An Interview with Lon Levin
ARTWORK THAT TICKLES AND TWINKLES
When did you first think about art as something you wanted to do? Were you encouraged or discouraged by family, friends, teachers?
I’ve always loved art but was initially planning to follow a career in Clinical Psychology. I studied Psychology for my first degree but realized that my passion lay in art so I enrolled on a part time Art Foundation Diploma alongside the final year of my undergraduate degree. That was a bit of a crazy year and involved a lot of all-nighters to finish deadlines for both courses but when that was done I was able to study a Masters degree in Authorial Illustration. Even after I’d obtained my MA I still felt
like I wouldn’t be able to make a living from drawing so tried a number of different business ideas before I felt confident enough to just concentrate on drawing.
I was even determined to be a Chocolatier at one point and spent months and months making my own molds and hand finishing tiny chocolate characters. It was basically painting but using chocolate instead. My family have always been very supportive of my art. I’m the oldest of 4 sisters and the only one in our family with any artistic inclination so they are all easily impressed by anything creative I do. My Nan was very artistic so she helped to nurture my passion from a young age.
What kind of kid were you? Where did you grow up? What were your influences?
I grew up in a small market town in the Shropshire countryside in England. I was always a quiet, studious child and loved art from a young age. I would make my own little books and journals, and repeatedly draw my friends and family in different styles. I was lucky that my best friend was into art with equal measure so we did a lot of drawing together. I have quite a competitive, perfectionist nature and tend to lose interest in things if I can’t be the best, however my best friend always had far greater artistic talent than me. This meant that I was familiar with feeling artistically inferior from a young age and that I learned how to enjoy making art despite this. It has also made me quite a humble and self-critical artist now which can be both a benefit and a disadvantage. I had quite a wide range of influences really but the books that really stood out from my childhood were ‘Changes’ by ‘Anthony Browne’ which I borrowed
many times from our local library, a copy of Lane Smith’s ‘Maths Curse’ which I received for my 10th birthday, Philip Ridley’s ‘Scribbleboy’ and ‘Kaspar in the Glitter’ which were illustrated by Chris Riddell. These books all fed my love of illustration and still feel magical when I look at them now.
Your style and take on creation of art is very unique. Did you work on developing a style or is that what naturally came out of you?
I used to be very conscious about trying to develop a style. I love such a varied number of artists and illustrators that I found I would look at one person’s work and try and emulate that, and then the next week compare my work to a different artist and feel that I needed to change it again. Its only recently that I’ve felt more comfortable with drawing things in a way that feels more instinctive to me and concentrate
(Cont.) more on how I naturally enjoy working. Once I stopped consciously caring about my style I found that was when it really started to develop.
You do a lot of lovable warm character art work. How did that happen?
I’ve always been drawn to quite dark, moody artwork in terms of both content and palette. I remember getting some feedback from my tutor on some work I had done for my MA. He told me that the colors I had used were too dark for a children’s illustration. I explained that I really loved the muted palettes that Shaun Tan uses but he responded that “Shaun Tan gets away with it because his drawings are so good”. That’s always stuck with me so although I still really love using a dark palette, I try and balance that with a cute, loveable character, or with touches of bright colours. I also love the juxtaposition of these contrasting elements too.
Will you explain a little about the origins of your characters and their meaning to you? Do they come out of your head or from people you’ve seen or know?
In books, film or art the area that has always captivated me the most is magical realism. I love the idea of making the everyday seem magical or making the magical seem everyday, and I try to explore this with my work. With each piece I generally try to make mundane, overlooked scenes or characters seem enchanting, or to place familiar animals in unusual everyday scenes creating a surreal, almost magical impression. . I want the viewer to feel as though they could come across such an event in their own lives, which I try to achieve by including unnecessary, mundane details in the background, and by using a fairly realistic colour palette.
I particularly love exploring this concept with fairy tales. There’s nothing supernatural about three bears or an owl and a pussy cat yet we automatically assume that these tales take place in a fictional land. I want to encourage people to imagine that these events could take place in their world. I'm currently working on a children’s book about a Dragon which isn’t a character that I would normally chose to focus on. Templar Publishing held a 40th anniversary illustration competition (which I was fortunate enough to win) for which the brief was to create a dragon themed story. I realized that a dragon character was actually the perfect vehicle to explore magical realism in a picture book. The dragon finds himself in our world and explores it with the company of a child he has befriended. With this I hope to make the reader feel as though this could happen to them, as well as to use the dragon’s outside perspective on the familiar things we take for granted to encourage people to appreciate the magic that can be found here.
