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Cover Art And Cover Artists - A Discussion With 5 Of Best (Part 1 Of 3)
Posted on Thursday, March 31 2005 @ 23:37:40 CST by Duncan Glenday

The illustration on every CD you buy is as much a part of the album as the music itself. I know I'm not alone in admitting that I've discovered several progressive and metal gems by browsing the record store shelves and taking a flutter on the record based on the picture. Camel's The Snow Goose comes to mind, and so do Yes and Iron Maiden's early LPs.

The picture without is a reflection of the music within.

It is more than mere packaging – it helps describe the concept or the theme of the music, and is often the basis of the insert booklet, concert posters, adverts and web sites.

Early pioneers like Roger Dean, Derek Riggs, Storm Thorgerson and Paul Whitehead famously elevated cover pictures to an artform worthy of independent appreciation. But who are today's standout practitioners?

Sea Of Tranquility's Duncan Glenday spoke with five of today's best cover illustrators – some are relative newcomers, and others have a history covering many decades of the best music in our genre.

This is part one of a three part article, and examines the artists' biographies and training, their musical influences, and their successes.

Part two will examine the business of CD cover artwork, working with the musicians, and the life of the illustrator..


In part three we discuss the art itself – the influences, the media, and the artists' favorite pieces.


The artists we spoke with were:


Travis Smith

Californian Travis Smith is best known for his covers of heavy metal acts like Opeth, Anathema, Demons & Wizards, Iced Earth and Riverside.  In keeping with the heavier genres of music he covers, his work is often dark and introspective.


Mark Wilkinson

Initially famous for his elaborately detailed covers of Marillion's early CDs, Angland's Mark Wilkinson is still very active today – working with bands like Satellite, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.


Mattias Norén

From Arena and Ayreon to Winterlong and Wolverine, Sweden's Mattias Norén

has become one of today's most successful progressive and metal cover artists.


Marc Klinnert

German-born Marc Klinnert and his wife / business partner Gaby live on Australia's Gold Coast.  Their cover art includes Rhapsody and AINA, and their efforts are evenly divided between cover art and lifesized sculptures.


Rodney Matthews

For three decades Englishman Rodney Matthews has published sci-fi and fantasy creations on record covers, books, posters, calendars, video games and on TV. His cover art graces albums by Asia, Rick Wakeman, Barclay James Harvest, Uriah Heap and Thin Lizzy.



Are you familiar with the Sea Of Tranquility webzine?


Travis Smith:             Yes, I have been familiar with it now and again in the past.


Rodney Matthews:    Not Until recently, when you requested the interview.  It looks professional.


Mark Wilkinson:        I wasn't…but I've had a look now…and very interesting it is too.


Marc Klinnert:           No


Mattias Norén:          Yes, actually I do.  It's a great one.



Where do you live, and work from?


Wilkinson:      I live in Nayland, a small Suffolk village just over the Essex/Suffolk border, about 10 miles from Colchester.  I work from home usually, but I have a studio in another part of the village for the larger scale work.

Matthews:      North Wales – United Kingdom.

Klinnert:         I live and work in Australia, Queensland, the beautiful Gold Coast.

Smith:             I live in and am from a bit outside of San Diego, CA.

Norén:            I live in Alingsås, Sweden, a small city about 50 km from Gothenburg.

Marc Klinnert's Original Illustration For Rhapsody's Symphony Of Enchanted Lands II

What kind of formal training do you have in fine arts, and did it help you with the work you do now?


Wilkinson:      I was what they call a 'mature student' when I started art college in 1974 at 20.  Having spent 4 years in engineering after leaving school, I decided it wasn't what I wanted to do after all.  I had started doing caricatures and designing posters for bands appearing at local colleges and universities and a few friends had said that I ought to consider 'doing it for a living'.  I was skeptical about leaving what I saw as a secure job…but I thought I'd give it a go when I saw an advert for an art college in Watford, north London.  I went for an interview with some of my drawings and posters and to my amazement…was accepted for a 3-year 'multimedia' course taking in graphic design, illustration and copywriting.  I left in 1977 (the year of Punk Rock) with a diploma in graphic art and illustration.

Klinnert:         I just studied a view semesters of design in Germany but during the study I worked as a freelance illustrator for advertisement agencies and no, in my opinion it is not important to study. 

