Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Brooklyn-based artist Matt Rota is an award winning Illustrator whose work is seen regularly in the pages of the NY Times and annuals, such as Spectrum and Society of Illustrators. We’ve known Matt since our years at MICA (03); his work has always been impressive. The figurative language throughout his body of work is absolutely loaded with narrative undertones. We’re honored to have him as this week’s featured artist. Look for Matt’s work in the coming weeks at the CLAW CLAW Studio Launch Party on Oct. 12th.
RAY JONES: What do you specialize in?
MATT ROTA: Mostly pen/ink and watercolor with digital. Sometimes when I’m working on originals for shows, I’ll use pen/ ink with watercolor, acrylic and gouache. Drawing with a little bit of painting as well.
RJ: How much of it is digital work? How has that influenced your work so far?
MR: Mostly in color. The reason I started working digitally was to play around with the color process. In college I was using watercolor, ink and acrylic. I was never completely happy. I always felt like adding color to the kind of process I use, which is pen/ink and pencil – it sort of overworked it and lost a little bit of the freshness. Plus, there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for digital collage, digital coloring and digital comic book coloring. It was sort of the trend.
RJ: What years are you thinking here?
MR: Around 2003, early 2000’s… End of that [era] and the beginning of the Tomer Hanuka’s and James Jean’s… When I was in high school my favorite artists were Kent Williams, Dave McKean and David Mack. I loved what they were doing digitally but it felt a little out of my reach; especially Dave McKean, who seemed like a crazy wizard of collage. I could never really figure out what he did. The other ones were more just drawing based. People like Tomer, James Jean, Jillian Tamaki, Sam Weber. That group of artists which really emphasized drawing, which I liked. They were using digital coloring and really cool rich palettes. The drawing stayed fresh, didn’t get overworked. I also started working as a comic book coloring assistant to Jose Villarubbia. He was showing me a lot of techniques for digital coloring as well, so it was just sort of natural to add that in and experiment with that. Really it was just a way to keep my drawings fresh and raw and to be able to play around with and adjust a really rich color palette.
RJ: How has your environment influenced your work? How would you compare your life in Baltimore to here?
MR: The people, I would say. I graduated college in 2003 and stayed in Baltimore for 3 years after. I stayed about 7 years. Its a nice place, I liked living there a lot, but it’s a very relaxed place. Most of the people I knew and hung out with were not as, motivated as I was. Living is a little bit easier in Baltimore, you don’t have to make as much money, so you can kind of take your time. That, I think, cuts into motivation.
I wanted to go to grad school, I wasn’t sure if i wanted to stay in New York, but i liked the idea of at least living there for a little bit. When I came here everybody was so motivated. People were much more in the mindset that I was in: I wanted to work a lot, I wanted to work all the time and I wanted it that to be my priority. I didn’t want it to be secondary. In Baltimore you have to kind of go against the tide. “The tide” is people wanting to hang out in the evening, get drinks, go to the movies and ,you know, do all that fun stuff that can be a distraction at times. They don’t understand why you want to spend so much time working… In New York, everyone I know here prioritizes their work above everything else. Its easier to have a strong work ethic here. That has impacted the output and the ambitions that I have, and my own work ethic.
RJ: What do you listen to while you work?
MR: A variety of things, I go through different cycles. Sometimes I’ll spend weeks listening to jazz, sometimes it’ll be indie music – whatever is new. Sometimes it’ll be podcasts like This American Life, Radiolab or Hardcore History by Dan Carlin – story oriented things. Audiobooks. Always something you get really sucked in to. Sometimes I’ll throw on a movie in the background and listen to it.
RJ: What have you listened to recently? I know we’re both fans of sci fi, anything from that genre?
MR: The most recent book I listened to was Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, an old one from the 70’s. Not sci fi at all, very contemporary literary genre stuff. Before that, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. Right now I’m in the process of listening to Margaret Atwood’s Horace and Krake. More sci fi literary stuff. Some of the best stuff to listen to is really old sci fi – H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes – which is a lot of what I’ll listen to while working. Its very plot driven, not a lot of details. The plot just moves forward and it’s a good thing to keep you working and just sort of pay attention. Adventure stories are a lot of fun to listen to while working.
RJ: Advice for anyone just starting out? AKA what did you wish you knew starting out?
MR: It’s tricky, because when I was first starting out I knew I wanted to go into Illustration, but I had studied Fine Art. The program at MICA [where we both went], was good for Fine Art, but not good for aligning you with any sort of career training, in my experience. Other people might disagree with that. My impression when I left was: I’m studying narrative artwork on my own and working hard to develop painting skills, drawing skills, and that should be enough – narrative drawing and painting. That’s what I thought illustration was… and it is, but its a lot more complicated than that.
I looked at my work and looked at what was getting printed in annuals and other publications that sort of indicate what is happening right now, and thought “I can draw as well as these people. My work is as interesting as these people. I should be able to find work”. What I found was that was not true, becoming an Illustrator is far more specific and targeted. I got out of school, sent my portfolio to a lot of people and got a lot of positive feedback. A ton of “really like what you’re doing, don’t know how it fits in with our magazine.” What I found is that Art Directors are very specific, more targeted towards content. More so than I had realized.
I think my advice would be… it’s good to know what you want to do and be in touch personally with your work. Also really, really be aware of where you want that work to end up. Don’t just assume that because you like it, that it’s useful. Don’t just assume that because they like it they can use it. You have to really be conscious that you’re selling it to your audience and know what kind of content that audience wants vs the type of content you’re creating.
RJ: When do you feel you really hit that stride and found that balance?
