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Interview with Matt Lyon - C86

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Matt Lyon, aka C86, is a talented, vector illustrator living in London, UK. He has a background in teaching graphic design to young adults, he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London, and he has successfully transitioned into working as a full-time illustrator. He's inspired by retro folk art, children's illustration, abstraction, and other artistic styles and ideas, which you'll learn more about in this interview.

Matt has numerous successful projects, like popular Threadless t-shirt designs and his "Typoquotes" series. Matt's work is driven by his prodigious daily sketches, which he then colorizes digitally, usually as vector art in Adobe Illustrator. You can learn more about his process in his well-documented Vectortuts+ tutorial "Creating Imaginative Typography with Adobe Illustrator."

In this interview, he talks about taking the time to develop his style, and how this transitioned into client/commision work and exciting projects. He's a great believer in letting things happen and allowing his work to dictate its own evolution.

1. Hello Matt, please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, what formal training do you have, and how did you got started in illustration?

Hi there! I'm Matt Lyon, commonly or also known as C86, and I'm a UK artist living in London. I studied at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London before moving into education, teaching Graphic Design to 16-18 year-olds.

It was around this time that my personal work became inspired by the exciting contemporary illustration that was evolving during the late 90s and the start of the new millennium. I soon began to increasingly use digital media, the likes of Photoshop and illustrator, to develop my work and have never since looked back!

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2. Are you a full time illustrator? What type of client work do usually take on and what percentage of your income comes from self directed projects? What was the pivotal moment you felt you'd made it as an illustrator?

I've been a full-time illustrator for the past 14 months, having made the scary decision to quit the security of teaching and move to London. I prepared for the move towards freelance for a few years, saving money to help with the transition etc. The focus of my new career has always been to stay true and committed to my own work, ideas and style, so for the first year I spent most of my time developing personal projects whilst honing my skills, getting used to the disciplines of working on my own and for myself.

During this time I mostly lived off my savings though really enjoyed the freedom of finally doing something that I truly love. At the end of last year I started getting requests for client/commission work, fulfilling my desire to create things for others without any compromise of style or content. Nowadays there seems to be more opportunity for individuality in graphic arts, to be asked to create work that is still very much your own. The various disciplines and boundaries of visual arts, from painting, printmaking, photography, film, graphics, etc are increasingly blurring and combining. It's a very exciting time to be working as an artist.

As for a moment when I felt I'd made it, I think there are various stages when this happens and continue to do so. My earliest pride or satisfaction came from my first published piece or t-shirt design. But then I look forward to those that are to come, whatever they may be... a one-man show... a self-published book... who knows?! To be honest, I don't ever want to feel that I've made it through fear that I'll become complacent. I always want to feel that I've got far to go, with still much to learn, develop and experience.

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3. Could you tell us about the evolution of your illustration style? What phases have you gone through and at what point did everything really come together, and your work started to feel distinct?

I'm a great believer in letting things happen, letting the work dictate its own evolution. The initial t-shirt designs I created for Threadless under the name C86 were of a distinct style that I'd been playing with for a short while. At the time, this was inspired by a kind of retro folk art, children's illustration style, but not really anything that I can specifically put my finger on.

A year or so before moving to London this work was creating its own momentum, and at the same time it began to encompass elements of pattern and a move towards more abstraction. Being able to work full time over the past 12 months or so has been so rewarding to how my themes and styles have begun to work together, and my use and experimentation of color has also certainly improved over this time.

Ultimately, I'm only aware when looking back of how certain ideas, styles, shapes and patterns have defined my work over a period of time. I don't think that anyone discovers overnight a style of working – to me, such a creative eureka moment is a myth. Individuality and a distinctive style come with time and hard work.

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4. What influences does folk art have on your work? Are there any other art types, or subjects, that have had a dramatic impact on your approach to illustration?

There are too many people riding the coattails of others in terms of following fashion and/or aping styles. At times I feel saddened by a lack of context or inspiration in the work of some graphic artists/designers.

