The Author as Artist

In case anyone’s interested…

I have been publishing artwork under the name Propraetor for many years now. While I am always the last to say I have any skill, I am continually told that I do and this gives me pride. I would like to take the opportunity to share a few pieces of note with you and if you are so inclined, please direct your attention to my website: propraetor.net.

In the meantime, here are some of my works for your enjoyment while we wait for things to come together for the next few posts…

The Pantheon Part I : The Maker of the Beast – Derek Riggs

Some ideas don’t ever get fully understood or appreciated because they lack a form to match their function. When it comes to art, this is one of the deepest quandaries of any artist who does not take an abstract route to express an idea. Artists are tasked with giving shape to the numinous. Thoughts, philosophies and concepts all must be given a form if they are to be comprehended.

In short, the idea must be given a face.

Derek Riggs is one such person who has given a face to an idea that was (and still is) relevant to the disenfranchised and outcast. His name is one that should be readily familiar to any metalhead worth his salt. Anyone outside the metal scene, however, will still have seen the undead grin of Eddie, the mascot of Iron Maiden.

“He wasn’t my favorite picture,” Derek recounts, “but he was the most commercially successful. I had done quite a few album covers before that, only a few of which I can still find copies of. I was doing quite well as a commercial illustrator before Eddie happened.”

As he was self-taught in his craft, the beginning of Derek’s art career proper came more or less on its own.

I never really did decide that I wanted to make a career out of art,” Derek says. “It was never a conscious decision or a single moment in time. I am not sure how it happened really. I think that slowly it just became obvious that there seemed to be nothing else that was worth doing, everything else was just boring. At the end of the day there was just no place else to go. So I just got on with it.”

Many artists that one speaks to these days have a black or white view of art school. Some praise the discipline they ostensibly espouse while others deplore a scholastic approach to creativity as being too limited. In Derek’s case, he found himself rather disenchanted with the outmoded methods they proffered at the time.

“Art school was rubbish. They didn’t really have any idea about what would work in the real world. All their teaching and training was based in a world that had ended by the mid 1960’s. It was already 9 or 10 years out of date. All of the techniques I learned there are now completely obsolete. Not only do people not do things that way any more, but if you did things that way, then nobody else would know what to do with it afterwards.”

But as with any disillusionment, there is some wisdom to be gleaned: “My experience there didn’t sour anything because it was not relevant to anything. What it did teach me was to be self sufficient and learn things for myself. Really, at the end of the day, other people can’t teach you anything much about being an artist. You have to learn all the important things for yourself. you just have to keep trying and keep learning until you get something to work.”

Having spent a number of years painting album covers for punk bands and the like, the story (according to Wikipedia), was that Rod Smallwood, the manager for the then-freshly-signed Iron Maiden, had seen Derek’s art on a poster for another musician and had approached him. The name “Eddie” had previously been applied to a series of sculpted faces used on-stage by the band which would vomit blood or smoke during their eponymous song. It was decided that “Eddie the ‘Ead” needed a more permanent, iconic face that would make him symbolic for the band. Enter Derek and his apocryphal painting Electric Matthew Says Hello, which would then be modified to become a face to last for many years to come.

“There are no copies of Electric Matthew. You will have to imagine the first Maiden album cover with short punky Mohican style hair. Actually if you look carefully you can work out which bits of hair were on the original and which were added later.”

So now the question comes, where did this undead beauty come from?

“I was working with symbolism at the time. I was trying to work out how to make symbolic imagery that people could read and that had some relevance in the culture of the time. So Eddie became the symbol for the wasted youth, the disenfranchised generation who couldn’t get a job and had no obvious future. I used a dead figure and dressed him in t-shirt and jeans and put him in London where I lived. He wasn’t some alien creature in some far off land, he was in your neighborhood and in your face.”

“There is a story that he was inspired by a photo of a dead soldiers head, this is a wrong,” Derek continues. “He wasn’t inspired by that at all, that photo was just the place that I went to to get the skin texture of a corpse. There is a bit of a difference there.”

Whatever the difference, Derek’s images made all the difference to the aesthetic for the band. Eddie evolved in an almost storybook fashion, from the street-punk zombie on the first two covers to the hell-spawn from Number of the Beast. From the Somewhere in Time cyborg to the surreal and undefinable Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. His menacing brow and glowing eyes always carry the promise of destruction. His jaw, alternately grinning or shrieking with the aggression and play so typical of the musical genre he would indelibly be tied to.

