Replacing No Pain No Gain with Dynamic Relaxation

Welcome to episode 7 of Un*varnished!

Frank questions with rad artists about those times when the going gets tough. This week with illustrator, Jana Mattia.

Artist Janna Mattia

Listen to the raw/unedited conversation on Soudcloud, or read the interview below.

Welcome! Please tell us a little bit about who you are (name, job title, and your type of art).

My name is Janna Mattia and I am an illustrator. What I love to do is capture happiness and joy in my illustrations. I sorta have defined myself as a children’s illustrator, but I guess it would be better to say I’m an illustrator for children and the child inside adults, because it really is for everybody. I love creating work that communicates a warm feeling, just to share happiness. It’s a very basic thing, but that’s how I define myself right now. It’s always evolving.

What were the beginnings of your artistic trajectory, and do you see art as your profession or your vocation?

I should say it is a blend, but I’m treating it a bit more as a profession actually. I’m not innately drawn to, or have a deep affinity or attraction to it. It’s just a way I have expressed myself in the past. I don’t think about it all the time, which is kinda funny. When I was at school, among my peers, everyone would always be talking about art all the time, and I’d be kinda thinking about something else.

But it is a natural way of life for me. Ever since I was little I was drawing. I just never was aware of any passion for it, like many other people seem to be. It’s just a method to communicate because I’m not as good in words as I am with drawing. Even though I’ve drawn ever since I was little, I didn’t really get serious with it, didn’t really study it until about 6 years ago, which is pretty recent.

What made you switch into taking it seriously?

It was after a few years of hitting rock bottom with trying to figure out what I was meant to do. And finally, there were people helping me realize that this (art) has value. I should be more kind to this art I have been creating, and I should actually pursue it. I didn’t value it. I just thought it was something I’ve always done. “I’ll always draw here and there… it’s nothing special. It’s just a hobby.” But I started to be a little bit more kind to myself and treat it as something special. So it was all kind of sudden - I made the decision to make a portfolio and submit it to Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD). I didn’t do a bunch of research into all the schools out there, I just chose LCAD because I had a friend who went there. I was just gonna shoot for this school, and if it worked that would be great.

What was the thing that made you value your art all of a sudden as more than just a hobby?

So yeah, this is kind of interesting. I used to work at a couple of tattoo shops, because I wanted to learn how to tattoo. This was when I was 23 or 24, and I was actually settling in a way. Since I didn’t really value my artistic abilities, I thought that it would be an easy way to draw and make a lot of money really fast. So I looked for an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop, and it was ridiculous. I had no piercings, no tattoos and I had this book full of drawings of little cute creatures. And I was walking into these tattoo shops one after the other asking, ”Hey, you guys wanna teach me how to tattoo?” Most of them would just look at me like, ”This is joke, right?!” But I did get an apprenticeship at this one shop. I don’t know what they were thinking, but I did start to apprentice and look over the artist’s shoulder. But about a year and a half after that, I started to realize that I wasn’t realizing my full potential as an artist. 90% of what I was doing was mopping the floor and taking out the garbage. It was just not the right kind of environment for me, and I think I knew it, too, because I was getting really bummed out, and wondering “What am I doing with my life?” I was drawing, but I wasn’t getting any time to practice because there was too much cleaning to do. After a couple of really hard months of “What am I doing?” I quit. That was when I realized that I have this tendency to create art, but this is not the way to do it. I have to see what other options are out there. In fact, I realized that I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t happy with where I was artistically and realized that I should actually start studying. And that’s when I made the decision.

What do you consider your biggest, proudest, creative accomplishment so far?

Graduating art school is probably number one. Growing up, I never considered myself an academic person. I wasn’t an especially stellar student in high school or community college. So I was really proud of that and of creating a body of work, even though the body of work that I created for my thesis still needed a lot of work. But I created this body of work and completed this series of classes. I did the assignments. That in itself was a huge accomplishment. Before art school I was never able to fill up more than a page in a sketchbook. I would just buy a new one and scribble here and there. So just the sense of completion was huge for me.

And project-wise I guess it was recently doing an ad for Smokey Bear, which was really cool because ever since I was a child I knew who Smokey Bear was. Being able to do an official poster for the U.S. Forest Service was pretty huge. And I have a feeling that there are yet more accomplishments to come. I feel like my favorite accomplishment is yet to happen.

