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Meet the young Irish illustrator behind 'Cantona and Seagull' and other brilliant images

Sligo-born Dan Leydon counts ESPN and Nike as being among his clients.

'Cantona and Seagull'
'Cantona and Seagull'
Image: Dan Leydon

FOOTBALL HAS MILLIONS of fans across the world; however it takes a particularly ardent admirer of the game to dedicate one’s life towards illustrating some of its best-known figures.

Yet Sligo-born Dan Leydon has pursued this dream of his — portraying the likes of Neymar, Eric Cantona and Luis Suarez among others in his own unique way.

And he has been enjoying considerable success of late too. Leydon counts the prestigious likes of Nike and ESPN as being among his clients, though he admits that despite such success, he is not in the most stable of professions.

“I am immensely lucky to get to do something that I love as a way to earn my living, it’s not lost on me,” he says. “I’m so grateful for even getting to do it for two years; things like this could easily dry up in the morning, so I try to appreciate each job in a specific way.

“It took about a year and a half for Nike to get in contact, and since then I’ve worked on three projects that involved them. ESPN just commissioned me for a job a few weeks ago, so I’m very pleased they see my work as polished enough to share with their audience.”

image(‘Neymar’s first La Liga match. It’s half-time, and Barcelona are 6 up’)

Leydon explains how the painstaking attention to detail evident in his work is something he has honed since childhood.

“I have had a compulsion to draw since I could pick up a pen. My mum spent ages encouraging me to draw rough body shapes and then add details in as I saw fit. I was about three then and I’ve found it is an effective method of expressing myself that takes a different route to speech or writing.

“I studied Industrial Design in college and that gave me a great place to develop my conceptual skills and to understand how ideas work and also importantly, how to hone them down to something that works with no superfluous extras.”

He also believes growing up in Sligo did have a certain influence on his career choice.

“I’m from Strandhill. It’s a quirky little village,” he explains. “I’ve travelled a lot and not many places have the energy that it has. In some vague way, I’d say it helped my sense of individuality, which in turn would only help pursuing a job like illustration.”

And while Leydon has had a passion for illustration for as long as he can remember, he admits he initially had no precise ideas as regards turning this pursuit into a career.

“After college in 2009, I didn’t send out any CVs. I’d be lying if I said I had a plan, but I did have a conviction that I wanted to work for myself. I like attacking new challenges. Over the next two years I worked in a slot machine arcade to earn money and worked ceaselessly on figuring out how to apply my passion for drawing to making a meaningful living.

“I gravitated toward Twitter and combined my two biggest passions, football and art. I felt like I had the bit between my teeth then and could forge ahead as it was a worthwhile direction.”

image(‘Luis Suarez’)

Leydon saw Twitter as the perfect opportunity to showcase his work, and it wasn’t long before one prominent football journalist, Graham Hunter, sat up and took notice. He subsequently secured a deal to work with the renowned Spanish football writer on his book about Barcelona.

“Graham found out about my work by my constant pestering him to check my stuff out on Twitter,” he admits. “I owe him a great deal. He essentially set me on my way to being an Illustrator full time. When working on the book, I only had contact with him now and again.

“I dealt with Neil and Martin, the lads who run Backpage Press, the publishing company. It’s a good working relationship and we’ve gone on to work on more jobs, the latest being Graham’s new book, which focuses on the Spanish football team.”

While the majority of his work comes from British and American clients, now that Leydon has acquired some success, will we see the emergence of an abundance of promising, young Irish illustrators?

“I didn’t study illustration in any way so am sort of out of the loop on what’s current in the Irish scene. My only link is appearing on the roster at Kovet.ie, a company that makes illustrated phone covers. They operate out of Sligo and have chosen from a stellar list of Irish illustrators to work with.

“I’m quite proud to be included in a list with the likes of Steve Simpson and Chris Judge to name but two. I also couldn’t end the topic of talented Irish illustrators without mentioning Annie West, a legend in her own right!”

image(‘Zlatan watching his shot fly’)

Though Leydon does cover other topics in his illustrations, his primary obsession is football, saying that it inspires roughly “90%” of his work. He explains how he began following the game by chance more than anything else.

“Football is something that is usually passed down from father to son, but my dad has zero interest in it. His passion was surfing and is now fishing. I got a strong interest in the sea from him and sort of discovered football on my own. If you find a hobby and make it one of your passions without any guidance, I believe you get a stronger connection to it as you have ownership of that decision.

