Having won BT Sport’s prestigious Champions Draw competition in all three of its years in existence thus far, it wouldn’t be undeserved to refer to Sligo-based football illustrator Dan Leydon as the Real Madrid of the football illustration game; though he may, and in fact did, shrug off the awkward nickname.
Popular among a glittering list of clients that, along with the aforementioned BT Sport, includes NIKE, Umbro, ESPN, the Bundesliga, COPA90, Bleacher Report, as well as football clubs such as Manchester City, Juventus, LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, Dan Leydon’s highly personable, richly creative and acutely fun and vivacious work, along with his open discussions and regular updates surrounding it, are widely beloved on social media.
In an extensive interview with the man himself, These Football Times discussed with Dan his humble beginnings in the world of football illustration, the advantages and disadvantages of wielding an eclectic armoury of illustrative styles, the ethoses and approaches that set him apart from his contemporaries, and much more.
Given that you have a deep affinity with and love for the world of football, as well as an enormous talent for illustration, at surface level it perhaps comes as little surprise that you ended up becoming a football illustrator. Is it really that simple or would people who know you, or knew you only as a youngster, be surprised to hear of the career path you pursued?
“In terms of an ‘enormous talent’, very much your words not mine, I would have to veer in the direction of an enormous interest as opposed to anything else. Sometimes I’m forced to evaluate my skillset and strengths; I’m very curious and enjoy focusing on self-determined goals.
“Bob Ross said talent is a pursued interest and I’d agree. It’s an umbrella term for many things like hard work, dedication, focus and ingenuity all congealed into one execution an onlooker sees, but in that recognition the piece is separated from all of the boring old practice. And that’s not to say I think I have amassed any significant talent, the more I improve the more I’m aware of the gulf between my skills as an illustrator and the ones I look up to.
“When I was a kid my main interests were drawing, writing, football and the teenage mutant ninja turtles, so I think 75 percent of my interests were a good indicator of where I could have ended up. There’s still that 25 percent chance I may have been living in a sewer eating pizza, though, which wouldn’t have been all bad. I’m a big fan of Italian food.”
Was there a particular commission after which you first felt comfortable calling yourself a football illustrator?
“Yes, after starting my blog in February 2011, I got a commission from Backpage Press at the kind insistence of Graham Hunter to illustrate his now award-winning BARÇA book. This was completed between October and December of that year. To be honest, I never really thought much about calling myself an illustrator, it was just a necessity of setting out my stall on various social media platforms. The term football illustrator seemed to develop around then, at least to my mind.”
What for you are the best and worst parts of being a football illustrator and how do they rank alongside the perks and disadvantages of any previous jobs you’ve had?
“There’s a lot of freedom and possibility. I like it because it rewards inventive thinking, it’s like a game really. I can’t really compare it to other work or professions, it’s the only full-time job I’ve ever had. I kept a part-time job in a slot machine arcade until I could do this full-time.
“I made a point of never sending out any CVs after college, which was scary at the time, but I think I needed to work for myself. The lack of rhythm can be a downside, but that’s just the nature of freelance work. I could have a hectic month and then a dead month. When I have a quiet period I sometimes assume, well that’s me done now, I’ll never work again, it was good while it lasted, I’ll have to move to the sewers now. Then a job will come through and it’s back to normal.
“A major upside of the job is finding like-minded people. I’m heavily indebted to the original line up of the Champions Draw – Scott McRoy, Dave Flanagan, Dave Merrell and Dave Will. We bounce ideas and experiences off each other and I can safely say that having access to the lads is of tremendous benefit to me as a professional. They’re all immensely skilled and knowledgeable and operating in a tight circle like that is priceless.”
Throughout your work, it appears as though you’ve never been afraid of publicising the work behind your work; the preliminary sketches that were fine-tuned or binned altogether; the inspiration behind any given concept and the framework and alterations that eventually brought it to life. This is in direct conflict with the outward-facing image many creatives chose to portray of the finished articles and nothing else. What do you think makes you want to let people into your process in this way and what do you feel are the pros and cons of doing so?
“I’ll be honest, I wish I was one of those clinical designers who are known for one thing, they do it well, people see it, and they know who made it. It’s a signature style, it’s the 30-second elevator pitch in visual form. However, I am not. The fact you’ve asked what makes me want to let people in makes it obvious you think I could have some form of plan or approach. The fact is, drawing and making things is a compulsion and I just splurge.
“I genuinely find the process interesting. It’s the journey not the destination. In reality, people are much more interested in artists’ lives and processes than their finished work. Maybe it’s me trying to provide context for the finished piece, but mostly I feel it’s me sharing what I think is worthwhile.
“I think I have the most fun when I film a drawing as I do it along with whatever music I’m listening to. I put those updates on my Instagram story and they are always the most watched and messaged things I put there. It tracks a piece from zero to one hundred and I suppose the quality of the videos are a bit trancelike so maybe that hooks people in. The backbone of why I share sketches is to ask people if I’ve got a likeness.
“Feedback is the lifeblood of what I do. Constructive criticism is the most useful thing possible. I believe in the wisdom of crowds and if enough people are telling me a drawing looks like Michael Jackson when it’s meant to be Xherdan Shaqiri then I need to pay attention. It’s also just bloody nice of people to take the time and give me feedback.”
