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An Exclusive Interview with Alicia Matheson, Artist

One of the nicest things about Doctor Who fandom is the sheer variety of talent that’s out there. From pencilled stick figures to knitwear to plastic sculptures with ping pong ball heads, the Doctor’s universe has been explored in just about any medium you can conceive. But the work of Alicia Matheson – a US-based digital paint artist who paints over existing photos, adding her own spin and detail and backgrounds – was new territory for me, a box of delights that deserves to be unpacked carefully and delicately, every moment savoured, every hidden treasure examined in detail.
The DWC has featured Alicia’s artwork before: in the April Fool’s Day post we produced a few months back suggesting that Mills & Boon were going to publish Who-themed romantic fiction (well, it fooled a couple of you, if only for a few minutes). When I was putting that one together I looked for romantic images of the Doctor and Rose, and Alicia’s was one of the first I came across. Not long afterwards I contacted her requesting an interview, and we spent the next few days in between assignments chatting over email.
What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation – Alicia is thoughtful, insightful and articulate and I’d dearly love to have included everything she said, but as it stands you’re getting the very best of it.
DWC: Have you been drawing all your life, or is it a recent thing?
AM: My mother’s also an artist, so I have been drawing for as long as I can remember because she always encouraged me. When I was in kindergarten, they gave me a picture of an unfinished man and asked me to finish it. It was a stick figure missing an arm and a leg and most kids that age (five) would do the arm and leg and give him a smiley face. I gave him hair and eyebrows and hands with fingers and shoes and gave him a shirt with buttons and pants. The shoes looked like wheels and the hands looked like flowers with petals instead of fingers, but the creativity was there.
As I got older and my disabilities started making themselves known, I did less traditional art because it would put a strain on my hand, arm, neck, and back. That’s why I do almost exclusively digital art now – it’s easier on my body. I do miss sketching and using acrylic paint, though. Perhaps when science and medicine catches up to my body, I can return to it.
Tell me about your connection with Doctor Who.
My husband (at the time) watched Doctor Who, I would catch a funny line or two and think maybe I was missing something. So I started watching. Right away, I knew it was something special. I loved Chris and Billie, I loved the humour and the depth of emotion in it, the weight of being the last of the Time Lords and how he’d had to destroy his own people. I was SO upset when Chris left the show, and then there was David. I didn’t get right away why fans were so crazy about him. He was so skinny and his face is actually crooked, so I thought he looked funny.
But as I watched him, it was like falling down a rabbit hole and I didn’t know it until I hit the bottom. He’s just so compelling to watch, he’s a phenomenal actor, and as I started painting him, getting to know all these crooked parts of his face so well, I realised that the off-set of his face just makes him more interesting to look at! Kind of like how Chris is a very unconventionally handsome man: you see his large nose and ears and the mole on his cheek, but you look at him as a whole and you can’t deny he is a gorgeous man. He has such presence – his Doctor was very still, but he commanded the whole room.
What I loved best about the RTD era is that they took ordinary people and they were special all by themselves, just for being associated with the Doctor. The show had its light-hearted moments, but it had very emotional, very heartfelt moments too. It would take a small moment, like Rose saving her father, and show us how important that one moment was. That was really powerful. It didn’t need big, blockbuster, flashy plots, it could say so much with very little, and I loved that.
Where do the ideas for your pictures come from? If you have more than one that’s screaming ‘paint me!’, how do you prioritise?
I guess I let the creativity develop as I go. A painting that might start off one way may develop into something else. It’s a very malleable kind of creativity, a flow of imagination. I always have more than one idea waiting to be painted, so I keep them all on my desktop and paint whatever is most calling to me at the time. If I try to work on something just because it’s been a while since I painted that particular person, I usually end up not being happy with it. I have to go with what my heart wants, even if that means five paintings of the same person in a row.
How do you know when a picture is done?
