By Michael Gibbs, Illustrator
Art Director, Be Inkandescent magazine
Gina Triplett and Matt Curtius have shared a studio for more than 10 years. At some point, talking about paintings while sharing coffee led to talking about marriage while sharing paintings. Now they make art, sometimes together, sometimes singularly, in Philadelphia.
Their clients include, Apple, Chronicle Books, Converse, Entertainment Weekly, IBM, and Jeep—and that’s just to name a few. Their work is so good it has been recognized by American Illustration, Communication Arts, Print magazine, and the Society of Illustrators.
Below is an interview we recently did with the couple who draw together. Is that a recipe for marital bliss? Would they recommend it to other artistically inclined couples? Scroll down for more.
Michael Gibbs: It’s fascinating to find a couple who works together on paintings. First of all, can you tell us a little about your backgrounds? How long have you been in the business? Did you each know you wanted to be artists from a young age? And how, and where, did you meet?
Mathew Curtius: We met at MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] while in art school. I was a sophomore and I scooped up Gina, the cute freshman. I studied painting, and Gina studied illustration. She picked up some notoriety right out of school and was able to get work pretty quickly around ’97. I noodled around with painting and taught school for a few years. I was pretty involved with Gina’s business, brainstorming for sketches, thinking of promotions and all, but didn’t think of illustration as an outlet for my work. We eventually began collaborating so Gina could get a release from what had become an intense illustration grind. The irony is that around ’02, we began getting illustration calls for the collabo work, and began to realize it could work for some illustration issues.
Michael Gibbs: At what point did you decide you could collaborate on a single piece of artwork, as opposed to each always working individually?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: We’d been living in smallish apartments, working all the time during college and then for the five years after. Our lives were wrapped around work, and we were in each other’s heads. We’d suggest ideas for each other. This made it easier to switch to working on the canvas, because we had an understanding of how the other person worked and thought.
Michael Gibbs: I imagine that if two artists can collaborate as successfully as you have, you must have had similar styles and similar approaches to picture making before you even met. Is that the case? Do you find yourselves influencing each other’s styles?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: From early in college, we were really into mixing up a bunch of different marks in a painting rather than using a single, complementary set of techniques. We looked at some illustrators, Henrik Dresher was big, but we were really into painters like Polke, Motherwell, Bleckner, Applebroog, Schnabel, Kline, and a bunch of others. This lead to Matt mixing realistic images into his work as a counterpoint to linear, geometric, gestural, or collage marks. Up to that point, we’d both been more into an expressive or loose way of working, but the realistic stuff made sense as a way of connecting different points in art history.
Michael Gibbs: As an illustrator, I find it difficult to imagine collaborating on painting. It’s such an individualized process, from the concept stage through the actual execution stage, in which one “brush stroke” is predicated upon the previous one, and in which the end result needs be seen in the mind’s eye. How exactly does the process work for you guys? I imagine the give-and-take—reacting to the other’s brushwork—must be pretty stimulating.
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: You’ve got it, the action and reaction is a real rush, and when you factor in another person, it’s not always you that has to surprise yourself. On the other hand, an amount of that is taken out with illustration work, even when it’s done by a singular person. With the sketch-approval process, there’s more creativity in the beginning process and less in the end. For us, this has meant that the moments of surprise and ultimate innovation have come in personal work, and in the jobs, we’re more like, channeling the memory of that surprise. That’s probably a good thing, as I’m not sure clients or AD’s love the idea of a surprise finish.
Michael Gibbs: Speaking of “brushwork”—a term I use loosely to describe process—how do you work? Traditionally, with paint, or digitally? Or both?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: We work in paint and India ink, sometimes we’ll screenprint a little at first to break the surface tension. The only time the computer comes into things is when, for one reason or another, we’ll paint on different boards or canvasses and stick them together in Photoshop to form one composition.
Michael Gibbs: Any good stories about your collaborative process?
Gina Triplett: Matt used to paint in oil, and we did our earliest collaborations with my parts in acrylic and ink, and his in oil. This was beginning to be a problem only because once the oil paint went in, that area couldn’t get painted over with acrylic. Then it spiraled out of control when we were working on a tight book deadline with one person tapping their foot while the other one had the painting. When I paint, I beat my areas up, sanding them down amongst other things. The little bits of sanded acrylic kept getting in Matt’s wet oil paint, which had him picking them out individually with an X-Acto tip. After that he swore off oil paint and learned to get the same look with acrylic.