There are two traps working in this field that I try and avoid at all costs: working to please current fashions and looking at too much work by my peers. Either of these can prove detrimental and damaging to my own development and direction of work.

The latter of these traps seems so prevalent in illustration and design – a constant recycling of the same ideas and styles through not looking elsewhere for inspiration. I love to visit The British Museum in London knowing that each time there is a wealth of things I can see, from all countries and ages, that could inspire my work in a number of directions.

Certain aspects of Folk Art have recently become very popular in illustration, especially those of Native Americans in the US. Ever since university I've been drawn towards British folklore and more recently that of Eastern Europe, and in turn the traditions of the art and culture.

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5. I've noticed you quoting and referencing Paul Klee, one of my favorite illustrators. Could you tell us what influence his work and writing has had on you? Are there any other historically significant artists that have had an impact?

Paul Klee is certainly a favorite of mine! I've lost count of the number of times I've quoted 'taking a line for a walk' when discussing my approach to drawing. I think I was first introduced to his work at school, though it wasn't until I was older and at university that I became more fascinated by his work and theories.

I read his book 'Pedagogical Sketchbook' at the same time as Kandinsky's 'Point and Line to Plane,' both of which helped me think more about drawing and approaches to image-making. A few years later I remember visiting a small exhibition of Klee's watercolors and was immediately knocked sideways by how beautiful they were. Many of them were tiny paintings with colors that were so jewel-like, unlike anything I'd seen in reproduction. His color and line work is very inspiring, with an influence that echoed through the 1950s and onwards to the present day.

Another, perhaps more subtle, inspiration of mine that has strong connections to Folk Art is that of Outsider Art. Another favorite artist of mine is Jean Dubuffet, and his embrace of Outsider Art and subsequent approach to working has on a number of times proved enlightening. It's a manifesto of following one's passions and giving freedom to the process, allowing the art to grow... I really warm to these ideas.

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6. What subject matter has captured your imagination? Has this changed over time? What are you currently passionate about?

While studying Fine Art, my subject matter was always introspective, in a way that I suppose was trying to pinpoint what made me tick. Back then I remember creating work drawing mythological buildings, sacred spaces and dwellings.

It's funny because only the other day I thought back further and recalled my favorite pastime as a child – playing with Lego and endlessly creating buildings and houses. This connection and subject matter still continues to fill my work. I don't know what the fascination is, but my series of house illustrations is now forming quite a collection.

Aside from this, I'm still exploring the depiction of more abstract spaces, some quite geometric and pattern-based, others filled with contradictory perspective or space. And last year I started creating illustrative typography in my series of 'Typoquotes.' I think I've only scratched the surface of where this will lead me, which is exciting for the foreseeable future.

Most recently, over Christmas I started a new drawing to try something new, something focused more closely towards character design. I finished it the other day – my own visual bestiary entitled the 'Book of Beasts,' and I was really pleased with the potential of where this might lead over the course of the year.

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7. Does your art process usually involve vector art? Or is that just a portion of your work? Could you tell us about your typical workflow and where vectors fit in?

Vector art has increasingly formed a part of my work process, at least over the past couple of years. I've worked with Photoshop for a long while and am very comfortable with the process, but I taught myself the use of Illustrator a lot later when I thought it could benefit the development of some of my ideas.

I use a quite specific vector process in my work, and I'm learning more and more about the software all the time. The pleasure of working with Adobe CS4 is that both Photoshop and Illustrator work so well together. For example, I will commonly create artwork in Illustrator and then use Photoshop for creative editing of things such as composition/layout, color, texture, etc.

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8. What role does sketching play in your artwork? Could you tell us about your daily 365 sketching project in 2009 and what you learned from that project? What's your plan for sketching this year?

All of my work is generated from drawing. My sketchbooks are the raw idea engines, the place where the art forges its own direction and themes. Inspired by Klee and Dubuffet, my approach is to freedraw: I work directly with pen on paper with no underdrawing. This has improved the confidence of my line work and concentration, and I like the challenge of ongoing decision-making to deal with any errors that occur.

