In 2016, UK-based illustrator Matt Taylor flew to Austin for the opening of INFO•RAMA, the three-artist gallery exhibit hosted by renowned Mondo gallery. Taylor was showing work alongside illustrators Kevin Tong and Tom Whalen, the duo behind the show’s concept—infographics of pop culture subjects done as limited-edition screen-printed posters. Taylor was a smart choice—he’s an illustrator that communicates through clear and vivid design. His work is confident. His use of color shatters the known universe through his personal spectroscope. In each illustration, Taylor utilizes a bevy of shades that push the sensitivity of the human eye.
For Jurassic Park, Taylor stacked the dinosaurs in a mass of data displaying their relative sizes, and for Jaws, he treated the events of the film as a crime scene, laying out the forensic path of destruction done to the citizens of Amity Island (both film poster designs shown below). Entering the world of limited-edition collectibles has placed Taylor’s editorial and comic work in the background, but his work ethic and communication style is indebted to both of those industries.
CJ: Does your wife work from home?
MT: She does.
So you’re both home all day?
Yeah, pretty much. We’re all around the house all day. My daughter’s out at daycare three mornings a week and then apart from that, she’s around the house as well. Everybody’s here all the time.
That’s good. You guys get to spend time together.
One of the main reasons I freelance is so that I can actually spend time at home because my dad was always out at work and I wanted my daughter to have her parents around. It works out pretty nicely although it’s quite easy to get distracted.
I get that. Your work is always there but your family is also always there.
I tend to keep office hours. I’m usually in the studio from 9 AM till 6 PM. I don’t tend to work at night unless it’s an awful deadline or it’s completely unavoidable. I just do office hours because I’ve got my evenings I can spend with my wife and it just makes it feel more like a proper job. I have been a lot slower this year. Like last year, they could just say, “Can you have a poster for us next week?” and I’d just be instantly able to say, “Yeah. No worries. We’ll have that locked down.” This year, I’ve definitely been aware that I’ve been doing fewer projects for Mondo but spending some more time on them.
Is that by choice?
I was aware that there were pieces that I was looking at after they were finished and I wasn’t super happy with them because the main criteria for how I was approaching them was, “How much time I can spend on them?” rather than, “How can I do this project best?” To be honest, that’s not something I ever really want to do, but at the same time, you’ve got four or five jobs that are lined up and need to be completed, then you have to think, “How can I do this to a level where everyone’s happy, but it doesn’t take me a month to draw the whole thing?” I’ve had a little bit of a re-evaluation and I’m trying to take on fewer projects but spend more time on them.
So how’s that been going? Have you lost jobs that you wanted because of that?
Not yet. I’ve very rarely had to turn down anything that I really wanted to do. I’m pretty lucky that like the jobs that I really want to do come along when I happen to have a gap because they tend to be the sort of slightly bigger projects. If I wanted to fill up my diary I could take in every editorial thing that gets thrown my way. I almost dismiss them now, unless it’s something that really interests me. It means I have more time available for those bigger projects.
Before you got into doing poster designs, was it all editorial work?
Pretty much. By the time I came to Mondo, I’d been illustrating for a long time. I started in 2002 when I graduated. I’d say probably about 50% editorial. I used to do a lot of book work. I still do a lot of book covers. Bits of work in advertising and package design. I used to do a lot more work that wasn’t posters. Posters tend to take up a lot of my time now, relative to a few years ago, which is nice because I like doing posters.
I’ve cycled out of doing editorial illustration, mainly because the money you get from it for the amount of time you put into it isn’t great, especially in the UK because budgets tend to be a lot lower than they are in the U.S. But also, the budgets that print media has gone down everywhere, so the fees aren’t that great anymore. And it’s often incredibly short deadlines, which is fine if you’ve got a gap in your schedule.
At the moment, for example, just looking at my job board, I’ve got eight ongoing projects, so I’m always going to be working on something. It’ll be a case of I’ll do a sketch on something and send it off to a client, and while I’m waiting for feedback on that, I’ll be on to my next thing. So, if someone comes up with an editorial, I very rarely actually have time to even look at it nowadays.
