How I Create: Matthew Britton, freelance illustrator
I first discovered Matthew's work a few months ago, and it immediately caught my eye. So much so, that when it came to launching this new series looking at the processes, routines, challenges faced and lessons learned by different creative folk, he was one of the first people who came to mind.
In this interview, Matt talks about the realities of life as a full-time artist, offers advice for fellow creatives struggling to define and develop their own style and shares the biggest lesson he's learned about his creative process so far.
He doesn't sugar coat how hard it is to make a living as an independent artist or the amount of hard work involved, but stresses how important it is to "want it badly on a gut level".
1. Can you tell us a bit about your background and story so far. How did you get into freelance illustration?
I went to art college (just before digital art was really a thing, so drawing and painting), then royally screwed up like most people and worked a bunch of different jobs for years just stuck in the usual income trap.
Finally managed to go freelance in one huge effort, starting with a portfolio of stock illustration (like thousands and thousands of drawings, just submitting everything) then signing up with an agent doing budget work gave us just enough money to get by. Gradually things have stabilised enough for me to start putting some of my personal work out there too.
2. What tools and materials do you work with and what type of projects do you focus on?
I still do a lot of day-to-day illustration in ink (for ad agencies, and people who find me through stock) but my painting work is all done in Photoshop. I've got a nicely scratched up Wacom tablet.
3. What does a typical day look like for you?
Get up, walk dog in the woods, drink A LOT of coffee, get any emails/social media etc out of the way. If there’s client commissions I’ll work on that first, otherwise I'm painting personal work trying to get more work out there and up the quality. Read. Sleep. Repeat.
4. You have a gorgeous, distinctive style and you say you've now returned to your original love of science fiction and fantasy art. How has your style and business evolved since you started?
Thanks. I've got a long way to go before I'm happy with it though. I think most illustrators get hooked as a kid on one art style that they really want to make and collect the work of established artists they aspire to be like. I was an 80’s kid so I guess most of my influences are whatever was hanging about in print then.
Weirdly I tend to get work by not quite fitting in at the time. People bought a lot of my stock because it was different and quirky, now there’s lots of people doing that. I'm getting people now telling me they like my painting because it’s got a retro or pre-digital feel to it. It’s not intentional – I'm just stubborn and haven’t adapted to the internet age properly. I just try to make stuff look like it does in my head… it’s all 70’s Black Sabbath soundtracks and crazy light effects in there.
5. What advice would you give to a creative who’s struggling to identify/develop their own unique style?
Keep making work and trying new ways of doing things. Don’t be afraid to ditch old work you don’t like. People will want to pigeon hole you as an artist so make sure your personal work at least is work you like yourself (I didn’t learn that for a long time!).
In general try to be honest and not jump on the latest trend. I could be completely wrong about that – I’m terrible at marketing – but I know I forget fan art pretty quickly. There are exceptions when work's really high quality but in general work stands out to me when the artist seems to have a universe of their own going on.
"Keep making work and trying new ways of doing things. Don’t be afraid to ditch old work you don’t like."
Also don’t be too worried when you look back and all your work seems terrible. Everyone does that. The reward is when you look at one or two things and think yeah, that bit’s okay. Ignore what everyone says about your work, good or bad, and just work it out for yourself over time.
6. What’s the most valuable lesson you've learned about your creative process so far?
Stick to the goal, not the process. If something’s not working it’s okay to erase the whole thing and start over to get the image where you want it. It feels horrible deleting hours of work but there’s a trap where you've done one part of an illustration that looks great but the rest (like the composition or something) lets it down. Being ruthless saves time in the long run.
7. Do you have any creative rituals or routines to help you get into the zone?
Super high quality coffee and huge breakfasts? I’m pretty regimented work-wise too. I think you need that in a creative job. I need a big block of time to paint in so I shut off emails and everything – I can’t multi-task it. Put on a painting playlist and disappear into work mode for a few hours.
8. What do you do if you hit a creative block?
I don’t really get these. There’s so many paintings I want to make, and so much everyday stuff getting in the way of doing it. I can’t imagine not having a huge list of projects ready to go. This stuff seriously keeps me up at night – getting up scribbling notes or sketching down images I want to make.
I do get ‘stuck’ on a painting sometimes…like painting a part again and again and it’s not looking right. It’s best to just delete and start over or jump onto another project then, or get some of those annoying things done like business admin or social media.
9. What doubts or fears have you faced as a creative and how have/do you overcome them?
Oh man it’s all just money. I thought so many times when I was getting established I should just get a steady career and work at that. Fortunately as you get older you get more stubborn. Experience teaches you to hate working for a boss. Personal goals calcify in you mind and lock you in to a path. I think if you're still an illustrator past 30 your motivation levels are high enough to safely carry you through the rest.
10. What’s been your proudest achievement so far?
Taking a risk, leaving the security of a career in graphics (and emptying shipping containers) without savings, and just going for it. It worked out okay.
11. What are your top tips for someone who wants to become a freelance illustrator?
Really want it. I mean, not just ‘that’d be nice’ but ‘that’s all I can do’. It’s not like wanting to be a dentist or a programmer. Those are challenging paths but however steep it gets there’s still a path there.
Any art career is ocean swimming against a shifting tide. Keep your eye on the lighthouse, swim really hard so you don’t get dragged out, keep your head above water. I think that’s the main thing – just wanting it badly on a gut level.
From a practical standpoint there’s lots more I guess: Give clients more than they expect. Never let people take advantage of you. Get enjoyment out of work and learning new skills, not money. Hope you meet an understanding partner.
"Any art career is ocean swimming against a shifting tide. Keep your eye on the lighthouse, swim really hard so you don’t get dragged out, keep your head above water."
12. And finally, what do the next 12 months hold for you and your business?
Still be here! I’ve changed up my style a lot and taken a risk on doing work I really want to do, not just what I know I can sell. Hopefully there’s enough interest out there to keep it going – if not I’ll still be doing it, just look a lot thinner.
In terms of quality there’s a lot of development I want to do. There’s usually about 100px of a painting I really like and the rest I’m either just OK with or fighting the temptation to start over. So yeah, survive and improve.
Images by Matthew Britton