“In this picture here with the pine trees, you see the green on it? There is no green paint; I don’t use green paint. It comes from the blue on top of the yellow.”
Say hello to Matt Forster, a tall, outdoorsy-looking 37-year old, and one of Britain’s finest watercolour artists, who shows me how one of his most famous works, Pine Woods, was fashioned from the paintbrush.
Located on a cosy side street in the heart of Hexham, Matt’s intimate gallery is a fascinating store of work which, quite simply, no one else in the world could replicate.
That’s because he has single-handedly created his own unique artistic style, “Überpainting”, which has catapulted him to the forefront of the UK art scene.
“These paintings are made up of four separate images, but it’s when you put them on top of each other, in the right order, that they make the whole”, he explains to me.
“Über means over, so it’s like one layer over another. An Überpainting produces a distilled memory, an essence of a landscape. So if you say ‘Cairngorns’, you can guarantee an image will come into people’s heads and I’ll try to recreate that.”
Upstairs, Matt’s studio is a sight to behold. On the left, shelves are stacked to the ceiling with precious paintings, ready to be framed and sold. In the middle of the room, a huge easel holds half-finished piece of work which he had been working on that morning.
“This is just play at the moment”, Matt says. “It isn’t quite the Überpainting style just yet, it’s close to it. I’m trying out new things all the time.”
“You can see it’s quite a productive thing – it’s all about keeping busy. It’s great, I just love painting.”
Brought up in the beautiful, remote village of Riding Mill in Northumberland, Matt demonstrated his artistic talents from a very early age.
“I was taught at an evening class by a local artist on basic watercolour techniques, which that gave me a foundation for understanding watercolour.”
“I sold my first picture when I was 14 and it doesn’t take much when you get £30 in your hand for doing something you really like! Then I was selling paintings at exhibitions for £300-£400 as a 15-year-old and had my first solo exhibition at 18.”
Despite this early promise, Matt explained how his original career path was meant to be very different; to become a professional rugby player after studying sport science at Loughborough University.
But in 1997, after finishing his degree, Matt suffered a serious injury which effectively ended such hopes. Crucially, though, he kept up his painting during summer exhibitions. “It dawned on me that I could give this a crack and become a professional artist”.
The moment had arrived. A year later, Matt opened his own gallery in Hexham, just a few yards away from his current studio.
“I did that for three years on my own, on a wing and a prayer. I was basically turning over about £50,000 a year as a 23-24 year old with no experience. It was a really hard three years but I got through.”
From this point onwards, Matt took giant strides as he began to understand watercolour, and a whole host of other styles, in more depth than ever before. With money saved up from his exhibitions back home, Matt chose to travel the world, an experience without which Überpainting would never have existed.
“I spent five months in southern Mexico and then travelled around the Arctic Circle. Dunedin, in New Zealand, was also a fantastic place; great coasts, great mountains, orchards, there were all sorts of different landscapes there.”“For the whole time I had piles of sketchbooks. I was just drawing anything and everything – landscapes, figurative and architectural work, people – and sent the work home.”
In 2003, Matt returned to the UK full of ideas and inspiration, but his role as an art gallery manager in Newcastle for five years, a lucrative job for most, did not satisfy his personal ambitions. He returned to Hexham in 2008 as a one-man band, back to the drawing board.
It was at this point that Matt stumbled across a revelation which would change his life forever. Überpainting was born.
“I had this vision of doing something like this and I worked on an image – the silver birches – and suddenly I thought, ‘what the hell is this?’. I chose another subject and the same thing happened.”
“So I had this manic period over a couple of months when I produced about ten images and I knew at that point that I had found something quite extraordinary.”
At this point I asked him who or what might have influenced him in coming up with this style.
“No one. It comes from within, there’s no influence whatsoever. It’s no great secret what I’m doing but I simply think that no one else can do it.
“It’s like someone asking ‘can you copy my voice?’. You can copy it, but for how long? In theory, anyone could do it, but they haven’t got my imagination; they don’t think like me.”
Through exhibiting his Überpainting up and down the country, Matt hopes to reinvent the way people perceive watercolour. “The general view is that watercolour is sort of Victorian muddy-coloured mess. I’m trying to say that watercolour is a really fresh, vibrant medium.”
Matt also explained how social media is the changing face of the art market, and has helped him project his unique abilities to a global audience.
“These days artists can just buy a website off the shelf, start a blog, use Facebook and Twitter and pump images onto them. I don’t think work sells massively online but it is an initial point of contact and funnels people into the gallery.”
The next natural step for Matt is to project his work to an international audience. With plans to sell his work in the United States and Singapore, as well as a potential trip to China, Matt’s burning ambition is something all of us can draw inspiration from, in difficult economic times.
“You can get ahead of yourself so quickly. I can no longer consider myself as a regional artist; I’m a national artist now, something I’ve worked really hard for over the past five years.”
“Hopefully in ten years’ time I will be producing a regular income on international sales – that would be an aim. But for me, the painting always comes first.”