That’s pretty much just based on the deadline?
Pretty much. It’s almost always on the deadline. Even if it’s stuff that looks fun. I had one come in yesterday, it sounded like a fun brief, and if I’d had free time, I totally would have done it, but I didn’t have any, because they needed the sketch by Wednesday, and they needed the final by Friday, and I’ve got three posters which are currently due by the end of the month. That’s my life now. I can’t take on any other projects until those three are done.
Did you ever spend time in a proper design studio, or has it been 100% freelance?
I worked at a design firm for about 18 months. It was not a job that I especially enjoyed. I was not a good fit for working in a design studio environment because I quite like being my own boss, and I like to take ownership with my own art. One of the things that I struggled with at the design studio was, everything was produced under the banner of that design company, and I didn’t like not being able to say, “Hey, I did this cool drawing” and show it. Which is slightly narcissistic but when I came out of that situation I couldn’t show what I’d been doing for the last year and a half. I was able to show it to my agent and they could show it to prospective clients under the proviso that, “This is work I did whilst at the design studio.” But I couldn’t put it up on my website and say, “Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half.” Luckily, I kept freelancing whilst I was at the design studio.
Did you jump into that world to see what it was like, or were you talked into it?
I got asked to come in for an interview because the design company was expanding and I had a couple friends who worked there. They asked me to come in, looked at my book, liked what I did and asked me to join, and it was a studio that I really respected the work they did there and it seemed like a good opportunity to give it a try because I’d never really worked in a sort of in-house environment and it’s one of those things I couldn’t really turn down, so I thought, “I’ll give it a shot, see how it goes. If it works out, that’s great, and if it doesn’t then at least I will have tried, and I will know for the future.”
That’s not to say that I will never ever go back to working in a kind of studio environment, but certainly, for the time being, I don’t have any desire to. I quite like working for myself. And as long as there are people out there who want to hire me and want to keep throwing work my way, then it’s not financially sensible for me to go and take an in-house design job, because I essentially took a pay cut to work there from what I was earning freelancing, and the sort of the thought in my head, “Well, this is guaranteed. This is a monthly salary. And then, if I do freelance on top of that, then, essentially it’s bonus money on top of what I’m guaranteed.”
That’s a smart way to look at it.
But whilst I was there, freelance jobs kept on getting offered and I thought, “Well, if I take in all of this work that I’ve been offered, then I would be better off than I am.” And it’s pretty hard to justify staying in a job that you’re not super enjoying, and then thinking, “Well, I’m not really enjoying it, and I’m worse off, so why am I doing it?”
I learned a lot of good stuff there. My work ethic changed completely after being in a design studio because it was very much a case of getting jobs out of the door as quickly as possible. It was an environment where they would budget a job when it came in and they would work out how many man hours we can assign to this in order to make it worthwhile for the company, because a company like that has, say, 20 people on staff and they’ve got to work out an hourly rate that their artists are worth. If a magazine editorial that’s got a 500 pound budget comes in, that’s the sort of thing you need to be doing in a day or so to make it worthwhile. So it was guys turning over work faster, and coming out of that has been brilliant for me because I’d say my work ethic has changed entirely and I am now a lot faster and a lot more productive than I was beforehand, when I’d get a job in and if the sketch wasn’t due until Friday, then I wouldn’t do the sketch until Friday.
Whereas now, a job comes in and I get to work on it straight away, deliver the sketch early, get the finished art done a week before it needs to be done. It kind of benefits everyone if I get it done quicker because it means I can move onto the next thing and the client has their work in good time.
To go from editorial work to going to do posters, it’s the same but it’s kind of a different audience, isn’t it?
Posters have a lifespan the way that editorial doesn’t. Editorial is very much in the magazine and online. It has a longer lifespan now because it will probably be reprinted online, but you used to do kind of newspaper stuff and magazine stuff. It would be in the magazine one month and it would go and that was it. It might live on in the sense that I put it on my website.