One of the qualities that become immediately apparent when taking in your portfolio is the immense diversity found in the styles and content of your work. There’s a fun and cartoonish quality to almost all that you do but there is detailed portraiture, comic book style art, goofy caricatures, slick brand explorations, memes, and so much more. Would you say that it is something of a professional ambition or ethos of yours to be malleable and to embrace diversity in your work?
“It’s very heartening to hear my work can be tremendously fun. That’s great! I feel like I need to make being a football illustrator work because I love it, I want to continue and to flourish. Therefore my broader ambition is to continue to get employment within the industry so my core approach is probably to be adaptable. Adaptability is essential, things keep changing, will Twitter even exist in five years? I am definite in my focus on developing a varied skillset so I can provide a tailored approach to a client’s needs.
“A strange example always pops into my head when I think of this and I’ve never shared it, but today I will. I used to play the video game The Sims when I was younger, my sisters did too, and we’d mess about ruining the lives of our digital lab rats repeatedly.
“The basis of Sims was that each Sim had something like 10 attributes, like fitness, humour, musical, social, charm etc. Each of these attributes had 10 points. So you spend more time swimming in the pool and the fitness meter keeps growing. I would always allocate the same amount of points to each attribute so rather than one trait being 10 points high and the rest being 1s and 2s, the talent of this Sim would rise evenly and in a balanced fashion. Somehow, in a strange mirror of this, I want to raise all my design skills to serviceable levels. Check back in 10 years and I may be an even five in layout, anatomy, concepts, colour interaction, line work, lettering etc.”
Do you find this challenging or counter-intuitive to the notion of trying to establish a recognisable style among your work and how do you manage that challenge?
“I am finding it hard to develop a signature style. I look at my portfolio and sometimes I recoil at the lack of restraint I show. I think that if I continue practising with the cartoony way I draw in a year or two I could have something that could stand out as a signature style. Beyond that, though, I do hope my signature is my approach and thought process. Hopefully sometime soon people can look at a character design and go ‘oh Dan Leydon is it?’ and then look at a poster and ‘oh, Dan again’. It’s diversity of execution but not approach.”
In 2016 you entered and won BT Sport’s inaugural Champions Draw illustration competition, and successfully retained your title in the subsequent 2017 and 2018 editions. How does it feel being the Real Madrid of European football illustrators?
“Ha, I wouldn’t know! If I had to pick a team, I’d like Pulis era Stoke.”
On an only slightly more serious note, which feeling triumphs when participating in a weekly tournament of that kind; is it the ‘oh my god, what if I can’t think of something to draw this week’ nerves or the ‘I can’t wait to craft another gem for the next game’ excitement?
“It’s just excitement because I’m competitive and love having to just rely on my walnut-sized brain to get me out of a jam. I’ll just keep filling notebooks with potential avenues to pursue until something clicks. It’s just perseverance at the back of it. Mentally picking up two elements and trying to fit them together in a funny way. It takes a while. The main aim was just to get something that was universally funny and apply it to the situation. It was just football draped over everyday experience really.”
Many of your projects incorporate more than a player’s likeness; they speak of their idiosyncrasies, their personalities and their many other uniquenesses. What do you look for in a player that makes you believe they’d be ideal to base an illustration on?
“In making anything I want to have a reward for the person who looks at the piece. It’s my aim to make someone look, look again and smile. Something to figure out or two unconnected dots that the viewer has to connect, once they do they get a small reward. Make the work as interactive as possible really. A player needs to just have that spark, and many players do have it especially with them all being marketing savants these days.”
Do you have one favourite player to draw?
“I’d say Eric Cantona, as I’ve spent so much time developing a little character based off him which led to a seagull being designed and then a boat – the seagull has Cantona’s eyebrow and the boat is based off his collar. For whatever reason, I can just draw him in a way that works for me, it feels like there’s a lot of scope to it. He resonates with people too, I’ve had a lot of people remark that the design is cute and that’s brilliant to hear. Getting emotional responses to a jumble of lines and colour is great and I think shows that the thought I put into a piece can pay off from time to time.”
Do you have a favourite piece or especially beloved series of illustrations that you would be most eager to point soon-to-be fans of yours in the direction of?
“If I was pushed I’d say ‘Pythagoras in Boots’ – it just worked. Captures the posture of Cruyff, has his nickname in there in visual format plus the layout and design came together in a nicely orange possibly Dutch way.
“If I had to say a series it would be my Football Time Travel thread on Twitter. When I posted it I received by far the most overwhelmingly positive response to anything I’ve ever made. It’s an ongoing thing and is a way I can reimagine players in various points in history. It’s a fun gimmick and people seem to enjoy the images plus I get to write small fictional histories to go along with it.”
Any big plans for projects or irons in the fire your existing fans would be excited to hear of?
“I find if I talk about my plans they lose some steam so I will be tight-lipped there. However, I would like to say thanks to everyone who follows my work, supports my work and shares my work. You make a big difference to my life and I massively appreciate it. Like a lot.”
By Will Sharp @shillwarp
Thanks to Dan Leydon for speaking to These Football Times as part of The Gallery. If you’re an artist for whom football remains the ultimate muse, and you’d like to feature in The Gallery, please email us with examples of your work.