When a career is born of childhood passion, it can result in some truly rewarding and captivating work. Matt Dixon designed his first digital art when he was just eight years old. He broke into the video game industry at a young age and his creations have taken the stage on some globally celebrated platforms.
After designing art for such games as Blizzard’s Hearthstone, Matt struck out on his own and launched his freelance career. He has gone from strength to strength ever since. His popularity has seen the successful publication of three art books in his robots series, Transmissions. The fourth is currently live on Kickstarter.
We spoke to Matt to find out what spurred him to go it alone and what kind of a future he envisions for his quirky characters.
Kirstie: How did you get into art?
Matt: That’s a difficult question to answer as I don’t recall I time when I haven’t loved to make pictures. I don’t really feel as if there was a time when I became particularly interested or aware of art. Somehow, it’s always been there.
Kirstie: Who were your earliest influences?
Matt: Though I wouldn’t have acknowledged them as influences at the time, my earliest inspiration would have come from the books I read as youngster. Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss are two that really stand out. Scarry because of the expressive characters and detailed drawings that would hold my attention for hours finding all the details. And Dr. Seuss because of the wonderful shapes and designs. I really felt as if Dr. Seuss was showing me another world of some kind, and there was a dark, slightly frightening, aspect to some of his work which was really appealing. I still read and enjoy both authors’ work today.
As I grew older and started to take art a little more seriously as a teenager, I remember becoming more aware of what I was looking at in the artists I admired. I was starting to pay attention to technique and the medium. How an image was made, rather than the subject matter and how it made me feel alone. My influences at that time were mainly from comics; Glenn Fabry, Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewicz in particular. But at this time I also began my long love affair with fantasy art when discovered the work of Frank Frazetta who probably remains my greatest influence.
Kirstie: Who are your predominant influences now?
Matt: Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent and Norman Rockwell are the artists that bring me the most pleasure these days, though at this point in my career my work is the product of so many varied influences that I’d struggle to highlight any which are dominant. When I sit down at my desk to start creating a picture, I get the same thrill and wave of excitement that I remember having as a child, so I’m sure those early picture book influences are just as strong now as they’ve ever been.
Kirstie: What is your favourite material to work with?
Matt: Over the years I’ve worked with marker pens, inks and for several years I used acrylic paints, but the medium I am most comfortable with is digital. I first had access to a computer at eight years old. I immediately started to use it as a tool for making pictures by assembling images from ASCII characters.
As time and technology moved on, I began to program my own graphics and shortly thereafter was able to start using basic painting software to make pixel art. That led to my first paid work, aged sixteen, and I’ve used computers as an art tool ever since.
Kirstie: If you could design the poster for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?
Matt: My favourite movie, since I first saw it aged eight, is Flash Gordon. Yes, it’s cheesy, hammy and over the top but that’s exactly why I love it. It also has a very distinctive style; you could look at almost any still frame from that movie and immediately identify the film. I have an original 1980 Flash Gordon movie poster by Renato Casaro framed in my home and it’s a treasured possession so I’m not sure I’d want to change the poster.
Instead, I’d like to design the poster for Flash Gordon 2. A sequel to the first movie, true to the original in spirit and style, is something I’ve always fantasized about. It’d be wonderful to explore the potential content of this fictional masterpiece in a movie poster. I wouldn’t want to wander too far from a traditional movie poster layout; a dynamically posed Flash front and centre, the looming presence of Ming in the background, and fill the spaces between with new designs for strange inhabitant of the moons of Mongo.
Kirstie: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?
Matt: As a teenager, I painted leather jackets. People would often stop me and ask about my own jacket and always seemed surprised when I told them I had painted it myself. Those were the first occasions where people other than friends or family had said positive things about my work. That made me feel proud.
Kirstie: How have you changed as an artist since then?
Matt: I no longer paint leather jackets but I don’t think much else has changed. The urge to create still feels the same and I’m still drawing pleasure and inspiration from the same subjects that appealed to me as a teenager.
Kirstie: How did you get into design work for video games?
Matt: Completely by accident. In those early days, playing around with computers, I had access to a modem which allowed me to connect to bulletin boards and share my work with others. That put me in touch with other artists and coders and a whole scene creating demo software. Some of the friends I made at that time went on to form their own development studio. One day, I returned home from the guitar shop where I was working at the time and got a phone call to say they were looking for a new artist and to see if I was interested. Naturally I jumped at the chance and it set the path for my career up to this point.
