Matte Stephens interview

matte stephens interview

I’m really excited to present today’s interview. Matte is one of my favorite artists and an all around rad guy. Matte makes amazing art and lives in a house with lots of cool modern furniture. In Matte’s conversation with us he shares some of the people/things that inspire his work, the characters that frequent his paintings as well as a glimpse into his studio and home.

Before we jump into the interview, I’ve put together a small slideshow of Matte’s work.

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Continuing with our designer interview series, grain edit is proud to present Matte Stephens.

Let’s start off with some background info. How did you get into painting?

When I was in kindergarten my father and I worked on a poster for class that was based on The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t really care for that subject, but it was the process of working with my dad and the feeling of completing something. My teacher really liked my work and that was what made me continue. I have never thought I would be anything else. I always knew I would be a painter from that moment on. I live to paint. Every second of my day is surrounded by it and has been for as far back as I can remember. If there weren’t art supplies around in the house I would feel totally hopeless.

I didn’t go to college and am from a small town called Boaz, Alabama which is as far away from the art/design world as you can get. Its a super small town with very closed minds. My father worked at a federal prison and my mom worked for Lee jeans. My dad had a woodworking shop in the back yard to make extra money, because he had 7 people to support. He made me work in the shop with him. I think that’s were I learned how to solve problems when you make stuff.

After leaving home I told myself I would make it as a painter or die trying. I rented a basement in a Masonic lodge and lived there and taught myself how to paint. I tried all different kinds of paints until I found gouache which works the best for the style I do. It was before the internet, so I would put on my best clothes and drive to different towns and show my work to shops and gallery owners. With any money I made, I would purchase art and design books and learn about art. I made friends with the local arts council and they would let me do shows and I would sell a painting here and there. Finally, I found a gallery that sold my stuff on a regular basis in Birmingham, which was a big city to me at the time. I stayed with that gallery for 7 years and did one person shows once a year and did 15 new paintings a month for the other openings at the gallery. I think that is were I really found myself as a painter.

I figured out how to use the internet and ebay around 2001 and started selling my paintings there plus doing the gallery shows. In 2006, John Tusher from Velocity Art and Design found one of my paintings on there and asked If I would like to show at Velocity. I had known who they were for many years and were fans of all the artists that showed there so it was a dream come true for me.

I really love to paint. I think if you never give up on something it will work for you in the end because you learn so much in the process of getting to where you’re going.

Who/what are some of your influences?

Alexander Girard, The George Nelson office of the 40’s and 50’s, Herman Miller *Charles and Ray Eames, Irving Harper, Ben Shahn, Living in the Suburbs, our pets, my wife Vivienne and Things I see in my everyday life.

When/how we you exposed to Ben Shahn and Herman Miller?

I was introduced by a librarian in my home town of Boaz Alabama when I was around 20. She had seen some of my drawings and asked If I had ever seen the book Pioneers of Modern Art. It’s an old book with lots of the stuff mentioned above in it, so that started me on a life long school of learning about design and Modern Art. I think my Favorite stuff to be around at the moment is the stuff from the Nelson Office. They were so innovative with the things they did then.

What is your favorite painting?

Paul Klee, Dream City

I notice certain characters (birds, foxes, owls, people, cats) consistently show up in your work. Could you explain who they are and how they came into being?

The fox the Duke of NY came from a brainstorming session with Vivienne. We were coming up with characters for children’s books and I came up with him. I watch a lot of old movies, so some of the characters are spin from old movies. Vivienne’s mother is a bird watcher and she came to visit several years ago with several bird books for me. I became hooked on birds. We used to visit one eyed owls when we lived in Birmingham also. A ton of work is based on Vivienne and our cats.


Matte was nice enough to give us a sneak peek into his house and show us some of his favorite objects.









Project Spotlight:

I’ve asked Matte if he could share a few projects with us. In the images below you can see the initial concept as well as the finished painting.

matte stephens lookout sketches

matte stephens light house sketches

For these images, the art director sent me photos of these places and I translated them into my style. Usually I’ll start with an idea in my head and work on the painting until it feels like I have what I want. This illustration job required that I sketch my ideas out, but most of the time I don’t sketch, I’ll just paint until I get a painting to where I want it to be. For me, painting has always been about learning and problem solving and to get the result I’m after. I’m not very good at planning a painting. The ones I like the most of mine usually just kind of happen. After doing this for so many years it has become such a part of me that I don’t think about the process that much, I just kind of do it. I remember when I started out how hard it was to figure everything out, but over time it just got easier. In no way do I consider myself a great painter, I just think I figured out a way to paint that suits me. I think each painter figures out his or her own way and tries to work with what they have.

What types of paint do you prefer to work with?

I use gouache on illustration board and plywood. It’s the best medium I have found for what I do.

Any special things we should know regarding how or where you paint?

I love to be surrounded by stuff when I paint. It Is inspiring to me to have clutter around with old toys, books and a movie going.


Bringing this interview to a close:

If you had to recommend 2 books to another artist/ illustrator what would they be?

Pioneers of modern art by W. Sandberg and h.i.c. jaffe It was my first art book and has everything.The 1955/56 Herman Miller catalog because it is so well designed. One more is Kate Coplan’s Poster ideas and bulletin board techniques: for libraries and schools( this one is so inspiring!). All of these books came out in the 50’s and are wonderful!

Last but not least, what projects are you currently working on?

Working on sculptures of some of the characters in my paintings.I am also working on lots of graphic design stuff, paintings for shows all over the place, building my website , watching movies and working on children’s books.


We would like to thank Matte for taking the time to share with us. You can see the rest of Matte’s work at and keep track of his latest shows and happenings at his blog. Matte is represented by the Lilla Rogers Studio.

You can purchase original prints and paintings by Matte at the following locations:

Matte Stephens’s Etsy Shop

Matte Stephen at Velocity Art and Design


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