UNCC artist has made a name for himself drawing star athletes. Just check his Instagram

Here's why superstar athletes ask this student artist to draw them

Matt Clayburn is a student at UNC Charlotte who makes digital drawings of superstar athletes such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Zion Williamson.
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Matt Clayburn is a student at UNC Charlotte who makes digital drawings of superstar athletes such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Zion Williamson.

Take several scrolls through Matt Clayburn’s Instagram account, and you’ll find the collision of his two passions: sports and art.

Every few days, the 20-year-old UNC Charlotte sophomore captivates his 20,000 followers with colorful drawings, mostly of athletes, created on his iPad Pro.

But it’s not just Clayburn’s followers who have fallen in love with his work. Athletes are noticing, too.

An early February illustration shows Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in his football uniform, but conceptualized as a character from the survival video game Fortnite. Clayburn’s picture of Smith-Schuster was liked more than 2,000 times when he posted it.

When the NFL star posted the picture to his personal Instagram, more than 140,000 people liked the drawing, which had Clayburn’s signature on it for all to see.

As a digital artist, Clayburn uses technology to create his illustrations. The medium has been around for a long time, but with tablet technology, it has increasingly become an avenue for artists to leave a mark.

“Digital art, to me, is just a newer way to create and have everything at your fingertips at once,” Clayburn said in an interview with the Observer.

He likes to get in a rhythm, usually late at night, when he can focus on his craft. He’ll find a photo of an athlete or celebrity to use as a reference, then he’ll begin to sketch. It takes about three hours for him to finish a piece.

Superstar athletes such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are taking notice of Matt Clayburn's digital drawings of them.

Clayburn creates the fan art for free – mostly for high school basketball recruits and men’s college basketball players.

In the beginning, he had to reach out to athletes to get them to share his art. In the past year, though, Clayburn’s inbox has been flooded by athletes clamoring for him to draw their pictures.

The first major athlete to share Clayburn’s art was former North Carolina star Marcus Paige, last March.

More recently, highly touted high school recruit Zion Williamson posted an illustration Clayburn drew of him when he committed to Duke in January. He estimates that up to 40 athletes have now posted his art.

Because of the athletes’ fame, Clayburn’s work is sometimes featured on prominent sports sites, such as Bleacher Report, he said.

“I have to pinch myself and make sure I’m not dreaming every time I see my work re-posted by a big name athlete or on Instagram or Bleacher Report,” he said. “It’s already crazy that I’m talking to these guys every day. Even crazier that they like my work.”

Clayburn’s success may be crazy to him, but to those who know him, it isn’t farfetched.

“He’s always been able to pull something out of a picture that you didn’t really see before,” said Matthew Busch, one of Clayburn’s former art teachers.

Busch first met Clayburn when he was a student at Enloe High School in Raleigh. It was clear from the beginning that Clayburn was gifted, he said.

“When you encounter someone that has the talent, and they know they have the talent and the confidence to get better, it’s inspiring,” Busch said.

Clayburn was still doing mostly traditional drawing when Busch introduced him to digital art. He would spend hours after school creating his work on Adobe Illustrator, using techniques he learned in class, according to Busch.

“He’s doing his work exactly like he did it before, but it’s much more detailed,” he said. “I’m really impressed with it.”

Trish Klenow, another one of Clayburn’s art teachers from Enloe, noted how Clayburn’s confidence has increased when it comes to his artwork.

“I think he knows exactly where he belongs,” she said. “He’s bringing his love of sports together with his art abilities, and it’s a wonderful marriage.”

The 20-year-old played basketball in high school, but pivoted heavily toward art when he realized he wasn’t going to play the sport long-term.

Instead, he wants to stick with the sport by doing art for brands such as Nike and Adidas. He also dreams of continuing to create art for athletes, many of whom will make their way to the league in coming years, he said.

In that sense, Clayburn envisions making it to the NBA – just not as a player.

“… I can make it there doing something I love more than playing basketball,” he said. “This art thing is something I have a passion for and I feel like I’ll always have a passion for.”

LaVendrick Smith: 704-358-5101; @LaVendrickS