“My first attempts at playing football came in about third class in primary school. A lot of people in my class supported Manchester United, so I opted for Liverpool. A perfect decision, as supporting Liverpool is a rollercoaster. It’s like an endless training montage from Rocky, except they haven’t gotten to the top of the steps yet.

“If I could play football all day, I would. I’ve had to get three knee operations and can’t play anymore. I needed to direct that passion into something positive, so I think in hindsight, illustrating football has provided a suitable method of doing that.”

He consequently says that football is “the driving force behind his art” and as a result, he has even got to come into contact with some of its most famous stars, including Gareth Bale.

“A very nice man named Amar Shah, who is running a charitable website, sorted that out. A very kind customer also sent on a picture of Xavi signing my poster of him. I’m delighted to be in a position for my artwork to be reaching these people.

Aside from football, he has one other specific passion which recurs throughout his work — cinema.

“I have a playlist on YouTube with some of my favourite film moments saved up,” he says. “I love when a good song choice works well in a film; it’s the best thing in cinema.

“I love the way a film poster can evoke a sense of heightened drama by framing one specific element from a plot. I try to do something similar with football as each match is basically a plot that is played out over 90 minutes. It lends itself well to that purpose.”

image(‘The Return of Heisenberg’)

Moreover, in another interview, Leydon spoke of wanting to “try to focus on moments of tension” when illustrating. What prompts him to take this outlook?

“Tension is the essence of football,” he says. “Every player on the pitch is tethered to the rest by a sense of position, competitiveness and duty. If the player on the ball is by a corner flag at one end of the pitch, they can effect a change in a player’s position at the other end of the pitch by just looking in that direction and adopting a more meaningful stance.

“Success depends on the intelligent use of movement to destabilise an opponent’s formation. Essentially, football is all action dynamic chess.”

Leydon’s dedication to the craft means he has created an endless and eclectic supply of images. However, there is one, in particular, which he looks back upon fondly.

“I’m in a good place because I find myself saying every few weeks ‘I think THIS is the best thing I’ve ever done’. I can’t pick a favourite, but I suppose I really like my ‘Cantona and Seagull’ portrait.

“I think I hit on some good things there. I drew his face in 57 different ways over a few days and settled on that quite minimal look. I’m happy with the way the seagull represents his most famous quote and is also a visual echo of the most prominent element on his face, the eyebrow.

“It has the air of an ‘in-joke’ as serious football fans will know about the symbolism of the gull. I’m most pleased with the way the final piece looks; it’s farcical with a studied sense of cool. I think Cantona himself would get a laugh out of it.”

image(The cover, which Leydon designed, for a recent Jack Wilshere book)

Such answers reflect the serious thought and detail that go into his illustrations, despite their deceptively simple look. So while the average person would consider drawing to be little more than a hobby at best, for Leydon, it is very much an intellectual pursuit.

“The best thing about illustrating is trying to improve the way my mind works. I try to inch toward a more visual way of thinking every time I sketch. To me, there’s nothing more pleasing than communicating an idea through a strong and simple visual. I think that simplicity is the ultimate elegance and when I can boil a concept down to a few shapes or lines, it really reinforces my love for doing this.

“I’d struggle to come up with a bad side to this line of work, maybe when I’m in the middle of drawing myself out of an idea shortage. Those drawings are infuriating, little squiggly half-formed ideas, but each one brings me closer to drawing something good so they have their function.”

Leydon describes his love of the “addictive rush” of seeing his work go from page to client’s screen so rapidly, though he explains that the process of coming up with ideas for illustrations is a little slower.

“I have very little say over what ideas pop into my head. The best I can do is read up extensively on a subject and then let the info digest for a while. I believe the imagination is a muscle just like the rest and the more you work on conditioning it, the better and more responsive it becomes.

“I will see something and be inspired by it and then try to break it down and see what makes that work tick. My ‘style’ may come off as kind of patch work as a result of this but I do think it’s all part of an overall process that is leading to me developing a distinct method of communicating my ideas to a wide audience.”

image(Philippe Coutinho)

And now that he has seemingly gone some way towards reaching that wide audience, does he have any grandiose plans for the immediate future?

“I don’t plan my work in any detail, I don’t know much about art except that it goes where it’s not expected, so to plan is to be at odds with having creative impulses. I’ll just keep drawing, working hard and being delighted at getting to do this for a living.”

image(‘Shexy Football with Dirk Kuyt’)

Dan Leydon is an Illustrator from Sligo. You can find him on Twitter at @danleydon

All images used with permission via Tumblr

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