Kirstie: What is your favourite game you worked on?
Matt: Without doubt, it’s Hearthstone for Blizzard Entertainment. I’ve worked on many different games over the years. I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to work with some very well-known game and movie franchises, but Hearthstone is about as close to my natural inclination as it’s possible to be. It’s bold, colourful and, above all, fun. The team I work with are all enthusiastic about the game too and that makes the whole experience a complete pleasure.
Hearthstone is also one of only a few games that I’ve worked on which I also enjoyed playing. I’m not much of a gamer, as I’d generally rather be painting that playing, but this game is very elegantly designed to be simple and accessible, yet deep and challenging. It’s great!
Kirstie: How did your design work change as the gaming industry evolved?
Matt: When I got started, everything was two dimensional and screen resolutions were much lower than we’re used to today. That meant an emphasis on bold shapes and colours so that designs were clear and easy to read. Naturally, each new development in technology has brought its own challenges that need to be considered. But I’ve found that those core elements of bold shapes and colours that are easy to recognise and understand has remained a consistent theme since I produced my first graphics back in 1988. It’s fascinating to look back over those thirty years and see that the elements of good design really haven’t changed.
Kirstie: What made you decide to freelance full time?
Matt: I’d been fortunate enough to be promoted to a senior position at the games developer where I worked. While I enjoyed the role very much and found great satisfaction in working as part of a large team, I came to realise that my working days were increasingly filled with meetings, emails and other people’s artwork. And the time I had for my own work, the thing which I loved most and which had brought me into the industry in the first place, had dwindled to almost nothing.
I had a choice between accepting the comfortable senior position and spending the remainder of my career in a more managerial role, or set up on my own and get back to doing what I loved. I realised that if I didn’t take the risk and strike out on my own at that moment, I probably never would. Once I’d had that thought, the decision was easy.
Kirstie: What inspired your Transmission series?
Matt: I really don’t know. During the final few months before I made the freelance jump, I spent many evenings producing personal work to build up my portfolio. Most of that work was fantasy themed but amongst the dragons, goblins and blokes with enormous axes, I painted the occasional robot. Not a series. Just individual paintings like all the others I was creating.
One day, I was organising this work into a gallery for my website and I noticed a connection between the robot images. They seemed to be in the same world. Once I’d made that connection, Transmissions was born, and now I take every opportunity I can to explore their world.
Kirstie: Your fourth book in the series is currently on Kickstarter. Did you expect the Transmission to go on for this long when you first started?
Matt: Not at all. Once I saw those first few robot images showed different views of the same world, I was eager to see more of it, but I had no idea it would provide the material for a single book, let alone four.
Kirstie: Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund the project?
Matt: I self-financed the first Transmissions book. Thankfully, it has sold well but initially it was an expensive and quite a nerve-wracking experience. Kickstarter removes some of that stress by connecting the creator directly with the people who might be interested in their product.
For an artist, it’s an extremely empowering vehicle, removing the need for a publisher and allowing direct contact with people who like the work. It means that fans of the Transmissions series are just as much a part of the books as I am. The sense of community that builds up around the project is a wonderful thing.
Kirstie: What’s your plan for once the campaign is over? Do you plan to release more Transmission books?
Matt: I certainly hope so. Once the campaign ends, there is a lot of work to do. The final pieces of art need to be finished, the book must go into layout and off to the printer, and all the extra rewards need to be produced. Then it all needs to be packed and shipped out. The month or so after the end of a campaign is very busy indeed!
Painting the robots gives me enormous pleasure and while that remains I don’t see any reason to stop exploring the Transmissions world. One day I’d like to collect all the Transmissions art into a single hardback volume, maybe including sketches and other behind-the-scenes images too, but I think that’s a little way off yet. Maybe after Transmissions 5.
Kirstie: Do you have any other hopes for the world and characters you’ve created?
Matt: My interest in the robots, as with all my work, is primarily selfish. I paint them because I love to do it. If I can continue to do that, and to share them with other people, I’m happy.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Matt: Enjoy what you do and do it as much as you possibly can.
We’d like to offer an enormous thank you to Matt for taking the time to talk to us and wish him the best of luck with his Kickstarter campaign! You can check it out and back it here. You can also find out more about him on his website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.