Even the covers would take on a unique life of their own. Minimalist covers like Piece of Mind or the debut were the rarity, though. Sometimes it would be elaborate to the point of the full gate-fold of Live after Death, where every moon-washed blade of grass breathes life to the landscape Eddie rips his way out of. Sometimes it would be as enchanting and sinister as Number of the Beast or Seventh Son…, where the landscape becomes a little more active. Then we come to the Bosch-like masterpiece of Somewhere in Time. So many ornate homages to earlier Maiden songs and so much agonizingly enthralling detail in a single painting. One of the most intricate album covers ever designed, you say?

No, Somewhere in Time is the most intricate album cover ever designed,” Derek corrects us. “There has been nothing that detailed before or since. In fact you can’t do that level of detail on a modern CD cover, it just won’t work very well. It acts as camouflage. Somewhere in Time only just about works on a CD cover. The only reason I got away with it in the first place is that it was done for an album cover (remember vinyl?). Twelve inches square is a lot more forgiving that a five-inch CD cover. Also it took three months to do all that work, nobody will pay you to do that any more.”

These were the days when there was a lot of thought and art put into album covers. When you had artists with very recognizable styles. To this day, you can look at covers done by Derek or by Ed Repka or Dan Seagrave and recognize their signature style in the same way as one would recognize the style of Rembrandt or Goya or the aforementioned Bosch.

“I have not found any interesting rock covers for years,” Derek says. “The subject matter is boring, the execution is dreadful. the imagination is just not there at all. Most of it is just copying what the last guy was doing. All fantasy figures now look roughly the same, and they all seem to be based on the latest computer game anyway. The trouble with copying computer games is that they are not created by single artists, they are created by teams of technicians, so the end result is just an big average of what everyone thought it should be. Art should not be made by committee. Also many of the artists working in those fields do not have even a basic understanding of composition, anatomy, or colour theory. they are just some guy with a bit of software. So the pictures on CD covers, for the most part, don’t work and don’t do the job they should do. which in case you didn’t know, is to advertise the album and to sell merchandise which keeps the band on the road.”

Creating an image that not only sells the album but also stands on its own as a piece of engaging art is no small task. One needs a work ethic to pull of something that can fill both roles.

“An awful lot of bands, in the absence of any good ideas, have reverted to a style that looks like tattoo art. You know, winged daggers, winged skulls etc. These ideas are all crap and do not belong on a CD cover. I mean, for fuck’s sake make some kind of an effort.”

So then the question arises, when one puts the same kind of effort into creating an album cover of quality, something that will endure, what sort of approach would Derek take? Again, while there’s a profound effort that goes into it, the whole process still comes in a very natural fashion.

“When I am painting, nothing much is going through my mind except the technicalities of actually doing the job. To make a good image you just get a good idea and then you try hard to make it work. The details all come as you go along and you realize what needs to go into it. If you try to work all that stuff out first the picture will be shit and you will give yourself a migraine. Look at Maiden’s covers since I left [after No Prayer for the Dying – P]. They really think they can work all that stuff out but they don’t have a clue where to start. So Eddie ends up sitting in a chair or just breaking things.”

But every process evolves in its way, either technologically or philosophically. When Derek was fairly green to the industry, he worked with gauche, then later with acrylics (Somewhere in Time was done with acrylics) and then with alkyd, which is a fast-drying oil-based paint.

“Traditional oil paints dry very slowly over a couple of weeks, this makes them unusable for commercial illustration where tight deadlines are the dominant factor.”

Derek now works digitally, having relinquished the alkyds for health reasons. As he describes it, however, the medium is largely unimportant:  “I don’t actually care much which it is. The medium is not relevant. The image is what I make pictures for, not to fuck about with paint. I really had to stop using paint because the nasty poisonous chemicals were making me ill. If it wasn’t for the convenient invention of computer art I would have stopped painting all together in the early 1990’s.”

For which, the rest of us are eminently grateful.

“Painting pictures is a long process of learning things, learning how to make this illusion or that texture. I would work my way through a big commission and by the end of it I think I had learned enough to go back to the beginning and do the painting properly. although of course I never had time to really do that.”

