Creative Lives — Go low, slow, and make like a casserole: Insightful wisdom from Matthew the Horse

Posted 05 February 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Working from his home studio in Leeds, Matthew Hodson (aka Matthew the Horse) uses drawing as a means of materialising ideas. At once rambling yet restrained, chaotic but controlled, a sharp sense of style runs through the illustrator and poet’s work. Similarly to his drawings, his poetry comes about cumulatively, through a series of fragments and phrases used to express thoughts. As a lecturer in illustration at Leeds Arts University, Matthew warns against the potential pressure to appear ‘busy’. His solution? “I’m trying my best to go low and slow, like a casserole” – a far cry from his early experiences of being given anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours to design editorials for The Guardian’s sport section. Looking back, Matthew reflects on some of the lessons he’s learned and why self-assurance is the most valuable asset to working freelance.

Matthew the Horse

Job Title

Illustrator, Poet, Lecturer

Based

Leeds

Selected Clients

The Guardian, New York Times, The Economist, Converse, Crabbies Ginger Beer, Nature Magazine, National History Museum, Nobrow Books

Previous Employment

Graphic Designer, Copywriter, Greengrocer, Agricultural fencing

Education

BA Graphic Communications, Bath Spa (2003–2006)

Website
Social Media

Matthew

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do? 
I’m a freelance illustrator, graphic artist and poet. I’m also an educator, teaching illustration at Leeds Arts University. All four roles overlap and inform one another to some degree. Primarily I draw; I like how drawing allows me to give shape to my ideas through its own visual language. Often that voice is the voice of a wally singing to his dog, or the voice of someone in the woods looking at a dead tree. I like poetry for the same reason; collecting bits of the day, trying to make sense of them. 

Client wise, I’ve worked with lots of lovely people. I’ve done a fair amount of editorial illustration for the likes of The Guardian, The New York Times, The Economist and Sunday Times. I’ve done some exciting exhibitions with the likes of Nobrow and Colours May Vary, and some advertising for Crabbies Ginger Beer and Fortnum & Mason. I’ve just finished three children’s books for the National History Museum whilst spending more and more time making work for myself; I recently self-published a book of poetry and drawings. 

What does a typical working day look like? 
My studio is at home, there’s a nice view of the garden from my desk where two big trees discuss the seasons. I have a long desk, which I’ve divided into a drawing space and a computer space. That way I can ignore the internet whilst I’m drawing. I try to keep all analogue production separate from the digital stuff.

I sort of work in two parts: drawing and painting followed by digital bits and bobbins. It’s an iterative process of dance then stance. My usual working day starts around 8.30am, and I try to work reasonable hours unless the deadline dictates.

Forwards Always, Matthew's collection of poetry, (2017) Designed by Orlando Lloyd

Forwards Always, Matthew's collection of poetry, (2017) Designed by Orlando Lloyd

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Forwards Always, Matthew's collection of poetry, (2017) Designed by Orlando Lloyd

At present, I get 2 to 3 days a week in the studio, which makes this time incredibly precious. I do my best to get all admin and emails done the night before a studio day. I try to protect these little periods of time from any other obligations or distractions so I can get into a space where the drawing is my main focus. It’s difficult and I often struggle but I’ve learnt how important it is to be honest with your friends and family about this time. It’s like weeding the garden, there’s a rhythm and discipline to maintaining space amongst the creeping weeds. Outside of studio hours, I use a sketchbook to develop ideas and make roughs. 

My illustration practice has evolved around the gaps between my contracted part-time employment. I think a separate part-time job can be a great foundation with which to build a freelance illustration career, so long as you’re focused with how you use your studio time. And perhaps don’t get a job that saps your cosmic energy. I feel as though there’s a certain militance within the creative community about being or appearing to be prolific, I know I’ve suffered from this way of thinking and I’m not sure it’s healthy or conducive with great work. I’m trying my best to go low and slow, like a casserole. 

“Beyond the art school, how we define our practice, our success and our intent is entirely up to us.”

What do you like about working in the part of the UK you’re based in?
Leeds is a great city. It’s small enough to get to know but big enough to keep on discovering. The huge amount of students seems to inform our creative communities and general output across the city. There’s always a hunger for new ideas and alternative happenings. You get great bands, art, books, design, clubs, food, beer, comics, and co-ops. I think also because of the affordability of the place, it’s a good spot to set up your own business, which lots of people seem to be doing at present. On the whole it’s a city full of enthusiasm, willingness, weirdos and ideas. 

How does your freelance work usually come about? 
I do my best to stay visible online and in touch with people as much as possible. I guess my approach is to externalise a certain tone of voice across all my work so that clients can see the potential in what I do and match it up with their needs. I also do my best to get on with everyone, it strikes me that people are wonderful. The more I think about making work for market demands, the less I like my output, so I return to my own interests and ideals, both in terms of content and image. 

How collaborative is your work? 
Being a designer is being a collaborator. I think the most fun I get from my practice is when I get to engage with other creatives. My recent poetry book was designed by Orlando Lloyd. We spent a lot of time in the studio playing with type, layout and arrangement. That project needed a level of design expertise I don’t have but I had an idea of what I was seeking. The process of figuring this out alongside Orlando was so crucial to the success of the final book. 

'Let go' personal work and 'Proboscis Monkey' (2016) for Bookblock

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
The most enjoyable thing is achieving creative flow where I’m just lost in the process of drawing and making. It’s hard fought and something I want to explore further but when it occurs it’s really enjoyable. I’m not a naturally gifted draftsperson, I draw like a pissed robot most of the time, but there’s always intent in my hand where I’m trying to find that correct balance between control and wobble.