Editorial comes and goes, and if you do a shitty job one month it’s not the end of the world because as long as the client’s happy. That’s always the barometer for everything. As long as the client is happy, then I am happy. I used to look at editorials and I could see something I kind of phoned in, or something I’d cut corners on a bit. It’s going to be in a magazine for 30 days and then it will be gone, so it wasn’t the end of the world, whereas movie posters, especially the stuff I do with Mondo, I have to be super critical of everything I do for them because I know it’s going to hang around out there.
You mentioned that you actually have a job board in your office. Have you always had that?
No, I think I got it about 18 months ago because I was losing track of things. With the last two years, my workload has just increased to a massive, massive degree. I guess because I’ve been plugging away at this for so long, and if I’m honest, the kind of exposure that working with Mondo has given me, has opened my work up to a huge new audience, and so I’m getting more work now than I used to.
It used to be the case that I’d have maybe one or two things on and I didn’t need to have an active jobs board because I’d just make a little note in my diary of when I finish editorial A I’ll move on to book cover B, and that’s it. Whereas now, I’ve got stuff booked in from now through August. Not like completely full time, but I’ve got enough work to keep me going until the end of the summer. I’ve got six or seven things which are in progress at different states of completion at the moment.
I find that having the board there that I can look at every morning, which has got the jobs I’m doing today, the jobs I’ve got to do this week, the admin I’ve got to do, the tax return and invoicing and chasing up payments that haven’t arrived. Unless I have that in front of my face, stuff just falls off.
There have been a couple of cases where I’ve accidentally rubbed a job off the job board because I was cleaning the board and I needed to write it over again, and I’ve not put it back on again, and I’ve had an angry email from a client saying, “Where are the sketches on this? You were supposed to have them in last week.” And it’s like, “Oh, shit, I literally wiped it off the board, and now you haven’t got your work.”
It’s tough to organize your time, especially being freelance and having a family. Do you work weekends?
I never work weekends. Unless it is life or death, “this thing has got to go to print on Monday.” Maybe twice this year I’ve worked the weekend, and even then it’s only been a half-day, and to be honest that was because in both cases I was ill, and I missed a day of work and needed to catch it up.
The nice thing about having the jobs board is that I can schedule my week. My week is planned out because I know I have to hit certain deadlines and all of those, Because they’re all sort of due at the same time, I’ve got to kind of put in a day on it, and then a day on another project, and then a day on another project just to make sure that everything is ticking along at the same time. Time management is fairly crucial.
When you have so many projects going on at the same time, maybe I’m thinking about some of the stuff too romantically, do you have to be in the right headspace to specific projects?
No, it’s my job. It’s one of the things I get kind of fed up of with artists talking about creative block or about not being in the right mood to do it. Treat it like a job. It’s a job. I love it. Illustration is the thing that I to do. But it’s my job and it pays the bills so I have to treat it like a job, and if you’re not feeling it, then you just kind of have to stick at it. You couldn’t go to work in a shop and just halfway through the day say, “I’m not really in the headspace to serve customers today, so I’m going to go play video games for the afternoon.” That’s sort of how I look at illustration, as well. You kind of just have to work through it.
Part of what you do is the illustration part, yes, but it’s also you have to come up with an idea. Or is that not as complicated as I’d imagine?
No. Sometimes it is. When I watch films often I try to switch off, but occasionally I have something pop into my head while I’m watching it, and think, “Oh, yeah, I’ll make a note of that for a rainy day, just in case the opportunity ever arises.”
I was watching Ex Machina a couple of weeks ago just because I hadn’t seen it, and about halfway through, there’s a scene in it, I just thought, “That’s it! That’s the poster. That’s the poster I would do if I ever go the chance.”
With the crowd you run in, that’s likely to happen.
WAre you sending art directors a digital sketch or a pencil sketch?
All digital. I don’t do anything by hand anymore. I’ve long since moved past having the time or the inclination to do things by hand because it takes longer, it never looks quite as good, there’s less control over it than working digitally. With Kyle’s Brushes that everyone uses I feel that you can replicate natural media. I can’t see the benefit of drawing by hand apart from actually having originals. I’d rather have the full range of options that doing it digitally allows me to have.
