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Career Inspo with Matt Smith – Artist and Owner of MTS Portraits

September 28, 2018

Welcome to the September 2018 edition of the Sarah Ellis Coaching Career Inspo Blog!

This is a monthly interview with someone who has followed their passion, dreamed big and now has a successful and exciting career. Whether you are searching for your passion or looking for guidance and insight from those in your chosen industry, the Career Inspo blog will have something for everyone. From Chief Executives, to inventors, from property moguls to artistic entrepreneurs, the 2018 line up is certainly set to provide plenty of inspiration and motivation!

Anyone who knows me well will know that two of my favourite things are animals and art, so who better to interview this month than Matt Smith,artist and owner of MTS Portraits! After making a big career change, Matt set up his business in August 2017. He is a self taught artist and specializes in pet and wildlife portraiture commissions, illustrations and producing original and limited-edition prints.


Sarah Ellis: Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed for the Career Inspo Blog. Please can you provide the readers with a summary of your business and what you do:

Matt Smith: I am an artist based in the North East of England. I work predominantly with charcoal, carbon, chalk, graphite, water soluble pencils and acrylics and exhibit my work at several galleries and at Love Art North East Arts Events in the North East of England.

I’m also developing a range of products using my artwork and collaborating with other local artists and artisans where I can.

SE: Why did you choose to pursue this career?

MS: Good question! The short answer is that this is a passion. It’s something that I love and have always loved and had a talent for. It’s the old adage; ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life’. Slightly longer answer is that this is my second career, but it’s taken me until my late thirties to pluck up the courage and have the means to pursue it.

I am a Qualified Quantity Surveyor, a career which I rather fell into without ever having a burning desire to count bricks or manage construction projects. But it was a career which offered clear career progression, fitted reasonably with my developing skill-set and offered a reasonable salary…so I gave it a blast.

I headed down to Birmingham from the North East to University and qualified with a 1st in Quantity Surveying from Central Birmingham City University back in 1999 and in a 17-year career, worked for Main Contractor’s, Consultants and latterly for 9-years as a Capital Adviser for the Big Lottery Fund helping to deliver community projects in the UK.

I really enjoyed my 9-years at the Big Lottery Fund, helping to deliver community construction projects in the UK – but all good things must come to an end, and following a pretty dreadful re-structure in 2016/17, I took Voluntary Redundancy and turned to page to start a new chapter!

SE: What route did you take to transition into this career? 

MS: I’ve always drawn. As a wee nipper I would always be sketching something, somewhere. I can remember visiting the Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick, Cumbria, during the summer holidays and coming away with a set of sketching pencils, and from that point I was hooked.

As my Quantity Surveying career progressed, I continued to draw in my spare time, focussing more on animals and particularly my own Labradors. As time went on I progressed to producing portraits for friends and then found that I was being asked to do more and more.

I started to develop a particular style using heavy charcoal and chalk, to build up layers in my pieces and I expanded the materials that I used and the media I worked with, adding watercolours and acrylic paint to my pieces.

I set myself a 2016/2017 New Year’s Resolution to set up as a sole trader so that I could better manage the increasing demand for my portraits and eventually did this in August 2017.

Whilst I was setting up as a Sole Trader, I was also in the middle of a pretty awful time at the company I worked at who, since I had moved back to the North East in 2011, had been in a constant state of ‘restructure’. It was an unsettling time, which culminated in the Unit that I worked for being essentially wound up with no consultation whatsoever. I lost a great deal of confidence and a good deal of my identity during that time.

The one shining light, was that I re-found my confidence, focus and passion in my Art work.

I took the time that I needed during that period to consider my next steps and took the opportunity to attend a number of training courses focussed on setting up a new small business via NBSL and Creative Fuse. I also invested a great deal of time in setting up a website and developing a business presence on Social Media.

Whilst it was and still is a pretty scary thing to do, it’s also tremendously liberating and exciting. Every day is a new challenge which brings a mix of exciting hurdles to overcome and niggly frustrations. But I love it!

SE: What makes you jump out of bed in the morning to come to work and what are your favourite things about what you do?

MS: Well, I work from home, so the journey to work isn’t as arduous as it has been at times in my life. But what gets me out of bed? A whole host of things;

I’m able to spend lots of time with my sensational colleagues – that’s Coco and Maggie my two black Labs!

So, I made a vow that I, where conceivably possible, I would take them everywhere my business takes me! And so you’ll find them in the printers in Newcastle, the gallery in Rothbury, the studio at home or (and this is their favourite) the beaches of the North East Coast of England. It’s particularly important that I can spend time with Coco, who is doddering into her 13th year and doesn’t have too long left. She’s losing her hearing and eyesight and so likes the reassurance of being close to you…so it’s just lovely to be there.

