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Cover Art And Cover Illustrators - A Discussion With 5 Of Best (PART 3)
Posted on Wednesday, June 01 2005 @ 20:47:20 CDT by Duncan Glenday

This is the third and final part of the Cover Illustrations series: And it's the biggest part too - with more illustrations and more discussion of the art of illustrations.

In Part 1 we examined the artists' biographies and training, their musical influences, and their successes.

Part 2 examined the business of CD cover illustration, working with the musicians, and the life of the professional illustrator.

In this final section we examine the art itself - the inspirations, the techniques and the media.

The illustration on every CD you buy 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.

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.

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, England'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.



Two months ago we discussed the life of the artist, and last month we discussed the business aspects of cover illustrations.  In this final section, I'd like to focus on the art itself – your influences, your media, your favorite illustrations, and so on.


To kick it off – can you tell us about the media you use?


Rodney Matthews:    Most of my work is painted with pigmented ink on art board.  I use a sable hairbrush and an airbrush for sky and mists.

Travis Smith:             The majority of my work is photography based, whether it's the main subject or basic foundation.  It usually starts with photography.  If needed or desired, I sometimes will mix in other mediums like pencil or watercolors, to varying degrees of effect.  It's all brought together and composed digitally.

Mark Wilkinson:        It varies, I use acrylic paint and acrylic ink on board or canvas.  I sometimes scan drawings in to the computer and work on the images digitally.  It can be a mixture of both.

Mattias Norén:          That's a wild mix.  Most covers are based on photos but I also use traditional media, computer drawings and I've also tried some 3D even if I don't like it very much.  I hate images that really look computer generated.  Worst are the ones where you can even tell what software the designer have used.  Bryce images almost makes me throw up [Laughs].

Marc Klinnert:           I use mixed media, that means the brush, acrylic colors and for the finish the airbrush.  Sometimes I use also the computer.

Rodney Matthews : Tiger Moth

You may have answered my next question already, which was … To what extent do you mix your media, and to what extent do you use different media for different pieces?


Wilkinson:      I used to do lots of drawings on tracing paper and overlay them to find the right composition, sometimes enlarging or reducing the individual elements, it's so much easier to do that now digitally once the drawings are scanned in.  I can do printouts and redraw the picture, or work up the image on-screen experimenting with color and print out to rework in paint and airbrush.

Smith:             It varies with each piece.

Norén:            I mix quite a lot.  Many images include photos, hand drawn images and computer drawn parts.  By computer drawn images I mean images that I created on a digital drawing board.  Almost like drawing on a paper, the only difference is that the image appears on your screen instead.  I don't have different prices depending on what media I use.  To me the important thing is the end result, not the way I got there.

Matthews:      I rarely mix media in the same piece, but sometimes I work in watercolor for less detailed cartoon work.


How often do you use old fashioned pencil, paper or canvas, paint, etc?


Matthews:      Every piece of work I do starts off with pencil sketches on tracing paper.  I have not used canvas for many years.  I do not use a computer.

Norén:            Not as often as I would like to.  One reason is that I'm sitting in our living room working right now and I don't have much space for it.  But in a few weeks we are moving to a bigger place and I plan to have a table just for traditional media.  Will be fantastic to finally get my own studio.

Klinnert:         To scribble a new illustration or a new statue I always use the pencil and paper.  The illustration later on will be made on Schoellnhammer carton.  On the carton I also start with the pencil, then I work further on with the brush and acrylic paint and finish it with the airbrush.  I also work on the computer with a Wacom Grafic Tablet and a pen, but only if I see something what I like to change, after we scanned the original illustration.  It's a really perfect medium to change color tones or to add more contrast etc.  By the last Rhapsody cover we used a mix of the original illustration and added some realistic parts like trees, part of the sky or stone texture later on the computer, but I usually prefer old fashion. 

Wilkinson:      More recently than I have for a long time, and I find it really satisfying.