It’s more of a craftsman approach than a traditional artist one. You say like, “By 6PM today this will be done.” And then you do it.
There are days where I spend a whole afternoon battling with a drawing and it just has not come together the way I want it to, and those are times I tend to have to work into the evening. But I find that if I plug away at it for long enough it will work. Spend enough time drawing something and it will come together into a finished piece. One of the benefits of having a few different jobs on at the same time is that if it does get to the point where I am just furious with it I can just step away for an hour or two and work on something different.
You’re still paying attention to the job board of what you’re doing.
I’ll always be aware of what the deadlines are because I’ve had a few cases where, which is part of what spurred me to get the job board in the first place is that, I’d have people asking where work was and that I had just completely forgotten about something. Which is not a particularly good habit to get into when you’re an illustrator.
You tend to work in a pretty extremely bright and bold color palette, no matter the property. For something like ‘The Breakfast Club,’ the colors that you used aren’t in the film at all. It’s a rather brown and gray film.
Yeah, but they’re ‘80s colors.
True, but it seems like they’re more Matt Taylor colors than directly from the subject matter.
You’re right. I do have a palette that I kind of fall back to using most of the time.
It’s like a guitar player having a very specific guitar sound no matter the song.
I think that’s true of a lot of artists. When you find a palette that works for you, you do tend to drift back to it. A large portion of the pieces I’ve done have hot pink, an orange, a teal. Something I always try to steer away from 100 percent black where possible. If it absolutely needs it then I will, but generally, I try to find a really deep blue, or a dark brown, or a dark purple rather than having a straight black. I find it can unbalance an image quite easily if you don’t use it correctly, or if you don’t spread it across the image.
Like the Back to the Future album cover, if Marty’s shadow was in solid black it would feel like such a heavy focal point that would just drag your eye to it, and I think it would kind of upset the rest of the image. Compare to something like Jurassic Park where I think the vibrancy of those colors needs the black to offset it. Looking at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it looks black, but it’s not. It’s a really deep teal gray.
I don’t use actual green very often. That’s a color I struggle with fitting into my palette but you give me a mid-blue, a teal, and an orange and I’m perfectly happy with that. Or some bright neons. Some pinks and oranges and yellows and that’s good for me.
I did notice your recent illustration for The Lion King is incredibly vibrant, and where you would expect black, like in the hippo’s mouths, it’s just not there.
Yeah. It’s a really deep blue. Actually, it’s not even that deep it’s quite light and it kind of brings the lightness of the whole piece up a bit. Again, if that was in black it would just make the whole thing feel so heavy and it would kind of push it back towards being almost comic book style. Which is something I’ve battled with over my career. Trying to push my work away from feeling too kind of comicy.
You tend to stay away from a straight black line. No outlines on anything.
That was how I used to draw and it was really time-consuming, and it was really difficult to color. And it made the drawing of an image very much like sort of traditional comic book process. You know, where you pencil it, and then you ink it, and then you color it. It’s always a three-stage process however you go about it and it’s pretty time-consuming.
So I moved to a process where it was more about building shapes out of colors, and the colors define the edges rather than drawing a line to say, “This is where the head finishes.” It was color up to a point, and then it kind of forces you to use a different strong color against it so there’s no confusion over things bleeding into other things. It’s refined over the years, but it’s still basically that process. It’s almost more like painting. It’s about putting down big blocks of color and then using other colors to create the shadows and the highlights rather than just drawing shadows.
Even your Guadalupe Mountains National Park illustration for the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series has no hard lines in it. It lends it a more realistic look to it.
I’ve found recently my work getting more like digital painting than it used to be, and it’s about building up kind of layers of the image, shadow and highlight and getting the values of it right. The Guadalupe National Parks is one of the best examples of that because there is line detail in there, but because it’s done with a color it’s less obvious.
To be honest I think that’s part of what defines my style is the fact that it does go back to a line style. That harsh line reminds of comic books, which is what I came up reading and what I got inspired by a lot when I was younger. There’s always going to be that aspect to my work I think.
Your work on the comic Wolf is far from your usual illustration style, at least as poster designs go.
