Storyboard: John Mattos

The art of seeing

I have no idea where my inspiration comes from. When left to my own devices, I simply refer to my sketchbooks.

I’ve been told that my work is redolent of an imagined America. I’m not nostalgic for the 1930s, and certainly not the 1950s. I don’t collect old cars or antique clocks. Midcentury style is certainly back in vogue; that’s hard to deny. Perhaps it’s due to a collective yearning for a purportedly simpler time.

I’ve kept every sketchbook, starting with ArtCenter sketchbooks since I was about 18, many of which were purchased from the campus bookstore. I still use them on a daily basis. There are few feelings more gratifying than digging through the crates of your past, finding an ancient sketchbook, and unearthing an idea you can still put to good use today.

Though I’m not one to look back to the past with rose-colored glasses, in this case, I make an exception. It’s not just sketches in those ArtCenter books, either: I have recipes, jokes, ideas, and the contact info of my fellow grads, some of whom I’ve known in one capacity or another since the 1970s, when my ArtCenter journey truly began.

I was part of the second-to-last class to graduate from ArtCenter’s Third Street Campus. Back then, there was a 15-minute break in the morning at around 10:30, and then another in the afternoon. When the entire school was on break, you could actually see the cross-pollination happening. ArtCenter also prepared me to the degree that I was cut out for the best jobs right out of school. You see your peers out in the field, working and networking, and you learn to lean on them.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the things that I learned in my ArtCenter core classes, which were really about teaching students the nuts-and-bolts essentials of their discipline. Drawing is a skill. It’s not a particularly elusive art. It is ultimately a way of seeing, one that’s related to reading in that it involves cumulative absorption and study. If you find yourself lost, one missing detail can snap everything back into focus.

What do I mean when I say drawing is about seeing? Part of seeing, in this context, means understanding the laws of light: how a shadow is cast off a certain surface, etc. There is a tradition of seeing that stretches back to the Renaissance and carries through from the Art Students League of New York into today.

ArtCenter teaches you, quite simply, the fundamentals of seeing as it relates to drawing. A lot of prestigious art schools don’t teach such seemingly rudimentary things. They assume the students have mastered this already, even if they haven’t. ArtCenter understands that one cannot paint a masterful portrait without first understanding the fundamentals.

Since my ArtCenter days, I’ve designed the U.S. Postal Service stamp that featured the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, had two posters selected for the Library of Congress’s permanent collection, and contributed artwork to films ranging from The Rocketeer to Jerry Maguire and Wayne’s World. What has kept me grounded throughout this journey is being fluent in the art of seeing. This skill is like an anchor, keeping me centered whenever my whims carry me too far out to sea.

The skill of seeing is not always an easy one to master. You’re trying to take something that exists in the three-dimensional world and transfer it successfully to two dimensions. Teaching these concepts is extremely rewarding. Learning them can be a challenge. No one said mastering the basics had to be a picnic. You have to want it, and you have to know how to take criticism.

Seeing means truly understanding what you are looking at – and not only understanding it, but also interpreting it. It all goes back to my ArtCenter sketchbooks. Whenever I take on a new project and I can solve it by simply cracking open an ArtCenter sketchbook and having that light bulb turn on over my head, I know I’m on the right path.

John Mattos
BFA 75 Illustration
Founder, John Mattos Illustration
Illustration & Drawing Professor, California College of Arts and Crafts

Drawing is ultimately a way of seeing, one that’s related to reading in that it involves slow, cumulative absorption and study. If you find yourself lost, one missing detail can snap everything back into focus.

John MattosBFA 75 Illustration
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