Spotlight on Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is warrior many helms. He's a freelance digital illustator, part time headbanger and fulltime father. His new book 'Girls On Top' collects his adrenalized and wickedly playful pinup work, and comes hot on the heels of 2008's 'The Fantasy Artist's Figure Drawing Bible.'

Babe Lab : Greetings, Matt. Thanks for taking the time to talk with Babe Lab!

Matt Dixon : Hello, Professor. No problem. I’m very happy to be your test subject for this session. Please just be gentle when you attach the electrodes.

BL : In the intro to 'Girls On Top' (and please tell us any other titles that lead up to this), you mention "Attitude is something I try to give my pinups plenty of. Generous scoops of hell raising, fun loving, ass kicking, lip curling, high volume heavy metal attitude. With rainbow sprinkles and plenty of chocolate sauce." That sort of says it. You don't go into this with an air of seriousness, and your work has the look of someone it'd be fun to have a beer with. What's your secret?

MD : There’s no secret that I’m aware of. My personal pin-ups are fashioned from straight up, honest self-indulgence. I think that might be what attracted me to the genre – there’s no pretence that the image is anything other than entertainment. No one strokes their goatee meaningfully in front of an Elvgren and ponders on a deeper meaning or what ol’ Gil was trying to express. We know exactly what he was trying to express – “Hot damn! She’s a babe! Schwing!” That’s not to say there can’t be some depth to the piece, but fun comes first and foremost.

BL : There's a mini-tutorial at the end of the book that shows how one of your pinups takes shape from concept to completion. Let's talk about the concept part. How much of it is premeditated and how much is left open-ended? "Today's theme is 'Queen of the Jungle.' GO!!!'" vs. "Let's see where the wind blows."

MD : I used to sit down with an empty head, start scribbling and just react to what was happening in front of me. There’s still an element of that from time to time, but I found that approach would often see me journey deep into the painting process with unresolved elements in the image. This invariably leads to tedious mucking about trying to sort those areas out when I should be focusing on getting the painting finished which is distracting, time-consuming and, crucially, not fun. These days I tend to chew ideas over in my head for a while so I have something more solid to work with once I have a pen in my hand. Sometimes the images are fully developed and just need to be downloaded from brain to canvas, other times they need work once I’ve started to squeeze them out, but most of the thinking has been done which leaves more grey matter free to steer the pen. There’s usually several concepts rattling around inside the noggin which I’ll pull around when my brain is idling – driving, watching Desperate Housewives, on the can, etc. In fact I’ve been kneading the ‘Queen of the Jungle’ theme while tapping out my reply. My twist is that the jungle in question is the concrete jungle (see what I did?) which makes our Queen the Queen of the ‘Hood – a bootylicious, streetwise honey in her court (basketball court, of course) surrounded by a posse of ghetto fabulous jungle animals.

BL : On the completion end, how far into a grayscale painting do you tend to get before making the jump to color? Have you ever worked differently and, if so, what were its drawbacks? The consistent rendering patterns you've developed are obviously the result of much experimentation.

MD : I try not to go to colour until I’ve resolved any problems I can see. Maybe I’ve not nailed every detail down but I need to be confident that I know where I’m going and I find it much easier to sort all that stuff out without concerning myself with colour. Just how far things go depends on the image and how well I’m working that day – sometimes the value sketch is done and I’m throwing colour at it in ten minutes, other times I can be wrestling with problems for hours. I’ve worked in many different ways over the years, using lots of layers, laying in flat local colour and rendering up each element individually, jumping straight in with big brush strokes, they go on and on, looking back it feels as if my first few years painting digitally (as opposed to pixels, vectors or other digital methods) had very little structure in terms of technique. I suppose that just shows that it took a while to find a method which I was comfortable with. See, I’m a very impatient guy and once I summon some enthusiasm for an idea I want to see it done. NOW. That’s a great source of energy to direct into one’s work, but it’s taken me quite some time to develop a process which is compatible with that aspect of my personality and I think a lot of that early experimentation was me trying to find shortcuts and ways to make the picture happen faster. The only way to achieve that is to make your process more efficient – having a set working method means I always know where I am in the development of a painting which helps to avoid impatience creeping in and throwing off my groove, and familiarity with the process means I’m not stopping to think what I should be doing next which allows me to channel more energy into painting boobs.

BL : One of the things that sets your pinups apart is your costume choices. Since you take many of them in a sci-fi/fantasy route, it's not the usual assortment of sheer teddies, lace braziers and fishnets. You've got rusty, battle damaged armor plating, tattered animal skins, cyberpunk leather, high-tech jumpsuits and everything in between. Is this all stuff that's part of your natural repertoire, or do you find yourself seeking out reference? If so, where?

MD : I think it’s natural repertoire in as much as the costumes I wrap around my girls is an extension of the personality I’m seeking to project and it’s probably fair to say that I lean somewhat towards women which I suppose one could describe as assertive. It’s not all simply plucked from the dank corners of my childish mind however; I have many reference books and often start the day with a trawl around online image depositories looking for interesting stuff to add to my digital reference library. If I need reference or inspiration, I’ll turn to my bookshelves or hard drive for help. Rather than pull up a specific photograph for reference, I’ll tend to assemble a variety of images and take elements from several of them – for an armoured helmet, for example, I might pull up a few different pieces of armour, two or three shots of metal surfaces, some horns, feathers or hair for plumage and so on, then combine my favourite stuff in the painting. This forces me to make the end result my own. If I work from a single photograph, I struggle to avoid making a fairly straight copy of the reference material which I feel sits uncomfortably in a finished image.

