How to become an illustrator, with Mattia Chus

Mattia Chus is a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and mural painter based in Copenhagen, and organizer of the event-series Sketchy Monday.

Mattia Chus is a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and mural painter based in Copenhagen, and organizer of the event-series Sketchy Monday.

Se quiseres ler esta entrevista em Português, clica aqui.


Tell me about the beginning of your journey as a visual artist. What led you to it?

I’ve always liked to draw; I wanted to become a comic book artist. When I was sixteen, I discovered Dave McKean, who designed the covers for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and that’s how I started to realize I wanted to become an illustrator. I had a year in an art academy, but I didn’t find myself there, so I worked to save money to pay for a private school for illustration. After that, I worked as a comic book colorist for a small Italian publisher, but the money wasn’t a lot. I kept working as a freelance illustrator and, on the side, I commissioned portraits. But it was in Denmark that things started happening for real – my lifestyle changed, and I started to meet people that were doing this full-time that gave me a lot of advice.

Did you have an “OK, what’s the next step?” moment?

Yeah, I have them all the time.


Yeah. For example, I work with different media, from digital to oil painting and mural paintings. Sometimes my identity as an artist is a bit confusing. I make one artwork and I’m like “OK, what’s the next step? Should I keep doing this style or change it?” But the biggest moment was probably when I came to Denmark. I knew I wanted to draw and paint, but I didn’t know how to meet the right people, how to find jobs. I looked around without much success, trying to find some comic book publishers, but there aren’t that many here. Eventually, I ended up in this place, a culture house for young people called Kraftwerket, where I have a studio now. There was this guy who introduced me to the graffiti scene here, and then I met other artists, so it was the right step.

I took last year to mostly work on my sketchbook and experiment. Also, I find out what I want to do and what people like from me. I feel that my identity is being defined by people’s feedback. So now, I’m focusing more on illustration and bringing more digital illustrations (into my portfolio) because I’m getting orders for that. I couldn’t carry all the techniques I learned in school, so I needed to choose – the result of that year was going back to “traditional” and digital illustration.


How are your working routines?

I wish I had one – right now I’m still having jobs on the side, so sometimes it’s a mess. But usually, I’m in the studio in the afternoon because I’m used to working in the evening. I get here, I make coffee, sit down, usually do a little bit of Facebook, check my emails. I try to get rid of the computer stuff first. Then, I’ll sketch for half an hour – I just choose a picture from my phone and sketch that just to get loose. I think it’s good to start with a warm-up. So, a good thing for me it’s to start drawing what I see. An object or a picture of a friend that I have on my phone. After half an hour, I just start working.

Do you work for long periods of time?

It depends on how close I am to the deadline. It’s a bit complicated now because I work in shifts at a different job. But I like to have breaks from my work. For example, if you’re working on a piece of artwork, you need to take a break and look at something else – you might be doing a mistake and lose the bigger picture. I like to work on two or three things at once, like “Okay, I’m going to pause this illustration/painting, take ten minutes and then start working on another one for a couple of hours”. But sometimes you have to focus for ten hours on the same drawing because you have to finish it. It’s very flexible, that’s part of being a freelancer.

And how do you get your ideas?

The ideation part is always the most difficult one for me. I look at work from other artists, movies and video games – even though I don’t play video games.

It’s a lot about looking at other people’s work and I believe that subconsciously, this goes into your brain and will come out when you need it.

I try to get informed about what I am drawing, I make a lot of loose sketches while reading Wikipedia pages. I like to enrich the drawing with hidden or metaphoric details related to the story. Then, I make at least two or three more defined sketches. Even if I like the first result, I want the client to have more choices – and maybe the best one will end up being the third one, I can’t predict that.

And how do you get your clients?

In general, it’s mostly word of mouth – people that I know or randomly met who I’ve introduced to my work. A few times, I sold paintings thanks to a gallery, and that’s the way I want to work, but first I want to have a more solid portfolio before I start reaching out to galleries.

What’s a solid portfolio, in your opinion?

I’m working on having at least ten paintings in the same style, so galleries and clients can recognize my work. I want to go to a nice gallery because I feel like I can compete – the more work I put the better I become. I’ve been in this kind of limbo for a few years where I need to have a daytime job on the side in order to pay my bills, but I also need more time and to have a social life, I draw my inspiration from that. For example, I had another flyer to draw for a dance event and I had been at a dance thing the night before, and I was very inspired after. I sent them the sketch and they were like “Wow, yes!”

And what’s the hardest part of being an artist?

I don’t know. There aren’t many things that frustrate me. Of course, it would be nice to travel more and make art in other places, but I don’t really care about money either.

I don’t like it when people don’t value your work, when you get asked to do things for free. You don’t ask a plumber to fix your toilet for free, even if being an artist is my passion.

I don’t know. I like my life this way.