Has the computer affected your work? Do you work traditionally and digitally?
Yes, majorly. I always worked traditionally using acrylic paint and colored pencils and even won a ‘Best Emerging Artist’ award for one of my paintings, but when I had children I found I stopped producing artwork because there just wasn’t the time or space needed. Once I started working digitally it was far more convenient and I was able to find time to draw again. It wasn’t until I started working digitally that my career really started to progress, but I have found that when people ask me about my medium I’m almost apologetic when I say I use the iPad. There’s a definite prejudice that digital work is somehow lesser than traditional art, and even some of my friends have questioned whether I can ‘actually draw for real’. With my work I strive to make it look as traditional as possible. Some of my earlier work has a definite digital feel to it which I try to stay away from now, and people have since contacted me to ask whether I have original pieces for sale so I guess I’m on the right track.
What’s going on in your head when you work on a piece? Your fears, anticipation, confidence, etc. How do you know something is finished?
I don’t think I have ever considered a piece finished, I always just work until I run out of time before a deadline. Even with work I do just for fun I always try to tie it in with the weekly colour collective brief on twitter so that I always
have a deadline to work to
Without one I would drive myself mad over-thinking and over-working every illustration I did. I’m unlikely to ever be happy that a piece is finished, there would always be something I would change.
Your work is so unique, how did you attract clients when you first started out. Were you concerned about getting found by the right client?
I guess with platforms such as Instagram you are able to put your work out there and wait for people who like your work to approach you. I just started posting art for fun really, and would get excited if any strangers happened to like it, but its gradually built up from there. Clients who contact me have seen my work and feel the style is already suited to their need, but there have been occasions where I don’t feel I am the right person for their brief. I’m only working part time at the moment so I am able to just take on projects that I think I will enjoy and add value to.
I’m curious about how you choose what to work on. What’s does your process entail? Start to finish. Can you give us a short step-by-step?
Sometimes I have a clear idea of what to work on, other times I might start with a scene that I would like to try and draw and then work out who could be in that scene, what could be happening? I start by opening a number of source pictures on my Mac and then using Procreate on my iPad I draw a really rough outline. Next I quickly block in all the color and lighting to fill the picture, again really roughly, until I am happy with the palette, and then start working through adding detail to a section at a time.
The whole way through this I constantly open up copies of the work so far on my Mac to make sure I don’t stray too far from the original rough plan. Sometimes I’ll work on something and then find that I preferred it before, which is another reason I love working digitally – the undo button is my best friend! The whole process takes me far too long really and I need to work on making this more efficient, or perhaps being less critical!
What do you do to promote yourself and get work? Have you worked for publishers(print and gaming)/animation companies in European countries like England or France or US? If not would you want to?
To be honest I haven’t actively promoted myself at all yet. In an ideal world I probably wouldn’t have reached this point until a year or so down the line. My children are 5 years, 3 years and 9 months old so I wasn’t planning to push my art work until they were a little older – not that I’m complaining! Most of my work comes through Instagram and Etsy sales and I haven’t yet reached a point where I haven’t got a project on the go, but when the time comes I will work on my portfolio to find an agent. My last big project was ‘Get Back in the Book’ by Larry Issa which is a book I illustrated for Kalamus who are an American publisher so I’m open to working with companies from any country really, technology makes it so easy these days.
What’s the future hold for you? Any ultimate goal?
I’m currently working on my debut author/ illustrator book for Templar Publishing which is due to be published Spring 2021. After that, who knows? I have a notebook filled with story ideas so I’d love to work my way through some of those. I also have an idea for an illustrated novel so it’s probably my goal to work on that one day.
If you could meet anyone in the field you’re in who would it be and why?
I’m quite fortunate that my parents own an independent children’s bookshop so I’ve been able to meet a lot of people I admire in the field; for example, David Litchfield, Chris Ridell, Julia Donaldson. Unfortunately I’m quite socially awkward so I never actually articulate anything I’d like to say to them! I’d love to one day meet Shaun Tan as he’s my absolute favorite illustrator, not necessarily to ask him anything but to be able to watch him work would be an amazing experience.
"Once I started working digitally it wasfar more convenient and I was able to findtime to draw again."