STERLING – Remember cracking open a box of colored pencils in school and finding inspiration in its rainbow of colors? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – there was nothing you and Roy G. Biv couldn’t create.
Then there was the white one. Sometimes, that one didn’t even see the inside of a pencil sharpener.
But for a Sterling artist, working with a white pencil is the highlight of his day.
Matt Jagitsch brings his subjects to life with the strokes of nothing more than a white pencil against a backdrop of black, and although his pieces live in a world of shadows and light, they’re no less compelling than pieces found at the end of the rainbow. They may be a little more challenging to create, but rising to that challenge is part of what appeals to the artist.
“In my head, I’m still a kid that loves to draw. Now I can put these drawings in frames and show them in studios and art galleries all around the place. It’s been fun.”— Matt Jagitsch, artist
“It’s a primitive form of medium,” Jagitsch said. “The challenge of creating something that’s got depth and feeling to it, just having a couple of tools makes it a fun challenge.”
A look around his home studio shows just how much fun he’s had. Willie Nelson, Leonardo da Vinci, 1930s-era farmers and even a few four-legged felines keep him company from among the glass-framed pieces that line the walls of Black Sheep Studio.
Creating pieces with a white pencil on black paper requires a different approach than using a broader palette or pieces using a black pencil on white paper. With white-on-black works, the spots on an animal, a person’s eyes or the openings of the mouth aren’t drawn on the paper, the paper itself takes care of that with the black areas revealing details after Jagitsch draws the outlines in white that make the darker spaces stand out. It’s like a drawing in reverse.
“It’s fun to plan out because it’s a reverse way of drawing,” Jagitsch said. “In conventional drawing, you’re drawing the shadow and shading, but with these, you’re drawing highlights and letting the paper be the shadow and shading. They’re fun to plan out, and as soon as you start going, especially with animal fur and all of those strokes, it goes pretty quick.”
It’s a talent that he rediscovered only a few years ago after a one-time middle school art class assignment, and he’s reaping plenty of praise for it at local art shows.
The first time Jagitsch, 53, wielded the white pencil was about 40 years ago as a teen growing up in Jacksonville, 30 miles west of Springfield. It was just a one-off school assignment then, and he would later try out other mediums – watercolors, oils, sculpting – as a college student at Eastern Illinois University, but that white pencil had left an indelible mark in his mind.
He would go on to work in yet another medium when he was planning a career: house paint. He started a house painting business when he moved to Dixon 25 years ago. Today, he and his family – wife Michelle and sons Nathan, Brandon and Connor – live in Sterling, where they’ve been for the past eight years. Jagitsch continued painting houses, but when COVID-19 hit, he found himself with more time on his hands than what was taken up painting houses.
Jagitsch needed something to do his spare time, and that’s when he thought about that middle school assignment. His interest rekindled, he started drawing again.
“When COVID hit, everybody had a little more time on their hands,” Jagitsch said. “My wife is an elementary teacher in Sterling, so she was working remotely from home, and I was a little more at home than normal. That was all it really took for her to go, ‘We need to find something for you to do.’ So I just started drawing again.”
Jagitsch draws on smooth, jet-black Strathmore Artagain paper, which is a little thicker than standard construction paper. He uses Faber-Castell Polychromos artist pencils, one that’s vegetable oil based and another that’s wax based, depending on which one he feels will make the best lines or contours.
Among the people he’s drawn are a series of blues artists, including B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Leadbelly. His drawing of Willie Nelson features the famous country singer embracing his iconic guitar, “Trigger.” For the black signatures that are on the real Trigger, Jagitsch used an electric eraser to remove the white pencil strokes, leaving the black paper to replicate the autographs.
Jagitsch said older people tend to make for better drawings, with the lines and character in their face. “Their face tells a story, and people can make a connection with them better,” he said.
Pencils and erasers aren’t the only tools in his arsenal. Jagitsch also keeps Q-tips for blending his pencil strokes. While some artists spray fixatives on their pieces to preserve them, Jagitsch prefers to leave them unsprayed for a better look.
In almost three years of drawing in his spare time, he’s created more than 200 pieces. The first drawings stayed close to home, but as he got better, pieces made their way to local art galleries such as The Next Picture Show in Dixon and others in Bloomington, Highland Park, Marengo, Peru and Rock Island.
Even with all the pieces he’s created in white and black, there are splashes of color in his studio. The ribbons his pieces have won in the art shows that he’s entered.
Jagitsch’s first local Best of Show award came at the 72nd annual Grand Detour Art Fair in September 2021 with his drawing of a silverback gorilla. He also took top honors back-to-back at the 73rd and 74th Phidian Art Shows the past two Aprils with his drawing of Leonardo da Vinci in 2022 and “Don’t Breathe,” a closeup of a leopard, in 2023.
Jagitsch has come to enjoy being at the art shows and receptions. He not only gets to meet people who appreciate his art, but also fellow artists.
“To put your expressions on a piece of paper, and to see people appreciate it and like to see it, one of my favorite things is to be able to talk to people,” Jagitsch said. “You’re seeing their face, listening to their comments, and that’s really where it’s at.”
Jagitsch’s next exhibit, “One White Pencil,” will be from February to April at The Crystal Cork, 219 W. First St., Dixon. He recently has exhibited at The Next Picture Show in Dixon, as well as Peru, St. Charles, Pontiac and his hometown of Jacksonville.
Can’t make it to a gallery or show? Jagitsch’s works are on Facebook and Instagram at Black Sheep Studio, and he launched his website, blacksheepstudio.org, a couple of months ago.
“If you would have told me two years ago that I would be doing what I’m doing now, and showing around the state, I would have thought you were crazy,” Jagitsch said. “It’s funny. Once you do one, then you find some other stuff and you have another gallery that contacts you to see if you’re interested in showing there. It was just kind of an unexpected snowball of events, which is great. I love it.”
The accolades and recognition are great, Jagitsch said, but that’s not why he continues to create drawings.
“In my head, I’m still a kid that loves to draw. Now I can put these drawings in frames and show them in studios and art galleries all around the place. It’s been fun.”