So what does Derek spend his time doing these days? Sadly, he says he will be hosting no exhibition of his covers, amazing as such an event would be, as all of his covers for Maiden were sold to the band. When asked about the prospect of a graphic novel, he replies, “A graphic novel might be interesting and I did have an idea for one but I am not convinced that I could make a profit from it. They don’t seem to pay people very much for doing it and it looks like a lot of work. All of my professional illustration projects are viewable on my website.”

One of his recent projects was a series of scrolling backgrounds for the Sony Playstation which are available from Studio Output, one of which featured a charmingly sinister Halloween theme.


While it doesn’t have the same kind of intensity of the usual Maiden covers, it has a lush, macabre mood and shadowy beauty, both of which are unmistakably recognizable in his style.

In the film House of Wax, Vincent Price’s character said “Once in his lifetime, an artist feels the hand of God.” Whether it was the hand of God, the mark of Satan or the grasping claws of the undead, Derek gave shape to a unique idea and, even though others have attempted to run with it, the sinister wit of his vision and the frightful tangibility of his style will always be the perennial throne to which others can only pretend.


An Absinthe Colouring Book? (Not Quite….)

I’ve been immersed in a profound melancholy of late. Between the emotional challenges of suddenly finding myself single, attendant strife and the fallout therefrom (which includes the woes of being without a working computer at home), it’s been rather hard to find the time and energy to focus on anything but my own artwork. That being said, there are a few things that invariably cheer me up: The Misfits, Naked City, film noir, absinthe (of course) and art (also, of course).

Relevant to the last one, I do take a certain delight in browsing art supplies. To that end, I strode into The Artstore of Waterloo the other day. Lynn, April and the other ladies and gent that work there are all quite friendly and knowledgeable, always taking the time to chat with me about sundry things related to art. On one such occasion when I was chin-wagging with Lynn (taken literally, that’s a humerous image, I must say), I happened upon this, sitting on a small, table-top easel:

Anyone recognize this painting? It also happens to be this one:

"L'Absinthe" by Edgar Degas

They even took the liberty of painting the absinthe the right colour. How very novel to find a classic piece of absinthe art gracing the front cover of a colouring book. However, I wonder what a full-on absinthe colouring book would be like.

I envision black and white images of Van Gogh’s self-portrait and various line drawings of joyous Parisian revelers raising their glasses and pouring water over sugar-bearing spoons. Scenes of Victorian-era patios adjacent cobblestone streets and gaslights, interspersed with portraits of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Hemingway. I could even see a gradual evolution in the drawings as the quality of absinthe diminished. Despondant, ghostly souls lurking in cafes, momento mori images involving skull-faced faeries and tortured addicts. Then a tableau of the insidious ban, with stone-faced temperance tyrants chastising the green faerie while wine makers hide in his shadow, snickering evilly.

I may just have to make the time to produce this myself, I think (insert jingling of a cash register here).

“The Divine Marquis”

On this day, I spare a thought for Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade. Though his art was wrought in depravity, his message was golden.

I had the privilege of first reading the Marquis in college, when I acquired a copy of The 120 Days of Sodom which was much abused and thumbed through. I managed to get through the whole thing and I thank hell that the man only had the chance to put the last four parts in point form.

I used to say that the Marquis was far ahead of his time. Now, I have come to think that he came at just the right time. He was gasoline on smouldering cultural embers and he set the road to freedom, for good or ill, in the minds of the masses. We can thank him and curse his name, simultaneously, for this. On the one hand, the knowledge that neither church nor state nor externally-imposed morality can restrain the human will if it does not wish to be. On the other hand, we have Britney Spears and Kesha, all of their pop-culture clan and the fallout from their mutation.

I remember when I was in college, an acquaintance of mine picked up my copy of The 120 Days and started reading random snippets. Her response, predictably, was “Oh my god, that’s disgusting [turns the page and keeps reading] Oh! That’s just gross! [turns the page and keeps reading] Jesus! That’s just…ew! [turns the page and keeps reading]…”

We all rebel against both of our natures at times. We’re the only species on the planet that struggles both for and against our moral mandates. We know that there are urges that, if we are healthy and functioning properly, come naturally. We also know, however, that in our civilization, the needlessly selfish and the depraved can beset culture with a plague of inconveniences, when not checked. Liberty is one thing. Chaos is another. The quest for the one is desirable, seeking the other is an insult to evolution.

