Dave Flanagan talks deification and football art for The Gallery

Dave Flanagan talks deification and football art for The Gallery

Quickly becoming one of the foremost figures in contemporary football illustration, Dave Flanagan has in recent months been handpicked to produce artwork for the folks at BT Sport and The Guardian, for leagues such as the Premier League and the Bundesliga, and for a growing list of Europe’s leading clubs including Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Monaco and Juventus to name just a few.

Whether it’s polished vector shapes designed to construct an intricate portrait, or a vibrant, sketched render of a touch, a shot, a goal or a celebration, Flanagan has evidenced an armoury of varying aesthetics and presented himself as being infinitely adaptable in representing any and all aspects of the beautiful game in a way that is, poignantly, beautiful.

Dave recently sat down with These Football Times to chat about what he looks for in a portrait subject, the battle facing those who wish to establish a recognisable style while being a malleable illustrator, the various highlights of his burgeoning art career, and plenty more.

You portfolio boasts a number of illustrative styles. You’ve rendered footballers in free-flowing sketched fashions, in caricaturish ways, shapely forms, and in ultra-detailed realistic styles. Some focus on the flow and movement of the game while others aim to represent the personality of the player. Have you found one style to be significantly harder to utilise than others? Which would you say comes closest to matching your natural style of drawing?

“I have a natural way of creating my illustrations but not a natural style of drawing. I will always begin with the face – I have to crack the likeness, whether it’s a detailed drawn illustration or a simple vector portrait. If I don’t get the likeness, it’s back to the drawing board. Most of the commissions I receive are to create images based on a player’s likeness, so it’s important that I can achieve this in any style.

“The style approach I use which is the most difficult to implement is the simplified vector illustrations I create for The Guardian. To get the likeness and the character of someone from just a few vector shapes and colours might appear quite simple but it’s really difficult to get right consistently.”

Do you find your ability to turn your hand to a number of unique styles to be another feather in your cap or are you ever concerned this diversity may encroach upon your ability to define a distinctive style of work? How important do you feel distinction really is to an illustrator or designer?

“I would say I don’t have one distinctive style and I don’t think I have any that particularly define me. I did spend a long time trying to find my style, because when people instantly recognise your style, and can say ‘Oh, that’s a Flanagan…’, that’s when you’re a real illustrator, right? “Luckily, I realised after a few years that I didn’t want to be limited to one particular style of illustration and that ultimately it didn’t really matter. I’ve found that just taking the time to create good work is the best approach to take.

“Many illustrators have distinctive styles that are specifically theirs and I completely understand why it’s important to do that and how that gives consistency and trust to clients. However, I’ve found that if I spend an amount of time creating vector head and shoulder portraits, I often really look forward to creating something which is in complete contrast to this, i.e. a highly detailed drawing with lots of movement and texture. My brain somehow craves the opposite of what I’m creating there and then, hence the diverse range of styles.

“By creating decent work in a number of styles, I’ve been offered a broad range of different commissions. By having just one style approach, I might spend the rest of my days doing the same thing again and again. I couldn’t do that.”

Perhaps by coincidence, there is something of a theme of stained-glass windows present in your work. This immediately brings to mind the idea of  deification; of football being the most widely followed contemporary religion, in which today’s stars of the pitch occupy the spaces where once the biblical figures of centuries past were looked upon for inspiration. Did that play any conscious part in the conceptualisation of these particular pieces?

“I have always been fascinated by stained glass windows and, whenever I’d visit a church, I would stare at them trying to work out how they were made or the story they told. I decided to create my own version of a window using Yaya Touré as the central figure and straight away I just loved the graphic feel you could create with the bold black lines and tones of colours and light. I didn’t specifically think of the players as replacing biblical figures but I did think it was a great way to show their grandeur and importance in a new way.

“Last year. CNN contacted me out of the blue to create a stained-glass illustration of Donald Trump for an article they were publishing on his religious beliefs. When I asked where they had heard about me the client said he was a massive football fan and had seen my Touré artwork online.”

What are the best and worst parts of being an illustrator and how do they rank alongside the perks and disadvantages of any previous jobs you’ve had?

“The best part is being able to combine my passion for football with my love of illustrating. For me, this is a dream job which I’ve essentially been able to turn into a reality. There was no class at school or college course to take. I liked doing illustration, clients liked what I created and I found that I could be paid to do it.

“There is nothing better than seeing your work released. Whether it’s a programme cover, a magazine article, an animated video or a product range, the excitement of seeing your work in the public domain is amazing. I worked with England Rugby last year and they sent me tickets to a game. “When my Dad and I arrived at the stadium, we first bought a programme with my illustration on the cover and then saw the 50 foot banners hanging from the sides of the stadium with my work on show. For me, it was the equivalent of scoring a goal in the FA Cup final – yes, you might have scored a few goals in your time but this was particularly special.

“The worst parts are the same issues any other illustrator will have: tight deadlines; difficult clients; negotiating the right fee. I have to say that 90 percent of the jobs I’ve worked on so far have been brilliant – I’ve enjoyed the work and been paid fairly, but there are occasionally jobs that you know you shouldn’t have taken, which become a real pain in the neck and can make you feel bitter about the industry as a whole.

“My previous job was in graphic design. I worked in the industry for a long time and really enjoyed working as part of a team, making some amazing friends along the way. The great advantage was that the salary gave me stability in life which meant I could buy a house and a car and raise a family. I will always be grateful for that. Now that I’m a full-time freelance illustrator, I may not have the security that a salary offers but I’m now my own boss, so I can spend time doing what I love. I earn enough money to live, whilst being able to spend more time with my family.”

What do you look for in a player that makes you believe they’d be ideal to base an illustration on and do you have a favourite player to draw? 

>”Any player who has a distinctive look is a blessing. This might be their haircut, beard or recognisable facial features. I love illustrating Gareth Bale. I just think his facial features are amazing and very distinctive. Before Bale it was definitely Pirlo. He was a dream to illustrate and had so much style and character.

“I haven’t illustrated Harry McGuire or Kieran Trippier yet and, after the World Cup, it would be great to immortalise them in some way. Maybe a stained glass of Southgate would be good to do, after the heroics of the summer.”

Do you have a favourite illustration or an especially beloved series or project that you would be most eager to point soon-to-be fans of yours in the direction of? What is the proudest moment of your career in football illustration to date?

“I don’t have one favourite illustration because I don’t have a favourite illustration style. For that reason, I would direct people towards my work for Arsenal. I’ve worked with them for a few years now and they have given me great flexibility with the style approach for each commission. Recently, they asked me to create an illustration of Arsène Wenger for his last home game at the club. This was used pretty much everywhere on the day, but my favourite was the animated video they created using my illustration, with Arsene’s voice as the backdrop.

“My proudest moment would have to be be when I was interviewed at my home by Premier League TV. They asked me to create an illustration for the City v United derby match a couple of years ago, and asked for an interview to discuss the work and my opinions on the game. I didn’t know at the time but this was seen around the world by millions of people, which is pretty crazy for a small-time illustrator working from a small village in Lancashire.”

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

Thanks to Dave Flanagan 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.

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