Matthews:      2 Years at The West of England College of Art, Bristol, UK, on a Commercial Design Course.  This included; Package Design, Still Life, Creative Lettering, Costume and Nude Life drawing.  Yes, I found this training very helpful

Smith:             Outside of a semester of art in High School, I have no formal education or training with art.

Norén:            Basically I have no training in "fine art".  I studied something called "technical illustration" for two years.  We learnt how to create building instructions, exploded views etc.  It was more about drawing things very realistic and informative, not very artistic.  But in some way I'm sure it helped me to develop as an artist.

Wilkinson:      The diploma was, as anyone in the arts will tell you, not worth the paper it was printed on in terms of getting work…it's what's in your portfolio that counts.  That is still the case now, and that is how it should be.  What going to art college does however, if you use your time wisely is give you a basic grounding in the arts…but more importantly it exposes you to people and ideas that you would otherwise not have had.  I met some interesting people there…the college band was WIRE…a very experimental so-called 'punk' band that went on to be very influential in the (ahem) 'Art Rock scene', with bands like Blur and REM name-checking them as influences. For me though, meeting Graham Palfrey-Rogers who had been an influential artist in the 60's with a credit as art director for The Beatle's Magical Mystery Tour was the best contact I made.  He started a studio in Covent Garden, London and invited me to join him when I left Watford.  It was the first big break I had as I then met a lot of people in the world of Illustration, and eventually I joined with an artist's agent, David Lewis who got me work in book and magazine publishing.  That was my second big break.  The third big break, and the biggest of the lot of course…was walking through the doors of Torchlight Studio, a design group, who that afternoon had been asked by EMI to 'find an artist' to design album and single sleeves for their new signing, Marillion!

Mark Wilkinson's Cover Illustration For Satellite's A Street Between Sunrise And Sunset

Can you give us a brief rundown of some of the bands you've worked with?


Norén:            Alias Eye, Arena, Avian, Ayreon, Circus Maximus, DGM, Derek Sherinian, Evergrey, Forgotten Suns, Into Eternity, Jag Panzer, John Petrucci, Knight Area, Kotipelto, Michael Pinnella, Star One, Triangle, Winterlong, Wolverine…

Smith:             I think to date I worked with close to 100 bands.  Notably Opeth, Katatonia, Anathema, Devin Townsend, Iced Earth, Death, Nevermore, Solitude Aeturnus, Soilwork, Novembre, Psychotic Waltz.

Wilkinson:      Marillion, Fish, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Hawkwind, Bill Bruford, Syd Barrett / Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, The Darkness

Klinnert:         I worked directly with some bands like Rhapsody, Shaman, AINA, Gun Barrel and others.

Matthews:      This would include Nazareth, Asia, Rick Wakeman, Magnum, The Scorpions, Barclay James Harvest, Uriah Heap and Thin Lizzy

Rodney Matthews's Original Illustration For Magnum's The Eleventh Hour


Presumably, you started out as an artist - but how did you find your way into record cover art specifically?


Smith:             I started doing CD covers with my friend's band, Psychotic Waltz.  That let me to some exposure and connections with other people in band's or labels that I updated with my progress.  When some of them felt confident I could I was up to some of their tasks, I was asked to do a few things for of them here and there, and it led to others along the way.

Matthews:      I played drums in my own rock band during the sixties and seventies, meeting various musicians needing record cover art.  I also sent my work to Bands and Record Companies seeking commissions.

Wilkinson:      I started out for 2 years when I left college doing nothing but black and white pen and ink drawings for trade journals like Accountancy Age, Computing Monthly, Management Today.  From there I gradually moved into technicolor doing book jackets for most of the big publishers in London at that time.  These could be anything from painting an oil rig for a book on north sea oil to portraits of bands like The Police, Queen and Bette Midler for biographies.  I also remember doing a series of book covers for the American comic novelist Donald Westlake. 

Klinnert:         I painted a lot of CD cover artworks during my time at the advertisement agencies, for example for Scorpions, Nazareth etc.  and so it started.

Norén:            I have always been interested in music and art.  So creating a CD cover was a big dream that I had.  I put out some of my work on a website and the right person came across it.  And once the first cover was done, the ball started rolling pretty quickly.