Michael Gibbs: You’ve worked on an amazing variety of projects, from magazines to book covers, packaging design to fabric design. Do you have any favorite types of projects?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: The dimensional and useful nature of products and the way they permeate everyday life always gives us a kick, so they’re high on our list. We always feel good when we’re a part of another book coming into the world, so covers are pretty great, too.
Michael Gibbs: Your work is very unique in its use of patterns. I suppose it’s why you’ve had success working in fabric design. But it also shows up in your illustration work. Does that motif come from Matt? Gina? Both? How did you develop a fascination for that?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: We’ve both always drawn inspiration from applied arts, and began working repeated images into the paintings on our own around the same time. That was before our collaborations, so it folded right in when we started those.
Michael Gibbs: Your work also features a lot of animals, such as dogs, birds, fish, cows, horses, bears, rabbits, bugs, rodents, snakes, and even a unicorn. A walk through your portfolio is like a trip to the zoo. There’s an obvious affinity for animals. Where does that come from? How have you managed to garner so many “animal” projects?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: Animals have played a few different roles for us. They make us think of the natural world, they’re stand-ins for our own emotions, they create movement, and they’re just beautiful. We actually tried not to paint them for a bit, afraid we’d play ourselves out, but we’ve come back to them. It feels right for us.
Michael Gibbs: I’ve also noticed the typography on many of your book covers works incredibly well with your art. Do you do your own type design?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: I think we’d call it lettering more than type design, but yes, we really enjoy jobs that let us handle the copy. It allows us to unify the piece while allowing it to go a little over the top. That said, it’s also nice when a designer provides a nice, simple counterpoint to our image.
Michael Gibbs: Matt, you’re also an assistant professor at the University of the Arts, which has such a rich history and a great reputation. Are you two from the Philadelphia area? And Matt, what do you teach there? Does your interaction with up-and-coming artists inform your art in any way … or your perception of the illustration business?
Mathew Curtius: I grew up around Philly and hadn’t really considered coming back once I’d moved away. A few things changed in the meantime though. The art community here grew in a way that really interested us, and we wanted to nest in a way that Brooklyn’s real estate wouldn’t let us.
I teach Junior and Senior Illustration students at UArts. I get to talk about art all day, which is how I like it. The community there is wonderful, and I have some great colleagues. One of them is Al Gury, who I had as a figure drawing instructor in 10th grade when I’d take the subway over for weekend classes. I really like the art school environment, and to a large degree, Gina and I have built our lives as an extension of the sense of artistic community and individual drive we found while in art school ourselves.
I don’t think teaching has affected the content of our work much, but it’s affected our working process. We have to be more careful about what jobs we take for the collabo work. The art direction, schedule, and budget have to make sense or it’s just not worth the time to juggle it all.
Michael Gibbs: As successful illustrators who also have one foot in the education world, what do you see on the horizon as far as the future of illustration? You’ve done what many say needs to be done: expand beyond print, into a variety of areas, including products, fabrics, and, I believe, animation. Was that a conscious business decision, or simply a result of your visual style and success?
Mathew Curtius: When we started collaborating, Gina had been doing mostly editorial for five years. We decided if we were going to put this new thing out there, it wasn’t going to be more of what she’d already been doing. Gina’s interests had begun shifting toward products and advertising already, so that’s where the collabo work went. We did, and still do, editorial work we like, but it’s more a part of a mix of different things. The different formats keep it all fresh for us.
Many of the formats that are seen as new for illustration have really always been illustrated—fabrics, products, and all. I think the difference is the particular and personalized aesthetic that had become associated more with editorial work has spread out to these other areas instead of the genre-specific work that was already there. I’m not too sure about the big-picture future, but my guess is that if anything new arises, it will follow this same additive idea—we’ll work in all the existing formats plus, not instead of, new ones.
Michael Gibbs: Finally, you do personal artwork as well as the commercial work. Do you collaborate on that as well? Are you exhibiting in galleries? How is the gallery scene these days?
Gina Triplett and Mathew Curtius: We used to show in galleries a lot more, but life and work has put that on the back burner. We do a few group shows a year, and have a big show just off the horizon that we probably shouldn’t share just yet. We’re about due to commit more of our time back to the personal work, and we’re hoping this will be the right motivation. We’ll crow about it once things are set and we’ve gotten into gear on the new paintings. Thanks for talking with us!