We were thrilled when Matt agreed to be involved in the special Affinity Designer for iPad beta, and we simply had to find out more about his creative universe!
Matt’s illustrations are strikingly original, yet perfectly embody everything we remember from the pulp sci-fi book covers and cartoons of our youth. From the wild typography, to the saturated, hazy colours of an over-watched VHS tape and surreal, mystical characters, seemingly plucked from some greater narrative.
Tell us a little bit about your history as an illustrator.
My path to illustration is very long and complicated, so I’ll try to keep it short! Like most illustrators I was always obsessed with drawing as a child. I think I’ve probably done it every day since I was old enough to hold a crayon. I was also obsessed with anything that could stretch my imagination—mainly books, films and music (gaming was done on a Commodore 64 so it didn’t have quite the same effect).
Throughout school I (and others around me) always felt I’d end up making art for a living. So, not liking anything too pre-destined (I was a touch rebellious, even if I was rebelling against myself) I went in other directions. I worked on building sites, pubs and then moved to London where I ended up working with two broadcasters—Sky Sports and Channel 4. In the former, I was paid to watch football. In the latter, I was paid to go to gigs and write about music (a dream job for me).
These were not hard jobs! But I was drawn to the more creative aspects of them, and in Sky I moonlit in their creative department, learning about storyboarding, graphic design etc. My boss in Sky Sports (broadcaster & radio DJ Jamie East) was originally a designer and he also tutored me, and he was the one who eventually hired me for Channel 4 Music. But my roles didn’t officially include graphic design or illustration, as much as I tried to make them. So I started contacting illustrators and art directors back home in Ireland, learn what I could about the industry and in 2008 I decided to take move home to be a freelance illustrator. Then the recession hit.
This is the short version!
Tell us what inspired your change of career and some of the highlights of your 10 years?
What inspired the decision most was a natural return to creativity. What I mean is, when my job required me to do admin or technical stuff, I was instead in Photoshop making graphics or reading Creative Review. I was not a model employee! But thankfully my boss, as mentioned, was happy to foster this in me. He did his best to make sure there was as much creativity in my job as possible. But it wasn’t enough. I had a feeling that if I tried hard enough, I could make it as an illustrator, so I took the aforementioned plunge.
“I had a feeling that if I tried hard enough, I could make it as an illustrator”
As for highlights, there have been many. Creating the 30th Anniversary poster for Back to the Future. Having a novel published (and following it up with two more). Oh and of course, meeting my wife and having two amazing daughters. The first few years of freelance life are incredibly tough—there are many lows. But taken as a whole, the entire ten years have been a highlight.
Tell us about the freelance work you do now and/or describe your typical work week in brief.
The bulk of my work these days is in publishing (book covers and interiors) and film (Blu-ray/DVD covers and posters). Occasionally I get an editorial job, or something different like artwork for a venue. My studio is above an antiques shop just a five-minute walk from my house, so my typical working week involves dropping one of the kids off to school and either going to the gym, taking a walk or going straight to work. Exercise is every bit as important to a creative job as anything else, but sometimes I don’t have the time or I just feel lazy!
These days, luckily, I’m busy. So I tend to keep a diary that tells me what I need to be working on that day. Missing deadlines is not an option, but I do get easily distracted, so occasionally I ignore the diary, work on something that pops into my head, and then panic about what I haven’t done. But I also thrive under pressure, so my best work comes when the deadline looms.
“my best work comes when the deadline looms”
Describe your creative process for us? Do you sketch your work by hand? How do you approach colours and composition?
Generally, I will start with very loose/bad thumbnails in a sketchbook. If it’s a DVD cover, I’ll have to watch the film, maybe more than once, taking notes, screengrabs and scribbling ideas. The colours and compositions spring into my head, but over the years I’ve picked up some basic knowledge of complimentary colours and using the rule of thirds or golden ratio for composition. Sometimes I just let that stuff happen by accident, playing with colours and layer blends as I work. I don’t plan meticulously, I tend to work on the fly—quick sketch, build the elements, then put them together until they look good.
“I don’t plan meticulously, I tend to work on the fly”
It’s clear from your work that 70s and 80s sci-fi has been a big influence on you. Whose work has influenced you the most?
Yes it most definitely has. I love sci-fi that gets philosophical. So I’d be more into 2001, Blade Runner, Silent Running etc. (although I like the explosive stuff too). Artists like John Harris, Paul Lehr, Roger Dean, Moebius and these days Kilian Eng really excite me. But I also love comic art, even though I’m not a comic buff—it’s the high contrast that appeals to me. I’ve always loved books too—Dune, the ‘Culture’ books by Iain M Banks, Ursula le Guin… but not just sci-fi or fantasy. Anything that pushes my imagination. You need to fill up the well to draw from it, so to speak. So consuming lots of films, books, animation, art etc. is really important.
