assuming.
2. What programs do you use for your work?
This is a fluctuating answer. I consider myself a “traditional artist”, or at least that is how I started out. I much prefer using brushes and ink compared to programs, and over the years have found several different ways to meld the two. I have used Photoshop, Manga Studio, and Illustrator to make work. But that doesn’t mean I am always using them, or using all three at once, and that also doesn’t mean that things don’t almost always start on paper before moving into a computer. I used to work solely by hand on paper before scanning things in and doing colors and effects with Photoshop. But unfortunately, in recent years I have had to rely more and more on programs like Manga Studio to do my line work just so I can get pieces to clients more quickly. I have spent so much time trying to find a program or digital process that will give me the same results as ink on paper, and while some come close, they are never perfect. I have been feeling a bit of heartsickness of recent about working so heavily on the computer, and I am very much looking forward to getting back to my brushes and drafting table soon.
5. You’re into tattoos, right? How many do you have? Any favorites?
Let’s just say that if I were to wear a tuxedo, you would still be able to tell that I was heavily tattooed based on what was showing. Though I can’t say I have any favorites. They are one of those things that the next one or the newest one is always the best one. I am fortunate enough to have some extremely talented and extremely patient tattooist friends here in Chicago like Esther Garcia and Stephanie Brown. The majority of the work I have on myself is a collaboration between them and myself, and it is always a fun experience. I even tried my own hand at tattooing for a hot minute, which resulted in tattooing my own thigh with something that may or may not read as “I Love Sailors,” as well as a surprisingly decent tattoo of a bird skull on Stephanie. But honestly I don’t know if I like being around people enough to ever build up enough moxie to do any more tattooing.
6. All of your work features incredible detail - Is this detail that you include a desire to make your work like an artist you look up to? Is it meditative?
A lot of it has to do with meditation. A lot has to do with being obsessive compulsive, and a perfectionist, and never knowing when to let something go, and some weird form of masochism about my wrist and back. Once when I was in school, a teacher was looking over my shoulder while I painstakingly drew the curves of someone’s ear. The ear was maybe 1/80th of the entire drawing, but still I had spent the better part of an hour drawing it and redrawing it. My teacher said to me “You know, you don’t have to draw EVERYthing.” I thought to myself, “Then what is the point of drawing any of it in the first place?”.
7. What are your biggest inspirations - whatever they may be?
As mentioned before, I pull a lot from film, photography, literature, etc. With a lot of my influences there is a blurred line between reference and influence. But when it comes to an actual aesthetic influence, I would have to say that what I look at most anymore are mid century illustrators. Artists like Coby Whitmore, Alex Raymond, Joe Bowler, Frank Frazetta, and countless others. There is just something so timeless about their work. It still feels as fresh today as it did 60 years ago. And really there is something to be said for work that can remain evocative for all that time. And whatever that “something” is, that’s what drives me and pushes me to make my work better every time I put pencil to paper.
8. What do you like least about being an illustrator?
Another question with a fluctuating answer. I will be turning 30 at the end of this summer. That means I will have been drawing every day for more than 25 years, and drawing ALL day every day since I first started art school and then started doing this gig full-time 12 years ago. These days the part I like least about being an illustrator is the previously mentioned wrist and back pain, the long and late hours, the huge chunk of my life I have spent secluded in my studio, unreliable income, lack of health insurance, not having enough time for my own personal work…..you know, the sorts of things that probably most American illustrators complain about. However, as much as I complain about these things they never even come close to overshadowing the things I like most about being an illustrator.
9. What kind of effect do you think social media is having on the artist?
I fully understand that social media is a great outlet for artists, and a wonderful place where people can show their work and have their work be seen by people all over the world, professionally or otherwise. I also fully understand that I would not have a career were it not for social media, or at least the Internet.