Wolf was a very conscious decision to draw in a traditionally comic book style. The volume of work involved in drawing a comic is enormous, and there was no way that I was ever going to be able to draw that book in the same way that I would be able to draw a poster. Which is why the covers are very different from the interiors. Because the covers I kind of treated like I would treat a poster project so they are kind of more painted, whereas the interiors are very much kind of just traditional comic book art.
You only worked on Volume 1, the first four issues.
Yes, the fact that I even got Volume 1 completed was a push. I didn’t properly appreciate the amount of work involved in making a comic, and I think if I’d known before I did it I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s a huge amount of time and the volume of drawing that you have to do is colossal. This is kind of a bit mercenary, and I sort of feel bad for saying it, but it doesn’t pay very well for the amount of time put in. I’d make the same on an issue of Wolf as I would on a poster, and a poster I could do in three or four days, and Wolf I’d be working every day for three weeks. Long hours to get it done and you just look at it and think, “Well, I could use that time to do a comic, which is kind of satisfying in the sense that I’ve always wanted to make a comic. But there’s no way I could do that full time because I wouldn’t be able to support myself and my family and the rest of it.” As much as I love comics I’m not sure that I’m going to be rushing back to draw anymore anytime soon.
It’s a shame because you have a great understanding of the flow and visual language.
I think if I do it will be something that I have written myself and I can draw myself and just take the time to do it as well as I can, but also not be financially dependent on it.
That’s got to be hard knowing how much you love them that it’s an industry that can be financially unwelcoming.
I don’t know how people do it. I guess a lot of people start younger, and lots of people do comics and have a day job or they’re living at home still, or you’re young and not in a relationship or not having to support a family. I don’t know. I mean everyone’s situation is different and lots of people do make it work. Maybe I’m just greedy and I’ve become accustomed to a comfortable from illustration.
How did you go from editorial to doing comic books? Did somebody approach you?
Ales (Kot) who wrote Wolf. He saw my illustration work and he emailed me and asked me if I wanted to work on a pitch for a comic idea that he’d had. Which I think ended up being the book’ Zero’ that he did. Basically, I didn’t have time to work on the pitch and I kept on saying, “Yeah I’ll get you some pages next week. I’ll get you some pages next week.” And at a certain point he lost patience with me and moved on to someone else and I think the pitch kind of developed and turned into a different thing.
But when Zero came out I read it and thought it was great, and I remembered his name from when he’d got in touch with in the past. And so I just Tweeted at him saying Zero‘s great. I really enjoyed. Hope all is good,” and that’s it. He dropped me an email asking me if I wanted to draw an issue. So I did. It was fun. It went well and we worked well together, and so he pitched Wolf to me. At that time I didn’t have a huge amount booked in for that year, so I thought, “Yeah, why not. We’ll give it a try,” and then it went from there.
Off the back of that, I’ve been doing a lot of comic covers as opposed to interiors, which have all snowballed from doing Wolf. I did a book with Vertigo called unFollow. I worked on the run of that and did a few bits at Dark Horse as well. It’s all come from that initial Tweet to Ales who was kind enough to offer me an issue of his comic to draw.
When you signed on for Wolf, did you sign on for a specific amount of issues? Was it just like an indefinite?
We agreed initially that I was going to do the first year of the book. We were going to do twelve issues, and then there were a few problems with issue 1 because we completed it and Ales was also working on a script for a tv pilot to pitch for Wolf as well. He wrote the pilot for tv and it was better than the comic, so we then went back and redid a lot of issue 1. It went from being like 30 pages to 40. I think it was almost 60 by the end. There was some great stuff that we had to cut out. And whilst that was going on I was sort of slowly realizing that comics were not going to be very compatible with illustration because they just took up so much time. So I almost jumped ship before issue 1 was finished. But luckily Ales talked me down.
Were you a father at that point?
My daughter was six months old at that point.
So the stress of that coupled with the amount of work and low pay didn’t quite entice you to keep doing comic books?
Well luckily Ales talked me down and he said, “Look, you can do the first four issues and then we’ll swap out to another artist.” So I agreed I’d do the first four, and then they’d move to another artist. Which I did. And they did. And it was all good.
