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Matt Dawson Illustration with explanation

February 14, 2014

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Busy artist and freelance Illustrator Matt Dawson is far from wandering around with his head in the clouds (even with the Llamas !) Although a little shy when it comes to discussing himself, his info on his twitter account says ” I’m a freelance illustrator and much prefer drawing things than talking about myself ” However I luckily managed to twist his arm and answer a few prepared questions for you all.

Please start by telling us a little about yourself. What led you to draw and become an illustrator and a brief history of the road that led you here. Your earliest memories of drawing.

” I’ve always drawn, as far back as I can remember. Despite the never ending struggle to capture on paper what you have in your head, it’s always made me happy to draw, and I try to do it everyday, even if it’s just a doodle on a scrap of paper. Somewhere at home my mum still has all those scribble drawings from primary school and earlier. I found one a while back I really liked… my dream home with a harrier jump jet landing pad on the roof ! My earliest drawing memories are probably kneeling on the floor at home, trying (unsuccessfully) to get crayola wax crayons to lay down a smooth flat colour ! I’d have loved marker pens as a kid, though it would have proved pretty expensive I imagine. It’s funny but now I’d much rather have the textures than the smooth colour fills. From art and design A-levels, through a foundation course in art and design to a BA degree in 3D product design, I’d never planned a career not related in some way to drawing. ”

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Quite a lot of your work features a combination of words and imagery. Are you often thinking about word derivations or pondering on funny ways to see something in a different way ?

” I suppose there is a frustrated author in me. They say everyone has a book in them and I have notebooks full of story outlines and sketchbooks crammed with characters, locations and storyboards. The words are a little trickier. I’ve been known to dabble with the odd (and they usually are) rhyme or two (although poetry is a mystery to me). I do love to marry up words and illustrations, whether it’s just a title or a more involved piece of typography within the illustration itself. Typography alongside images can be an economical way to get your subject across… a picture can speak a thousand words but, sometimes, a word or two here and there saves you drawing a thousand pictures. I just like the marriage of words and pictures in a children’s book, or on a book’s cover you shouldn’t always show visually what’s in the accompanying text or, conversely, write down what the illustrations can better show. I also really enjoy hand drawn typography and some of my strongest creative influences such as Ronald Searle or Edward Gorey, or Saul Bass come to it, are masters of words and pictures, whether it is what the words say or what they actually look like too, the letter forms themselves as illustration. Some words are just plain funny… ‘smorgasbord’ always makes me smile and I’ve yet to find a way to illustrate it to my satisfaction. ”

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How do you decide what to draw each day, do you have a plan or formula to stick to ?

” When I have project to work on there is no problem. I know, for the most part, what I must do that day and I can work ‘on rails’. If I’m between projects I just like to keep myself creatively active in some way, whether it be a more involved personal project (say a self directed book cover or a screen print design) or maybe just a quick sketch or five on scraps of paper. Maybe hand drawn typography on my shopping list (this is actually a disease I’ve picked up and short notes can take me more time than they ought to complete!) or some photography.  I always have a sketchbook on the go but, increasingly, I find myself working on loose sheets of paper. It’s so much easier to make use of several reference drawings at once side by side, instead of flicking between several sketchbook pages, and, more importantly, it’s much easier to scan loose leaf work into the computer. You can also pick your paper type too for the drawing / painting you need to do. I also find myself using greaseproof paper a heck of a lot for compositing together elements. It’s almost as good as tracing paper (and far cheaper) for having layout drawings underneath to work to… and I kind of like the slight cloudiness greaseproof gives as opposed to tracing paper as you aren’t tempted to accurately match your layout underdrawing exactly… keeps things fresh. I do miss having my sketchbooks as objects though, like a visual diary. I try and make an effort to draw something everyday, just because it makes me happy and it’s a ‘muscle’ I need to keep flexed not flaccid. Example… today I brush pen sketched (pentel brush pen) … for no particular reason save it was there and I like the design… my toaster for a warm up sketch… It almost doesn’t matter what I draw, so long as I draw something… I’ve also done a batch of camera ink sketches in a similar vein too. Style wise they are vastly different from my other illustrations and they are just, for the most part, pleasant exercises for the joy of just drawing, but the observational drawing, dry brush texture and looseness of line bring something to my regular illustrations I hope ”

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How much does humour play an important role in your work ? Do you ever get uninspiring commissions that don’t call for that fun element that your work en-captures ? What was your fav commission to date or who would you like to work for / with ?

