Motoring art: John Mattos

| 10 Mar 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: John Mattos

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From stamps to award-winning posters, San Francisco-based illustrator John Mattos’ distinctive style combines natural drawing talent with the polished elegance of airbrush techniques and a stunning colour palette.

His work celebrates traditional Art Deco poster design with a glamorous modern twist.

Born in 1953, John grew up on a farm in the Central Valley east of San Francisco, where Continental cars were popular.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: John Mattos
John Mattos’ illustration of a ’30s Indy racer for The Beaumont hotel

“Like George Lucas, we lived near Modesto,” he recalls. “I learned to drive early, on trucks around the farm, and was always drawing cars – mostly Ed Roth-style hot rods – and aircraft.”

Early artistic heroes for John were Syd Mead and Charlie White III.

While not from artistic roots, his talent was encouraged and eventually led to enrolment at the ArtCenter College of Design in LA.

Airbrush art eventually became his signature style and, as a master of the medium in the 1980s, his commissions kicked off with record-sleeve artwork, magazine illustrations and event posters.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: John Mattos
An Alfa Romeo 6C (right) and a Shadow DN4 depicted for CSRG Charity Challenge posters

“Having worked on a farm, I was at home with the hardware back then,” he says. “My most difficult challenge has been the switch from analogue to digital tools.”

John has always had a keen automotive interest: “I started with an Austin A50 and an MG Magnette, which I bought together and managed to keep one running by swapping parts.

“Later came a black Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII – I soon became adept at tuning the triple SUs. In 1970 my Mercedes 280SE saved my life when it was T-boned by a Dodge Dart.

“Today I long for a 1975 Cadillac, but living in San Francisco with high granite kerbs and small garages there’s no hope for those monsters.”

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: John Mattos
The first Indy 500-winning Marmon ‘Wasp’ for the United States Postal Service is among John’s smallest works

Classic cars regularly feature in his work, including posters for the California Mille Miglia: “I can see the start at the Fairmont Hotel that’s just down the street from home.

“From the Colt Tower to the Golden Gate Bridge, so much around here has featured in my work. My favourite drive would be the Lucas Valley Road to Nicasio.”

John has even worked for Hollywood, producing a poster for The Rocketeer, the 1991 film version of Dave Stevens’ brilliant comic celebration of flying in California.

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: John Mattos
A twilight drive featuring a Jaguar XK120 fhc, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background

“It was a great job with an open brief,” he recalls. “I had always admired Stevens’ artwork and the subject really suited my style.”

Another assignment from the movie industry was for Tucker: The Man and His Dream. “Every time you see Jeff Bridges flick up a grey cover on a styling drawing in the film, it’s one of mine,” he smiles.

When Jeremy King, the famous London restaurateur, started developing ideas for The Colony grill room at The Beaumont hotel, John got a surprise international call to submit ideas for the 1930s-inspired panel designs: “Jeremy was fun to work with, particularly when I learned that he drove a Bristol 411 and once sat for artist Lucian Freud.”

Classic & Sports Car – Motoring art: John Mattos
John’s artwork for the 1991 The Rocketeer movie

“We had some amusing discussions about the featured sport tableau,” he continues, “including wooden speedboat racing, polo, ocean fishing and motorsport. The finished art was printed in East Bay and shipped to London.”

The scale of John’s work varies dramatically, as recent projects confirm. As well as producing the artwork for a 1930s-style Cluedo board game, he recently completed seven magnificent Art Deco-style hoardings for the new Netflix production of The Good Cop.

His smallest designs have been for the United States Postal Service, including a celebration of Deuce hot rods and the Indy 500.

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