Shining a light on Cornwall’s pioneers, Seasalt has always celebrated flourishing local talent. Each month in support of their creativity, we share their inspiring stories.
This month, we chatted with artist, Matt Johnson. He’s been part of the creative team at Seasalt for 14 years and has created some of our most memorable graphic designs often featuring Cornish scenes.
Tell us about your practice – did you always want to be an artist?
I always wanted to do illustration but I didn’t know you could have a career in it until I went to university. I studied an arts foundation in London and then went to Portsmouth to study illustration.
My dad is a really keen watercolour painter so I probably started doing that. My style has changed; I’ve always liked landscape and nature but while I was at university I was in the city, so I was doing quite a lot of concrete and things like that. Now when I’m out walking I see the sea, birds and animals, or I’m swimming and see fish – those are more of the things that I draw these days.
You use a variety of printmaking techniques in your work. Can you tell us a bit about your process?
When we’re designing prints we always start with drawing. It’s normally a place we know or something we’ve seen – we’re out and about sketching all the time.
We often use lino and potato prints to create textures. We normally start with a sketch and then scan that into the computer, then we’ll do printed or drawn marks and then layer them onto the illustration.
In an increasingly digital world, there’s something compelling about tactile, physical processes such as printmaking. Is this part of the appeal for you – and do you combine physical and digital techniques in your work?
When I design things for myself it’s normally just paper, paint and physical stuff. The computer is really useful for picking colours and editing, but we do all of our laying out with drawing.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’ve just done a scarf design for Christmas of traditional boats sailing into Port Isaac. My wife and I have got a favourite walk around there, going from Port Quin to Port Isaac, so that was the inspiration for the print. Walking around and looking down into Port Isaac from the cliffs, I was imagining the old fishing boats coming into the harbour and what the sails would have looked like.
How do you go about creating a print design?
I start with a rough pencil sketch and I work small which I find helps make it more spontaneous and get a better composition. Then I’ll scan it in and use it as a basis of the print design. Then when the composition is all set up and the basic shapes I’ll fill it in with textures and patterns which I’ll make with using lino cuts, ink or lots of different messy brush marks.
Working on prints is really good because there are lots of limitations, and I think that makes you more creative. You have a limited colour palate which means you can only have a maximum of six colours. Limitations make you think harder about the design and you have to simplify, stylise and extract things to make it work. The final product is bolder, more striking and abstracted and just more interesting.
I have been working on some pictures of Falmouth Bay in my own time – I really love swimming and snorkeling at Gyllyngvase Beach. I’m doing a load of pictures of the bay, and I’m also doing a lot of paper collage work. I really like Eric Carle who did The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I love his style of painting onto paper, making texture and colours, cutting shapes out and collaging together.
“Working as part of a team at Seasalt we influence each other quite a lot. It’s really nice seeing what everyone else is doing and we are always spurring each other on.”
If someone wanted to try printmaking for themselves, where would you suggest they start?
I really like potato prints and lino. You need hardly anything to do them and they’re really easy to start with, but the possibilities are endless.
What drew you to Cornwall, and how has the landscape influenced your practice over the years?
My wife Kathryn was at university down here, so I used to come and visit her and really loved it. She then moved up to live with me in London but didn’t really like it and wanted to move back. I came with her and just loved it. We’ve been here ever since.
I like painting and drawing landscapes and I think the landscapes here are really wild and dramatic; I’ve got into more dramatic compositions.
What do you do when you’re in need of inspiration?
I’m always thinking about art and looking for things that would make a good picture. I’m stockpiling stuff in sketch books – I’ve got more ideas I want to do and I’ve never got time to do them all.
Which illustrators and artists have influenced you the most?
Working as part of a team at Seasalt we influence each other quite a lot. It’s really nice seeing what everyone else is doing and we are always spurring each other on.
How do you balance working full time with your own artistic practice?
I haven’t really found a good balance of my personal work and my work at Seasalt – they’ve just merged together. I often do stuff for myself and it ends up being part of a project for Seasalt.
What would a perfect day look like for you?
Going to the beach, swimming, drawing and just staying there all day.
Where’s your favourite spot in Cornwall, and why?
I do like Gyllyngvase beach. It’s one of my nearest beaches and it’s always changing – it’s different every time you go. It’s great for snorkeling, and I usually see loads of fish when I go.