I’d say humour is a vital part of what I want to achieve with my work. Even if the brief doesn’t call for ‘slipping on a banana skin’ to the sound of a swanee whistle I’d hope my visual approach to a subject has a quirkiness that, when appropriate of course, raises a smile and gets the message across. I suppose illustrators do, to some extent, get pigeonholed by their approach and past work and if I end up being seen as quirky, well I can think of worse things.

Favourite commissions to date…. well I’d like to think I find something to like about each project I work on as there is always an opportunity to inject a little of what makes me tick into the job. Of course it goes without saying some projects stand out more than others. Some are a joy to work on, others more of a challenge. For example, a while back I seemed to have cornered the market in magpie themed company logos of all things. It seemed that everyone who was planning to open a jewellery business found the first magpie logo I had designed on google images and wanted something the same… only different. I don’t exaggerate when I say that I easily had enquiries well into double figures and I could have sold one particular, already sold, design several times over. I also had to nicely ask one small business to stop using one of my existing magpie concept sketches without permission. I never look a gift magpie commission in the mouth (well beak) but, after one magpie logo for sorrow and two for joy, I can think of several emotions for five plus magpies… !

Stand out favourite commissions….? Well I love doing book covers. The Mikhail Bulgakov covers for Penguin books were an immensely satisfying project to work on and Penguin books were a dream client and a delight to work with. I really enjoy the process of reading the text for clues as to how to distill essence of the book for it’s cover. Then you have this established set of requirements for the book itself, cover size, spine width, endpapers legibility on shelf…and so on, all to marry with the internal text. Hopefully, if you do things OK the cover can augment the writing and bring something new to that edition. There’s nothing wrong in judging a book by it’s cover I say… though my bookshelf is overloaded and I have my reading list set for the next twenty years ! ”

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Who or what would you list as your influential artists / items that inspire your work ?

” Well in no particular order, and this list grows with every google image search I do: Walt Peregoy (his colour design for 101 Dalmations- one of my favourite animated films- are just breathtakingly good!), Tom Oreb (a brilliant character designer for Disney, UPA etc…), Ed Benedict (genius character designer and Layout artist, Yogi Bear, Flintstones etc…), Jim Flora (amazing mid century album covers), Mike Mignola (perfect use of layout, graphics, line and colour in storytelling), Egon Schiele (terrific fast paced yet assured linework) . Saul Bass’ film titles, Mary Blair; especially her work on Disney’s Alice In Wonderland colour design, Maurice Noble’s layout and colour design work for Warner Bros, UPA studios animation design, Chuck Jones pencil sketches, Alice and Martin Provensen’s book illustrations, ditto Gerald Rose, ditto Eric Carle (being read The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of my earliest book memories) , ditto Miroslav Sasek, Roc Riera Rojas… His Don Quixote illustrations in particular are superb, Benton Murdoch Spruance’s Moby Dick lithographs, and Rockwell Kents epic Moby Dick illustrations too, Ben Shahn’s lovely loose drawings, Ronald Searle’s draftsmanship, Joan Miro’s shapes, ditto Matisse, Paul Klee, Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder’s wire sculptures, David Weidman’s screen prints and editorial illustrations, Edward Bawden’s lino cuts, Willie Rushton’s cartoons, Edward Gorey’s haunting and sometimes enigmatically baffling words and pictures, Tove Jansson’s otherworldly stories and visuals, Raymond Briggs (Fungus the Bogeyman was one of my favourite books growing up), Quentin Blake, especially his latest work outside of children’s books, Pacific Northwest Canadian and Inuit prints and sculpture (perfectly observed distilled character design and beautiful touches of humour, similarly Australian aboriginal artwork, 1950’s / 60’s homeware (espcially Lucienne Day and Susan Williams Ellis, Kay Bojensen wooden animals, Danish homewear… … I could, and would, go on and on… Google image search is a blessing and a curse! lol ”

Thanks Matt what a fab list, certainly a few for me to look up in there too !