The freedom of working like this has made me less precious about drawing – if it goes wrong, so what? Last year's 365 drawing project was initiated as a daily discipline to keep my ideas flowing whilst improving my skills and letting things happen. Pretty much all of my artwork from last year was created from these drawings, so that in itself is testament to how important it was to me.

The project also acted as fantastic opportunity to witness the evolution of themes and interests throughout the year, a whole body of drawings reflecting my competence (or at times lack of) throughout the passing days.

After a year of drawing every day, I've become so used to the routine and its importance to me that I'm continuing the project into a second year. This time though I'm treating it slightly differently in that the drawings are being created out of the sketchbook with the intention for them to be sold. As before, I look forward to seeing how this will developed over time.

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9. What's been your most challenging project so far in your career? What was challenging about it? And how did you overcome those challenges?

A couple of things spring to mind that have turned out quite challenging. The first came about last summer when I was asked to spend a day drawing live at an event for Red Bull. I was asked to freedraw on a couple of Red Bull drinks fridges, which in itself was fun.

The challenge came in the form of an endless supply of rum and coke from the bar next to me. It seemed rude to refuse, and along with everyone else, by the afternoon I was feeling slightly drunk. I just managed to finish my drawing by the end of the day, having earlier had to deal with some unexpected extra scribbles that someone added to my design.

Other challenging projects usually involve unprepared clients that offer vague work briefs and then keep returning to ask for changes or alternative outcomes. These are challenging in terms of frustration and the need to keep calm, and thankfully I haven't experienced too many of these. It's all a learning curve – each challenge offers more experience of how to deal with similar circumstances in the future.

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10. You have quite a few popular T-shirts over at Threadless? Do you plan to create more T's this year? What is it about illustrating for T-shirts that you enjoy most? Could you tell us a bit about the process and constraints?

I love creating t-shirt designs because there's so much freedom to do what you want. Last year, the designs that I created for Threadless were born out of existing artwork that once completed, I thought would work well on a tee. I never tire of the buzz of 'wearable art' and the idea that someone somewhere has bought and is wearing one of my designs.

Having worked with Threadless for a good few years it's interesting to see how the process and competition has changed. When I started there were constraints of having to work at a certain size with a maximum of 4-5 colors, whereas nowadays designs can be oversized with as many colors as needed.

Threadless has inspired and launched the work of many great designers, many of which formed a group that I'm a part of called 'Black Rock Collective.' Just yesterday I finished working on my first tee design for Nike, which I'm really excited about, and I'm sure that I'll be designing plenty more for others this year.

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11. I've noticed you have quite a variety of items available for sale on your store: from prints, to custom kicks, and more? What are your plans for expanding this in 2010?

All of the items listed on my site that are currently for sale are only available from third-party stockists, such as Threadless, Infectious, Inprnt, Society6, etc. One of my plans for this year is to start up my own shop selling things directly from source. As mentioned earlier, these will hopefully include drawings from this year's 365 project, signed prints, and anything else that comes along.

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12. To what extent does illustrating feel like play, and when does it feel like work? What do you do to keep things fun?

Ever since working freelance I find it difficult differentiating between work and play. Art has always been my passion, so the opportunity to pursue it full time makes me feel very lucky. The creative side of making and designing new work is often a pleasure, and the only things that feel like work are those that need attending to that support or promote this, such as admin duties, staying organized, etc.

I feel like I'm enjoying a honeymoon period at the moment where most things feel fun because pretty much all that I do caters to my own terms and interests. I really hope that this continues, as it'll confirm a career that I've always dreamt of, where work doesn't feel like 'work' – it's just what I do.

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13. Thanks for the interview Matt. It's great getting to know you and your work better. Any parting words?

Thank you too! I've enjoyed this opportunity to share a bit of what goes on in my world at present. All I'd like to say is onwards and upwards for 2010 and the new decade. Who knows what the future will bring, but I hope that it's all good!

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Matt Lyon on the Web

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