Travis Smith : Devin Townsend, Terria

Travis, you mentioned earlier that the majority of your work is photography-based.  Mark, Rodney, Marc, do you use photography at all? Perhaps in rough idea layouts, or as a background, or perhaps as a starting point?


Matthews:      I take reference shots of natural forms like trees, animals, rocks etc.  and occasionally ask someone to pose for a reference photograph.

Klinnert:         No, I don't use photography for my scribbles, just when I have to find a position for a character of my full size statues and of cause, sometimes I use photos as reference.

Wilkinson:      I use photography a lot for reference.  Some of Fish's albums were completely digital, some like the last one were a mixture of paint and photography and digital.


Mattias, Kotipelto's Coldness is very photographic…


Norén:            Yes, I use a lot of photos, but since I work a lot on them it's not that easy to see in the end.


In the event your work isn't all digital - how large is the original artwork, before it is reduced to CD size?


Smith:             All of it is digital.  I suppose if you were going to print them in real size, they would be comparable to a gatefold LP, or a bit larger.

Klinnert:         I prefer a size of 30 x 40 cm to work on and for landscapes I work on 35 cm x 70 cm.

Norén:            It was long ago since I created covers with no involvement of the computer.  It's so easy to change colors etc in the computer so it saves a lot of time.  The images I created before was up to 40x60 cm.

Wilkinson:      Usually about 18" x 36" landscape so the image can wrap round the back of the CD booklet cover….just like the old gatefold album sleeves. 

Matthews:      This varies from 30 X 40 inches for poster art down to 12 inches square for CD art.



Do you think the tiny size of a CD cover does justice to your work?


Wilkinson:      NO!

Matthews:      No, I lament the passing of the 12 inch record cover.  CDs are far too small and often badly printed.

Norén:            Yes, I guess I'm one of the few who really prefer the CD format.  And a CD package is not just about the cover, it's the booklet as well.  You can do a lot with the booklet if you want to.  The lyrics were presented in a much more boring way back in the good old vinyl days.

Smith:             I think it does.  I of course have that size in mind when I plan and start, so I make sure to utilize it for the best results.

Klinnert:         I have no problem with that, and if it's a cover artwork they are printing posters anyway so you can see the details on the posters.  For sure, LP covers are much more representative, but the time for the is over.


Mark Wilkinson : The Fool

How much of a technology expert do you have to be?


Wilkinson:      I know enough to get by with my trusty Apple Mac … but I have no idea about the wiring under the boards!

Smith:             Every bit of knowledge helps, but I'd say that you need to know enough to work with your programs and keep your equipment maintained.

Norén:            That depends on what you mean with technology? You need to handle the software you are using in a good way.  On the other hand I don't know much about computers when they don't work as they are supposed to.

Matthews:      I need to keep up to date with some technology particularly when working in computer games or animation design, but I do not produce my images digitally.

Klinnert:         I am doing this kind of job since so many years and in my opinion it depends on your experience and also on your ability to deal with the different customers and to understand what they are looking for, that is the main challenge.

Marc Klinnert : Gun Barrel, Battle Tested

Some of the artwork you've produced has been really otherworldly, and looks like the product of a very strange imagination.  What's the source for some of your ideas? Can you give us some examples?


Norén:            People often wonder where I get my ideas.  Most of the time they pop up while I'm working.

Smith:             There's really no conscious source for my ideas.  They just appear when they want to, but not always when I need them.  I might see something normal, in an act or situation, and I might get an idea to do something with it usually in the what if, or has been, usually metaphorically, kind of sense.  That's when the purpose kind of kicks in, and I will see what kinds of paths I can take with it that will lead me to what I am trying to say with it.

Matthews:      There's no magic formula.  I've always studied wildlife and this is the basis of my work.  The natural world is full of wonders that many people overlook.  I take what I see and change perspectives, relevant sizes, change color expectations, fuse things together and hopefully end up with images which may look strange but are believable because they contain elements of the created world.  Yes, I believe in God!

