Nearly two years after we started, we’ve finally found ourselves a decent tenant for the other half of our studio space. That tenant is Nicolas Dixon, a Leeds artist who is well known for his brightly colour graphic style. As well as lots of local projects, he has painted in Ibiza, does the art for Eats Everything’s label, recently painted a custom BB-8 droid to celebrate the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, and much more besides. Here we speak to Nicolas to get his backstory, ask about his working process and find out about his relationship to music.
Give us some of your background and tell us how you got to the point of being a full time artist: did you got to art college, for example?
My path has been quite an unconventional one. I’ve never been to art college and I’m totally self taught. I was a DJ a while back I went traveling around Asia to do that about 20 years ago, after finishing a music production course at the Leeds College of Music, which was the first course of its type in the UK. Asia was where the art first really started to manifest itself. I’ve always been artistically inclined but not in practice. It’s always been there though, really, and looking back I’ve always been painting in my mind without even realising it.
At the time I was in Thailand and ended up DJing for the Thai mafia at the full moon parties (which was very interesting to say the least) and other venues of theirs around the islands. I also had a potential residency in Buenos Aires, so things were starting to come together nicely. At this time I thought music was going to be my life, then I met my ‘Nemesis’ (my German girlfriend at the time), sacked my career off and travelled around Asia with her before moving to Germany. She was an artist herself and she always encouraged me to paint. Then the inevitable happened and we split up and I moved back to Leeds and ended up on a sofa bed in my mum’s front room. It was great to see my mum and family after years of being away but these were pretty dark days, thinking about what I’d sacrificed and where I should be to the point that I couldn’t even listen to dance music for two years without coming out in a rash and a hot sweat!
Fast forward 12 years and it wasn’t until I saw a piece of art in Distrikt, done my friend Mikey Brain, that reminded me of the sketches I’d done whilst in Germany. When I saw the stuff Mikey had done, who I’d known for about 18 months and never shown him my stuff, I decided to show him my work from my time in Germany and he was blown away by it. The next thing I know I was painting with him. Within six weeks we had amassed 15 paintings and exhibited our first works at a pre party for a Circoloco night at Stinky’s Peephouse of all places and sold six on the night! That’s when the penny dropped and realised my sacrifices had not been for nothing.
And have you always been a full time artist, or have you ever had to work a ‘proper job’? What point did you leave that and dive full time into art?
As I mentioned before I used to DJ and had my heart set on making a go of music. With friends we had a fully functioning analogue studio (all outboard gear) in Leeds back in the early ’90s. This was before the days of Ableton and Logic. Trying to get the sound we wanted was like bashing your head against a brick wall. That’s why I packed a bag of records and went on my travels. When I finished traveling around Asia and Germany I setup my own tiling company which was pretty successful. I had that for about 8 years, then In 2008 when the recession hit things went really quiet so it became quite tough. Things were looking pretty grim, then in 2010 that’s when the Dick Brain collective came from nowhere and shocked a lot people. Then in 2013 I was commissioned to paint the main lobby of the Urban Spaces Hotel in Ibiza with other artists like Inkie, Findac Filth, N4T4, Lauren Baker and Mikey Brain. This was an amazing time (well most of it) and that’s when I took the plunge into art full time and stayed in Ibiza for the year working on that commission and others.
How long did it take you to find your current high impact, strongly colourful style?
And what informs or influenced it, what is the thinking behind it, why and how did you end up with this trademark style?
My style started out black and white, painting intensely detailed abstract shapes. I started experimenting with colour in about April 2011 when I did a couple of large abstract canvases called “Colours of my Mind” and “Colours of My Life”. They started off quite minimal with block colour but as time’s gone on my style has evolved and now include more detail, I still keep things as ambiguous as possible. What can look like the hand of one character is actually the nose of another, I try to get across how I view life in general everything can be looked at in different perspectives. There’s always more than two ways to look at everything, non more true than in life itself. My own life has influenced what I paint. I’ve led quite an abstract and colourful life and that’s what I draw on mainly.
How and where do you start on your pieces, what is the process, what media do you use?
I just go for it really, straight off the bat and whatever comes out pretty much stays. I work with the negative space and create the piece organically as it grows. My job is to rein it in and push it out when necessary. I spend time making sure the colours go with each other and always start off in the top left corner but that’s just down to tradition and a bit of superstition. If it’s a specific brief then obviously I’ll work within that and prepare the content. Although abstract my work is littered with symbolism throughout representing the theme of the commission.
Is there a big art community in Leeds, people to bounce off, studios to use, or do you work in isolation?
There is but I’m a bit of a lone wolf. One project I have done locally was with Ryan Smith and the guys up at Sunny Bank Mills who are great. We turned an unused weaving shed into a pop up work space and filled the walls with art and it’s still being used today. The majority of people I’ve worked though are in London, not to say we haven’t got some great talent up north though.
2016 was my busiest year so far, Disney and Star Wars approached me to paint a custom BB-8 droid to celebrate the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. That was to raise money for the the Great Ormond Street hospice at a charity auction, others invited to add their stamp were Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker!) Alex Daniels (C3-PO) and yes Jonathan Ross! I also had my work displayed on one of the massive billboards in Ibiza accompanying Eats Everything.
What are some of the big commissions you have had in the last year or so?
On a local level I’ve just completed a huge 80ft mural inside the newly refurbished Kirkgate market, Europe’s largest and oldest indoor market. The mural has completely transformed the markets internal aesthetic, and was even used as the centrepiece for its unveiling at Leeds Light Night, which attracted nearly 80,000 people this year.
Also earlier in the year alongside other renowned artists I represented Leeds in Liverpool in a collaboration with the City Talking and the Leeds bid. I painted what is now known as the “Leeds beach hut” which had a temporary place on the banks of the Liverpool docks so it was a pretty busy year.
And what are you working on right now?
At the moment I’m doing a couple of private murals in Leeds and also working as the arts director for Edible Records which is Eats Everything’s label. I’m also working with local VFX Producer Ollie Sharp and One Bright Dot exploring animating my work bringing it to life which is coming out later on in the year. I’m also going to Belgium in February to paint a life size neon giraffe. It will be the first time I’ve painted in neon and also a giraffe. I am also in the process of painting the frontage of the KMAH studio which I’m excited about.
What will you be doing in the studio space – just painting or selling also?
I’ll be painting mainly but I also want it to be a space for people to come and view my work.
Where can people find out more about you and see more of your work?
At nicolasdixon.co.uk and I’ve also just had work showing at The London West Bank Gallery on Portobello Road, which was a tribute to Hunter S Thompson.
Musically, what are you into? Are you someone who appreciates Leeds’ party scene?
Is there any relation between music, partying and art for you?
Yes I’m still actively involved in the Leeds party scene. I’ve spent most of my adult life in clubs and it’s been a massive influence on my life and the people I have met have shaped who I am and what I’m doing to this day. My work has a rhythm to it which for me is a definite reflection on the sounds I’ve grown up with. My art has definitely been influenced by my experiences in life.
Are you a KMAH fan? Any shows you particularly like
I’ve been that busy painting I’ve not caught a show but now I’ll be listening to every single show, most of my mates have shows with you and I think it’s amazing what guys are doing and I’m really excited about sharing a space with you all.