Other Seas/Other Suns: An Interview with Matt Griffin
Sci-Fi-O-Rama is incredibly pleased to present a new interview with one of science fiction and fantasy’s most dynamic contemporary illustrators, Ireland’s Matt Griffin.
With a distinctive graphic style, Matt has secured major clients across the publishing and media worlds, including industry giants like Disney, Universal, Lucasfilm, Penguin, and Harper Collins. This past year he was selected to illustrate Ace Books’ new deluxe hardcover of the Frank Herbert sci-fi classic “Dune”, which can now be found in bookstores in the US and Canada, and online everywhere else.
Beyond his graphic work, Matt has also written and published a series of young-adult fantasies, The Ayla Trilogy, with the first volume “A Cage of Roots” winning the LAI Children’s Book of the Year 2017 award in the 9-11 age category.
Coincident to all of this professional work, Matt has pursued a variety of personal projects tying together his interests in music, animation, and the glorious lo-fi aesthetics of long-gone sci-fi eras.
All this activity must be good for him, because his work keeps getting better and better…
Q: Matt, can you tell us a bit about your background? What set you on the path to do this kind of art as a career?
It has been a long, oscillating path… Like most artists, I was always passionate about drawing. It’s all I did as a kid, teen and adult. Because I drew so much, and I had some natural ‘talent’ (not my favourite word), people (including me) assumed I would end up doing it for a living. But I didn’t like to go with expectations (even my own), and I went off and did other stuff. I worked on building sites and in bars. Eventually I ended up in London where, through my older brother, I got a week’s work in Sky television. The week turned into 5 years at Sky Sports. I love sport, but the role wasn’t creative enough. I spent all my time making graphics in Photoshop when I should have been doing other (boring) stuff. I started moonlighting in Sky’s creative department (when I should have been working), where they set me projects like storyboarding or designing imaginary idents for their stations. Eventually they offered me a job, but it was practically an internship, and I couldn’t afford to live on the starting wage. At the same time, my old boss from Sport was by then working with Channel 4 Music. He knew about my passion for music and offered me a job with his company. So for two years I worked with Channel 4 Music & Entertainment, interviewing pop stars, reviewing gigs – that was the fun stuff. But it still wasn’t creative enough. My boss was a designer himself, and he tried his best to foster my creativity, having me design t-shirts and graphics etc. But at that point I was starting to wonder about the world of professional illustration, and I was missing home (Ireland). So I started emailing illustrators and ad companies back home, showing my portfolio (such as it was) and was encouraged to come home and give it a go. That was 2008. When I did get home, the global recession hit and there was no work whatsoever. But I was extremely determined. I got the odd low-paying gig. They became a little more frequent, and very (very) slowly I built up a better portfolio and the jobs increased in frequency and stature. I got a couple of lucky breaks where I was able to experiment and push my skills, got an agent and work became steady.
That is the short version!
Q: That’s quite the winding path! What were some of your early influences and inspirations that guided you along?
So many. I was (and am) an avid reader. My family are all into movies (my Dad in particular introduced us to the Roman Epics, 2001, Dune, etc., and one of my brothers is an actor) so film was always there. In both those formats, it was the fantasy and sci-fi that excited me the most. Whatever the medium, I loved stuff that took me off to another world. I was never a huge fan of reality (still struggle with that).
There are so many influences to name, but the most formative books were by Dahl, Tolkien, Lewis, LeGuin, Banks and Barker. I think when I first read The Hobbit, with Tolkien’s illustrations, that was what made me want to write and illustrate my own books. And, of course, Dune. But it was the Lynch film first (a family favourite) and then the book. As for film, the 80s were the greatest decade in history for kid’s fantasy films (imho) so the usual suspects – Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Legend, Goonies. My first 18s film was Alien. My oldest brother put it on to entertain me while he was baby-sitting. I was seven. That had a sizeable influence… And he never babysat me again.
Music was the other big thing – I have three older brothers who are all big into music, both listening and playing. So I had an early education in that (resulting in a bit of musical snobbery I admit) and playing the guitar and singing was a family requirement.
There is a large philosophical bent to my family also. So later in life, I loved the sci-fi and fantasy that questioned our place in the cosmos. It’s that side of it that now floats my spaceship.
