If you are into heavy music and in particular the fuzzier variety…this man needs no introduction. Arik Roper has done artwork for band such as Astra, Weedeater, Sleep and High on Fire. He is one of the most requested interviews and his name has echoed through the halls of MBA since our inception…
How did you get your first paying art job?
I don’t remember. I don’t even know when that happened. As far as I recall the first thing I had “published” was a book mark design for a science fiction bookstore in Richmond, VA called Novel Futures when I was about 13-14 years old. I did a hell of a lot of flyers and shirt designs in the early days that I didn’t get paid for, I can tell you that. I did a lot of free work because I just wanted to do it. I painted guts for Gwar, I did some graphics for local skateboard companies in Virginia and New York. The first thing I remember getting paid for was the cover art Buzzoven’s Gospel According II… But I know that wasn’t the first paycheck.
Have you always worked in your current style and if not how did you work before?
The style has shifted in different directions over the years but the underlying influences have been basically the same. Underground comix and Frazetta style fantasy art laid the foundation when I was young. I think the first showing of a kind of personal style was this combination of fantasy art mixed with underground comix in high school. Then there was the inevitable Pushead inspired phase in my late teens. In the early 90′s I was more influenced by cartoon art, especially Vaughn Bode and Rick Griffin. At that time I also got into graffiti art when I came to New York which itself was influenced by the same elements. That style fit my interests at the time. I got into doing lettering and bold colors, thick outlines, etc.
By the mid to late 90s I was moving away from that style although I’ve never truly abandoned it, it runs too deep with me. I got burned out on the graffiti scene and most of what surrounded it. Around then my work became more influenced by some of the books I was reading; Religion, Occult topics, some Sci Fi . And I became more interested in depicting psychedelic sates of vision and DMT experiences around the late 90s. Some of my experiences with psychedelics during that time had a profound impact on my art. I was seeing these worlds and attempting to convey them, I was meeting creatures and characters in these dimensions and bringing them into my art.
I’ve been gradually moving more toward fine art and illustration since then. I find myself more inspired by classic painters and draftsmen though I still carry pieces of all those early influences with me.
Who are your artistic influences?
The list is long and diverse: Jeff Jones, Moebius, Berni Wrightson, Greg Irons, Richard Corben, Ron Cobb, George Hardie, Milton Glaser, Bob Pepper, Ian Miller, Roger Dean, Syd Mead, Jim Woodring, Barney Bubbles, VC Johnson, Phillippe Druillet, Brian Froud, Zdzislaw Beksinksi, Paul Lehr, Julek Heller, William Stout, Mike Ploog, Alex Toth, Michael Whelan, Edmund Dulac, Heath Robinson, Theodor Kittelsen, Arthur Rackham, Rembrandt, Max Ernst, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Gustave Dore are a few Illustrators and painters who I admire. That’s just off the top of my head , the list goes on.
Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Saul Bass really inspire me as well -they all tell stories in a visually fertile way. And in the literary world, writers Philip K Dick, Alan Watts, Terence McKenna, Frank Herbert, Stanislaw Lem are a few I’ve found inspiring in their ideas.
What words best describe your artistic style?
Timeless is a word that I hope describes my art. Aside from the obvious tags like Dark, Psychedelic, Fantastic, etc. I tend to think of it as being without a certain era attached to it. Obviously there’s an aspect of it that recalls a retro aesthetic but I see that as more of a style that surpasses any era. I also think the word Honest is appropriate. By this I mean that what I do is a personal attempt to capture scenes and worlds from my mind. It’s exploration of my imagination. In my personal work, I don’t make attempts to join art trends or mask my interests in irony.
Tell us about your studio space?
Crowded. I work from home, which is ideal in many ways but limiting in others. I’m lucky to have a spare room to work in at all, but it’s not big enough. It’s packed with paraphernalia and subversive/inspirational materials of all kinds-a lot of old art books. prints on the walls, guitars, plants. I have my drawing table and supplies on one wall. I have my computer and scanner against another. I have shelves holding my art books, stereo and records on another wall, all strategically arranged to maximize the room. There’s a lot of juggling for space that occurs when I work.. I draw on one surface then clear it to use it for another step of the process. I have no storage space basically- that part is really inconvenient.
The first thing I’d do if I could make one change, aside from installing some flat files, is put a skylight in the ceiling. I could use some overhead natural light. New York is a hard place to deal with sometimes, space is hard to come by. I may move out of here in the near future and upgrade my workspace and quality of life. It’ll be interesting to see how it affects my work.
When you create art for a band…Do you listen to their music during the process?
When brainstorming for ideas I prefer to hear it, get a feel for it and go from there. It’s not always possible in which case I have to draw from the lyrics or vibe of the band itself. However I don’t listen to that band’s music constantly while working on a particular project if that’s what you mean.
Take us through a typical day.
