Matthew Forsythe on illustrating children's books and designing characters for animation
Matthew Forsythe is an award-winning author, comic artist, children’s book illustrator and animator. His illustrations can be found in books by Lemony Snicket and Kirsten Hall. His works have been published in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Matthew worked as the Lead Designer on the animated show, Adventure Time (Cartoon Network). He also designed characters for The Midnight Gospel (Netflix) and a stop-motion Christmas movie Robin Robin, scheduled for release this November.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic path, how did you become an illustrator?
I think, like you, and like all illustrators; I've always been drawing. I didn't go to art school - I actually studied political science in university and then I traveled around in my twenties and worked in various jobs - teacher, waiter, motorcycle courier, mover - and I was always working on comics and illustrations in the evenings and on weekends. I made a couple comic books and they did well which finally allowed me to become an illustrator full time around the age of 30.
Matthew, I have to admit that I only knew you as an illustrator of wonderful children’s books, and that it’s only recently I found out that you were the lead designer on Cartoon Network’s Adventure time and Netflix’s Midnight Gospel. Can you tell us a bit more about the experience of working on an animation show?
Well, it was very rigorous training for me. I learned so much about illustration and animation working on Adventure Time. My peers were very generous about teaching me and giving me notes. We were doing hundreds of models a week and getting notes on pretty much all of them which I think really improved my abilities. Animation is a team effort so it's a really great contrast to working alone on book projects. I guess I'm an ambivert, so I like being able to bounce back and forth between working alone on books and working on a team in animation.
How did you start illustrating children’s books?
Once my comics were out in the world, a small Canadian publisher offered me a book to illustrate. I wanted to make picture books since I was living in Korea and teaching kindergarten. I really fell in love with the expressive art in Korean picture books and comics and it really lit a fire under me to make my own picture books one day so this was a natural move for me.
As an illustrator, do you mostly use analogue tools, or do you also work digitally?
Yes. I use watercolour, gouache and pencil. I find it very cathartic and enjoyable compared to working digitally. In animation, the deadlines are so short so you often have to work digitally, but I'm trying to move away from that now and paint most of my concept and character art.
Congratulations on writing your first children’s picture book Pokko and the Drum! How was your experience of not only illustrating but also writing a picture book?
It was a wonderful experience. The text and images in picture books should really work together seamlessly. So, only when I am writing for myself am I completely satisfied and completely able to move the pieces around so they fit together well and pace properly.
Where did the idea for you book Pokko and the Drum come from?
It comes from many different places. In one sense, it's sort of a thinly veiled metaphor for the artistic "journey" i described above. We make our art, we ply our craft and we do our best and the world sort of happens around us. It started for me with just the image of a frog playing a drum on every page and this band of characters moving around her.
Can you tell us a bit about your process of writing a children’s book?
I think there are many inputs. But at the core, for me, there needs to be some kind of emotional moment. This is the one thing that each book is about. Everything sort of orbits around this core thing. Then, for me, the job is about digging into the characters - who they are and what they want - and then breaking that down into energetic page turns.
Who or what would you say influenced you most as an artist?
So many things. My father, I guess, who was a very creative person. And my sister - we used to draw together a lot as children. Artistically there are too many to list.
In November a stop-motion animation Robin Robin by Aardman’s studios is released in Netflix, you’ve worked on that one as well. Can you tell us a bit more about the movie? Is there a difference in the process of designing 2d and three dimensional characters?
I worked on the film as the production designer. The script was sort of being worked out and reworked while we were in pre-production. So, I only really saw the final product recently. This was a dream project. First, to work with Aardman - whose work I loved so much when I was a kid and secondly to work with a group of insanely talented craftspeople turning your drawings into 3D sculptures and then puppets.
With a few exceptions (such as Robin and the Cat - who were mostly designed by the director, Mikey), the final designs were remarkably faithful to my paintings and direction. The animation supervisor, Ian Whitlock, was so brilliant and it was a joy seeing all the subtle mannerisms applied to the characters as they came to life. The cinematographer, Dave Alex, was the photographer on some of the early Aardman shorts - like The Wrong Trousers. So it was a thrill to get to see him work, also.
In terms of 2D vs 3D, the answer is no, actually. I am thinking very much in 3D when designing for both hand-drawn and stop motion. Volume is at the core of both approaches. Even though I may have a graphical and painterly approach, I'm always trying to think about the underlying masses and volumes and how they will move in space in both situations.
Matthew, thank you very much for the interview. We wish you a lot of success with your new children's book and can't wait to see Robin Robin on Netflix!