The presence of social media in our day-to-day lives has only surged in the past year. With the pandemic forcing everyone to stay at home for long periods, many of us turned to our phone screens as a means of escape from both boredom and our depressing reality.
Cue the TikTok ad we saw on TV throughout the summer.
Video-sharing platform TikTok has quickly risen since its launch in 2016 to one of the most popular apps in the App Store. Featuring a range of content, from cat videos and beauty tutorials to viral dances and art portfolios, TikTok has us covered when it comes to be being bored at home.
TikTok’s algorithm has meant that more people than ever before can become viral in the space of 24 hours – something which artist Matt Chessco took notes of when starting his business earlier this year.
The Canada-based portrait artist only started his career as a full-time artist earlier this year, after quitting his job in engineering. Since then, Chessco has amassed over 1.6 million followers on TikTok and 56.6k followers on Instagram – not bad for a business less than a year old!
We sat down with Matt Chessco to go over his work, inspirations, goals, TikTok, and how he got to where he is now.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers!
I was born in Toronto and raised in Montreal. I’m a former industrial designer and a mechanical engineer. I lived in Vancouver for a year before moving back to Montreal in September 2020.
You mention on your website that you quit your job earlier this year in order to pursue art. What made you take that leap?
I entered University in 2013 with a lot of good intentions. I wanted to become one of the best engineers out there. Unfortunately, I rapidly realized mechanical engineering was not for me. After three years, I started feeling like I was not at the right place, so I dropped the program with no plan of coming back. Four months later, my family convinced me to go back to University to get my diploma. I was 16 months away from getting my diploma, so I went back. I finally got out of University in August 2018. My last exam was on a Saturday and I started working the next Monday. I had a feeling I was probably not going to enjoy it a lot, but I decided to give it a try. I had a really interesting position/job for a fresh out of university engineer. I was the mechanical engineering lead and the right arm of the CEO where I was hired.
My classmates were all saying I had a great job. But after two days in, I started feeling like I was not at the right place again. Every hour, I would ask myself: “What am I doing here?” On Thursday night, I listed the pros and cons of keeping my job and pursuing an engineering career. In the pros section, the only thing I wrote was that I was getting an income. The outcome was crystal clear. I had to quit. The next day, I arrived at the office and handed a resignation letter to the CEO. He asked me what I was going to do next. He asked me what my plans for next week were. I had no idea what I was going to do the next week, and honestly had no plans. So I told him the first thing that came to my mind: “I want to be an artist”. And that’s what I did.
Your work mainly consists of portraits of famous people in modern pop culture- what drew you to this subject matter?
I think the thing that fascinates humans the most is other humans. At least, it is for me. Every human being has a different story, a different background, a different narrative, different life objectives, different values, and more. When it came the time to decide what the subject of my paintings was going to be, I didn’t hesitate to choose portraits. Other humans fascinate me in every way and I love to do some research about the subjects I’m painting.
Quite a few people have described your work as a blend of modern Expressionism and Pop Art. Would you say this accurately describes your work? Do you have any artists or art movements that you draw inspiration from when working?
I used to love cubism and its geometry and colors. But somehow my style turned out to look more like Expressionism and Pop Art. I would add that pointillism also describes my style. When I started painting, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat were a big inspiration for me. I would say Warhol brought the Pop Art side and the bright colors to my style while Basquiat made me use undefined lines and a more childish approach to painting.
What has been your favourite or most challenging artwork to create so far?
My Marilyn Monroe painting for sure. The painting was twice as big as what I’m used to doing and the video was four times longer than my average video. I worked on this painting and video for three months here and there – I wanted to make the video as entertaining as possible to boost my brand. I also wanted to use the image as my profile picture across all my social media platforms, so it was important for me to make the painting as appealing and eye-catching as possible. I listened to countless songs before finding one that I loved. I was also lucky that the owner of the song, Snubby J, gave me the rights to use it. I’m really grateful for this, and I’m really happy about how the painting and the video turned out. The reaction was beyond my most optimistic expectations.
Did you face any issues trying to grow your business or stay creative while the world was dealing with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic?
It was actually the opposite for me. Because of the pandemic, more people were consuming videos on social media than ever before. And I was lucky to take advantage of this by posting on TikTok.
You now have over 1.6 million followers on TikTok and over 56.6k followers on Instagram. Despite it being over such a short amount of time, you’ve really established yourself and your practice on social media. How did you build your presence on these platforms?
The short answer is because of the amazing TikTok algorithm. Without TikTok and its easy-to-go-viral-on platform, I don’t think I would be anywhere close to this today. TikTok is so crazy. You can literally have 3 followers, post a video on a Thursday night and get 30 million views within 24 hours. I realized this huge opportunity as soon as I started my art career and I took advantage of it. And by the way, almost all of my Instagram followers come from TikTok. So TikTok really did all the work.
TikTok has played a big role in circulating your work on social media- especially the videos where you show how your paintings come to life. Can you talk us through how you usually make these videos? Do you come across any difficulties when making them?
To make the videos, I always start by taking a lot of pictures of my paintings during the process. I have a tripod and an easel that are consistently fixed in place so every photo I take has the same lighting and the same positioning. When my painting is done, I film myself in front of a green canvas before editing everything on my computer using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere Pro.
Making these videos is no easy task. The first video I ever made took me two weeks to do since I had to come up with the whole process by trial and error. I came across countless difficulties while making it but it set the tone for the videos that followed. I’m now able to make a video in about three hours because of all the tricks I came up with during my experiences.
Where do you see yourself this time next year? What goals do you have for the future?
In a year from now, I would like to have 10M followers on all social media platforms combined. I would also like to be the artist the young generation thinks of when asked who is their favourite artist.
With my art, I want to entertain, but mainly to inspire people to follow their dreams. I’m sure there are many people reading this who have big dreams but keep pushing them back. Most people push their dreams to later until one day they are 80 and too old to accomplish anything. The best time to pursue your life goals is now. I think everyone should go after their dreams. Otherwise, what’s the point in living?
If anyone wants help to jump start their art career or any other projects they have, I invite them to send me an email or a message on Instagram. I’m always happy to help other people follow their dreams like I did and I try to answer everyone’s messages.
Could you give our readers some advice on starting their own business and becoming an artist?
With TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube shorts, it’s easier than ever to become an over-night sensation and start living from your art within a few months. When people ask me for advice, I tell them to find an interesting way of promoting their art with videos. I think I once read a statistic saying that people spend 80% of their time on social media watching videos. So get your phone and find an interesting way of filming your stuff. And if you have no video ideas, just follow the art trends on TikTok. There are countless of them out there and there are a lot of new ones every other day. And anyone can do it. Whatever your medium is or how old you are. There is a clever 15 year-old boy from Poland named Frank (@fredziownik_art) who has 2.2 million followers on TikTok. He draws with colour pencils and all he does is copy the big TikTok trends. If he can do it, you can do it too.
If you’re looking for more art content, why not browse Mouthing Off’s Art Section.