“consuming lots of films, books, animation, art etc. is really important.”
How did your passion for combining illustration and typography develop? (as seen in your beautiful Blu-ray cover designs for Arrow Films)
Thanks! I don’t know if I’ve always had a thing for typography but I certainly have since my early 20s. My oldest brother is a graphic designer, so I think my appreciation started there—he would always tell me to mind my kerning (still does!) I think when you are trying to distil a book or a film down to one image the type plays such a huge role. It’s just as vital as the art behind it. So I started making my own type and tried to avoid using typefaces when I could but it depends entirely on the job.
What was it like creating cover art for cult classics like Buckaroo Banzai?
High pressure! Making art for titles that are so beloved, particularly beloved by people who really care what the art looks like, is definitely pressurised. In fact, that cover got quite a mixed reception. I’ve done one or two that got downright terrible receptions! But all you can do is represent the film as you see fit—do your best. And if the client is happy, then I am too.
How did you come to create the 30th Anniversary Back to the Future poster design for the London Film and Comic Con?
That was done through Mike Wood of Under the Floorboards. Mike is one of these great film poster aficionados who takes the trouble (and expense) of getting a license from film companies, and commissions artists to do posters, which he then sells at conventions and online. He asked if I’d like to do one for Back to the Future, and it was an easy yes (the film is a big part of my youth). So I put a rough together, which he then sent on to Universal for approval. Then it took off…
They liked the rough so much that they wanted to make it the official 30th Anniversary poster. We had conference calls with Universal in LA, where we were told things like ‘Steven really likes it, so does Bob’ and they were talking about Spielberg and Zemeckis!
“we were told things like ‘Steven really likes it, so does Bob’ and they were talking about Spielberg and Zemeckis!”
They decided to use the poster as a means to raise money for the Michael J Fox Foundation at London Film & Comic Con that year, and I was flown over to hang out with Mike Wood and his family, sign a few prints and to meet the cast. Unfortunately the meeting never happened—I left about 15 minutes before it, thinking it wasn’t going to go ahead. That still gives me sleepless nights.
But it was an incredible experience. I got a letter from Bob Gale (who wrote and produced the films), and a special steel edition from Mike. The other people who got the steel were Gale, Zemeckis, Spielberg and I think Michael J Fox might have gotten one. I’m sure they all have theirs at their bedside… I owe Mike a lot for that one.
You recently created an awesome animated music video for Ships, which we love! How did this project come about? What were your inspirations and how did you go about making it?
Thanks, glad you like it! I’ve known Simon (one half of Ships, the other being his partner Sorca) since we were about 13. They did a Kickstarter for their debut album Precession (which has since won the biggest music prize in Ireland—Choice Album of the Year) and I saw one of the things they were raising money for was a video. I didn’t know how to animate, but I loved the music so much that I asked if they’d consider me. Thankfully, they liked my stuff and so agreed.
I taught myself After Effects as I worked (made easier from editing experience gained in my time in London). The music, to me, fit the sci-fi aesthetic I love perfectly, so I knew I wanted to make something that looked like those old 70s & 80s sci-fi animations like Fantastic Planet. So I storyboarded my concept, got it approved by them and then made the elements in Photoshop and made them move in After Effects. I was able to give it that vintage animated look using Red Giant plugins.
My animation skills were rudimentary to say the least. But thankfully, that helped! It was meant look basic, so I got away with it.
I really hope it’s the first of many…
“I wanted to make something that looked like those old 70s & 80s sci-fi animations”
You’ve written and illustrated the award-winning book series for young readers the Ayla trilogy. How did this come about and have you always had a passion to combine your writing and illustration?
Yes, writing and illustrating my own novel was a life ambition from a very young age. I think from when I first read The Hobbit, with Tolkien’s illustrations, I wanted to create a world and describe it in words and pictures. I have always had ideas—I have notebooks full of concepts. But, this was a bucket list item I did not think would ever happen.
“I think from when I first read The Hobbit, with Tolkien’s illustrations, I wanted to create a world and describe it in words and pictures.”
In around 2012 I was working for the Irish publisher O’Brien Press as a colourist on a graphic novel. The Art Director, Emma Byrne, somehow sensed I might have stories. I still do not know how. So she asked if I would like to pitch a children’s book, suggesting something dark, inspired by Irish Mythology because she knew I had a dark imagination and I loved Irish Mythology! Also O’Brien Press is a champion of Irish stories. I said I had the very one, but really all I had was one sketch in a notebook of a mean, twisted king made entirely of roots…
So I went for a walk and came up with the story of the first book, A Cage of Roots. I pitched it, they liked it, and they asked me to write two chapters to see if I could actually write. After some guidance on what was good and what was bad, they saw potential and asked that I write six chapters (about half the book). Once I had done that, they agreed to publish it.