I often had a fantasy of locating the Marquis’s grave, digging him up and plundering his skull to preserve as a talismanic relic in the name of liberty. Then I remembered two things. First, the Sade’s funerary wishes (ignored by the authorities at Charenton) were to be interred in an unmarked grave to be strewn with acorns and grown over. In essence, the Marquis wanted to disappear, and to enshrine him thus would be a paradoxical insult to his memory. Second, his skull was already plundered by some phrenologists somewhere in the world, who have, in essence, done Sade the very wrong I just addressed.

If I could find his skull, therefore, I would happily steal it and keep it hidden from the world, then. As with any art, the Art should remain as the legacy, not the person or personality of the artist.

Vive la oeuvre du Sade! Vive la Libertinage!

A Pearl of Great Price – the 100th Birthday of Vincent Price

His eyes, innocent and sinister at once, would twinkle in a candle-lit room. His voice, deep, yet delicate, would resonatingly penetrate through the crust of one’s soul.  His laugh would send chills of horror and delight through the spine.

He was Vincent Price. The world shall never see his like again.

We each recall where we were when certain events took place. Where were we when Kennedy was shot? Where were we when the Challenger blew up? Where were we when September 11 went down or when Arrmstrong stepped on the moon? I remember where I was when I heard that Vincent had passed (lying in bed, listening to the news on the alarm clock radio, irritatedly not caring that we had a new prime minister and bolting upright when the horrible news struck me).

It takes an actor with such character and style to be able to both play a role with sensitivity to its essence and, at the same time, permanently endear himself to his audience. He adapted beautifully to medieval, gothic, renaissance or modern settings and infused each role with the same spark that was uniquely his own.

His passion found its way into every corner of his life. In addition to his culinary passions (a whole other story on its own), Vincent had always had a hand somewhere in the art world. When his artistic ambitions fell through, his love for art demanded he become a collector of original pieces. He promoted the experience of classic art to students and patrons by donating a substantial collection to a university in California. Today almost 100 pieces from that collection can be seen in the Vincent Price Gallery.

But his versatility as an actor is what he will always be remembered for, No actor, to my mind, could make so graceful a leap from heart-warming artist to tragic villain like he did as Professor Henry Jarrod in House of Wax or Nicholas Medina in The Pit and the Pendulum. No other could combine the devilish and the sentimental as he did as Prince Prospero in Masque of the Red Death or as Giacomo Rappaccini in Twice Told Tales. No other actor was a better alchemist.

I recall reading an anecdote about Vincent from Johnny Depp. The anecdote went something like this: Vincent and Johnny were sitting in the latter’s trailer during the filming of Edward Scissorhands. Vincent noticed a copy of a Poe anthology on Johnny’s table and began to thumb through it. He began to read “Ligeia”  aloud. Then, without stopping, he closed the book and recited the rest of the story, verbatim.

I would have sold one of my ears on the black market to have sat in that trailer on that day. The astounding thing is that he displayed the same superhuman ability to memorize his lines during the filming of his vignettes for The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.

There isn’t space enough to extol the virtues of Vincent. To mirror a sentiment I expressed to Roger Corman when I met him a few years ago, Price’s’ films made the darker world a beautiful place for me and countless others. The art world misses him greatly and tonight I will drink a glass of Taboo while watching him with the same love as I would bear for a grandfather.

As a final note, I would like to direct my readers to VincentPrice.org, which features a VAST collection of audio and video recordings of the man himself.

And second, a tribute which was fashioned for YouTube as a tribute to his genius…

“That Man Who Paints Those Dreadful Pictures” – Francis Bacon

His work screams at us from the gallery. The bleakness of his composition is unrivaled and cannot be resisted. The horror of his vision of humanity cannot be denied. Today is the 19th anniversary of the passing of Francis Bacon.

There are several artists whose work had left an indelible scar upon my heart and mind, though very few of the modern artists seem to have the depth to have any real greatness. Tim Vigil, Tim Bradstreet and HR Giger are the only ones still alive who have influenced me deeply. Bacon’s work, however, did something I never expected it to do when I first encountered his work in my teenage years. It reflected the disgust and anguish I felt at the world around me at the time. The certain knowledge that I was not alone made the agony of not just being a teenager, but a teenage pariah on all sides, that much more bearable.