It’s either very easy and I just know or I keep messing with it until I’m sick of it and have to just call it ‘done’. I don’t want to keep working on a project that isn’t co-operating for too long, or it will start to look tortured. Sometimes things just don’t come out the way I see it in my head, but that doesn’t mean the project is necessarily bad; it’s just different than how I envisioned. I’m still adding to the conversation of art by creating it, and maybe I learned something I can apply next time.
You mentioned Eccleston’s presence. Do you have a favourite Doctor to paint?
It may be a little obvious from the amount of paintings, but I do love painting David Tennant. I call him “my TV husband” to my mother. But I still love painting Chris, he’s just as interesting a subject and a very compelling Doctor that I wish had been around longer. There’s really no comparing the two. Every so often, I will paint Matt Smith, because even though his Doctor suffered from lacklustre writing, he had a few good “moments” here and there and I respect his acting. I’ve done only a couple paintings of Peter Capaldi, because by the time he took over, I’d stopped watching.
What made you stop watching?
I talked a little bit about this on my blog when I explained why I don’t like The Girl in the Fireplace. All of Moffat’s writing suffers from the same problem – he writes stuff ‘just because’. Russell T Davies considered all of Doctor Who‘s long and storied past when writing his episodes, he drew on the emotions and lessons of the past and gave them new life. That’s what made it so brilliant. But Moffat chooses not only to ignore past canon, but even will ignore his OWN canon if he wants to write something else that he thinks is cool. You can’t do that and expect the audience to ignore it in favour of blockbuster scenarios and fancy special effects. I think it’s lazy and arrogant. Moffat is often blinded by his own hubris. He has been quoted as saying that you don’t NEED character development. That’s enough to tell me that he’s not a good writer.
He wrote “Just this once, everybody lives!” in The Doctor Dances, which was a great line at the time, because that Doctor had seen so much death and destruction. But now… everybody lives practically all the time (unless they’re getting written out of the show). Now no one actually dies. He even did the unthinkable and saved Gallifrey, completely retconning everything that RTD wrote, and making everything that the Ninth and Tenth Doctors did moot. Their character development was now all for naught. And that made me so angry. Moffat has no respect for anyone’s writing but his own. And I was not going to add to his viewer numbers anymore.
In layman’s terms, can you talk us through the creative process? You start with the idea… then what?
I will usually go to Pinterest for inspiration and just scroll through until I find a picture that calls out to me. I save it and then look at my favourite actors, to see which ones I want to use in the painting. I look for faces with similar lighting and positioning to the picture I saved so that I can reference the pictures accurately. Also, if the photo is in black and white, I will usually turn it into colour when I start laying my own colour down because I really want to make it as pretty as possible.
If I just happen upon a really interesting photo, I’ll save it on Photoshop, and start laying down colour directly over the photo right away. That’s what I do, really; I paint over photos and give it my own ‘spin’. I try to put a little emotion of my own into it, so people can see that there really is something human behind the brush strokes. I want my paintings to look different than those where people have used a type of ‘oil painting’ filter.
I used to have to put a disclaimer at the bottom of each description, informing people that it wasn’t a filter, that I really do paint every stroke that you see. Even so, I’ve had multiple instances of bullying, harassment, and accusations from people saying they ‘know’ I’m faking it, that they ‘know’ a filter when they see one, that they’ve worked in Photoshop a very long time and it isn’t possible for me to paint so well based on my other artwork. It hurt a lot. I actually went on hiatus for a while, because I couldn’t deal with it. When I came back, I disabled all comments that I could and wrote a post saying that anyone who makes these unfounded accusations will be reported for harassment under the terms of use and then blocked. Because I just want to make art, it makes me happy, it helps me forget about the pain in my body for a little while, and those people were taking away my happiness. I couldn’t find joy in painting when I felt that I was just going to get abused for it.