Q: Tell us a little about your daily routine. How do you approach your work? What kind of tools and processes do you use?
I am pretty regimented. Over the years I have definitely developed some mild OCD behaviour, liking the morning routine to go a certain way to then set me up for a creative day. But, I have three kids (including a 2 month old) so my OCD has to have… flexibility.
A perfect day would start with exercise (gym or swim or walk in the woods). Once I get to the studio, I’ll meditate (really helps coping with stress), read a chapter or two of something educational (I read, but don’t understand, physics books – I love the stuff about multiple universes) and then sit at the drawing desk to play with ink. Then I’ll do some email, check social media and a bit of news, etc., and then get to work. Starting the work is the hard part, but once I’m in, with some good tunes, I’m lost in it.
That is a perfect day. It rarely happens. The reality is more like – get cross with kids for not being ready on time when I’m the one not ready. Forgo exercise due to pending deadlines. Forgo meditation and reading and ink-play for same reason. Spend too long on social media endless scroll. Panic-work to make deadline. Home. Work more.
As for tools and processes, I have two desks in my studio. One is for drawing, painting and general messing. That is the fun desk. The other has the computer, which is where I spend most of my time (and have fun admittedly). Whenever I can, I sit at the drawing desk and play around – mostly making textures as my attempts in detailed original work seem to fail as my mind is too flitty. But generally I’m on the mac or iPad doing commercial projects. The iPad Pro has totally transformed how I work – I do all of my preliminary work on that, and then finish in Photoshop. In the last year I’ve also learned Blender, and that’s been even more transformative. I advise any artist out there to learn 3D, particularly for commercial stuff as it’s so helpful with lighting, form etc.
Q: It seems that at any time, you have both commercial and personal projects on the go. How do you balance those two halves of your work? Do you approach them differently?
Yes, it’s extremely important to me to have personal projects to work on. I need the commercial projects to earn a living, but the personal stuff is where I have fun, experiment and – importantly – improve. Often I’ll make stress for myself by working on a personal piece when I should be working on the commercial stuff. But actually I’ve learned that is how I work best. The personal work always leads to more commercial work, I get better at my craft, and I actually need the pressure of a tight deadline to make my best stuff. So while it may put me in an early grave, this is the process that has gotten me where I am, so I’m content to leave it like that.
However, the goal is definitely to work more on the personal stuff. To make that personal work viable and the main source of income. The artist Jeffrey Alan Love is a huge inspiration in this regard. Once he switched the priority to his personal work, he rekindled his love of creating art. Too much commercial work, where you are essentially drawing other people’s ideas, can kill that love. He likens it to singing covers instead of creating your own music. He is so right. So he does commercial work, but on his terms, only on projects he will enjoy. That is where I want to be. That’s what, all going well, the next decade will bring.
I do approach them differently, yes. Commercial projects are all guided by the client. There’s a brief, sketch-approvals and several stages of finished-to-varying-degrees art. Often the client will have a clear idea of what they want to see, using examples from my previous work as an expectation-guide. Most of the projects are fun, sometimes they’re not (the ones with the more prescriptive briefs tend to be the latter). But it’s work – and I often remind myself that even on the less-fun ones, I’m drawing for a living.
Personal work is, obviously, a lot less restrictive. It’s very much a case of going with the flow, experimenting as I make it. Sometimes I’ll think of a personal piece I’d love to make, and scribble thumbnails in a sketchbook. Those rarely get finished. The ones that get finished are the ones that seem to start happening almost without me realising it. It’s an impulsive process, where occasionally I can even feel like a passenger. There’s a famous Irish musician/writer/comedian/social-commentator/podcast host called Blindboy Boatclub, and he often talks about reaching a state of flow. That’s when I make my best stuff – when I’m not thinking about it, it’s just happening. I’m definitely happiest there, in the flow. It happens with the guitar too – when the room disappears, and you’re unaware of anything, including your fingers on the strings, and you’re just lost in the sounds you’re making. I love that. My wife doesn’t (it’s very unstructured…).
Q: One thing I find particularly striking about your work is its stylistic range. Your images range from dramatically lit and realistic to sharp-lined and graphic. How do you decide which mode to work in when you start a piece?