Because it’s my own business, I can order my day more or less as I choose, and that means that I can be as flexible as I need to be with my clients – and meet them as and when they require. I have always prided myself on offering a service that goes beyond ‘just a job’ – and now I can put that into practice without any petty management input from above…because there is no ‘above’ now…it’s just me!

Finally, I just love drawing, and it’s a joy to wake up, take my dogs to the beach, grind some coffee beans, chew on a little toast and then work through my list of commissions – all the while keeping my clients up to speed with progress. It is a quite wonderful feeling to complete a piece, mount and frame it – and then see the response from my client when I hand over the work. Just unbeatable!

Finally on this point, I would also say that It’s been a really lovely unintended outcome, that I have connected with so many people through the love they hold for their pets. I can’t tell you the number of conversations that I have had with a whole range of people, usually at my stall during art events or markets, discussing their devotion to their dogs or cats and other animals. Exchanging heart-warming and heart-breaking stories. You find a great connection – and also feel extraordinarily humbled when you are commissioned. That’s a hugely important part of what I do.

SE: What have been your biggest challenges/learning curves? And what reignites your passion on the tough days?

MS: Really good questions.

Biggest challenges:

You’re on your own! – Instead of having colleagues to help and take on specific tasks – it’s all on you! My project management background is really useful, and it’s given me quite a process-focussed mind-set when it comes to ordering my day. I have a ‘to-do list’ and try to split up my working day into sections; so for example; emails first thing, then planning a bit of product placement and then artwork in the afternoon. However, I must do everything. When I have a drawing that needs to be set and then taken to the printers for high resolution scanning and then photoshopped into various products; cards, mugs, coasters etc – I don’t have anyone else to help – consequently, what should be a pretty swift part of the process of creating art – takes longer than it should. And, given I’m a natural procrastinator and day-dreamer…time just seems to float away!

Get used to rejection! – Rome wasn’t built in a day! It takes time to build credibility and trust in my customers. I’ve been very clear that the business is a long-term project, so I’m not expecting to place my product in every retail outlet and gallery that I meet and speak to. And certainly, in these early months, there has been a lot of folk who have said; ‘sorry it’s not for us just at the moment’. You have to suck it up and continue to take the long-term view when that happens.

I recall attending a management training course and being tremendously inspired listening to a key-note speaker – Martin Kalunga-Banda – who talked about his experiences of a working life working in senior governmental positions. And he talked about the ‘place you go’ to recharge in difficult moments. I’ve thought about this a great deal in recent times, particularly to prepare me for the difficult and testing moments that are bound to come and have come in the early months of my Art Business. For me, it’s about a number of things;

Having patience that what will be will be – If you’re product is good enough it will sell and people will engage you – though not all the time! Selling or placing your products into retail units can be extremely frustrating, but you have to be patient. There are shops and galleries that are perfectly suited to your products – you just have to find them. It’s good to just stop and look back on what you have achieved from time to time. I suppose it’s a little bit like climbing a mountain. When you get close to the top and feel like giving up, just stop, turn around and look at how far you’ve already come! Look at the heights you’ve already scaled! The rest is will be easy!

Listen to your ‘giants’ – those people who have been your inspirations! Draw on their advice and the example they’ve set you. For me, I always think about my Gran and the example of love and care that she provided me with. I feel like if I can make people feel like my Gran made me feel, then I’m doing ok!

Stick to your principles and the vision you have. I was very clear when setting up the business to think carefully about what it was and is that underpins me. There are 3 key things:

  • Be passionate – To follow my instincts and feelings and to produce the art that I am passionate about.
  • Be wise – To listen to my customers, to listen to my peers, to go on this journey with all my senses open and aware.
  • Be courageous – To test new things and take risks in the live environment, to be prepared to fail, to learn, to test again. 

I am also a great one for journaling and, when I’m in a difficult moment, writing down what it is that has happened, how it makes me feel and then bringing in a healthy dose of reality and perspective. I guess you could call it ‘slowing down the moment’ in an attempt to stop you getting carried away with negative thoughts.

So, when tricky moments come, I can reflect on all of these points and (hopefully) find some perspective.

SE: What are your key moments/most memorable experiences in your career so far?

MS: Because I’m a fledgling business, my highlights are all ‘firsts’!

So, one moment that really sticks in my mind is when I attended my first market in November 2017, and I noticed a lady standing at a distance, just starring at one of my Black Labrador framed prints. Eventually she came over and told me that her Black Lab had recently died, and my drawing reminded her of him. We chatted for a long time, and her family who were also at the market came over and though she was keen to commission me immediately, I wanted her to go away and give it some further thought – because it is an emotional thing. That was on the Saturday, and just before midnight on the Sunday evening an email came through saying they would like to proceed with the commission. I completed it, framed it and passed it on just before Christmas. The message of thanks that I received along with a photograph of the drawing taking pride of place in their lounge meant so much to me and brought home to me just how important our pets are to us. To understand what comfort and happy memories a drawing can bring is incredibly humbling – and makes it all worth while for me.