I’ve had three religious art experiences in my life. One of the deepest was standing in front of Bacon’s triptych inspired by TS Elliot’s “Sweeny Agonistes”.

Seeing it on a screen (or on a printed page, as I had only experienced it back then), does not do the painting justice. The depth of the paint, caked on the panel in an almost Van Gogh-esque style, gives the horror that much of an organic nature. To this day, I still have not read the poem. Looking at the painting, I’m afraid to do so, for fear that the reading would dispel the warm, comforting horror of the triptych.

To my as-of-this-moment shock, I haven’t even seen the film based on him with the incomparable Derek Jacobi portraying him. I think I will need to rectify that this evening, somehow, while drinking a glass of absinthe and pondering his oeuvre.

Requiescat in Pace, good sir. You have found apotheosis in my pantheon.

Even the Joker approves.

NB: The title of this article is the epithet used by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to describe Bacon.

Doctor Schwarzheit Administers to the Melancholy Mr. Collins

Note: This is a cross-post from my studio blog.

Salve citizens.

Another Edgar Gruesome piece has been finished. This one, a follow up to my “Professor Lambert…”, is another in his ongoing series of absinthe paintings.

Ever since first encountering them in a Hellraiser comic book, I’ve had a love for the medieval plague doctor image (being a fan of the Assassin’s Creedseries of games only reinforced it). Since I had so much fun doing “Lambert”, I decided to have a little fun with this one.

The protagonist is what, in Doctor Who terms, could be called an earlier regeneration of myself.  Absinthe is one of those many things that buttressed the changes in my life, though not in the predictably destructive way one would expect from alcohol-induced change.

Prints are available in 11×14 size for $30. Contact me for info. Larger prints may be available.

 

Professor Lambert and his Homunculus

Currently, the Pernod distillery are running their annual “Creator of ART” contest, which I, in my excitement, opted to try and enter. Then, much to my superlative annoyance, I discovered that the contest is only open to residents of the United States. This I discovered after I completed my entry. The price I pay for not being on Facebook, I suppose.

Nevertheless, I was sufficiently pleased with the final piece. It also had the additional purpose of being a birthday present and “happy-100th-episode of Lambert’s Basement” to Mr. David Ingram, whom I had the privilege of having interviewed earlier, as readers may recall.

Even though this is only slightly steam-punk, I’ve been itching to make more steam-punk work within my Edgar Gruesome oeuvre. This one takes some personality cues from Dave and his co-host, Igor, while at the same time not being a direct portrait of them. I was aiming for a more Professor Moriarity/Victorian villain/Victor Frankenstein/the Master from Doctor Who kind of vibe. I think I got it enough.

So without further ado, here’s “Professor Lambert and his Honumculus Discuss the Wisdom of Duke Ellington”. Enjoy….

Fernand Léger – 1881-1955

"Contrasted Forms" by Fernand Léger

Today would have marked the 130th birthday of the painter Fernand Léger.

If memory serves, my high school art teacher, a tyrannically retarded creature whom I loathed with utter contempt, whom we shall call Mrs. B, was rather fond of Léger, whom I, of course had never had much contact with.

"The Builders"

In spite of the noted absintheur Picasso’s association with the term, I have never been a huge fan of cubism. Nevertheless, Léger’s work spoke to me of the future of humanity, the synthetic/organic symbiosis that is necessary for the human race to evolve. Therein lays the lesson humanity consistently fails to understand. It needs to become one with it’s creations and embrace them as external manifestations of his internal evolution, or he will simply become a clever ape with complex past-times instead of a god. Yes, there’s a difference between the two. No, I don’t think that’s what Léger was going after with his work, though he certainly understood the delicate difference between identity and the identified.

"Three Women"

As a tribute to the legacy of this man, I present his short film “Ballet Mechanique”, with the eponymous song by George Anthiel. I apologize, but it doesn’t seem to be embedding properly. Nevertheless, click and enjoy.

http://zappinternet.com/v/WaDtPiyPep
Fernand Leger – Ballet mecanique (1924)

A Little Diversion While We Wait….

In my pre-interview correspondence with one of my forthcoming interviewees, he took the liberty of sharing this charming little link. This is utterly beautiful and captures so much of the darker romance of the Green Faerie.

Enjoy. Interviews coming soon.