Friday, September 17, 2010

A visit to my studio...

Recently a few people have asked me why my "studio" is in a closet. Well, that's kind of a long and personal story, but oddly enough, that tiny studio has become a very comfortable place for me and I actually like it quite a bit better than a large, room-sized studio. It feels very calm, focused, private, and almost embryonic when I am in there and I truly think I do my best work in that small space.

I used to have a blog post somewhere that functioned as a "tour" (ha!) of my studio but now it's gone. I must have deleted it myself, although that is very odd since I, as a rule, don't self-edit these posts. In any case, since a few people asked and since I have rearranged a few things in the studio, I decided it would be a good idea to write up a new studio tour blog post, complete with photographs. This is where almost every single one of these Moby-Dick illustrations from page 65 onward (that's when we moved) has been created. A few were done in hotels while traveling, or at my desk while I was at work. Alright, let's see this place. First, this is what you'd see if you were standing in the bedroom, outside the studio and looking in...

The closet is quite small. Maybe four feet wide and six or seven feet deep. The ceiling is fairly high, which is a little strange, but there is some nice shelving in there which is great for storing art supplies. Okay, first, the walls. I painted them that brilliant turquoise blue on purpose. I love that color and think it's simply beautiful. It reminds me of the ocean, the bright sun, and heat. All of which are very calming to me, and help me settle my mind and focus on the art. You'll get a better glimpse of the precise shade of blue a few photos down. So you can see a few pieces of art on the wall (including a fine and huge portrait of me painted by the inimitable Aaron Cael [blog here and art here]), the drafting table immediately in front of you facing the back wall of the closet, two shelves full of art supplies and books overhead, a string to turn on the light, and an extension cord on the floor for the lamp over the table. Nearly every single night for the last 10 months my wife has seen me sitting in that chair hunched over that table painting or drawing or somehow making Moby-Dick art. Sometimes late into the night. Let's walk inside, shall we?

Ah, yes, it's a bit brighter now. You can see the drafting table a bit better and a small bookshelf, hidden behind the open door, to the right. Down below the table are a few larger pieces of framed art that I picked up over the years and simply have no room to hang. Alright, I know you want to see details, so lean in with me...

Man, look how messy the surface of that table is! Believe me, I am a very tidy person and clean it diligently. But over the years ink has stained it, paints have been ground in to the finish, and bits and pieces of all kinds of other media have somehow left their mark. At first it bothered me because I wanted a pristine surface, but over the last year I have actually become incredibly fond of this table and its well-worn and much-used surface. It's home.

Okay, to the left you can see my Polaroid camera hanging downward as well as the lamp (it came with the table) that I use when I draw. It's to the left because I am right-handed and that way I don't get shadows from my hand across the art while I am drawing. On the left rear part of the table you can see two small incense burners, a collection of cheap acrylic craft paints, a few glasses or cups for brushes, a bottle of sake (inspiration!) and two empty bottles of lime Jarritos soda (my second favorite refreshment, when I let myself indulge in something that sugary). To the right of that is one large resin Buddha with two smaller Buddhas in front of him (one resin, one jade, all three for good luck), a few fortune cookie fortunes stuffed between the figures, a lucky piece of jade I've had for a long time, and two more incense burners. These are the ones I use most often, and when I can I like to burn so much incense the room fills with smoke. It's probably terrible for my lungs, but something about it really transports me to that kind of altered consciousness I sometimes need to make art. I guess it could just be lightheadedness from lack of oxygen though. To the right of that is a roll of toilet paper for blotting up excess ink or paint, an amazing painting of Queequeg on a wooden panel that I bought from good friend the artist Tom Williams, just in front of that painting a "Magic: The Gathering" card game card for a monster called a plague fiend (which is a bit of an inside joke because my wife says it looks like a "mutated ant" which for some reason always makes me laugh a lot), a strange and wonderfully hideously sad-looking clay dragon my mother bought for me many many years ago (you can see his three horns and white eyes), a little canister of incense cones, the rubber "Q" stamp I use on many of the Queequeg illustrations on top of that cannister, one of my two white plastic paint trays, and attached to the right of the table the black plastic tray that holds my charcoals, a few erasers, exacto knives, and assorted supplies I need but don't use regularly.