SE: What key strengths do you have that make you great at what you do?

MS: Well I’m passionate about what I do! I genuinely love what I do – especially pet portraiture – because I have always had dogs and pets of my own. I understand the bond that we form with our pets. They become a part of our life and our daily routines. They provide a constant and consistent source of comfort and uplift. They get us out of the house and take us on great adventures. I know what my pets have meant to me over the years and so I bring that understanding and empathy to my work.

I also bring a project management skill-set! So I’m not just thinking about doing the drawing that I want to do in the style that I want to develop, but I’m also very clear that I have to have a number of income streams and products to supplement my main income which is my commissions. Therefore, I’m constantly thinking about what other products I could develop. From merchandise to running workshops to illustration work to tutoring work. I’m also viewing this as a minimum 3-year project, and so there is a degree of patience in my work and a focus on the long-term. So when I don’t have a great day at the markets, I don’t ‘take my ball home’, I focus on what learning I can take from the day and apply that to the next market.

SE: Do you have a role model/mentor? If so, what have you learnt from them that has helped you in your business and overall career?

MS: I wouldn’t say that I have a specific business mentor – but I would say that when I was starting to really think carefully about setting up the art business, I spent quite a bit of time talking to a whole range of people who have run their own businesses to pick their brains and understand what skills I would need and the key pitfalls. For a period of time, I was like a sponge, absorbing information from all quarters and trying to string together the key themes. Eventually, over about a 6-month period, I drew up a 3-year business plan and incorporated as much of that advice as I could.

So, here’s a few examples:

  • Dai Lloyd – A member of a community group in North Wales who I mentored when they were delivering a construction project – a former RAF pilot and also someone who ran his own business very successfully for a long period of time. Dai instilled in me the view that I would need at least 3-years to make a success of my business. He was clear with me that it would be likely that I would have to live on ‘beans on toast’ for that time, because it takes time to build up a business. Dai also advised me to try and find a patron – or somebody with influence who would endorse my work…I’m still trying on that front – although Sir John Hall has asked me to draw his daughters Pugs…
  • Sian Lloyd & Bev Gartside – Members of the Big Lottery Fund’s Community Asset Transfer Committee in Wales. Having listened to my initial ideas for the business, Sian suggested that I make sure that I made enough time to focus on what it is that I enjoyed – rather than getting too heavily bogged down in the business side of things. On the flip side, Bev (who has run her own business successfully for quite some time) advised me that I would have to allow at least as much time for business development as I did for my drawing and creativity.
  • Richard Townend – Who runs his own business Wood Metal and Stone – was clear in his advice that I needed to be price my time carefully as it’s often the element of running a business that gets forgotten. So, how long does it take you to complete a commission, and does that equate to the cost per hour that you feel you should charge for your service?
  • Justin Souter & Phil Jackman – Run the Creative Fuse programme in the North East aimed at providing support to start-up businesses. They spent time with me focussing on identifying my key customers and thinking about strategies to reach those customers with my products.
  • Stephen Richardson – A fellow artist who told me to take my time at markets to observe my customers, to see which of my drawings and cards drew their attention. It would then pay to use more of that style in my future original and commissioned work.

So it’s difficult to pick out just one source of advice or support – because I’ve had so much and I’m just very thankful for it all.

SE: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

MS: I’ve asked the same question of several fellow (and much more experienced) Artists and Artisans for a series of interviews that I’m running in the North East (which you can check out on the Blog Page of my website: – and I would echo the response that they’ve all provided to me; ‘Just go for it’! If you have the talent and you are passionate about what you do – then why not? We spend something like 70% of our lives working – so you may as well do something that you enjoy?!

In addition, I would say, spend some time talking to both Artists and those who run their own business to get a clear and realistic picture of the challenges that lie ahead.

SE: What are the top 3 things to consider when choosing and pursuing a meaningful and exciting career?

MS: I would say:

  • 1 – Be clear about the reasons that will underpin the career that you choose. Don’t choose to pursue a career because other people tell you to! Don’t choose a career because it looks like it will provide an attractive salary! Do the thing that you are passionate about and that you enjoy!
  • 2 – Be clear on what your key values and principles are – and find a way of incorporating them into your everyday work. For me it’s about passion, courage and wisdom!
  • 3 – Be realistic about the impact that the career you choose will have on key relationships in your life and your standard of living etc. Be honest with yourself about this. For example, running your own business may well be exactly what you want to do, but it’s a 24/7 thing and that will no doubt have an impact on those around you.


If you would like to learn more about Matt’s business, view more of his work and keep up to date with events and offers, you can visit his website or Facebook page and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.