However, I think in a lot of ways it does more harm than good. I think a lot of artists and art styles are able to spread across the Internet so quickly that it over-saturates the market. The biggest complaint I hear from other artists is how this person or that person is ripping off their work, and more often than not their work IS being ripped off. That sort of thing wouldn’t be so easy to do without social media, and these rip-off artists definitely wouldn’t be getting any recognition if it weren’t for social media. And sure, you can say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’, but really that imitation could lead to the rip-off artist getting a job over the original artist, who actually deserves the credit. It’s a sticky situation that probably evens itself out in the end because artists are more likely to get work by being on social media in general, but it is still a bummer nonetheless.
But, I am a bit biased in this case considering the fact that I avoid technology in general and would prefer to live my life like it is 1942 forever. If I didn’t HAVE to use a computer or the Internet for my career, I absolutely wouldn’t. But unfortunately for me at least, that is not the way of things anymore.
10. What question would you ask yourself if you had the chance to interview yourself? (And what’s the answer?)
10A. You previously mentioned being a perfectionist. Are there particular parts of a drawing that need to be “just right” before moving on? And when do you know if an illustration is done or not?
Well, I have different rules for myself when it comes to different sorts of drawings, but let us just take an illustration of a person, considering that is what I am drawing 90% of the time. Of course things like proportion and depth are important, but what really makes the drawing come alive is the hair, hands, and especially the eyes. These are the things I really spend the most time on, and put the most love and care into. Drawing hair is like alchemy; you never know that it is working until it is working. Hands are structural nightmares. I use model skeleton hands a lot, and actually probably spend more time looking at my own hands for reference than I spend actually drawing hands. In school I spent a semester of figure drawing classes JUST drawing hands. And eyes…well, if the eyes aren’t right, then nothing is right. I draw and redraw eyes over and over again. I’ll even sometimes completely finish a piece, and then go back and redo the eyes from scratch. My old friend and comic-artist extraordinaire Becky Cloonan used to be totally freaked out by the fact that I would mirror my own drawings to make sure that the eyes looked right in every way imaginable. Mirroring the drawing of course makes everything else go to shit, but as long as the eyes are right I am fine with it.
And there are two answers to when an illustration is done; If it is for a client, then the illustration is done when the client says it is done. If the illustration is for me, then it is never done. Ever.
10B. What would you be doing if you were not an illustrator?
Being the pessimist that I am, this is unfortunately a question I have been asking myself a lot recently. Not because I dislike being an illustrator, mind you, but more so because questions like “What happens when clients stop hiring you?” and “What happens when you cripple yourself beyond the ability to hold a brush?” have a habit of keeping me awake at night. And while there are a lot of answers to this question, the one that rings truest to me is building and restoring furniture. My father’s true passion was carpentry, and he even built and designed the house that I grew up in and all of the furniture inside of it. It is something that I have always found exceedingly satisfying: Making a tangible something out of nothing, or taking something broken and useless and making it beautiful again. I recently rebuilt and restored a 1920’s Hamilton drafting table that takes up the majority of my studio, and it is a nice feeling to be just as proud of what you are drawing on as what you are drawing on it.
11. What’s the most awesome thing that has ever happened to you?
When I was in highschool I was part of a German exchange program, and lived for some time in Burgbernheim and Bad Windsheim in southern Germany. While I was staying there the town of Bad Windsheim was doing some maintenance on the town square and construction crews ended up uncovering a very old cellar that included several skeletons (as well as shackles mounted in the walls) that were hundreds and hundreds of years old. The skeletons were buried face down with their arms and legs separated at every joint. My German friend informed me that this is what they did in the old days to “stop them from getting up after they were dead.” Somehow or another I found myself in the possession of a discarded human finger bone from this dig site, which resulted in a night of flushing cigarettes down the toilet, dead crows, a spry German wielding a replica sword and screaming into the night. It finally ended with me returning the bone to where I found it the next morning and apologizing under my breath.
If it wasn’t the most awesome thing that ever happened to me, it was definitely the most metal. But then again, it might have just been an old chicken bone.
Matthew Woodson: Tumblr | Website