Finally, on the wall right in front of the table is, at least mentally, the most crucial stuff. See, this is my view every minute that I am in the studio. If I am not looking down at the art I am making, this wall is what I see three feet in front of my face. So what I put there is very important because I am going to spend a lot of time looking at it. What's on the wall has to be interesting, stimulating, centering, and inspiring. Let's start on the left. First, there is a black and white xerox of a photographed portrait of Herman Melville. It's hanging there for obvious reasons, but I do talk to him and he talks back to me. I'd like to think he approves of what I'm doing, but he can be a stern taskmaster. Beneath Melville is my digital watch, which functions as my studio clock since time seems to stand still in there and I could easily see myself working through the night if I didn't pay attention. Right in the middle is a framed and staggeringly beautiful collage entitled "Anamorphic Gate" by my friend the artist Jeffrey Meyer. I've mentioned before how much I love his work, especially his collages, and he has been very kind and encouraging to me, so it's been really enervating to have an original work of art from him hanging right in front of me while I work on my own. To the right of that, at the top, is a small brush-and-ink study I did for page 222. I generally don't do a lot of sketching or studies before I make an illustration, but I was so nervous about using a brush exclusively for an illustration that I felt I really needed to practice. The study, and the finished piece, turned out amazingly well (still one of my absolute favorites from this project) so I keep the study pinned to the wall as a sort of reminder of my triumph. It's a very good memory. Beneath that is a weird painting of a nude, hippie-ish woman that I cut out of a Heavy Metal comics magazine many many years ago and mounted on cardboard. I don't know why I've held on to it so long (other than the fact that it is a very well done painting and the woman is beautiful) but it's always been a part of my studio wherever I've gone. Finally, the last piece of art on the left is a framed photogravure of a Chinese nude by Heinz von Perckhammer. I believe it is originally from a 1928 book, although I have had it framed for many years. It too is exquisitely beautiful and inspirational. Oh, yeah, way down on the floor in the lower right corner is a big wooden art box for carrying supplies when I travel and a blue fabric sack of plastic toy dinosaurs from my 1970s childhood.

I mentioned that the studio is essentially self-contained, even for a room so small, and now I will show you how that can be. Sit down in my chair and look up...

These are the shelves above my head. They are a bit high so I have to get out of the chair and stand up to reach the topmost one. Let's start there. Off to the left, in back, is my photographic enlarger. I used to take a lot of black and white photographs but due to the time and expense of maintaining a darkroom, I don't do so much of that any more. I like to hold on to the enlarger though, just in case I want to go back to that. Right now, it just holds my hat. A little farther forward you can see my can of spray fixative (for charcoal and colored pencil art), a can of house paint that functions as a bookend (good because it's so heavy!), a cereal bowl that I use to collect the colored pencil shavings so I can tidily dispose of them, and a row of all sorts of books that I ended up with from library discards and used bookstores. These are just some of the books I use for this project, although I have stacks and stacks of found paper going back many years from books that were, quite literally, falling apart and impossible to shelve. It's incredibly convenient having these books shelved like this since I can just reach up and pull one down, hunting for a good page to work on.

On the smaller, narrower shelf below is a stack of old magazines and comics to the left. I use paper from these as well, just not as often. There's an assortment of binders, storage bins, and Itoya art portfolios in the back of this shelf, but that's mostly just storage and little-used stuff. In the front are my bottles of ink. From left to right, Higgins, Winsor & Newton, and metallic. I rarely use the metallic ink because it never shows up right in scans or online, but the rest of the bottles I use constantly. And I am diligent about replacing them, in order and all lined up, on the shelf every night when I finish. I maintain a tidy studio.

Now, swivel to the right a bit. Let's see what we have here. On the wall are my templates. I rarely use these any more. A big part of what I hoped to accomplish with this project was to teach myself to trust my hand, whether I am using a pen or a brush. I felt that I had become too dependent on rulers and templates and drawing had become fairly miserable for me. So far, it's been a rousing success and I now officially love using a brush, something which terrified me even a year ago. To the right is a cheap bookshelf stuffed with books I use as inspiration, or just to take a break. It's almost entirely graphic novels. On the bottom shelf are surplus bottles of black ink, a few cans of spraypaint, spray adhesive, and other supplies rarely needed but still important. Way up on the top of the bookshelf is a stack of electronics repair diagrams from the 1960s (still the paper I love drawing on the most), my cup of markers, and a few CDs. I don't know why I keep them in there since I always listen to my iPod. I think it's because I liked the covers and the design.

Look a little farther back, almost over your right shoulder, and you'll see what always gets hidden by the door unless you are in the studio with the door closed.

More books for inspiration. A stack of three white cardboard boxes which hold the zines and comics I've made over the years and occasionally send to friends or people that buy art from me. A stepladder for changing the light bulb and reaching way back on the highest shelf. And a row of short glasses holding colored pencils, other markers, different kinds of pens and a whole motley assortment of art supplies.