At what point did you do The Great Salt Lake?
That was Summer 2014. That was just an experiment to see if I could draw a comic.
There’s a lot visually going on in that comic.
It was trying to kind of find my way around a comic book page. It was deliberately a relatively straightforward story that would allow me to indulge in drawing things I wanted to and it didn’t really have a script. I knew it was going to be 32 pages. I knew how it ended and I knew how it started and everything else in between was basically like a little experiment. “I want to draw him floating past a sunken church. I want to draw him with like a little figure kind of looking over him. I want a whale to come up out of the sea.” You could almost take each double page spread and completely reorganize the issue and it would still read essentially the same because there’s not a structured narrative to it and I think when I return to comic books it will probably be doing stuff like that, that has less of a structured narrative and is more a collection of things that I want to draw and that I find cool arranged in an order that makes sense.
It’s only 32 pages and it took a month to draw. I didn’t have any other projects on for that month so it was like, “I’ll do it quickly, don’t overthink it, and see how it goes.” It went well so I might do another one, but it’s finding the time.
On your Instagram, you were posting about a possible upcoming comic book. It was luchador kind of stuff?
I got about halfway through that and realized I didn’t know how to end it. I started drawing it before I’d written the script properly, and yeah. I should have written the script fully. I mean that one’s sitting half-finished, and if I go back to do anything it will probably be that. Because that was quite good fun and it, again, it was a similar kind of conceit to The Great Salt Lake in that there wasn’t a story as such, it was just kind of little segments that were kind of loosely linked. I’ve got a lot of half-finished projects. All sort of things I’ve gotten started and I’ve just kind of got bored with. Or like real work has come in and I’ve not been able to get back to it.
Does that drive you insane knowing that there are half-finished projects sitting on your computer?
Not really. If I was invested enough I’d find the time to finish it and I think the fact that I haven’t kind of speaks to what my level of investment in that project actually was. Whether it was something that was almost like an exercise for me in trying something. I haven’t done much work in comics and so whenever I do something with comics it’s as much an exercise for me in seeing whether I can do it. The process of creating it is just as important as the finished thing.
The Great Salt Lake feels like a very successful experiment. For being 32 pages of a man in boat floating across the ocean, you got a lot of interesting elements in there.
Yeah. It is that. It’s just a thing that I wanted to draw and so I drew it. I then tried to find justification for fitting it into the story.
Your figures in comic work and some editorial work are quite different than say the characters in your posters for Judd Apatow.
It looks like Judd. It had to because that’s kind of the point of that sort of work. It needs to look like the person that you’ve been asked to draw. And it’s finding the best way to creatively solve that problem.
In your Back to the Future poster, you know that’s Michael J. Fox but it’s in a silhouette. You did something a little weird but also kept that likeness.
Well, that’s because we didn’t have the likeness rights for Michael J. Fox.
So if you had likeness rights, would you have done something differently?
I might have drawn him, but I don’t know. It was never something I considered even drawing because I knew going in that we didn’t have the rights to it so there’s no point.
Did you do all of those albums back to back? Did you know that you were going to be doing the trilogy as posters and the illustrations for the vinyl release of the soundtracks?
No, it was a bit of a funny project because I did the first one as a poster to be released at (UK based comic convention) Thought Bubble and I never really thought about the prospect of doing more. Mondo asked me if I wanted to do ‘Back to the Future,’ I like ‘Back to the Future,’ so I said yes. And that was very much ‘it’.
And then a little way down the line, a couple of months later, they said, “Do you want to have a go at doing two and three?” To which I said yes obviously. I think we only talked about the soundtracks when I’d finished two, and when I was just about to start three. Which is why (film) three is formatted in a landscape layout so that it will fit around a record and the other two aren’t. But it’s also why all three are in different formats because they weren’t conceived as a single project.
They totally feel like they were.
They do on the records. Like if you look at the three records next to each other they work, but then I think that’s because I kind of put the type on in a way that would make them feel more cohesive as a set. By comparison, if you look at the three posters next to each other they do not look like they are part of a series.
