Mattias and I: A True Story

by John Bloner, Jr.

I borrowed the title of this week’s article from author Nicholson Baker, who wrote the memoir, U & I: A True Story, in which the “U” is John Updike. The Mattias in my title is Swedish artist Mattias Adolfsson.

When I came across Mattias’ work five or six years ago, I was captivated by his densely-populated cityscapes and his rooms stuffed with bric-a-brac and odd technology.

This is the kind of art I want to make!, I said.

Why don’t you?, I replied.

In 2017, an opportunity to learn more about Mattias and his art-making methods arrived through an online class offered by Sketchbook Skool. Around that time, I also obtained a copy of his collection of drawings, First In Line. I was hooked.

Just as Mattias’ art influences my work, he’s been influenced by both contemporary artists and illustrators, as well as craftsmen from antiquity.

Among his contemporary influences, Mattias lists Richard Scarry (Cars and Trucks and Things that Go) and Tove Jansson (the Moomins), Georges Remi/Hergé (Adventures of Tintin) and both Albert Uderzo and Didier Conrad, artists for Asterix comics.

He’s also influenced by Egyptian and Chinese artwork from antiquity, along with art from the Persian Empire. From the Egyptians, he developed his color palette. From the Chinese, a use of oblique projection in his drawings. He enjoyed how Persian craftsmen would include a dense array of people and animals in their work and sought to replicate such density in his own.

“My drawing has always been intricate, even when I was a kid,” he told Nathan Spoor in an interview for Hi Fructose Magazine. “Nowadays, it’s almost like some kind of meditation, as I can spend a lot of time in one image.” One drawing may take 100 hours.

In exploring the work of other artists, I’ve come across those who are (or may be) influenced by the Swede. One of them is Matthew Cox, who creates art for the game industry under his birth name and adopts the moniker, Junkyard Sam, for his own drawings. I was introduced to his drawings through the book, Kaleidoscope: The Art of Illustrative Storytelling, a gorgeous, fabulously-designed and assembled collection, featuring art of 38 contemporary illustrators.

Asked in a 2019 interview with Eclectix Art to identify anyone, alive or dead, with whom he’d like to spend a day, Cox/Junkyard Sam said:

I would hang out with Mattias Adolffson! That guy is the most prolific artist in history. He’s a compulsive drawer, and people love his work because the fun he has while making it totally comes across.

Eclectix Interview, Sept. 26, 2019

Years before I knew of Mattias Adolfsson, I wanted to draw like him. I put together these pieces in the last decade, mostly in my sketchbook, by taking a line for a walk; that is, I set off with no idea of what I wanted to draw, allowing my subconscious to determine where I placed a line and introduced a character.

I drew daily in my sketchbooks until the past few months, when I fell out of this practice and into a funk. I felt guilty for my depression because my wish to occupy an art studio came true in 2020 when Jennifer Evans and I became studio partners at the Racine Art and Business Center. I had no excuse to not make art. I could make art as big and as bold as I wanted.

Since I was a child, the size of my art has been in proportion to available space, i.e., the kitchen table. In my studio, however, I had an opportunity to work on large scale projects, using canvas or hardwood panels, on which I could apply gesso, acrylic paints, inks, collage papers, and oil pastels. I could stop dabbling in the art world and become a resident within it.

To find my Mojo again, I had two options:

a. Buy new art supplies

b. Sign up for a class

I opted for the latter when I discovered Mattias Adolfsson had a new course, Creative Sketching: Fill Your Illustrations with Life and Detail, available at the online art school, Domestika.

In his class, Mattias shows examples of his own work and shares his influences, before he demonstrates how he plans out his compositions, sketches them, applies ink and watercolor, and wraps up his projects with use of Adobe Photoshop tools. He gives students a class project in which they will select a familiar place and populate it with characters, real and imaginary, human, animal, insect, or possibly robotic.

I selected my art studio as the setting for my composition and prepared myself for drawing it by examining its details and taking photographs and making a rough sketch of it.

I collected a few tools: two Lamy fountain pens – a Lamy Safari (green) and a Lamy Joy (white) with different sized nibs – a Pentel .07mm mechanical pencil, a kneaded and a plastic eraser, and a tray of watercolors and brush. For my surface, I chose a 16×20″ Canson art board.

I used my mechanical pencil to sketch an image of the room and filled my board first with the largest features, such as windows, lighting track and lights, a folding table, bookshelf, and drawing table, before deciding on who I would invite into the room.

Once the penciling work is done, a mixture of panic and passion sets in. I panic because a lot may go horribly wrong once ink is applied over the pencil lines. It can smudge. A line can go awry if I’m not paying 100% attention to the task in front of me.

Passion arrives when my mind whispers, “Ya know, this might just work!” It’s like watching a Polaroid photo slowly appear, except the chemical reaction taking place to produce the final image is in my brain and not on a piece of film.

Once the drawing’s been inked, I spend an hour with a kneaded eraser in order to remove the pencil marks. They’re like Christmas tree needles or lice. Just when you think you’ve found all of them, some more appear. I use a plastic eraser for the spots which won’t come clean otherwise.

The work – entitled Studio 3630 – comes to life with an application of watercolors. I use a set of Kuretake Gansai Tambi Watercolors along with some Winsor-Newtons, and any brush that’s handy. As important as painting is to the creation of this piece, equally important are decisions of what not to paint. About 10% of it is left for the viewer to fill in with their imagination.

Because Mattias puts himself in his drawings, I put myself in the room as the grey-haired guy, wearing a pair of headphones. My beloved, golden-haired pup, gone for 10 years now, is in the forefront of the picture, where she is not obeying the commands of the purple-haired cowpoke.

You may be able to identify some of the other characters:

Marc Chagall and his wife, Bella, as they appeared in the painting, The Promenade

The cartoon characters, Nancy and Sluggo, as drawn by Ernie Bushmiller.

A Tiny Tim bobblehead doll, sitting atop a bookshelf that includes some of my favorite books: Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Doomsday Book, and others.

Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Scarlett Johansson, in her film role as Griet, a 16-year-old Dutch girl who becomes a maid in the house of the Johannes Vermeer

Betty Boop, as created by Max Fleischer and drawn by Grim Natwick of Wisconsin Rapids, WI.

Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh

Upward by Russian painter Wassily Kandisky

Krazy Kat and Ignatz the Mouse, as drawn by George Herriman

American painter and TV personality Bob Ross

Richard Nixon drawings by Philip Guston

Tinker Bell, as drawn by Marc Davis of Disney Animation Studios

A yellow, old-time car, as drawn by R. Crumb for Zap Comix, No. 1. (The issue featured different characters at the wheel.)

A Carl Angel-5 pencil sharpener. (I love this sharpener so much, I have two of them.)

This piece has a couple more characters that don’t have origins in comics, films or anywhere else, such as the oversized leprechaun who is trying to get my attention. He and the tiny, red-hatted fellow by the bookcase, just found their way onto the art board and I could not convince them to leave.

There are some people I know in this piece, too. If you look closely to the right of me, you’ll spot a framed picture of my wife and daughter. In the center of the room, you find a boy, happily spread out on the floor, drawing a picture, from direct observation, of the cartoon Nancy. He’s my friend, Jeffrey Johannes, who may or may not have looked like this kid, but probably drew pictures of Nancy and Sluggo when he was eight years old.

Me and Mattias. We’re wearing our favorite shirts. He’s holding a copy of his sketchbook.

Thanks for spending time with me. I enjoy the company. Check back on Thursday, June 24, 2021 for my final article as Racine Writer-In-Residence. These six months have flown by and I appreciate you and everyone else who have supported me on this journey.

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