This isn’t to say that I don’t accept criticism. I’m completely open to constructive criticism, such as “Her eyes don’t look like they’re actually looking at him; they’re aimed too high.” But a comment like “This is so fake, stop taking credit for people’s photos” is not constructive. It’s not opening up a dialogue; it’s not even polite. As for taking credit for other people’s photos, by that logic anyone who painted Half Dome in Yosemite would have to give credit to Ansel Adams. No, I’m not starting with a plain white background, but does that mean what I’m doing is not art? Am I not adding to the conversation of art as a whole? I love my paintings and I’m proud of them. And anyone who thinks what I’m doing is easy and fake, I welcome them to use my tutorial of my method (posted on my Deviant Art front page), so they can see for themselves the process I go through. What I do takes time, effort, patience, and love, especially since I can’t profit directly off of them.
Is there an internalised process for blocking people like this out? How do you thicken your skin?
I’m 33 years old and the slings and arrows still hurt. If there is a way to thicken your skin without completely shutting down your emotions, I haven’t found it yet. What I have found that helps a little is to concentrate on the people around me who love and care about me, who like my art, who get inspired by it, who look forward to seeing it. Having a solid support system at your back helps in those times when someone is stabbing you in the heart. It still hurts – I haven’t found a way around that – but that support system will patch you up and help you heal so that you can keep moving forward. This is my way of coping; it may be different from someone else’s way of coping. I always say to find what works for you. If you can find a way to not let those awful people bury you, you take it and you hold onto it and you never forget that it’s there, because that is the thing that will lift you up, that will make you whole again.
I know it’s not why we do it, but have you had any commercial success?
Depends on what you look at as ‘success’. I currently have over 3000 followers on Tumblr, which just blows my mind. And I got a lot of those followers because, occasionally, the Official Doctor Who Tumblr or the BBC America Tumblr would reblog my art. I would suddenly get an influx of followers. I consider that successful and I love and appreciate every single one of my followers.
Commercially, though, not so much. Since what I love to do is paint fan art, I can’t make money from prints with it. The characters are copyright. I have done some original art, and verrrrrry little of it has sold. Probably under $100 in maybe 5 years. Some really lovely people suggested I get on Patreon because they wanted to support me and my art and couldn’t do it through purchasing prints from me. I have 6 subscribers currently which nets me $27 a month. I hope one day I might have enough subscribers to be able to purchase a wheelchair and lift, as it is very difficult for me to walk.
I kind of look at myself as PBS, the Public Broadcasting Station, which does children’s programming such as Sesame Street and fine arts programming for adults as well. It’s a publicly supported station, run on donations from subscribers. If you’ve ever watched it, you know that they have pledge drives where people call in to give money so the station can stay in business. One of the things they say is “Why would you give money to something you can enjoy for free?” Well, it keeps the end product coming, whether it’s quality TV programming or art from me. When you subscribe to me, you not only will keep me making artwork for you to enjoy, but you’re also donating to a good cause, as I’m not able to work a regular job because of my disabilities. I currently live very far below the poverty line; I make do with what I have.
I’ve not had a lot of commercial success by the strict definition of the term, but I consider myself a successful artist as long as there are still people out there who like my work.
And finally, I know the books say that when it comes to your work, you’re not supposed to have favourites. But do you?
For me, since I’ve made so many, it’s honestly like trying to pick a favourite child. I do have a number that stand out to me, for one reason or another, but I do love all of them, even the ones that didn’t turn out the way I wanted.
The Stone Rose was inspired by the Doctor Who novel of the same name. I really love how it turned out, especially the Doctor’s face. He just has this look of anguished longing as he carefully sculpts her, making it perfect, his hands look so gentle and loving, and I love it.

You can find Alicia here:
Open To Interpretation (Tumblr)
LicieOIC on DeviantArt (DeviantArt page)
Alicia Matheson is creating Art | Patreon (If you want to offer financial support)

James Baldock

An Exclusive Interview with Alicia Matheson, Artist

by James Baldock time to read: 11 min
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