Matthew Peak | Peak Performance


By Bonnie Gangelhoff

While his pint-size friends sat in sandboxes and built castles, 4-year-old Matthew Peak was content to sprawl across a rug in his father’s art studio and draw pictures. In many ways it seemed the young Peak was predestined for a career in art. After all his father, Bob Peak, was a nationally known illustrator who chalked up more than 150 awards from organizations such as New York’s Society of Illustrators and art directors’ clubs in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. For his many outstanding movie posters he also received a lifetime achievement award from The Hollywood Reporter.

It didn’t surprise anyone in his family that as he grew older Matthew slipped easily into the role of his father’s apprentice, stretching watercolor paper, cleaning palettes, and washing brushes. But as Peak points out, his real art education came about when his father used him as a sounding board to solve visual problems. From an early age he had regular conversations with his father about movie posters for films like The Wiz, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Apocalypse Now. “It all gave me a reservoir of knowledge that I continually access,” Peak says from his home in Northern California. “At the time I had no idea what a precious gift my father was bestowing on me nor that art would become my life’s work.”

Indeed, Peak’s days and nights are now devoted to making art. Although he draws, paints, photographs, and sculpts, he is known primarily for his landscape paintings—often scenes of California and Hawaii—as well as his highly imaginative figurative works. But like many California artists, he also accepts commissions from the film industry. In fact, following in his father’s footsteps, he has created more than 50 paintings for soundtrack CD covers, including classics like Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, and Vertigo. A painting used for the CD cover of the Rebecca soundtrack was recently accepted into the Society of Illustrators show in New York.

But unlike his father (who died in 1992), Peak spends the majority of his time these days pursuing a career as an easel painter rather than as a commercial artist. He lives in the foothills of the Sierras, and his studio is located on the lower floor of the home he shares with his wife, Monika, and infant daughter, Autumn. The studio’s main painting area looks out on a meadow sprinkled with pine trees. Shafts of soft north light fall across the floor. Peak also keeps an easel set up outside for plein-air work.

THE CALLING, OIL, 48 x 36.

Peak divides his painting styles into two separate categories which he terms “reaction and creation.” Reaction refers to painting on location; creation involves painting in the studio. “Each offers different challenges,” Peak explains. “When I am on location plein-air style or working directly from life, I am ‘reacting’ to inspiration in front of me. Many times this type of inspiration is fleeting, like twilight, when things look totally amazing for about 15 minutes.”

During these times, Peak says he frantically tries to capture the relationships that unfold during a brief window of magic. Such spontaneous efforts have yielded paintings like bay at china camp, a waterscape depicting a spot in Marin County. sunset at the peach orchard also portrays a California locale: Auburn, a vintage mining town from the Gold Rush days. footsteps in the sand and island shelter cove were both painted on location in Kauai, Hawaii, on Peak’s fifth wedding anniversary vacation. The latter became an anniversary present to his wife, he says.

When he is creating studio paintings, he is essentially developing something from nothing. Such was the case with crescent over the pond, a scene painted in his studio. The pond is in Peak’s back yard. “One night I saw the crescent moon pop over the trees. I did a quick pencil drawing in the moonlight, then went into the studio and started the painting,” he recalls. He often spends hours in the studio trying to obtain the relationship that takes just minutes on location. “But on location I don’t get to go where my mind takes me in the studio,” he explains. Whether Peak is on location or in the studio, nature always plays an integral role in his artwork. It can be the subject itself or a backdrop for a figurative composition as in the calling, which portrays a young woman wrapped in a red blanket surrounded by floating fairy-like creatures. the calling is about the spirit of nature, opening one’s senses, and stripping away the conventions of modern man, Peak says. “In all of my figurative work, I need to be able to step into the subject’s skin,” he says. “I think about how it feels to be the people in the painting, not just what it’s like to view them from the outside.”

Living and working close to nature is a guiding force in his art, Peak says. He speculates that this lifelong attraction stems from growing up in the New England countryside in Greenwich, CT. As a youngster Peak spent hours exploring the woods near his home—journeys that led him to amazing places, both in reality as well as in his imagination. “It was like being lost in Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels,” he recalls. “I think those enchanted days of innocent youth instilled a feeling in me that continually comes through in my paintings.”


It comes as no surprise that Peak is an admirer of figurative paintings by Englishman John William Waterhouse [1849-1917] and French romantic painter William Bouguereau [1825-1905]. Waterhouse, known as a painter of myth, romance, love, and elegiac beauty, was also the son of a well-known artist. Like Peak, Waterhouse assisted in his father’s studio and studied art with him. Landscape works by George Inness [1825-1924] and Thomas Cole [1801-1848], the founder of the Hudson River School, also impress Peak. Unlike many artists, Peak is usually working on at least 30 paintings at a time. He may zero in on a canvas for a few days or even weeks. But if another idea pops into his head, he moves on. “I strongly feel that there is a right time and a wrong time to concentrate on a painting,” he says. “I can be working on something, then intuitively know that I need to focus on something else.”

Nor does he limit himself to any set approach, although generally speaking Peak’s style is to launch what he calls “an attack” on a canvas without doing any preliminary drawing. Even if he has done preliminary sketches for an idea, he rarely pencils in the composition. Instead he prefers to splash paint over the whole canvas to get it wet. Next he pushes and pulls paint around, stressing rhythm, color, and flow. Some days he has absolutely no idea what imagery he is going to paint. “I begin with a feeling, mood, or color in mind,” he explains. “I am an emotionally driven artist.”

As the painting starts to take shape, the hard work begins when he contemplates real subjects to fit into his imagined compositions. “That’s something I got from my father, who once told me ‘never let your reference rule your idea.’” In the calling, for example, Peak started by posing a model for the main figure. “I had a hunch of the direction, but all of the natural backdrop and smaller figure groups developed from a rhythmic swish of paint,” he recalls.

Approaches, styles, and subjects may vary, but Peak’s mission remains the same in all his art. “My goal is to create moods to experience, worlds to enter and dream about, times and places to visit,” he says.


While his art career seems to have been blessed from the beginning by a supportive father, Peak says it wasn’t always so straightforward. He experienced struggles early on trying to find his artistic way. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the art school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After one semester he floundered, unhappy with his choice. His father suggested he try the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. One week later the young Peak packed everything he owned into his Toyota Corolla and headed west to the Golden State. For a spell his coursework at the Art Center seemed to suit him perfectly. But one day in the middle of a painting, “something just snapped,” Peak recalls. “Suddenly nothing I was doing seemed right or to make any sense.”

After that he got a job as a gas station attendant and made a firm vow never to paint or draw again. This vow lasted about a month, until one day he spontaneously picked up a pencil and drew a face on a piece of paper. In that moment Peak experienced a true epiphany that changed the course of his life. “I realized what a gift I had, and since then being an artist has been my one and only job,” he says.

As this story was going to press, Peak was eagerly preparing for his first appearance in the California Art Club’s Gold Medal Exhibition, which opens in October. His works are held in a number of private and corporate collections including those of Miramax Films, New Line Cinema, and the San Francisco Ballet. And he brims with optimism and enthusiasm about the current state of his fine-art career. “I am very excited about this time in my life,” he says. “My focus is clear and I’m producing my best work ever. I feel confident that my explorations and studies will continue to enhance my art for years to come.”


Peak is represented by Louis Arnow Gallery, San Francisco and Sausalito, CA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; Art Foundry Gallery, Sacramento, CA; and Morseburg Galleries, Los Angeles, CA.

Featured in August 2003