Wilkinson:      My first record sleeve was for a greatest hits compilation for James Brown.  From that beginning I did a few compilation album covers for RCA, Decca and Polydor, anything from opera and classical to a heavy metal compilation called 'Hot Shower' with a guy in a heat proof suit standing in a shower holding a Guitar with flame throwers as shower heads!! Very subtle … not my idea!



I'm sure you aren't exclusively a CD cover artist, are you? What other forms of art are you involved with?


Wilkinson:      I do portraits, other private commissions when asked, I do video…or nowadays DVD sleeves, I've worked for TV and film related projects like Red Dwarf , Dr.  Who and Star Wars merchandising.

Klinnert:         I am working as an Illustrator for more than 20 years and after a while you are looking for other challenges and I found mine in sculpting.

Matthews:      My art has appeared on posters and prints, calendars, snowboards, jigsaw puzzles, CD-ROM, cards, T-shirts, magazines, paperbacks, illustrated books as well as music products.

Smith:             CD cover art is my main occupation at this time. I have done a few things in comics, and the odd company logo or two, different things like that, but those things are few and far between.

Klinnert:         Lucky me, I work together with my wife Gaby (I am on gunpoint!) and it was her idea to start this second business.  Today we've sculpted more than 25 different life size characters for videogames and also our own characters, for example a life size raptor and right now we are finishing a life size T-Rex head. 

Mattias Norén's Cover Illustration For Mattson's Power Games

What is your favorite genre of music, and what do you listen to the most? What's been in your CD player recently?


Wilkinson:      I like all sorts really, no one specific genre…Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, Tom Baxter, Damien Rice, Porcupine Tree, a brilliant Italian band called Moongarden , DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin, Philip Glass, Pretty Things (still my favorite album of all time…SF Sorrow) Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel … Fish of course…Plague Of Ghosts is my all time favorite piece of music, Marillion…Marbles and Brave specifically.  The most played album for the past year is by Unkle, Never Neverland – a brilliant album to work to.  I love Underworld for that purpose too.

Norén:            Progressive metal and progressive rock is what I listen to the most.  Also some AOR, pop and extreme metal.  Some favorites at the moment are Riverside, Katatonia, Opeth, Saga, Pain of Salvation, Evergrey, Echolyn.

Smith:             Well, my favorite genre is metal, but in saying that I am also accounting for a lot of the different styles of it, like newer anathema to Children of Bodom, and everything in between and beyond.  Of course I like other styles as well, but that's my favorite.  I've actually been listening to a bit of mellower stuff lately, like Riverside and Porcupine Tree, and the Gathering.

Klinnert:         I am a fan of Soundtracks, my favorites right now are The Missing, Man on Fire and Hannibal.  And to be honest, in my CD player recently it was the new CD from Rhapsody, The Enchanted Land II, and it is a great album!

Matthews:      I like to listen to sixties and seventies prog.  rock including, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Genesis and Yes.  I also like all types of American Jazz from New Orleans to post modern.



What styles of music do you address with your artwork, and how does your style of art vary with the different music genres?


Matthews:      I am known for my rock covers mostly, but I have also designed for jazz and folk in the early days using a more rounded style of art rather than the 'spikey' rock look.

Smith:             Well, I suppose what I address is whatever style I'm applying the artwork to at the time.  I would like to think that I could adapt myself to any kind of genre I was asked to work with.  It would just be a matter of tailoring the idea to what best fits.  Maybe take some ideas that work with one kind, and bring them into another, adapting it a bit so you keep a little of each.

Wilkinson:      I try in most cases to tell a story with my pictures.  I try not to let the 'style' interfere too much with the storytelling process.  It should be seamless, that transition from thought to paint to image…if the viewer is conscious of a 'style' of presentation I think I have failed in my job.  Airbush art was always fascinating to me as it was like painting with light…that realism you can achieve has been superceded now by digital art to some extent.  But I have made a return to paint and canvas recently for some commissions where I can afford to do so as there is still a difference I think between what is created on computer and what is fashioned by hand.  But at the end of the day…they are all just 'tools' to get the final image to look as close as you can to the original thoughts in your mind.  Any artist will tell you that the ideas they have in their mind for a picture are pure…once you start to translate those pictures in your head to paper, or screen even…there is a compromise.  How much you compromise is the biggest problem you have as a creative person.  As for different styles for different musical genres…I try not to discriminate, every job I am offered presumably is because the client can see something in my work that will fit their project. 