BL : You entered the video game industry the same year you were allowed to legally purchase alcohol (16 in the UK), and your client roster since has been formidable -- Blizzard, Sony Online, EA, to name only a few. How has game art impacted your approach to illustration? You have a particular knack for nailing materials, which would seem to suggest you've done your fair share of textures and skins.

MD : You have a keen eye, Professor. I have no doubt that my work as a game artist has influenced my illustration significantly. Each generation of videogame technology makes new demands on production artists and I think that process, having to channel and organise one’s creative output in different ways, can be educational in itself. I’m old enough to have worked with several generations of videogame hardware, and I can identify direct lessons that I have learned from each. Going right back to beginning, the days of limited colour, low resolution bitmap graphics really forced an artist to be economical and deliberate with value and detail, and you quickly learn which colours work well together when you can only have four together on screen! I still place marks and select colours very much as I did back then. Then polygons arrived, and once everyone had stopped drooling over brightly-coloured checkerboards reflected in mirror-surfaced spheres, we began to explore the third dimension properly. I’m certain that many years of 3D modelling made a dramatic improvement to my understanding of form and the play of light across surfaces – again, I still visualise complex shapes as polygonal models to help render form. Of all the stuff I learned from game art production, I think it must be the creation of materials which has had the most direct impact on my work. From even the very earliest days of 3D, the idea of visualising surface properties separately – colour, bump, reflection, specularity, etc. - completely transformed my way of thinking about materials in my illustrations. As profound an impact as game art has had on my illustration, I don’t envy the guys working in today’s highly specialised art production pipelines – that’s a tough job.

BL : You're a self-proclaimed metalhead, which carries with it certain aesthetics. Have you also embraced the aesthetics of any notable tabletop RPGs or comics? Who are your chief influences?

MD : Well, there’s a lot of crossover between those genres isn’t there? I haven’t deliberately embraced any aesthetic, but I’ve been drawn towards imaginative stuff of all kinds for as long as I can recall. It’s odd, because I have mixed emotions when presented with this stuff. Some images I find exciting because I’m seeing something fantastic that I couldn’t have conceived myself and I genuinely enjoy the sensation of peering into an imaginary world. Others fill me with pure joy at the preposterous vision on display, and I can’t quite work out why – though I certainly get a kick from the idea that there are folks out there who just don’t care how gloriously silly their paintings might be. If an image manages to inspire both sensations simultaneously, it’s a sure-fire hit. And probably one of Ken Kelly’s Manowar paintings. I fucking love that shit. Chief influences? Of course there’s a massive ocean of artists who I admire for their technical proficiency. Rockwell always floors me, and I’m not ashamed to say that I have wept in front of John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’. In a manly way, naturally. Others influences include Frank Zappa, Robert Crumb, Russ Nicholson, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo Mordillo, Ronnie James Dio, Albert Uderzo, and the entire staff of the Augustiner brewery in Munich, Germany. Prost, lads!

BL : What's your relationship with SQP been like? Who approached who, and how was it different from working with Barron's?

MD : The guys are SQP are solid gold legends. I was introduced to them by the unstoppable whirlwind of awesome that goes by the name of James Ryman and they made the entire production of the book easy and fun. You only need to take a quick look at the SQP site to realise they have a wealth of experience working with artists going back many (many!) years. Barron’s was an entirely different setup, as I had no contact with them whatsoever! The book they published – the snappily-titled ‘Fantasy Artist’s Figure Drawing Bible’ - was developed with a book production company who sold the completed project on to publishers.

BL : The Photoshop jocks out are dying to know, do you have a favorite brush? Did you make it yourself, and if so, what are some of the behaviors and settings that make it work for you?

MD : I alternate between a few different brushes while I work in order to keep some variety in the marks I’m making, but they’re all very similar. They’re custom brushes, created from scanned paint dabs of my own making – very similar to the ‘dense stipple’ brushes in the ‘Natural Brushes’ brush set which ships with Photoshop. I control the opacity with stylus pressure, and use no other features except occasionally flicking on the texture option. Brush size I control from the keyboard.

BL : Ah, so the sampled shapes -- like directional smears, or literal blots with a ragged edge?

MD : I filled about twenty sheets of A4 paper with blobs, smears, spatters, dabs, smudges and every other mark I could think of. Then I scanned the lot, turned them into brush tips and spent the following week or so working through to find those which suited me best. There's a dozen or so in regular rotation, but I still dip into the others now and then. I'd recommend it - it taught me a lot about the wheels and cogs of Photoshop's brush engine and using unique brushes is a step towards giving your work a distinct signature.

BL : If you could hire anyone (living, dead, fictional or nonfictional) to be your model for a day, guilt free, who would it be?

MD : Valerie Leon, circa 1973. The epitome of the seventies amazon. Sadly, I think I would squander the opportunity. I met Valerie (who remains a strikingly elegant vixen) a few years ago, and she graciously gave her permission for me to paint her likeness in one of my pin-ups. I have yet to summon the courage.

BL : What's next for Matt Dixon?

MD : Beer, then bed. Longer term, I happy to paint goblins, barbarians, aliens and busty broads for as long as I can get away with it.

You can see more of Mr. Dixon's dazzling creations at his personal website as well as his blog. Cheers, Matt!