The least enjoyable aspect is time, as it disappears. Being eaten up by admin, by obligations, by my stupid phone. I get stressed out all the time by fear, guilt, and frustration that I should be doing more, making better, pushing further. But I think I can combat this by looking at my own drawings more than my phone and spending more time thinking about nothing. 

“Being a designer is being a collaborator. I think the most fun I get from my practice is when I get to engage with other creatives.”

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
Forwards Always is a collection of poems to be read aloud, which I wrote and illustrated. I suppose it feels like a children’s book but it doesn’t present itself as such so that idiots of all ages can give it a read. It’s designed to be performed, shared and explored, with footnotes, diagrams and type all leading the reader to examine the book and its ideas. 

Off the back of the book, I did an exhibition at Colours May Vary in Leeds. I extracted some of the artwork for the book and made twelve massive fabric banners, each screen printed by hand over six months. I did some readings of the book on a couple of occasions, which ties up the project nicely as the performative aspect of the poetry is really important to me. I cried a bit as did some children and one other grown man. It was a really great night. 

'Sun'; 'Ladybird'; and 'Potato Plant'; (2017) Photography by Robbie Chilton

'Sun'; 'Ladybird'; and 'Potato Plant'; (2017) Photography by Robbie Chilton

'Sun'; 'Ladybird'; and 'Potato Plant'; (2017) Photography by Robbie Chilton

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What skills are essential to your job?
1: Staying playful and feeding creative instincts; 2: Sustaining and evolving the practice of making pictures; 3: Organising and managing everything else in my life in order to achieve points 1 and 2.

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Yes, I’m drawing weeds and trying to develop some stories for children about the sky.

What tools do you use most for your work? 
I mostly draw with a Pentel Parallel Ink pen which is fun but a bit of a monster to control. I’m trying to move past it or find other drawing tools with which to compliment its line quality. It’s not very elegant but perhaps I just need to stop trying to make elegant work? I recently got a Baby Panda air compressor and air brush gun and have begun having fun playing with that. I’ve also been exploring gelato pastels which Santa got me because he knows how much I like art.

“Being a designer is being a collaborator. I think the most fun I get from my practice is when I get to engage with other creatives.”

'Refreshingly Adventurous' London Transport billboard for Crabbies Ginger Beer (2015)

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A show-off or a vet. I did a lot of drama at school then sacked it off when I discovered Banksy and rap music.

What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, not in a fancy part with second homes and Range Rovers, just a village with a pub. It wasn’t a cultural hot-bed but all my favourite things are still there. Mostly being outside, the seasons, knocking about with your pals. I love big empty landscapes, which I think is why I didn’t quite make it to London. 

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I met some great people and was lucky enough to have some really honest and interesting tutors. Maybe the best thing was just all that space to make things and learn through doing.

'Emerge', personal work (2018) and 'Protest Costum' (2016) for the NYTimes 'Think Piece' pitch

What were your first jobs? 
I got an internship at a design agency in Bristol called True Digital in 2006. I worked with a great designer called James Warfield who got me making assets for a theme park in Devon. It was useful in so far as identifying that I didn’t want to be an agency designer. 

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
I think in the first year out of uni, putting on club nights with my pals was really useful in that I was making promo artwork every month which lead to other gig and club night artwork jobs. I did the same for a night called Dollop in London and Nottingham after that, which was great. It gave me so much creative freedom to keep learning. I don’t think my work was any good for about six years after uni but I needed that time to evolve what I was doing. It’s not a race.

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Making editorials for Russell Brand back in the day for The Guardian Sport section was wild. He would always submit late so I’d end up with about two hours (once it was 30 mins) to complete an editorial for Saturday’s paper. I can’t look at that work any more, but I still revisit that instinctive approach to ideas and play. It taught me the value in not over thinking my concepts too much. 

"I don’t think my work was any good for about six years after uni but I needed that time to evolve what I was doing. It’s not a race."

Rainbow banner (2017)

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
Digital brushes are huge now and make it so easy to create bold graphic drawings. I use them often to finish my work and am slowly teaching myself how to use them in less obvious ways. 

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
My mental health and not over-working. I’ve had a few major burnouts, and looking back on my 20’s, I think that they all coincided with saying yes to too many projects at the same time. I think a lot of illustrators are incredibly dutiful and invest a lot of themselves into what they do, but working solo can put a lot of pressure on your shoulders. Perhaps self-assurance is the most valuable asset to working freelance. Knowing when to stop, when to take yourself out the race and visit the woods for a walk. 

Is your job what you thought it would be?
I make it up as I go along. It’s interesting working in an art school, where we silo all the disciplines into different courses for UCAS applications. Beyond the art school, how we define our practice, our success and our intent is entirely up to us. 

'Remain positive' (2017)

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I’m going to carry on drawing pictures and writing poems. But in the next five years I’d also like to make some costumes, films, furniture, another baby and perhaps some chutney. 

Could you do this job forever?
Yes please.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I’m torn because I love teaching and am lucky to be encouraged to pursue more academic research, something which I’m currently in the process of doing. However, I also maintain big ambitions for my illustration work, in particular my children books, stories and poetry. I’m planning some more performances in Leeds soon and considering moving into audio recordings. There’s so much to do.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
How do you define success? It's not a race. 

Drawing is a muscle; drawing is a language. Progress emerges. Instigate action and happenings.

Difficult choices are easier to make than you think. 

No one is looking.

Posted 05 February 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration, Publishing
Mentions: Matthew the Horse
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