So there you have it. My tiny closet studio. It's strange, but it feels like home. Even when I finish this project I will keep using that room to make art. Somehow though, maybe because of the color and the way it reminds me of tropical oceans, I think I will always associate it with these Moby-Dick pieces.


  1. Very cool, Matt. It's neat to see where you work. Your comments about the stains/etc. on your table made me think of a similar thing I do. Whenever I paint a room (not exactly art), I wear the same ratty old tee-shirt. I don't necessarily go out of my way to get paint on it, but it has sustained over the last few years a few circular prints from the end of a roller, a smudge here, a drip there. It's a history of my home and my family, in a way. Here's a blot from my daughter's room, here one from the revamped playroom. A few months ago, I found myself painting the room of my impending nephew. I hadn't known I would be doing so and didn't have my painting shirt with me. I regret a little bit not having his room on my shirt too. So I can appreciate your found fondness for a sort of short-hand history of your work.

  2. such a sweet - and prolific - gift! will return to this later also fondly lizzy

  3. Daryl, that is really quite an awesome thing you shared, and I appreciate that very much. I feel much the same way about my drafting table, but those almost painfully vivid reminiscences carry over to the art itself as well. Especially when I am holding the illustrating in my hand as opposed to simply looking at it on a screen. I can look at a piece, especially from this project, and remember "Oh, that's when I was trapped in a hotel room by a blizzard in Richmond, Virginia" (page 109) and "That's the one that was first mentioned on BoingBoing that started to get this blog tons of attention" (page 97) or "That was when I was feeling absolutely overwhelmed, stressed, and angry about how huge this project is" (most of the portraits of Ahab!). I don't know enough about psychology to quite understand why these physical and visual cues can trigger in us such vivid memories, but I am thankful that they do.

  4. Excellent Lizzy, I am very glad you liked it. I look forward to the continuation!

  5. It's ship-shape and Bristol-fashion - so appropriate for the project!

  6. Three copies of "Newave! The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s" ?

    What are the three big books on the middle shelf, far right?

  7. Jeffrey, that book RULZ! I have 17 copies of "Prison Pit, Book 2!"

    Actually, it is the result of ordering from both Amazon (and idiotically goofing and ordering 2 instead of 1) and my local comic shop. I didn't have the gumption to return the stock to Amazon (I hate repacking and walking down to the post office) and I didn't want to stick the LCS with an unwanted book because they are actually super cool to me and the book would never sell to their average (i.e. Marvel / DC zombie) clientele. So, yeah, 3. I am perversely fond of the book though, and liked it even more than I thought I would, so I don't have too many regrets.

    So let's see, middle shelf, from the right to the left, the books are that big Taschen Vanessa Del Rio book (the normally priced one, not the $1500 affair), "Town of Mirrors" by Robert Pollard (still not as good as you), a big Tadanori Yokoo retrospective (picked it up at Kinokuniya in New York, full of paintings, posters, collages and more) and "Selected Drawings of James Jarvis" which inspires me because of how much I hate it. To the left of those are some of Fantagraphics' Ignatz books (Sammy the Mouse, Chimera by Mattotti, and Niger by Leila Marzocchi) and you can probably recognize the rest.

    But hey, don't I get some credit for the Artzybasheff collection on that shelf?

  8. Oh man, I didn't know there was a Tadanori Yokoo book, he's amazing.

    I love Mattotti, especially his B&W stuff. Looking forward to his new book.

    Haha, yes I noticed the Artzybasheff volume. One of the greats of the 20th Century! Before that book came back into print, I found a copy of the original printing via ILL (!) and literally photocopied every single page. What a genius.

    Is that PiL's "Metal Box" (?) with the CDs?

  9. That Yokoo book is a funny story. I first saw it at Kinokuniya when I went to MoCCA in 2009. I really wanted it but didn't have enough money so I reluctantly put it back on the shelf. I tend to visit New York once a year and when I returned again this past April to do that OCD lecture at Pete's Candy Store, I went back to Kinokuniya hoping, but not expecting, for it to still be there. It was, and with no real shelf-wear at all. I was thrilled and bought it immediately, but so far this has been the only book I've seen collecting Yokoo's stuff.

    Artzybasheff is one of the only, if not THE only, artist whose work I admire so deeply that I have honestly at times considered simply imitating him and aping his style as completely and perfectly as possible. Before this collection was reprinted, I used to scour eBay for people selling actual ads he drew that had been cut out of old Popular Mechanics and Life magazines. If I had known the book was available back then, I would have been standing at the copy machine too. He's brilliant.

    And yes, that is the newest edition of "Metal Box" on CD. I think it's been put out several times, and I kept missing it, so this time I finally bought it right away. One of my favorite recordings of all time.


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