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Q&A with Matt Lyon

Freelance illustrator and digital artist

Hello, my name’s Matt Lyon, aka C86. I'm a freelance illustrator and digital artist. I spend most of my time either doodling in sketchbooks or mouse-clicking in Illustrator or Photoshop. I love colour, shapes and pattern, and have an interest (obsession?) with drawing houses, castles and palaces.

How did you get started in illustration, what is your background?

I guess that my route to illustration has been slightly unconventional. My background is in Fine Art and after graduating from university I stayed in education, eventually becoming a tutor of Photography and Graphic Design. During this time I taught myself Photoshop, which fed into my teaching, and about 10-15 years ago I soon became more aware of artists and designers using computers to develop their work. This in turn inspired my own artwork that soon took on a life of its own. In 2003 I had my first experiments showcased in Computer Arts magazine, and five years later I quit my job to pursue illustration as a full time career.

Where did you study? Looking back, would you recommend your path for beginners in design/illustration?

I studied Fine Art at The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, London. It was a fantastic four year degree course that was completely free of any limits or boundaries. Prior to that I studied for two years on a full time National Diploma Art & Design course, which again was essential as I learnt everything from fashion, design, sculpture, photography, printmaking, painting, life drawing, art history and theory, etc. I was very lucky to have these opportunities of education because I experienced such a wealth of different creative activities. As a tutor, I was in a position to advise my students where to go next in their studies. The transition from college to university can be a harsh jump in terms of creative knowledge and ability. Skill and maturity in any chosen subject takes time to develop, and this is all the more so in creative subjects.

I would advise students that education wasn't necessarily a race to quickly finish before their career starts. Taking a year out before university is great for life experience, more especially if it means finding work or developing personal interests (something that I did myself). I'm very much of the belief that good education is more than the learning of a subject. It’s a holistic process: being and working alongside peers, sharing ideas and learning together, all without an art director telling you to hurry up or make the logo bigger. And call me old fashioned, but if you want to be an illustrator you must learn how to draw, and then keep drawing forever.

What is a turning point in your professional career?

My main turning point was also my starting point, when I decided to work full time as a freelance illustrator. I’d worked in education for eleven years, was on a good salary and essentially had a job for life. But during this time I was developing my own artwork, accepting freelance commissions and having to turn down opportunities because I didn't have enough hours in the day. After much agonising I decided to quit my job, leave behind my friends and colleagues, and move from my home town to London. It was the most difficult and frightening decision I’d ever made. Soon after starting afresh I was relieved that I hadn't made a big mistake. The work started coming in, I was picked up by my agents at Jelly London, and since then have never looked back. Having said that, I missed seeing my friends at work every day, and occasionally miss the routines of teaching (though not the reports and paperwork).

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What is your ideal work environment? Do you work in your studio all day long or prefer to mix a few activities?

I currently work in the largest room in my flat that’s full of light and space, surrounded by all my books and materials. When I started freelancing, I assumed that the professional thing to do was work a 9-to-5, keep office hours and a conventional routine. However it didn't take long for me to realise that I wasn't at ease with this schedule. I've never been a morning person, so I will spend time before lunch doing more mundane things such as food shopping, housework, catching up on RSS feeds, etc. From about midday onwards I start getting into creative things and then work on through to the evening. I often find that some of my best ideas and work are created after dark. Late mornings and late nights work for me.

Where are your favourite places in London or outside?

I chose to move back to London because I so much enjoyed my time here whilst studying at university. The city’s got so much to offer that I'm spoilt for choice, but there are a few favourite places I like to visit time and again. The first involves catching a train to London Bridge, from where I can visit Borough Market and then walk alongside the South Bank to Tate Modern. From there I can either cross the bridge towards St. Paul’s Cathedral or else continue walking west to the Southbank Centre. Another favourite haunt of mine is The British Museum, which is always an oasis of inspiration and wonder. Every visit I find something new and immediately feel energised to draw. Afterwards I usually visit The National Gallery to continue my creative recharge. Aside from that, I really enjoy taking a walk and seeing where I end up. En route, the buildings, people, shops, and history of the streets can be a real eye-opener.

Who are the designers and illustrators, colleagues you admire most?

I always find this a tough question because there are so many I could mention. From a drawing and art point of view, I never tire of seeing the work of Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet, and I’ve got a keen interest in Outsider and Folk Art. In terms of illustration I love the work of, amongst others, Alice and Martin Provensen, Push Pin Studios, Jim Flora and David Klein. And the current work of Sam Vanallemeersch and Roman Muradov is really refreshing.