Feature: Illustrator Matt Sewell

Matt Sewell is a UK based illustrator living and working in Shrewsbury. Having built a career around his passion for wildlife, particularly birds, he was recently invited to take part in The Big Hoot.

In partnership with local businesses, charities, schools and community groups, The Big Hoot project will transform a collection of blank, giant owl sculptures into imaginative, individual characters to create a city-wide art exhibition with the aim of raising significant funds for the Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

Matt’s colourful design: ‘Spotting and Jotting in Birmingham’ will go on display alongside over 80 creations by local and regional artists and illustrators this Summer, including hand painted designs by Guy McKinley and Glenn Anderson.

We caught up with Matt earlier this week to find out more about the project, living in the countryside and his love of birds.

Can you tell us where you’re from originally? Where did you grew up?

I’m from a small ex-mining town in County Durham called Willington. I grew up on a derelict small holding between ancient woods on each side and housing estates on the other. The folks pad is amazing now but when i was little it was a proper ruined playground to play and get lost in, there was nature everywhere and it being the 80s you could just play outside all day and all night if you wanted to. My dad used to try and tell me what birds were what but he usually got it wrong, plus i was obsessed with a certain couple of bird books and i used to get people to test me so ive always had a good idea who is who. I was a very imaginitive and creative kid, my Mam definitely fuelled me in that area too, she’s a well good artist herself. My room was covered in bird posters and my drawings. But they all came down though when i discovered heavy metal, drinking, graffiti and girls!

You were recently invited to participate in the Big Hoot – what was your inspiration for your ‘Spotting and Jotting in Birmingham’ design?

Even though Birmingham is a big old city there is still plenty of opportunities to do some spotting and jottings of birds of all sizes. From black swans to tiny gold crests, winter visiting teals and the famous Eurasian Eagle Owls! I want people to get close up to my owl and discuss what they’ve seen and what they think the birds are.

Do you enjoy travelling? How does your  lifestyle influence your work?

I love travelling and have been really lucky that my job has took me all over Europe, to USA and to Japan twice. Me and my other half disappeared for a while which included a year in Australia, i spent all my time doing graffiti and bird watching, which inspired me to solely concentrate on artwork of british birds when i returned home and thats now practically my whole career. Ive got two kids now, one in school so traveling has to take a bit of a back seat at the mo. Ive still got the bug though, me and the mrs are always talking of buggering of to India for a few months with the girls.

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from? What drives you as an artist / creative?

Ideas just pop up out of the ether, I wish I knew where they came from, – I could find it and rent a bungalow there for the week. I don’t think anything particularly drives me to be creative, its more like i’m already creative and if i don’t get to do it for a while i get withdrawal symptoms and get moody. I just have to do something, either mucking about with records, drawing or bird watching and writing in my head at the same time. Just something.

I just have to do something, either mucking about with records, drawing or bird watching and writing in my head at the same time. Just something.

When you’re not working, whats your favourite way to spend the day? Where do you like to hang out in Shrewbury or farther afield? Where do you go to escape and get some thinking time?

If I can get a moment to myself i’ll pack my rucksack with my binoculars and sketchbook and head to the Shropshire hills to do some spotting and jotting or just to do some walking, Pontesford Hill is my patch, I also really love the Stiper Stones. I grew up very close to Wear Dale and just an hour from the Lake District, so hill walking seemed to be in my blood. Spending a few minutes in a stone circle is also a very pleasurable past time.

Briefly describe your working process, how do you record ideas and create paintings – what materials do you like to use?

Sketching is the key, if i’m using watercolour or doing something digital I always have to spend a bit of time drawing first, whether just thumbnails or proper worked up drafts. I love drawing and really miss it when i’m just doing loads of admin stuff, writing or shop keeping. I use my iPhone camera quite a lot to record ideas as they’ll go missing otherwise.

Can you tell us anything about the projects you’re currently working on?

The biggest thing this year i’m working on is licensing my brand Matt Sewell’s Birds. Basically i’m licensing all the artwork from my books to create lots of different product ranges, it’s all really quite exciting and I have had a lot of interest. We will be doing calendars, greetings cards, home ware, garden ware, ceramics and stationery plus also a range of kids stuff. I really like making products myself but my birds needed to be taken to the next level properly and i could only really do that with the help of the licensing team at my publishers Penguin Random House. Its a bonkers side to our industry that not many illustrators tend to understand or know about, so its been really eye-opening!

Ive got another book coming out in the Spring, this time a pocket sized bird book to take out with you and tick off your sightings called Spotting and Jotting: Our British Birds. Hopefully I will be working on a new title later on in the year but I cant really say much more about that. I’m also running a group show fundraiser from RSPB Devon’s Cirl Bunting Project with a bunch of my favourite artists each painting a little wooden bird. That’s gonna be ace! I’m also working on another compilation LP for CTR Records. The first A Crushing Glow went down really well, so the time is right of another double LP vinyl selection of beautiful and psychedelic sounds for you head space.

When the sun comes i’ll be off to a few festivals drawing and talking about birds and playing a few records, already confirmed are Glastonbury and Greenman Festival. Roll on summer!

Where do you see your work taking you in the next decade?  What kind of projects, collaborations, experiences do you hope to cultivate for yourself?

More books, more nature, more cool products that make people smile. But mainly i just want me and my family to be happy. I’ve always been pretty much a laid back freewheelin’ kind of a rabbit me, but very recently things have took a nasty turn down a bumpy lane that nobody saw coming. We’ll get through it and to be honest i dont really care what happens with my work or whatever this year just as long as my family are happy.




Posted on Feb 12th, 15 by | Twitter: @lisahassell

Founder & director of Inkygoodness, Lisa is a published writer and arts journalist, focusing on creative business, graphic art and illustration and design education. Her words regularly appear in Computer Arts, Creative Bloq, Digital Arts and IdN.

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