I’m not sure if this is useful as a blog post, but I thought I’d try and put my short talk from 2019’s (amazing) OFFSET festival in Dublin here… So, here goes (NB not word for word! At the time I forgot the words because of nerves.. I’ve also edited it a bit here):
‘Personal Work’ is a widely used term. It’s generally accepted as work done for yourself, without a brief. But it’s more than that - to me it encompasses everything you do (in a professional sense) outside of commissions. It’s not the image at the end, it’s everything that goes into it. So it’s not just a jpeg - it’s a playground.
We all have fond memories of playgrounds, right?
Playgrounds are important. They help with development in all kinds of ways. You test your limits, you take risks. You fall off stuff. You get up again. They can be fun, and they can be terrifying (which is fun).
This is my playground now:
Just like a playground, in your personal work you have lots of different things to try not to fall off. One thing most people use is a sketchbook. Many artists have incredible sketchbooks - works of art that should really be published. Mine are not like that. Mine are terrible.
I set out to make a page look beautiful, to draw something in exquisite detail, and I end up with this:
I bought myself a lovely parallel pen, and thought to myself I’d make a really ornate blackletter alphabet. Here’s how it turned out:
From time to time I get commissioned to make pop culture art. A couple of years ago I was commissioned to make a Storm Trooper print. I was excited, and I wanted to make it good, so I decided I would plan meticulously in my sketchbook, refine every detail - the form, the light, the composition. Here’s the sketch:
…So you see my sketchbooks are not all that interesting to leaf through. But that doesn’t undermine their importance to the process. Every mark I make, bad or good, is a piece of the overall puzzle. It’s my way of eking out an idea - making marks, letting bits of my brain fall out as scribbles and scratches. It may not be a nice drawing (or even a drawing) but there is something there that leads, eventually, to an end product.
My brain is not wired for detailed sketches. I have always been a bit of a messer - a dreamer through and through. My mind flits like a moth in a room full of lightbulbs, never staying on one for long until it spots another. When I start a sketch I am already thinking of another idea, and this goes on ad infinitum. While this might not make for good sketches, it does lend itself well to the other way I use my playground, and that is making textures.
I make textures with all kinds of things. I take a brush, water, ink, charcoal, markers and slop things down on a page just to discover what kind of mark might be left. These are probably far more visually indicative of how my head operates…
I also take pictures of things with my phone - surfaces I find interesting that I might use later for other things. On the below image, the photos on the left are the toilet tiles in my studio building. When I look at them I see planetary surfaces (when I should be focusing on the job at hand…). The two on the right are of a cement mixer outside my brother’s house. My family visit his, everyone is greeting each other with hugs at the door, except me... ‘Where’s Matt? Oh, he’s over there, taking photos of the cement mixer.’ No one is surprised.
So it is this messing, dreaming, playing that forms the route to the final image. It is every bit as important (if not more so) as the process of making art that actually looks good. And even at that stage, when I am putting things in place to make a final image, it is still a battle - I wrestle with it, new ideas vying for attention all the time. I always think it’s crap while I’m making it, and it is my attempts to make it not-crap that result in something at the end worth sharing. That is why it’s so important, and why the analogy of the playground is so fitting - it is a process of testing your limits and improving as you go.
Nothing has opened more doors for me than my personal work. And here are two examples of that, one of which at time of writing I can’t talk about fully, but I’ll explain later. First - Pan’s Labyrinth.
I am a movie and book nut. Really, I’m a story nut, in any medium. One of my favourite films is Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. One day, I take out my sketchbook and begin scribbling ideas (above). How would I treat a title on a poster? Not very well according to these - except one of the seemingly-irrelevant ones beside the (oddly quite finished) image of Fauno.
Here’s how they turned out:
To this day these are probably still my most popular pieces. They have been shared more than anything else, are still constantly referenced by clients when they hire me, and were even tweeted by GDT himself (a real thrill for me). But the process between the sketchbook and those final images was a battle. It was wrestled into shape in a fog of self-doubt. Here’s a layer-by-layer animation of the PSD. It’s a little misleading in that it doesn’t really show the battling, but it might give you an idea of how it’s imperfect until the very end…
And just to drive home the point that personal work like this can lead to dreams coming true, a year ago this happened:
A company in Germany called Capelight licensed that art for a special edition BluRay/DVD package and my little bit of fan art was made cannon.
There is another example of personal work leading to dream commissions, but in this case I am unable to share exactly what that commission is (hopefully soon). But, it’s still worth seeing the process I think.
I spoke before about splashing ink on a page and seeing what comes out. Here is one such sample:
When I made this, I happened to be reading one of my favourite books for the 4th time - Frank Herbert’s Dune. In the above, I saw something like a sand storm on Arrakis (the book’s main setting). So I decided I would make another, but for once I would take my time, go really slowly and draw in a detailed character. I would make this a really good piece of original art. I would not rush it. I would.. I…
This is how that turned out :(
So I failed once again to keep focus on a drawing. But it did plant a seed, and not one impatiently-made mark went to waste because I moved to Photoshop and I wrestled and I came out with this:
Again the image was shared a lot, and seen by a lot of people. One of those people was an art director at a major publisher with whom I had worked a few times. And he gave me the opportunity to work on a bucket-list project, now finished and soon to be announced, all on the back of a bit of personal playground wrestling.
For what it’s worth, here’s the layer-by-layer - again, not quite showing the full scale of the scrap I fought to make it, but giving an idea of it…
(you might recognise the toilet-tile in it too)
So there you have it. My personal work is a trial & error conflict that eventually results in an image that opens exciting doors. I get an idea in my head, and the final piece bears little or no resemblance to it. But the entire process helps me push myself in new directions, learn on the go and develop as an artist.
To conclude, here are my tips for personal work:
Play, mess, screw around. Be curious, test things, let your mind wander. Wrestle, wrangle, fight with it until you’re happy.
Keep it lit - a bit of local slang from my hometown in Meath (and probably everywhere in Ireland) - meaning keep going, keep fighting and don’t give up (even if it’s cack).
You never know what the work will lead to.