They all look like I drew them, but the first one has the traditional old fashioned style billing block on the bottom. The second one has it on the poster at the top. The third one, the billing block is on the bottom. So they all feel like my work, but I don’t feel like they are necessarily cohesive in their poster format because they were never intended to be.
Do you wish you knew it would be all three films across posters and records when you took the job? Would you have wanted the chance to make them more cohesive, or unified, somehow?
No. I’m super happy with them. I think a lot of it depends on how the project is pitched.
You did “Jump into Hyperspace,” the Star Wars print. Was that done hoping to make illustrations for the trilogy?
That was just an art print. That was just a kind of dumb thing that I did and pitched to them and they liked. Cause Joe (at Bottleneck Gallery) had been asking me for ages about doing something for Star Wars and I kept on putting it back and back and back, and so I finally did it because I had that idea in my head. But I don’t want to limit myself creatively by trying to get too much into my own head and thinking “Well, I’ve got to make this work in a way that I can replicate it for Empire and I can replicate it for Jedi.” If I get asked to do those at some point, that’s great, but I don’t want to blow my one shot at doing a poster for Star Wars because I’m thinking too much about what I want the poster for Empire to look like.
I was at a friend’s house recently, someone not into art or poster designs or anything like that, but he had your “Jump Into Hyperspace” poster framed. I loved seeing it outside of the usual collector world.
I love selling prints to people who don’t know about the scene. That’s the best. That’s why I like Thought Bubble Convention so much, because it’s a comic convention and people don’t know what Mondo is, they don’t know who Bottleneck gallery is. They come by my table and they go, “Oh, there’s a poster for Jurassic Park. I love Jurassic Park. I’ll buy it.” And you sort of have to do a bit of explaining on like, “Well, why is it 50 quid?” And you go, “Well, cause it’s limited edition and it’s not just an off the rack poster. It’s a bit more complicated than that.” And they’re like, “Oh, cool.” And if they like it enough they’ll buy it, and that’s great. But they’re not buying it to put in a flat file. That just bums me out. So much art in flat files. I’ve got art in flat files but it’s only because I haven’t got around to framing it yet and the house isn’t big enough to put it all up. I’d never buy something just for the sake of having it because it’s limited or because you could potentially trade it for something down the line. It just kind of feels like it devalues the art side of it, which I feel is the point. That should be the thing you are responding to, not how many of these are there.
Are there any art directors that you know no matter what job they offer, you know it’s going be a good project to do?
Oh yeah, definitely. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down anything that Mondo brought to me, because they have such good handle on what suits an artist that if they approach me with a project, then they’ll already be pretty sure that I’m right for it, and their judgment is sound, and generally everything they bring to me, I do want to do.
Paul, who’s the art director of Penguin, he always offers me good work and I very rarely say no to Penguin. I always try and say yes, time permitting. But I think those are my two that I will almost always say yes to regardless of the project because those are the two art directors who I trust to only bring me things that they think I would be a good fit for.
The John LeCarre series was for Penguin, right? That was a quite a few books. Did you handle the text as well as the illustration?
That’s handled by the designer. They’d come up with the template design for how they wanted the covers to look, before they pitched me the project originally, which was eight years ago now The Penguin project’s been going for a long time. 2010 I did my first one, and it was pitched to me as, “We’re thinking about doing a re-brand, do you want to have a go at this one? And then if this one works, maybe we’ll do some more.” The first one went well and I did another four books that same year, then the next year I did another four. LeCarre had moved over to Penguin from his previous publisher with his backlist and as the rights transfer over, they’ve come back to me and asked me to do covers. It’s been a nice regular job over the last seven years. I’m just about to start work on a bunch more. I got five more titles to do and then I’ll have completed the whole backlist, which is 22 or 23 books.
Are those final five due this year?
I’ve arranged the schedule with the art director where I’m going to deliver one a month for May, June, July and August, and September, so it means that I’ve got a job that I know I’m doing every month between now and September. Book covers don’t take that long to do, outside of the actual reading of the book. It’ll be a couple of days on sketches, a couple of days on finished art.
Had you read his books beforehand?