Norén:            I can't say I address any specific genre.  I address those who like what I'm doing.  Naturally most of my work suits prog, metal and perhaps AOR best, but in fact I have been in contact with a couple of hip hop artists that have liked my style, so it might work for more genres

Klinnert:         It depends on the artwork I am doing.  If an artwork includes big landscapes, I listen more to Soundtracks just instrumental, so that is much better to get an imagination.

Norén:            I don't vary my style much depending on the genre a band is in, it's more depending on the music on the specific disc and what wishes the band have.  For instance you can't call the latest Evergrey artwork a typical metal artwork, yet people think it works perfect for that album.

Travis Smith's Original Illustration For
Anti-Depressive Delivery's Feel. Melt. Release. Escape.

How close to the music do you have to be, in order to get a feel for the designs you will use?


Wilkinson:      Not very close necessarily.  I really love some of the music I listen to for a project I'm involved in…and some I really don't like.  I'm not saying which! It helps though if I am passionate about the music, but it doesn't always work out.  I tried once to do a picture for Porcupine Tree…a band I love…but it wasn't used for various reasons, didn't matter how close to the music I was in that instance. 

Klinnert:         The ideal would be to get the lyrics and some of the songs before I start working, but this is not the reality.  Normally I try to get some lyrics first and I always prefer to talk to the band personal directly on the phone about the project, so I get the feeling for the design.  Sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn't. 

Matthews:      It helps if I like the music but even if I don't, I give my customer 100% attention and effort, producing the best job I can.

Smith:             It's not necessary for me to be close to the music, as I've found myself working on many projects without being able to.  However, it does help a great deal with the inspiration and the motivation when being able to hear and like the music for which you are trying to represent.

Norén:            Naturally it is a plus if I know and like the music.  If I don't, I need to have a closer cooperation with the artist to hear his wishes.



Who decides on the overall theme and the style of the artwork - e.g.  landscape, sci-fi, abstract, pattern, pictorial, impressionistic, photographic, classical, etc? Do you make that determination, or is it usually the musicians?


Norén:            That's very different from project to project.  Some tells me to "Do something good looking", while others tell me exactly what they want.  Most of the time it's somewhere in between.  We discuss some basic things like if it should be light or dark, some specific colors, any basic ideas for the motif, then I create a quick image that I send to the client to see if I'm heading in the right direction or if we should try something different.

Matthews:      It works both ways.  I am happy to take instruction from the band or record company, but in the absence of an idea or clear focus, I present my ideas by way of pencil sketches with several alternatives

Smith:             Most of my stuff is usually conceptual, so I assume that's what someone is asking for if they come to me.  If not, they will usually tell me what they are looking for.  I just take what information or ideas thew client might have and try to bring it to life as how it feels best suited, and then see if they agree or if something different should be tried.

Klinnert:         That depends on the project, but I prefer to decide it by myself in the first way because I have to paint it J But as I told you before, the decisions are made during the talks on the phone or the briefing.  It is always better, in my opinion, when I am able to make my own decision, because to many people have to many different opinions and you cannot fullfill them all.  I prefer Fantasy and SF and mostly Horror themes.

Wilkinson:      It is usually me who decides such things.  Occasionally the bands suggest themes, but never style.

Matthews:      I much prefer an open brief because it allows me more artistic freedom.  Conversely, several of the Magnum covers have been closely based upon ideas of band leader Tony Clarkin, not the least of which is 'On A Story Teller's Night'.



This has been very informative!  In part two we'll examine the business of CD cover artwork, working with the musicians, and the life of the illustrator.


Matthews:      By the way - The 2005 Rodney Matthews Classic Rock Album Covers Calendar is now available from the mail order section!



Important Note:


The images in this article have been reproduced with permission

 All Images are by protected by copyright

Contact the artists for details of copyright ownership

Unauthorised distribution of these images or any part thereof by any means is prohibited.



The before / after image at the top of this article is from a
Fish CD cover and is extracted from Mark Wilkinson's web site
and can be viewed in its original form at:

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