It’s just playing really. The question of style comes up in our industry again and again. In your early career, it’s important to find a ‘voice’ – that is, a look that is easily recognisable as yours, that sets you apart from everyone else. That doesn’t mean every piece needs to look like the other – it just means that potential clients need to have an idea of what they’ll get if they hire you. So putting cartoony work next to more realistic stuff can be confusing. I avoid this even today by having a separate portfolio under the pseudonym Ignatius Fitzpatrick. It means I can have fun doing more mid-century cartoon inspired work, without having it sit awkwardly with a cover for a horror film.
Making art the same way over and over is also stagnating – you need to evolve. You should feel free to draw in whatever way you think will look cool at the end. That’s the beauty of personal work – it’s playtime.
It can be confusing. Commercially, I don’t think you want to be the artist who can work in any style as then you’ll be a jack-of-all-trades with very little fulfilment (as you’ll be asked to imitate more often). But as an artist over-all, you want to have that ‘voice’ I mentioned earlier, while continually exploring new ways of working. It keeps it interesting for you, broadens horizons for your commercial work and makes you a better, more content, artist.
As to how I decide the final look, it’s all a case of playing and seeing what looks best. Maybe that’s why it’s diverse – because making every image is a battle to not look crap. The style of it results from that battle. Also I’m inspired by lots of different looks, all of which inform my own.
Q: On top of being a visual artist, you are also an animator, a musician, and an author (and a father of three!). Could you tell us a bit about those other endeavours? How do they influence your graphic work?
Well in that regard, I am a bit of a jack-of-all-trades… I think what it comes down to is – I’m just a creative person. My brain is wired to make stuff up. Reality is the problem as I mentioned before (parenting three kids and general family life aside).
As for those things individually, I do now call myself an animator although it feels a bit disingenuous as I’ve only made two animated music videos. There are real animators out there who would maybe scoff at me calling myself that (impostor syndrome ahoy). But it’s a recently-added string to my bow, and it’s on the CV now anyway. Plus I’d love to do a lot more, and push myself in that medium.
With music, it has always been a huge passion of mine. Maybe my primary passion. But, I suffer from huge stage fright and a definite fear of anyone hearing my music and thinking it’s crap. Maybe because I’m such a musical snob myself! So for a lot of years I let it fall by the wayside. A couple of years ago I started to pick the guitar up again, encouraged by my oldest. Then I started playing with Garageband on the iPad and ended up making demos for an album that would (will?) be part of a larger project, called ‘Domum Novum’. It’s very philosophical sci-fi about a person sent to scout a new planet because we’ve wrecked Earth. The songs all tell the story of this, and the idea is to have a book, a short film and an exhibition of art to go with it (pretty ambitious – may never happen!). Anyway, through the connections I made doing the videos I met a brilliant producer who is very kindly going to re-master one or two of the demos. From there, I’ll make a vid for one, put it out in the world and see what happens. But it’s very much something I do for the love of it, without any kind of ambition (other than someone out there tripping out on it).
And yes I am an author of a trilogy of children’s books called ‘The Ayla Trilogy’. I love writing, although it doesn’t come easily to me. I have to kind of force it out (I even find I hold my breath while I write). I want to write more, definitely. So far, I have lots of ideas for kid and adult books alike, but can’t seem to get past the development or chapter one. I’m in no huge rush though, I know more will come eventually.
As for how they influence the visual side, it all comes from the same place. This impulsive need to make up stuff. I think I write quite descriptively and I like to make images that hint at wider stories (I sometimes pretentiously say I write pictures and draw stories). Even the music I mentioned had to have a story attached. So I guess I am a story-teller, in whatever medium I can get my hands on.
Q: With all of this going on, what have been some recent career highlights for you?
I think it’s hard to get past Dune. I first read that book when I was about 14-15 (after seeing the film 100 times as mentioned). I’d come back to it every now and then to re-read it as it’s that type of book – one you can find new things in every time. When I read it first, I thought to myself ‘some day I want to illustrate this’. So, 25 years later, to have a deluxe edition is absolutely mind-blowing to me.
There have been others. It’s a couple of years ago, but my first book (A Cage of Roots) winning an award was huge. Having three books published at all is huge for me. Getting to do a cover for Star Wars. Meeting Brad Bird. A lot of cool stuff has happened. I’m very lucky.