No, I hadn’t read any of them. It’s entirely new to me, which I think is good because it meant I came in with no preconceptions about what I thought I should be doing, and obviously it clicked with the author and the art directors and they were happy with what I sent in. It’s been a really fun collaboration. Once it’s done I can start another author.
How did you get involved in the Info•Rama show?
I think at that point they were talking about having a bunch of different artists contribute a piece each, which I said, “Yes, that’d be great,” because why not? I liked Info•Rama, I like Kevin (Tong) and Tom’s (Whalen) work, and then that changed to, “Well, we’re just going do the two. It’s Kevin and Tom’s thing, and then we’re also going to include just one other artist, but they can do more posters.” And then that was when they asked me if I wanted to be that other artist, and again, I was hardly gonna say no to that opportunity because it’s artists I respect and I really like their work, and the opportunity to go and have a show at Mondo was a no-brainer, really.
Was your Marvel character portrait a day on Instagram prompted by the gallery show?
Yeah. Originally I pitched a Defenders poster, because I thought to do something a bit more niche. So I sketched up a Defenders poster. Same concept, with the heads rotating out, but because of the rights situation with The Fantastic Four, Mondo can’t do anything with The Fantastic Four or associated characters, which includes Silver Surfer. Who’s one of the key members, or was one of the founding members of The Defenders, so I had to take him off. I thought, “Okay, well I’ll just do the team without Silver Surfer on it.” I sketched this up and showed it to a few buddies and
I sketched this up and showed it to a few buddies and Matt Woodson, who knows everything about Marvel, instantly looks and was like, “The Silver Surfer’s not there.” I said, “Okay, is that a problem?” And he said, “If anyone gives enough of a shit about The Defenders to want a poster, they’re going to care that Silver Surfer’s not there.” Which killed that idea, and then someone just said, “Why don’t you just do The Avengers?” I re-sketched it with The Avengers. I had loads of leftover head sketches that I’d done for The Defenders, who weren’t in The Avengers, so I had all these sketches just sitting there. It was quite a nice little warm-up to do every morning, spend half an hour drawing an Avenger, or a Defender or Marvel character. By the time the Avengers poster was revealed for the Info•Rama show, I’d already been putting out the daily Marvel portraits, so it looked a lot more coordinated than it actually was.
It was never really my intention for it to like, “Okay, here’s some little teasers, and here’s the finished thing.” It was more like, “Here’s some stuff that I’ve got leftover from a project that I kind of wanted to finish. Oh, and here’s the project it was for.” And then, I keep trying to go back to them, but when you’re on like three different deadlines it’s quite hard to justify any time in the morning, because sometimes it’ll be half an hour, sometimes you’ll get really into the drawing and it ends taking an hour and a half, and you look at the clock and it’s midday and it’s like, “Shit, all I’ve done this morning is my kind of dumb little side project and not any of the things that I’m actually getting paid for.” But on the plus side, those got me work with Marvel. Some portraits got sold out for licensing.
Did you pick the other properties as well? Bullitt, Jaws, and Jurassic Park?
Yes, they were all my choices. I think Kevin might have suggested Jurassic Park. They sent me a master list of all the licenses they have and it was a case of going through them and trying to find things I thought might be interesting. With Jaws, there’s a book called “The Art of Instruction” which is classroom educational posters from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, and they’re these beautifully painted anatomies of flowers, flora, and fauna.
My wife got this book literally as I was starting on Info•Rama. I looked and I was like, “I want to do one of these for it.” There were a couple I got about halfway through and then got abandoned. I did a “Fight Club” one that didn’t quite work, and “Planet of the Apes” that didn’t quite work.
How often are you going back to those old ideas and repurposing them for something else?
Almost never. Generally, I don’t tend to go back to old ideas. Occasionally for a book cover, with the LeCarre covers, because I’ve done so many and because they’re spy novels, so there’s a consistency of tone through them. Occasionally I’ll dip back into an old thing if I think it really works, but it’s certainly not the case that I would actually actively go through old files and look for things that I haven’t used.
This article was first published on HOWDESIGN.COM in 2017