Artist Matthew Bird, a Sykesville native, exhibits his work around the world from China to Greece to Italy. Bird is known for his detailed watercolors that can be mistaken for photos or oil paintings.
Bird’s watercolor “Magnolia Still Life” will be on exhibit at the American Watercolor Society’s (AWS) 152nd annual show, April 1 through April 21 at the Salmagundi Club in New York City (americanwatercolorsociety.org). AWS is America’s oldest watercolor society and their annual exhibition is one of the best.
Bird said he always knew he would be an artist and that his parents encouraged him. His father was an engineer and his mother was a nurse so they did not have artistic backgrounds, but they took Bird to museums and provided him with lots of exposure to the arts.
Bird recalled always being detail-oriented. As a child he drew Superheroes and Star Wars figures and was particular that the images were well drawn. Even in elementary school an art teacher unsuccessfully tried to get him to work bigger and loosen up. While in middle school, Bird participated in summer art camps at Goucher College and Maryland Institute College of Art.
Bird attended Liberty High School. He recalls being the only student planning to pursue a career in art and taking every art class that was offered. When Bird was a senior, he took an independent study class in which he worked on his portfolio for college in a closet where the art supplies were kept. His portfolio consisted of drawings and paintings of still lifes and portraits.
In 1996, Bird received a scholarship from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
“It was wonderful, I could leave my art history class and go to the museums to see the real paintings in person,” he said.
It was a transitional time in the teaching of art. Traditional painting was not in vogue in the fine art world, so he studied illustration where some of the old traditions were still being taught; drawing from plaster casts and live models. Hand-drawn typography was taught alongside computer graphic design. Soon artists would be using Photoshop for creating their illustrations on the computer.
Bird considered going in to children’s book illustration as a way to have control of his artwork but even that market changed after he did a few books. He did Christmas greeting card illustrations as a freelance artist for National Geographic, the Smithsonian and the Audubon Society. That market changed as well as computerized illustration took hold and family photographs became popular on cards.
“The world is constantly changing and I was trying to stay ahead of it,” Bird said.
After he graduated from Pratt Institute he also worked as a graphic designer for a boutique design firm in Towson. For the next 15 years, Bird worked for an agency in Columbia specializing in nonprofit fundraising.
“At first I was grateful that I was earning an income in a creative field and thought I could paint on the side. But I was good at the job and I was eventually promoted to art director and then associate creative director,” he said. “The higher up you go, the less creative work you do, and soon I was miserable. There were long hours and lots of travel. I got burned out.
“In 2010, we were expecting our first child. Since our lives were about to change drastically, we decided for me to leave my full-time job and work from home part-time. It allowed me to spend more time with my family and dedicate more time to painting.”
Bird said his wife is supportive of his art. They had two girls and he started painting them — that’s when things started to change for him, art-wise. He entered a painting of his oldest daughter in a big show held by the National Watercolor Society. It won an award.
Bird went to the awards reception in California and met many other watercolor artists whom he described as genuine and open. “I thought that I could do this. I got validation on my personal art,” Bird said. “It was energizing.” After wondering for so long whether he could do what he wanted to do, Bird began to think it could happen.
Inspired by his success and encouragement by other artists, Bird painted more than ever. Saying he “grabbed the bull by the horns,” he entered more shows, his paintings sold and he won more awards.
“I tell artists to enter shows now and then. It sharpens your skills and challenges your. I raised the bar and pushed myself to do more and more,” Bird said.
These days, Bird paints figurative portrait work and still life images. He sells through shows and he markets them in the high-end art market such as “Fine Art Connoisseur” and ”American Art Collector.” He also promotes his artwork through social media, email and newsletters as well as advertising in other places where he thinks buyers might like his work.
“Most artist think that if they are good enough that they will be successful. That is not the way it works. You have to be seen by the right people.” Bird said. “When I am painting is when I am the happiest. I believe in God, he gave me a talent and this is what I was born to do. I have always felt it and I have always known it. In fact, if I haven’t been painting for a while, I get cranky. I paint because I have to and I love it.”