Illustrator Spotlight: Matt Rockefeller

© Matt Rockefeller

February 3, 2017

Today we feature picture book illustrator Matt Rockefellerillustrator of TRAIN.  Be sure to enter the Rafflecopter to win a copy!

Welcome, Matt!

© Matt Rockefeller

Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

I am from Tucson, Arizona and graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2014 with a BFA in illustration. I currently work out of my apartment in NYC.

As a kid, I spent much of my time reading books and comics, watching movies and animation, and playing many, many videogames. Getting lost in these stories and inventive worlds captivated me and led me to draw and create worlds of my own. I saw the influence and importance of childhood stories, and I especially loved stories that appealed to everyone that weren’t limited to just one specific audience. 

I soon dreamt of working for an animation studio like Pixar, since their films are often so widely appealing. But as I developed throughout my time at MICA, I realized that my strengths lied less in preproduction and more  in telling my own stories. I decided to focus my thesis and strive towards becoming a freelance illustrator. Soonafter graduation, I began working with Workman on Brain Quest and later, TRAIN.

© Matt Rockefeller

You’ve done a variety of different kinds of books (graphic novel, workbook, picture book). Is there one type 
that you prefer, and if so, why?

While I love all forms of visual storytelling for various reasons, my favorite has to be comics/graphic novels. The medium is incredibly versatile and has the ability to convey the passing of time in a way that other picture books often can’t. While they take me the most amount of time and work to create, the variety, depth, and richness that can be found in comics makes the work extremely rewarding.

You have a very engaging style. Who or what inspires you?

Thank you! 

As you’ve likely noticed, much of my work features vast landscapes and open skies– growing up in Arizona has clearly left an impression on my work! I’ve taken that feeling of vastness with me wherever I’ve moved, and I look to it constantly when creating art. 

Nature is one of my most constant inspirations. I try to get outside as much as I can and take note of the beauty and awe that can be found there. Whether it's a short afternoon walk in the park or a longer camping trip, I love to gather visual details big and small from my surroundings to return to when I’m in my studio. These experiences are at the core of the stories I want to tell.

©Matt Rockefeller

I’ve found a lot of inspiration from concept artists from video games and animation such as Mary Blair, Mike Yamada, Eyvind Earle, Tadahiro Uesugi, and Carter Goodrich. Some current illustrators who continue to inspire me are Jillian Tamaki, Carson Ellis, Kali Ciesemier, Sam Bosma, and Jon Klassen among many, many others. The films of Hayao Miyazaki have had a profound influence, and even once pulled me back into art making after giving up on it in early high school. Whenever I’m in a slump I can count on Kiki’s Delivery Service or Spirited Away to bring me back.

My biggest inspirations, however, are stories! They are a universal way of sharing our experiences with others both now and across generations and cultures. Stories are powerful for amplifying underheard voices, sparking ideas and change, and connecting people who might not have otherwise. This is why I strive to be a storyteller no matter what form my illustrations take. 

What is your preferred medium? What is your typical illustration process? (if you have any process images you can share, that would be great)

Right now, my two favorite mediums are graphite drawing and digital (and the combination of both). While digital illustration is incredibly versatile, I still find that the experience of drawing on paper really allows me to connect more closely with my process and allows for happy accidents and natural imperfections. 

Even when working digitally, I’ll use scanned textures from my work to add a bit of physicality or even make new brushes and tools to use in the future (TRAIN was created entirely digitally using these brushes).  By combining the two mediums I find I can have the best of both and create something new.

©Matt Rockefeller

Regardless of medium, style, or type of book, my process always begins with a thumbnailing, doodling, and brainstorming stage.  Keeping things loose at the beginning of a project helps me to get out as many ideas as possible without worrying about the quality of the drawing. Sometimes I won’t find an idea that feels right until I’ve done pages and pages of little sketches. Other times, I’ll get lucky and have a strong feeling for an idea from the start!

Once I’ve chosen the rough idea, I begin to work out the details of the illustration in the sketch phase. This is also when I’ll gather tons of photo reference, do a bit of research about what I’m drawing, etc.. Since the first stage was so loose, the second stage is where the structure of the composition is solidified before I go into creating the final art.

When I’m happy with the sketch I’ve created, I’ll begin the final artwork. Since I have a handful of styles and methods for illustrating, I’ve usually decided beforehand which direction I’ll go with based on what feels appropriate for the subject matter. 

What projects are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a children’s book titled “Pop!” by Jason Eaton coming from Roaring Brook Press in 2018. In addition, I’m working on the second book in the “5 Worlds” graphic novel series from Random House. The first book titled “5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior” releases on May 2.

Also, in my spare time, I’m always chipping away at a handful of my own stories, which I hope to have published in the future!

© Matt Rockefeller

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

No matter where you are as an artist, start creating, create regularly, and share your work with the your community and the world. As you create, think about why YOU are creating and let this fuel what you make. What inspires you? What do you love? What do you want to share with the world? What are your experiences?  What stories are you telling? Looking within and finding the ‘why’ of your creative process will help you answer the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’

©Matt Rockefeller

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

During high school, I focused more of my time on music than visual art. I played alto-sax and piano, and I also was the drum major for the marching band! 

Where can people find you online?

Tumblr: @mrockefeller
Twitter: @mcrockefeller
Instagram: @mcrockefeller

Matt is a freelance illustrator and visual development artist who received his BFA in illustration with a concentration in animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your amazing talent with us! I love the part about finding the "why" YOU create! Wonderful post! I wish you the best on all your endeavors! Beautiful, talented work!!

  2. Love your art work! Although I'm not an illustrator I too find nature a great inspiration. Thank you for sharing your process!

  3. Your comment about "happy accidents and natural imperfections" made me smile. Love your style!

  4. I enjoyed reading your post and love your art!

  5. Thank you for sharing! Your art is fantastic!

  6. Looks like a fun book! What a great illustrator!

  7. No matter what happens in this contest, I have to grab copies of this book for myself and two twin boys that are obsessed with trains. What fun!

  8. Thanks for sharing your work with us and providing inspiration for others.

  9. Thanks for sharing your journey. I like the 3-D quality of the TRAIN cover!

  10. Matt, I love your art! Thanks, Kidlit411 for this feature.

  11. This book looks really fun! Look forward to reading it.


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