A dream job since I started in 2008 has been to do a Folio Society book and while I never thought it would happen, I’m working on my first for them as I type. A great way to end a helter-skelter decade.
Q: Tell us a bit more about the Dune project – what was it like working with such a foundational text of science fiction?
I had made the cover image as a piece of personal work. I was messing around with ink, making textures (a favourite pastime) and I decided I would draw Paul, make it an original piece of art with no digital and I would put loads of effort in and… it was a disaster. Like always, my mind flitted off somewhere else before I really got started. But it planted a seed. I liked the texture I had made, as it put me in mind of a sandstorm. So I had another go at Paul (this time using digital) and shared the result online. I thought it might get a few likes but it kind of took off. One of the people who saw it was an art director I’ve worked with a few times at Penguin/Ace. He said they were producing a new edition of the book, and asked could they license that image for the cover.
Naturally, I leapt ten feet off my chair. But somewhere in the excitement I had the wherewithal to ask if I could fully illustrate the book. It was never going to be a fully illustrated edition, but they compromised and I got to illustrate the endpapers, then the reverse of the dust jacket and finally the map. A dream was coming true, so I got to work.
I put a lot of effort in. I looked at hundreds of images of deserts, and caves and worms (not Sand ones – normal ones). I loved how the desert wind made very particular erosions in the rock, so I knew I’d like to make a Sietch with that in mind. I made dozens of experiments with dry ink on paper, and then brought them in to texture the cave walls.
The image of Shai Hulud was not initially as good as it ended up. Sometimes, I need to be pushed a little. I submitted a version I was happy with, but both the AD (Adam Auerbach) and Brian (son of Frank) Herbert felt it could be improved. And I’m so glad they did, because it ended up so much better. I decided against the usual three-flap mouth and instead took inspiration from a job I had done a couple of years ago – a cover for Science News magazine where I had to draw a Sea Lamprey. Those things are freaky. Perfect for a Sandworm’s mouth.
These days I am used to pressure on a job. Particularly doing DVD covers for beloved films – it’s easy to have the reaction of the collectors in your head. I have been torn apart for covers in the past. But I’ve learned to block that out and do what I think is right. For Dune, the pressure was all from me. For some reason I didn’t think about the millions of fans of this beloved book (maybe that was instinct protecting me) – I thought about me and making the best of a dream opportunity. I think that helped. The fans of the book seem to like it for the most part, so that makes me very happy.
Q: A standard Sci-Fi-O-Rama question for you: is there an obscure sci-fi or fantasy gem that you would recommend as essential viewing or reading? Something that you see as an influence on your work?
Well, it’s a recent film but the first thing that comes to mind is the Swedish film Aniara. Absolutely mind-blowing sci-fi. Philosophical, just how I like it. The vastness of space at odds with the animal instincts of humans has rarely been expressed so effectively.
For books, one of my absolute favourites is Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I came to it late in life, but it blew my mind.
Q: Finally, what’s next for you? Where do you see your work going in the future?
I mentioned I want to switch the focus from commercial work to personal work. I still have to earn a living, so I need to do it right. So it’s not a case of only doing personal work, more like commercialising the type of work I want to make for myself. Less singing covers…
Of course I still have lots of professional ambition. I’d love to be more involved in film and TV, not just on the key art side, but in development (there are movements there). And while I’m not a gamer (well, I’ve been forcibly retired from it by work and kids) some of the most exciting work I’m seeing is in that industry, and it combines all of my passions (art, design, story-telling etc). More music vids too (I’ll hopefully be doing my third in the New Year). I’d love to see if I can do something in VR/AR…
Essentially, I absolutely want (and need) to get to a place where I can create whatever my head wills and make the best work, in any medium, that I can. Make more animations, write more books, make more music. Most of all, I will try to make sure I enjoy getting there, as (cheese warning) the journey is more important than the destination.
For more of Matt Griffin’s superb portfolio, check out his website: www.mattgriffin.online
You can also follow him on Twitter: @mattgriffinart
…and Facebook: @mattgriffinillustration
…and Instagram: @mattgriffinillustrator
Our heartfelt thanks to Matt for this insightful conversation!