Check out the visionary style of illustrator Matt Johnstone | #MemberSpotlight

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With over 15 years of experience in the delicate craft of illustration, Matt Johnstone has never been a person too invested in the big brands, caring more to look at the human relationships than the size of a client's wallet.

With a bold, playful and colourful style acting as a unique signature throughout his illustrations, Matt has worked for The Guardian to illustrate their sport section since 2007, and to him it has been a dream come true. His secret to remain inspired and motivated at all times? Away with the seriousness, in with the playfulness.

In this Member Spotlight, we are learning more about Matt Johnstone, a talented Illustrator represented by Friend + Johnson.


How did you get into the industry?

After studying a degree in Graphic Design at St. Martins I started doing a few freelance illustration jobs, one was creating t-shirt designs and I did some work illustrating the odd article in Dazed & Confused Magazine. One of my first big jobs was a large illustrated pub map for Drink In Brighton in 2005! I spent ages on it and worked really hard on that map and it led to getting an agent to represent me and then the amount of work grew from there.

Where are you based now and who do you work for?

After living in London I’m now based near Brighton. I love being close to the sea and next to beautiful countryside. I work freelance for lots of different clients, it varies a lot as it’s project based. Newspapers, Magazines, Ad Campaigns, Animations etc.


If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

Maybe making furniture? It appeals to me making something physical or a Gardener as I’d love to work outside. An Art Teacher would be good to share the knowledge and experience I have picked up

Can you explain your creative process?

It’s changed over the last few years but I will start with a really quick pencil scamp to get the idea on paper. It's more about getting the ideas out of your head so I can then review them and decide which I would like to pursue. I then produce a rough illustration which is a pencil sketch that is pretty near to how I would like the final thing. I always used to do this on paper when I first started but now mostly I do this on my iPad in Procreate.

The rough is sent to the client and revised a couple of times (or none if I’m lucky!). Once that is confirmed there should be no more changes and I produce a final clean line drawing (again in Procreate) and I either colour it in Procreate or Photoshop or turn it into a vector illustration in Illustrator if I think it would be useful.


How would you describe your style?

I aim to have a playful feel to my illustrations. I draw in a line drawing style and usually use bright colours to give my illustrations a bold positive feel.

Which individuals do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

I am always in awe of the level of detail that Will Sweeney has in his illustrations. 

If you had to pick one ideal client/employer, who would that be and why?

This is a question I am always asked by my Agent and find it difficult to answer. I’m not the kind of person who is invested in big brands so for me it’s more about the idea, how you are treated and if they are on board with what you do.

The best Art and Creatives Directors are people that can direct you but give you the freedom to create and trust you to do your thing. I’ve worked with lots of great clients over the last 16 years but. Anything Paw Patrol related my daughters would think I am the best!


How has technology affected the way you work?

I have gradually adapted the way I work with technology, the biggest thing for me is the fact you can now draw on tablets and work from anywhere, that has definitely meant there are things you can do a lot quicker. When I first started I used paper a lot more, I would scan, print and use a lightbox to produce a final inked drawing.

Now I work on an iPad it has made some parts easier but I am always conscious not to lose that freedom you get from drawing on paper which is why I like to come up with all my ideas on paper first because there is something different about the feel of working on a paper compared to a tablet.

What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

I am trying to not be over serious about it as sometimes if you over think it can get in the way of creating work. I realise that some bits you create aren’t 100% right but it’s more about producing work that you can then review and move onto the next piece. Sometimes I draw silly, almost throw away ideas that seem a bit pointless but they keep me motivated.


What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

I’ve worked for The Guardian since 2007 producing illustrations for the Sport section which has been a dream come true.

How do you recharge away from the office?

I like to go running and mountain biking around The South Downs. Spending time with my family and friends is important to me and I also love the pub.

What is one tip for other aspiring creatives looking for work?

I’m in the same boat as them still after 16 years so I don’t consider myself an expert at this as it’s really tricky. I just try to believe in myself and hope that someone who is in a position to commission me likes what I do.

I think if you can stay true to yourself and produce work you love and work hard you are on the right track. As a freelance Illustrator there will always be rejection but try not to take it personally as there will also be times when things go your way if you keep at it.


What is the one thing that you would change about the industry?

It has definitely become very reliant on social media but that might just be a reflection of the modern world. There is now no time to quietly discover and artists are judged more by their social presence and how many followers and likes they have.

I think it probably means that a lot of really talented people miss out if they don’t feel comfortable or have the space in their life to document every moment and share it with the world. Also I think sometimes you need to give creatives the time and space to create great work, rather than just pressure to create a never ending stream of content.

Any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

In terms of Illustration I would recommend looking at The Association of Illustrators. I’ve been learning to make my own prints over the last few years and I really recommend Linocut for artists & designers by Nick Morley as it’s really helped me get to grips with printmaking.


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