Meeting people is a habit that improves your artistic work, right?

Yes, that’s very important. That’s why my friends and I have created Sketchy Mondays, an open workshop where people can just come- without paying any fee- sit in a big table with other people and draw, drink coffee and just have a good time. The number of participants depends, but it can go up to thirty people.

We started it under another name and in another studio in the summer of 2016. During the first two or three weeks, it was just two friends and me. Then, thanks to Facebook, it started to grow slowly. People would see posts for the event and appear at the door. We were like “How the hell did you find us?” It was very nice, so we just kept doing it. Sketchy Mondays work nicely for some people because it makes them more committed.

It’s tough to do it once a week but it became big enough that I can get a lot of help to set up and close.  I can even delegate some of the tasks to others! For example, we have a deal with a local bakery that gives us leftover bread and pastries, so we have to pick that up, prepare the tables and make coffee… Somehow, I’m really passionate about it even though sometimes I get mixed feelings and I would like to be just a random visitor that sits and draws without any responsibility.

What does Denmark offer you that Italy doesn’t?

This studio, to start with, is placed in a cultural house. The thing I like the most about being here is that even though I didn’t speak the language. I could show people the drawings I had in my suitcase and say “Hey, I’m an illustrator and I’m looking for a studio”. In this cultural house, they said, “If you’re willing to do a project as a volunteer, like Sketchy Mondays, then you’re welcome to stay”. You don’t have that in Italy. Actually, we had a class of students from Brussels that visited us the other day and they were amazed. In Belgium, they don’t have it either. Also, if you’re good at writing applications you can get funding from the government.

Another thing that keeps me here is the network of people that I didn’t have in my hometown in Italy.

The one thing that might be difficult is that right now, is I have a lot of Italian clients. It can become a problem because Denmark is really expensive. I have to start working for the local market and for a more international market, like the States and the UK, or then I might think of going back or moving to another country.


What’s the best advice that you’ve received as an artist?

The first one that comes to my mind is: stop being too humble about your work. That’s a nice one. When you have to sell your product, you have to be proud of it!

Another good thing is to find yourself a mentor. Mine is a Spanish artist called Malakkai and every time I do something, I show it to him and he gives me feedback. I look up to him.

Also, if you are too humble you might end-up getting underpaid.

Yes. So, actually, you have as a reminder that if the client tries to bargain the price lower then, it means that you have a good price. If you sell something and the client doesn’t seem worried at all about the price, then it means that it’s too low.

The thing about being an artist is that for a period of time – which can be years – the amount of money that you’ll be doing will be less than what a plumber earns per hour, probably.

But if you’re consistent and keep producing, your work will be valued, you’ll become known, and your prices will go up.

What helps you to keep on track?

I’ve had other jobs and I didn’t like it. I like this. And I know that I can be messy when it comes to my own personal projects because I don’t have a deadline. But when I have a commission, I’m super serious about it – I’m actually surprised by how professional I can be.

If I have to wake up at six in the morning to go to an office, it’s one feeling. If I have to wake up at 4 a.m. to paint one artwork on a wall for twelve hours, then I’m happy.

It’s a passion.

Yeah, it’s always been. When I started thinking “I want to become a comic book artist”, I was in primary school. My parents didn’t care and told me “First you go to school to become a scientist, a lawyer, surgeon,” … Then I finished high school and they gave up. I don’t know what keeps me on it – it’s probably an inner thing. I’d rather not have a family and live very poorly for the rest of my life but be able to make something. Yet, I know that’s not going to happen because I have an education and I’m quite structured, so I’m pretty sure I’m going somewhere.

If someone asked you “How can I become an illustrator?” what would you tell them?

Draw a lot. Talk with people that work in the business – publishers, illustrators, people that make movies, comic books, video games, etc. See if your mindset is alike.

Most of the things I’ve learned were out of the illustration school, by surrounding myself with people that do illustration for a living.

Make up your mind if you want to do this because it’s a big commitment and you won’t be drawing two hours a day and making a lot of money. No, it’s going to be very little money with a lot of work for the first few years. Then, hopefully, you can start seeing the profits, but you have to be consistent.

Now, I feel like I’m in one of the podcasts that I listen to, like a Spanish one called “Artista 24/7”!

I like to know about other people’s experience but, of course, they all say the same thing: “Be ready to work your ass off”. Be ready to do accounting, networking, and social media. They also say that it’s good to save up money for a year so that you’re able to live from your savings for a while and focus on your art.

And what advice would you have given to your younger self?

Probably to draw more.

Even more?

Yes, because there are definitely more productive people than me. Also, I want to be less self-judgmental and to move out of my hometown earlier. I moved out when I was almost 26. I went to an illustration school before which gave me a lot of good skills, but I could have done it differently. I could have moved to a city far away and merge myself in an artistic life instead of always being linked to my hometown.

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