As a freelance artist working from home, what are your negative patterns that can get in the way of creating the work?

I think every creative person deals with inhibitions and impostor syndrome, to some degree. There is always, of course, the fear of not being good enough, or comparison to others, especially through social media. There is such a vast amount of creative people out there, who are all so talented. It’s hard to resist comparing yourself with everybody.

I consider myself to be a constant learner. I never want to arrive at a point where I feel like I have it down pat - my process, my recipe, my go-to method. I never want to arrive at the place where I feel like “This is it!” But at the same time it’s about living with the discomfort of NOT having it all figured out. It’s a struggle of finding that balance between being a professional and doing really good work, finding the confidence in that, and also having the humility to continue to learn and improve yourself, and to continue pushing. And for me, to even be ok sharing my art and my process in interviews like this, where I feel like “Why does anyone wanna know, I most of the time have no idea what I’m doing.” But yeah, continuing to learn, having that humility and also believing in yourself and being confident. That’s a huge issue I’m grappling with.

Another struggle is the business side of everything. It’s hugely intimidating because I’m sorta introverted and it’s scary when you have to come up with a number, with charging someone a certain amount. “Are they gonna go for it?! Are they gonna think my work is worth this amount?” Or even negotiating a contract - all that business stuff is tough - and navigating all the different personalities, because you’re gonna have to deal with people if you want to be in business.

What helps you tackle that intimidation factor, and makes it easier to deal with the business side of things?

Well, I’m seeing these last 2.5 years after art school as my mistake period. I’m making a lot of mistakes. Not that I’m doing bad work, but I’m figuring out what works and what doesn’t, what kind of people will pay for my kind of art. I find ways to test the waters, like on Instagram I started selling original drawings. I would start out by just posting something and saying, “This drawing needs a home. Message me if you are interested.” I wouldn’t label the price, they would have to ask how much it is. That’s how I would test how much someone would pay for something. I’m doing a lot of research and refer to the Graphic Artist’s Guild, which has great information. Trying to find business models by looking at people who I admire, who seem to be doing a really great job. Check out their website and how they have everything set up. That’s how I’m learning a lot.

How about in those moments when you get into the comparison spiral, do you have any routines you fall back on to snap yourself out of it?

I always surprise people with this, but for me it is pushing art aside and stepping away from it for a while. I’ll spend a day away from anything artistic. I’ll go hiking. I’ll take a break from trying so hard. It’s so easy to just work and work and work, and try and try, to the point where you’re not creating anything of quality. The thought of having to create a drawing every day for Instagram, for example, you’re not giving your brain a chance to breathe. Taking a little vacation is what I have found to work for me.

The term “no pain no gain” is one of my biggest pet peeves. I feel like a person needs to have dynamic relaxation, where you work hard and put in really intense focus and then you give it a break. Like breathing, and the waves of the ocean, it’s a natural rhythm.

What pearls of wisdom have you picked up that really help you get through the harder parts of being an artist?

I have to say I was really appreciative of you and your anatomy class. It was such a refreshing scientific approach to understanding form. To me it gets exhausting to always rely on creativity and inspiration, because it can get so ambiguous. But I fell in love with the human form and the building blocks that make up the figure. I really appreciated the “scientist’s approach” to how everything works. So thank you for that.

Lately I also started studying classical guitar, which is really challenging, but I wanted to thank my guitar teacher who has helped me take my emotions and that inhibiting thought pattern and set it aside. To put on that white lab coat and be a bit more objective about what you are doing because there is all that mental chatter that can get in the way. “Am I good enough? Am I trying hard enough? How will I fit in?”

Stage-fright can be an issue when delivering a piece to a client, as well as a piece of music to an audience, so my teacher reminds me that if you know that you’ve been putting in the time and “focused” practice that you know your efforts will eventually pay off. It’s a simple formula. And when it comes time to deliver the piece, have that knowledge that you have studied, you have done your work and it should be fine.

As a fellow introvert, I was curious what is the role of a creative community for you?

It means a lot to me. Some of my favorite moments and accomplishments have to do with interactions with people. I heard this question the other day, ”If there were no people on this world, would you still create art?” And I found myself answering, “I don’t think so.” People, and working and collaborating with them, mean a lot to me, because I get a lot of my ideas from what other people say.

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