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Finding your art — From world-class animation studios to independent artist
Welcome to this first edition of the Arterald newsletter! I had the pleasure to talk with Mateusz Urbanowicz, a Polish artist based in Tokyo. Mateusz started working in the animation industry before becoming an independent artist and illustrator. Over the years, he has explored multiple mediums like digital and ink, but I’m particularly fond of his colorful watercolors depicting the Japanese architecture and life.
Can you talk about your experience working in the Japanese animation industry and how it has influenced your art?
It made me a more skillful artist, for sure! In my experience so far, I have been gaining abilities and developing my style the most when making bigger projects - may it be an illustration series, a manga, or indeed more than a hundred backgrounds for an animated movie. A big workload with a set goal and high-quality standards is something that always pushes the boundary of what I can do and makes me a better craftsman. While working at the animation studio, I especially learned fast and efficiently because I had the Background Art Director literally next to me, editing every piece I painted, making it better with just a few crucial adjustments. It was a feedback-loop process where I tried to paint in a way that would result in as few directorial edits as possible - and the further into the movie-making process we went, the fewer fixes I saw.
But, of course, there is also a downside - in the animation industry, there is no rest - just the next project on the horizon. Each day there are new sketches for backgrounds waiting with somebody else having already decided what has to be painted and how, with what colors, and with which brushes. It's a never-ending loop of craftsmanship work that, at a certain point, started to be just too much, and I had to quit to be able to do more of my own creative art things.
What is your creative process? How do you take an idea from concept to final piece?
This differs a lot from piece to piece. Sometimes I start from a direct photo reference and just try to recreate what I like about the scene in paints or digitally. I can also start with a completely nebulous idea that is more "a word" than an image and create sketches until I find something that feels close to what I meant by that word.
For years, I worked mostly from direct references, but recently, I've been trying to move to a more flexible, imaginative process where I pay attention more to the feelings, atmosphere, and story of a piece than to how realistic the details are.
I usually do a few pages of very simple sketches, and then, when I feel that I have a grasp of the overall layout of the scene, I draw another two or three rough images getting more specific with each step. When the picture is mostly formed, I test-color it in my sketchbook or digitally to decide the colors too. As you see - most of the time, I'm not one of the artists that can "see images in their head" very clearly, and I have to spend a lot of time developing my ideas on paper.
When the final sketches and tests are ready, I can paint the piece, either digitally or by hand, the same as I would do with painting directly from a photo, because I already have everything figured out.
Can you discuss a piece or series you've created that you are particularly proud of and why?
I have a few pieces that came out nicely, sort of naturally, and exceeded my expectations. The problem is that I cannot say, "AHA! That's how you paint nice pictures!" and do that thing again. Even in my series of paintings, each work is different. The only thing I can do is work on the next thing, using what I learned, and hope that I will get "lucky" again - the quote saying that *inspiration comes to the person that's working* is probably true.
The first "Bicycle Boy" illustration was like this, and the meat shop from my "Storefronts" was too. There is just something light and natural about those pieces that I chase after in my other works.
The exciting thing is that the audience often likes completely different works than those I'm proud of.
How has your work evolved over time, and where do you see it going in the future?
There was a time when I was just content with painting things that looked competent and well-detailed. I was in love with anime and Japanese comics and tried to emulate the drawing and painting style as well as I could - trying to make my art look "like this" or "like that" was all I was thinking about.
In a way, I miss that period a bit - I could be happy just because I managed to paint a window or a difficult tree realistically or as well as in "Anime Whatever." But because I was seeking validation of my art in others - *if I show anyone a tree painted this nice, they will praise me as an artist* - there came a moment when I completely burned out and started hating the art and the process. The painting marathon at the animation studio contributed to this burnout too, I guess.
Now, I'm slowly trying to recover my artistic energies, paying more attention to what I want to make art ABOUT and less to how detailed my trees are or how fast I can churn out finished images. One result of this is me getting back to the thing I really wanted to do when I came to Japan more than ten years ago - making stories with manga. I already published a short manga in a short story collection book last year.
Can you share any projects you are working on now, or any upcoming exhibitions?
Recently I have been trying not to put too many projects on myself, so I can be more focused and more deeply involved in the things I actually do. This means, sadly for many of my fans, fewer social media posts and fewer videos on YouTube, but more finished illustrations for my upcoming book about Japanese stores (this time, I imagine cute and retro stores based on things I saw all-around Japan). You can see me posting the new store illustrations on my Instagram.
But what's more exciting for me is that I also started working on a story for a longer comic that hopefully will go into production at the end of this year too!
Thanks again to Mateusz for his time, I hope you enjoyed discovering his work! You can find him at the following:
Thanks for tuning in for this first edition of Arterald!
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— Adrien @adriengonin
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