I was able to design everything from the cover to the illustrations to the chapter headers and more. The book came out in 2015, and as I ended it on a cliff-hanger they agreed to publish the follow-up Storm Weaver. I ended that one on a cliff-hanger too. :)
So in 2017 the third book The Spiral Path came out, and later that year Cage of Roots won Children’s Book of the Year (9-11) at the Literacy Association of Ireland awards. I still can’t quite believe it.
So how does Irish folklore and mythology find its way into your artwork?
I’ve always loved our folklore. It’s something that’s widely taught in school (especially in our Irish classes) but even if it wasn’t in school, I would have loved it. In Ireland we are never far from the ancient—throw a rock and it will hit a burial mound or a castle. So the thought that, through our myths, there was magic there too, right on our doorstep, was always very inspiring to me.
“In Ireland we are never far from the ancient—throw a rock and it will hit a burial mound or a castle”
I don’t do much in the way of Irish myth specifically these days, but I think the influence is always there. I am always trying to create my own mythology in my personal work. I love the idea of tying these things to the real world. So my books are about myth and reality colliding, and most of my personal work has a foot in reality (at least in the reality I’m creating).
You’ve got some big-name clients under your belt like Warner Brothers and Disney. How does your approach to client work differ from your personal projects?
With client work, there’s a brief and an Art Director to please. So you take the brief, apply your aesthetic to it (guided by what appeals to the client) and you meet your deadline. Sometimes this results in work you are very happy with, sometimes not—but it doesn’t matter as long as the client is happy.
When it comes to personal work, I set the brief. And then, before I finish it, I think of another 30 briefs to give myself! So I have to manage myself better. I’m a very difficult client.
But personal work is what lead to those names you mentioned. It is hugely important to make time for it. It shows potential clients what you can do when you’re let off the leash so to speak. My personal work has opened all these doors—I can’t emphasise its importance enough. It is fundamental to a successful career.
What achievement are you most proud of in your illustration career?
I guess I’m proud of a few of the things we’ve discussed here. But really, I’m most proud of the fact that when it was tough, and when I wasn’t getting enough work in, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t have done this without an incredibly patient and supportive wife, and also a fair bit of grit. So I’m proud I stuck it out!
Tell us a little bit about your ‘Endling’ character and do you have plans to develop her into a graphic novel or story?
Sure thing. Yes The Endling is going to be a graphic novel (I hope). It’s part of a huge story concept I have been developing for a couple of years that will involve novels, graphic novels and maybe more. The idea is to have the first novel (called The Voidonaut) and the Endling graphic novel come out at the same time. You can read one or both, in any order. The two stories intertwine but they can be read independently. The Endling, you see, is a girl called Koa and she is also in The Voidonaut. But it’s a different Koa… It’s all about multiple universes and it’s based on real theory.
It’s taking me a long, long time because I want to research it properly. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the physics and philosophy of multiple universe theory because I want the ‘magic’ in the stories to have some grounding in reality (although I can’t pretend to understand any of what I’m reading)!
The Endling’s world is one in which medieval Japanese feudalism is the dominant social system now—Shogunates vs Emperors. That’s the reason for the samurai/bushi influence. So that also involves a lot of learning about that era. The air is toxic, hence the helmets. But the story doesn’t just stay in that world, it just starts there.
It’s a huge project. I would love to devote all of my time to it, but I have to pay the bills, so I can only snatch at it. It’s taking a long time, but I’m determined. It’s a story I really want to tell.
What would be your dream commission, or a big tick off your illustration bucket list?
I would give my left arm to do a Folio Society book! Apart from that, really my dream is to be able to give all my time to my own stories.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the illustration industry?
This profession rewards staying power. And it tests that staying power constantly, in a myriad of ways. Not getting regular work. Work you do getting bad feedback. Getting paid late (the worst). But if you believe in yourself—in your own vision and, more importantly, in your potential to get better, you will ride out those lean times and doors will open for you. Do not put any importance on how many Likes or Retweets you get, or how many followers you have. It does not lead to any happiness. Put all the importance on enjoying your work, improving your work, and filling your head up with cool stuff to feed your work.
“Do not put any importance on how many Likes or Retweets you get, or how many followers you have. It does not lead to any happiness.”
Email people whose work you admire—if you’re polite they will invariably get back to you. Take advice, learn from folks who have been where you are and kept going.
Oh, and be nice and never miss a deadline. :)