Wilkinson:      I'm a big fan of films…in particular very visually interesting film makers like Tarkovsky or Herzog.  Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' in particular was a big influence on The Fool…one of my latest paintings, and the most requested Giclée print I've made.  I consider it one of my best pieces and I had that film in mind a lot whilst painting it, especially the dog / guardian and empty rooms.

Norén:            The Buried In Oblivion cover.  I had found some cool gargoyle photographs.  I just started to play around with them and ended up with a road with those beasts on each side.  I wasn't happy about it so I added a doorway and a stair in the background and finally things started to look better.  Then begun work with colour and light.  It still looked a little unfinished so the face up to the right were added and also the boy in the doorway etc.  So basically, most of the time I start with just one item and build upon it until I'm satisfied.


Mattias Norén : Into Eternity, Buried In Oblivion

Speaking of Buried In Oblivion, Mattias, in all of your work for Into Eternity, there's a crow that appears on each cover – and Tim told me that was your idea.  How often do you do that – following consistent themes, ideas or features for a given band's cover pictures?


Norén:            I think that's the only time I've done that actually.  I'm working on two projects right now where the band's old covers will be included in the new artwork, but that's not really the same thing as just one little item that follows a band from cover to cover.

Rodney, Your cover for Magnum's Sleepwalking is a masterpiece in abstract detail.  Am I right in saying that most of the elements that make up that cover have references in the song titles? Can you tell us a bit more about how that piece came together?


Matthews:      Sleepwalking was a collaboration with Tony Clarkin, the leader of the band.  He always knows what he wants and scribbles ideas on bits of paper – or beer mats!  Most items are connected to song lyrics

Rodney Matthews: Magnum, Sleepwalking

And looking through the gallery of work you've published on your web site, Rodney, I think it's fair to suggest that all of your work has a sci-fi / fantasy feel to it.  Have you done record covers in different styles – say classical, cartoon, photographic, pure abstract..?


Matthews:      Some of my early work varied from my current mainstream style.  I have used photographs, cartoons and portraits but not for many years.  Check out the book Countdown To Millennium.

Mattias Norén : Sonic Debris, Velvet Thorns

Other than your own work, what's your favorite CD cover of all time?


Wilkinson:      I always liked an album cover for Beaver And Krause called All Good Men.

Klinnert:         ABOMINOG, Uriah Heep, illustrated by Les Edwards.

Smith:             That's a tough question. There are many. Probably King Diamond – Abigail.

Matthews:      Moody Blues – In Search Of The Lost Chord.

Norén:            I have to say Hugh Syme's cover for Rush Roll The Bones.


We actually tried to get Hugh to join us in this interview, but didn't manage.  Final question: You've each produced a very substantial body of work to date.  I know it's a bit like asking which is your favorite child … but which single record cover is your personal favorite?


Smith:             I'm not sure that I can pick only one, but if I can only say one then Terria.  And Katatonia.

Matthews:      Tiger Moth for the folk band of the same name.

Wilkinson:      I like The Fool the best out of all my work actually. It wasn't for a CD cover, it was a private commission.

Norén:            It's impossible to just pick one, but Sonic Debris – Velvet Thorns is one that I always have ranked high.  The Jag Panzer artwork is another favorite at the moment.

Klinnert:         It is Gun Barrel, Battle Tested, because I didn't use airbrush.

Wilkinson:      The Fool was a close blood brother to Script For A Jester's Tear, which I have to say is perhaps still my favorite of any of my official album covers.  It tells a story, and that is all I ever wanted to do really – illustrate stories to accompany the music … that's it, nothing more.


Well we'd like to thank you very much for the time and thought you've put into this discussion.  I really hope it helps to raise peoples' awareness of the other art that is such an integral part of every CDs we buy.  Take Care!



Important Notes:


The images in this article have been reproduced with permission


The lead picture of the dragon sculpture and Rhapsody's cover art is by Marc Klinnert


All Images are by protected by copyright


Contact the artists for details of copyright ownership


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


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