"Inspiration is about having the courage to explore the world, and especially the processes that take place in your own mind." Romania-based artist Matei Apostolescu tells Ed Ricketts about his journey.
There is no such thing as a quiet Matei Apostolescu artwork. Many of his creations are incredibly dense, exploding with intricate detail and filled with swirling, wildly complex shapes that compete for attention. At first glance, many appear to be chaotic, but this is deceiving because there's always structure to the apparent madness - and he's perfectly capable of toning down this maelstrom if the brief demands it.
Born in Bucharest in 1983, Apostolescu has been drawing almost since he was old enough to recognise a pencil - with a five-year gap in which, somewhat oddly, he studied classical music via the French horn. That, it transpired, was not for him, and he eventually left music school with a renewed enthusiasm for art. "At that time I was blown away by HR Giger and Hieronymous Bosch," he says. "After lots of experimentation with traditional drawings and a bit of graffiti - plus one nasty experience with web design - one of my friends showed me a copy of the Semi-Permanent book. It was filled with digital works by various artists."
Drawn to digital
He knew immediately that he wanted to become a digital illustrator just like the artists in the book. "This might sound silly, but I was really impressed by the stuff I saw there. In a way it really opened my eyes to the power that the new generation of digital tools had, especially the possibility of working with so many media at the same time. So for me, Photoshop was love at first sight," says Apostolescu.
But there was no big game plan to establish himself and become a successful artist. Indeed, Apostolescu admits he was largely unaware of the industry when he started. For him, it was a labour of love. "I didn't have a computer at that time so I had to work on a friend's computer for two years, totally unaware of the fact that I could produce money from my stuff. I began to understand my work's commercial value much later after I discovered the power of the internet and how important self-promotion really is."
Paradoxically, he says this lack of ambition or even comprehension made it easier for him. "Breaking into the industry wasn't a planned thing and that's why I guess it wasn't hard; it just happened, as people started noticing my work on the web, and from an artist who was looking to share his work I soon became a freelancer."
Apostolescu calls his work freestyle, a perfectly apt name, and explains that the wild explosion of imagery is partly due to the fact that he hasn't yet settled on a particular style. "That's why I try to explore as much as I can. It is a fusion of different media: drawing, vector, photography, manipulation, sometimes even clay modelling, that focuses at the moment on illustration. I would love to do some more animation - I have tried that and I really think it takes the possibilities of visual arts to another level."
So far, his clients - including Coca-Cola, Kasei Sports and People Like Us Style - have lapped up this approach. "I try to be selective with my clients," he says. "I had the luck to be commissioned mostly for freestyle stuff, so I prefer clients that offer a certain amount of freedom and that understand the value of that freedom in the creative process."
This selective approach seems to have worked so far, as he has yet to have any major trouble with a client or project. "I try to be careful with the projects I'm involved in. That could sound strange, but I have refused a lot of projects because I felt they simply won't help me evolve in any way," he says.
Without a trace of retro-kitsch irony, he explains that one of his favourite quotes is the famous Star Trek line 'To boldly go where no one has gone before'. "I was fascinated by this as a little kid and later I discovered that it really fits the art world," he believes. "To me, inspiration is about having the courage to explore the world, and especially yourself and the processes that take place in your own mind. Inspiration is at its simplest a recombinational process - you have to deal with huge amounts of information that's all around you, information that only needs to be channelled into something new."
As a result, he approaches each job in a totally fresh way, instead of applying any particular working process. He explains: "I try to detach a bit from the subject in order to have a wider image of what I can come up with. I don't like routines because they tend to limit the imagination and that limits the work itself."
In fact, his only routine is a lack of routine, he says. "For every job I have, I leave some space for freestyle in the creative process no matter how strict that job is. I think it improves the work itself and also the message it transmits."
Apostolescu's biggest client to date, both in terms of prestige and workload, has been the 'Live on the Coke side of life' campaign. This kicked off with a specially commissioned 20ft piece of artwork by Sir Peter Blake which was displayed on the South Bank in London, with various artists from around the world also presenting their interpretations of the slogan. The results have been used on hoardings, buses and in print. This was an unprecedented opportunity for Apostolescu. "It was my first big project and I was amazed by the creative freedom I got. All of a sudden I was working for Coca-Cola and all they wanted me to do was freestyle," he says gleefully. "It was a great first contact with the big advertising world."
In terms of winning pitches, he relies absolutely, he says, "on the diversity of my portfolio". Perhaps surprisingly, most of the work within it is non-commercial - at least in Apostolescu's opinion. "I wanted to have a portfolio that covers a wide range of artwork, complemented with commissioned works, but a portfolio that would focus more on the artistic side. I think my main focus was to have a diverse but, most of all, sincere portfolio."
It's this aspect of sincerity, being true to your own style, that is most important to him when creating a portfolio. "Don't try to fake it," he says. "There are loads of designers today that somehow rely on their portfolio design rather than the quality of their work. Of course, a great portfolio design is important, but I prefer to let the work do the talking."
His own portfolio emphasises a black-and-white scheme, designed to focus attention on the work itself rather than a dazzle of colour - which, given Apostolescu's preferred style, could easily overwhelm the eye. "I also don't categorise my work or arrange it in any way, other than chronologically," he adds. "I like to have a sort of journey approach to my folio."
He updates it sparingly, and always with an eye on adding extra quality rather than simply changing pieces for the sake of it. "Basically, it's all about constantly improvingâ€¦ that keeps one successful on the market today. Flexibility combined with really fresh style is a recipe you can't beat."
Of course, a traditional, physical portfolio is almost redundant these days without a corresponding presence on the web. Apostolescu has just updated his own web portfolio to include a huge number of his works within a simple, Flash-based design, eschewing any tricksy navigation.
"I can't imagine life without a web portfolio," he says. "Promoting your work is one the main aspects of today's life as a freelancer. The internet offers most of the chances of being noticed, so that's the place to be right now." That's even more relevant if, like Apostolescu, you live and work in a country that isn't especially renowned for its design. "If it wasn't for the internet explosion, I would never have had the chance to show my work," he believes. "Romania is pretty limited when it comes to art and showing art, so my only chance was to go online. It was a big step for me and I have to assume that without the art forums and all the other free channels (MySpace is a great example) I wouldn't be where I am today."
Apostolescu has certainly arrived, and following the summer's work with Coke, he has big plans for the year ahead. Some of his work was recently featured at the Illustrative Berlin 07 exhibition, alongside the likes of David Foldvari and Büro Destruct. "There's also lots of stuff going on in Bucharest, with the 115 Digital Art Gallery I co-founded," he adds, "plus a new exhibition, and lots of projects that involve promoting the idea of digital art."