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What first inspired you to start you making little creatures i.e.’egg box rhino’ , os this something that you can see some future work in or just to satisfy some old Blue Peter memories ? lol

“Well there’s only really been two or three such creatures, two of which (rhino you know, and pinecone pangolin) were done for monthly submissions on a group blog I co-started with a couple of friends called a little bit bunny (I’d forgotten about toilet duck elephant! till now… I wouldn’t bother mentioning this last though… many moons back and best left there too…). Both the rhino and the pangolin were just meant to be surprising alternatives to the usual illustration for the group blog… and a prime reason for establishing the bunny blog was to shake things up creatively a bit each month and produce that months chosen creature ‘a little bit’ skewed from the norm… and what could be more skewed than use an egg box or pine cone. Both were spur of the moment choices and it’s good to work without a safety net and jump into things without any prior planning from time to time! I wouldn’t say I had a grand plan to use such an approach in the future but, that said, I had fun doing them both and wouldn’t rule out more of the same. It’s all just about being creatively active, whatever that might be.”

” It just occurs to me, on the photos of my book shelf you might notice a grey boxer dog head sculpture. Well this a rough resin cast I did a while back from a soft wax sculpture of my pet. I’d love to cast it in bronze someday! I also have a great interest in primates and there’s a Gorilla death mask online I’d love to buy and use as sculpt ref for my own Gorilla head sculpture one day!! ”

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There’s always a lot of sketchbook work that goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in the life of an illustrator. You can see some of the thought and illustration processing here.

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It’s always exciting when an illustrator shows their sketchbook pages. How often do you work initially in a sketchbook and how important is it for you to work in this way ? Is this how you ‘brainstorm’ your ideas ?

” As I mentioned earlier, my sketchbooks now tend to be a pile of loose leaf sketches for each project. I miss the compactness of having a bound sketchbook but the advantages of having everything on loose sheets makes it worth it. My preferred way of working means I love to brainstorm ideas out via sketch after sketch (save for the odd improv egg box rhino) and, sometimes, I have to stop myself ‘over sketchbooking’ an idea and loosing it’s freshness. There is usually (without fail) something in the first one or two sketches I do that I have to try and keep in the final illustration… even to the point of scanning these first roughs and using them for layout ref or, occasionally, using them directly in the final illustration. ”

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I love these sketchbook pages and the fact Matt allows us to view, piece by piece, how the final, stunning illustration comes together.

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What a great capture, you can really smell the sea and hear the ‘ark ark’ of the seagulls.

I also like the way that the coloured illustration has been given that 1960 twist. Classic !

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This ‘Staithes’ inspired design has now been turned into a card and is available through Art Angels.

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You can see more of  Matt’s influences here in his extensive library. I think we share a lot of the same tastes !Fishinkblog 7093 Matt Dawson 17a

And his studio is where all the really good stuff goes on.

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In 2012, Matt also illustrated his first book with author Giles Paley-Philips. Many many thanks Matt for all the time and energy that went into answering my questions. (Fishink makes a mental note that Matt’s perhaps not as shy as I initially thought : ) ) Great to find out how you tick (and tock), keep up the fab work (and word play) too.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2014 10:04 pm

    Brilliant artwork! Must get those Staithes cards- I used to take schoolchildren there when I started teaching. Great place! The llamas are very funny.

    • February 16, 2014 12:25 am

      I agree about the Staithes cards they’re great. Thanks for your comments.

  2. wallace permalink
    February 17, 2014 11:20 pm

    For someone without an artistic bone in my body, Matt’s words on the creative process and sketching are inspiring. I wish there was a gym I could join to develop my drawing “muscles” ?

    • February 17, 2014 11:38 pm

      Wallace, the beauty is, that you don’t have to join anything or go anywhere to develop your skills… practise is the key to it all ! Tune those skills and learn how to use them : )

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