This is an ongoing series meant to explore what it means to be an artist and how you can go from artist to entrepreneur.
One of our clients is Dreamworks illustrator Matt Doering. We recently got to talk to him about his journey as an artist – how he started and how he got to Dreamworks. We also talked about how he became an entrepreneur, but we’ll save that for part 2 in this series!
A Would-Be Animator’s Legacy
When Matt Doering says he grew up in a small town, he’s not waxing poetic. The town in West Virginia was literally small. The nicest bar was a Buffalo Wild Wings and the closest Starbucks was 45 minutes away.
Even as a young child Matt showed artistic promise. Neither of his parents were particularly artistic – that all came from his grandfather, the true artist in the family, and the one who took Matt under his wing.
“My grandfather was very visual arts focused. He saw Snow White in the theaters as a young man, and that film inspired him to want to become a Disney animator. He got an art scholarship, but wasn’t able to take advantage of it,” Matt shared.
World War II stopped Matt’s grandfather from pursuing his artistic dream. He enlisted in the armed forces and went off to fight for his country.
But the war wasn’t all that occupied his mind. Just before enlisting he had married his sweetheart and they had a child. Once the war was over, Matt’s grandfather knew he had a duty to take care of his family – and that didn’t include an arts education. He went to work to support his wife and young children (the second one came along after the war) and left his dream of becoming an animator behind.
A New Dream
Matt’s grandfather never gave up art completely. Matt has vivid memories of his grandfather always sketching, painting, drawing. He always had a pencil and a sketchbook handy and would take any opportunity to doodle and draw.
Then, when Matt was old enough to put crayon to paper, it was like he was born anew. Matt showed an early interest, and talent, in drawing, and his grandfather did everything he could to cultivate that interest. He taught Matt how to color, forced him to watch old animated shows like Looney Toons and the original Mickey Mouse.
Matt visited his grandparents often and he and his grandfather would sit together, coloring, drawing. At the age of five, Matt entered and won a church coloring contest for Easter. And, at the age of six, Matt already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a Disney animator.
His grandfather did everything in his power to make sure Matt had all the opportunities that he himself never got to take advantage of. That wish, that directive, always stuck with Matt’s father – especially after Matt’s grandfather passed when Matt was just seven years old. Matt’s parents made sure he took art classes and had drawing instruction. They provided him the tools and opportunities to learn, just like his grandfather would have wanted.
An Illustrator’s Journey
It was thanks to that loving support from his family that Matt was able to achieve his dream. He graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in Sequential Arts (which is like storyboarding). He took a ton of classes in hand-drawn animation, then focused on illustration and concept development.
His ultimate goal was to work on a feature-length Disney film – until Disney closed their Florida studio.
Despite that set back, Matt still knew exactly what he wanted to do, even if he wasn’t 100% sure how he was going to do it. Even with an arts degree, he knew he had a lot to learn, and he opened himself up to opportunities.
Even if those opportunities didn’t quite fit the roadmap.
“I’ve always been very open to opportunity and followed the opportunities wherever they presented themselves. Some of them seemed like random jobs, but I chased each opportunity, from graphic design to illustration to animation. I got to travel to different places, live in different cities across the country, get different tastes of different types of city life,” he said.
Matt’s first job was working on mobile games for Facebook gaming. Though it wasn’t exactly animation, it gave him the opportunity to hone his graphics skills – and he got to live in both New York and Baltimore.
From there he took a job working for Disney Interactive Studios in Eugene, OR, working on mobile games. He got to go back to the small town life, but still work for a major player in the industry.
But he still had his eye on the real prize. And it wasn’t long before he got exactly where he was trying to go: Disney animation.
It wasn’t feature length animation, but that didn’t matter to Matt.
“I remember being in first grade and telling people I wanted to be a Disney animator when I grew up,” Matt said. “And I know my grandfather had the same dream. As soon as a stepped onto the Disney lot, I felt like I achieved that dream for both of us.”
Now Matt is happily working at Dreamworks animation as a background design supervisor for an unannounced Netflix series.
“I came in as the background designer, the first one hired on the show,” Matt said. “I got to establish the look of the background, the ‘main model pack’, which is all of the key backgrounds.”
For now, he’s perfectly happy exactly where he is: in LA, working for Dreamworks animation, trying to build his own artistic brand, fight expectation, and be his own artist.
In part 2 of Matt’s story, we’ll talk more about his journey from artist to entrepreneur.