MR: Oh, I’m not sure I have, I don’t know. It’s always a struggle. I’ve worked for a number of magazines, had shows. I found places that like my work. For instance, The New York Times. I’ve worked consistently for them for seven years now and done a ton of jobs. The content I do is very political, I’m confident they’ll continue to call me. I have a good relationship with them. There are other magazines that I would have liked to have worked for but probably won’t. The New Yorker is a good indicator of success in the world of illustration. They told me hands down they like my work, but it’s just not for the magazine. I’m always trying to find ways of reaching new audiences. There are just these great moments that feel like you’ve really accomplished something, then you go back to pushing yourself. I thought there’d be a time when I hit that stride. “This is my game, I’ve got it figured out”… but that hasn’t happened. It’s still a lot of looking and exploring and finding new avenues for my work.
RJ: Favorite artists, inspirations, ideas?
MR: Hmm, so many. Visual Artists, let’s see… My taste kind of varies a lot, I like things that aren’t necessarily illustration. The stuff I look at that’s not illustration, that’s more painterly… a woman I really like and just found out about, Paula Rego. I believe she’s Portuguese. She does these really chaotic, almost expressionistic, post World War I era style paintings. I’ve been looking at her a lot recently. I also love old German renaissance stuff. Bruegal and Vash. Recently, when I was in Paris I went to the Gustave Miro museum. I really love his work but I had never really seen so much of it, and that was hugely impactful. I absolutely loved the work that I saw. Some of the other painters I revisit, Edwin Dickinson – who was an early 20th century American Modernist; I always love his paintings. Balthus is another person I can always come back to. Francesco Clemente, his compositions are so weird and abstract, I always find them completely interesting.
Lately I’ve looked at a lot of older illustration from the 1920’s, rediscovering people who I maybe was aware of, but didn’t look too closely at. Like Erte, the Fashion Illustrator who was incredible, he had a wonderful output. Ben Shahn is someone from that era who I recently rediscovered and I have been actually imitating a lot recently. His mark making and brushwork pops up a lot. Robert Weaver is another Illustrator has a very personal approach to all of his work.
Outside of that, I’m really influenced by sculpture, photography… Alexander McQueen is someone I’ve been looking at a lot recently too. His designs are like science fiction.
RJ: Yeah they’re like right out of Aliens. Giger.. some of them.
MR: Absolutely. Things like costume design. There’s this woman, Eiko Ishioka, she designed a lot of costumes for things like The Cell and Bram Stroker’s Dracula. It’s just amazing.
Kiki Smith has done some really interesting things. Robert Wilbur whose work borders on narrative. Very creepy, very material based, but very modern. There’s an abstraction to it. …I could probably go on and on but those are the people I’ve been looking at recently.
RJ: Have you ever had a “nightmare moment” as long as you’ve been working? Something you barely pulled together, tight deadline, etc.
MR: The people I work for the most are the NY Times. Often I’ll have a day or less to work for them. So, I don’t always know how an illustration is going to come out until about 10 minutes before the deadline. I’ll just have the sketch and I know the idea is there, but I might really want to do something bold and new. Try a new process or something, and that can be risky. I have a vision, I know exactly how i want it to come out, but I’ve never done this thing before. I can’t completely visualize how its going to come together. That DEADLINE… if I don’t make it, it doesn’t get printed. They go to print at 8 o’clock at night and they want it by 6pm. There have been many times I’ve gotten annoyed phone calls from Art Directors, “Matt, where is the piece?” “Matt, I’m in line at the printer. I need the piece now.” I know it’s going to be done. I’ll tell them I’m almost done with it and I still don’t know how its going to look. That is a nightmare situation. Sometimes it’s a breeze! I’ll have it done an hour early and I’ll just kick my feet up. Then there’s times it’s right down to the wire. Those are nightmare scenarios. If I don’t make the deadline once, that could risk my relationship with them forever. They’re my favorite client and I don’t want to do that.
RJ: How do you generate ideas?
MR: A lot of times I’ll get freelance work with similar content. You’ll get asked to do work that you have a track record of doing. Sometimes I’ll get an article and no visuals are coming, or maybe I have a concept, but how am I going to make it look good? How is this going to be interesting? I’ll get rid of all of my ideas, and start looking at artists who I respect. Grabbing something outside of my own head basically. Maybe its just a composition I’ll find, or there’s a color, or just something that will ring a bell. Then suddenly I’ll form my new idea, not around the “concept”, but around the look of the concept [my inspiration]. Suddenly it becomes an image that I really, really want to draw and had never thought about. So, maybe the “concept” is whatever, but the image I’m going to make is going to be dynamite.
I also have a desktop folder with thousands of images of photo reference. Things that I thought were cool at some point or images from past projects. I’ll drop it in my preview window and just cycle through images. I’ll pull images that are relevant to the project. Maybe it’s conceptual, maybe it’s something compositional. That helps too.
RJ: Name a few people living or dead you’d like to have dinner with.
MR: [Haha] Hmmm… I think Alan Moore would be a fun guy to sit down and eat dinner with. He seems like a cool dude and an easy guy to chat with, as well as being incredibly smart. I think I would enjoy that quite a lot.
A lot of my heroes are writers, artists tend be to a lot quieter, they do all their talking on the paper, you know? They’re nice and friendly, but all that energy is pent up inside, like they don’t know how to talk about it.
Paul Bowles is a writer, he died maybe ten years ago? He’s led an interesting life. He was a composer that worked with Aaron Copeland for awhile, then decided to drop all of his music. Hennessy Williams called him “one of the greatest contemporary composers”. [Bowles] moved to Africa and started writing fiction. He wrote some of the boldest, creepiest novels I’ve ever read. He just seems like he has an interesting and unique outlook on life. He was recluse, he lived on an island by himself. He was the guy that got William S. Burroughs to sit down and write Naked Lunch. Somewhat nihilistic. He would be an interesting guy to at least drink a bottle of wine with.