It varies quite a lot depending what I’m working on. My days have changed a lot in the past year. I’ve got a 9 month old daughter and portion of my days are dedicated to her. I get up pretty early. I hang out with her for a while then get myself into work mode. If I’m in the early stages of a project, I might spend hours brainstorming, researching a topic, getting ideas, sketching, etc. I spend a lot of time on the brainstorming process. Birthing the idea is the biggest step. Once I have that down I can move pretty quickly, but I can spend days or a week just thinking about ideas for a project. If I’m in the middle of working on something, I’ll work for a couple hours straight then usually take a break, on and off through the day. I used to work nights also, but with my daughter I need that time to sleep because sleeping late is out of the question.
How do you create your work? Take us through the process from concept to final.
Once I have an idea, I do some sketching. I do thumbnail sketches. I try to nail down the composition, which is much easier on a small scale. Looking at the piece as a whole at this size is useful and pays off in the final result. When I’m happy with one I may enlarge that sketch and trace out the areas on the final paper instead of trying to recreate it on a larger scale. If I’m making a line drawing for a screenprint design, for example, I’ll start inking over the pencil line at this point. If I’m working on watercolor paper the process is different. The paper is too thick to trace, so after the paper is prepared and taped on the board, I’ll do a background ink wash of a light color to prime it or do some whispy clouds or something neutral for a background. After this dries I go in with pencil and start the sketches for foreground work. Sometimes I’ll ink these lines with waterproof ink and then color over them, or I may not use any hard black line and go straight to the watercolor/inks for a more realistic look. When I’m working with watercolors I have to let certain areas dry on schedule to avoid color bleeding of course. I use various techniques for different textures, sometimes I wet the inks after I’ve colored an image and lift off the ink to reveal color beneath. That’s what I link about watercolor is the flexibility and it’s ability to be manipulated. The last step is to do some highlights with gouache or acrylic paint.
What materials do you use? How much if any is done on the computer?
I use Dr. Ph Martin’s Radient Concentrated Watercolor inks. They’re liquid inks so you can mix them and dilute them to get some excellent effects, they’re so versatile and they saturate the paper deeply. I usually use Arches 300 lb hot press paper. Sometimes I use the cold press for a rougher texture but I prefer the 300 lb weight because I often use several washes- the heavier weight holds up better and doesn’t warp so much. When I’m drawing in black line I use a croquet pen or brush and Higgins Black Magic or Windsor & Newton waterproof inks. I also use gouache sparingly for opaque areas and highlights.
If I’m doing a black and white line drawing I’ll use the same croquil pen and waterproof ink on bristol board or occasionally marker paper and fine line permanent markers.
Let me first point out that Photoshop (and other art programs), as useful and amazing as it is, doesn’t always fall into the hands of creative people and has consequently given birth to a devolved world of hack work. You see it everywhere, especially on cd covers. Those in-house label designers have lowered the standard for album art because they’ll slap something together for one quarter the price of a skilled designer. And that’s one reason music sales are down, I suspect.
However, there are tasteful ways to use a computer as a tool for art. For the most part I work by hand on paper, but sometimes I use Photoshop for certain work such as composing a piece in layers. I scan in parts of an image which I’ve hand drawn or painted and lay them out, altering the opacity and saturation etc. This comes in very useful when I’m doing commercial work with clients who change their minds a lot- I can rearrange elements. I need to the flexibility of moving layers especially when type in involved. When I’m designing screen print poster the computer is invaluable – not for creating the lines but for every other aspect of the process . I approach Photoshop with mindset of a screenprinter often, and I still think terms of cutting and pasting in the old graphic design sense. I learned that from my Mother who was an illustrator and graphic designer long before the dawn of Adobe.
Do you use reference materials or does all of it come from your head?
A lot of it comes from my head but I do use reference materials also. If I’m drawing an animal in a semi-realistic way, for example, it helps to study a photo just because there are always small details that you might forget which are vital to the identity of that animal. And this applies even more specific with objects like buildings, cars, etc. The curves on a car are fairly mundane in reality but if you don’t get those proportions are curves correct, it looks wrong.
When it comes to the human body I always try to keep it relatively proportional, although I always make hands and feet large, I take some artistic license on purpose for the sake of design. I’ve studied anatomy in school, but more learning is always necessary. If you study the shapes of nature you can start to see how nature works and how the universe grows in patterns. That benefits the natural intuition of creating forms on paper, you can become that force creating those forms on paper, all by observation.
Do the bands give you any direction?
Usually, yeah. I try to get ideas from them. They often to defer to me to come up with something but I try to get input. Often it’s a matter of me doing several ideas in sketches and them choosing one. Some bands are more specific than others. Dylan from Earth was pretty specific about The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, and High on Fire is usually open to ideas although Snakes for the Divine was basically their idea.
Do you have an advice for artist’s who wish to do artwork for bands?
I think one piece of advice I can give is to be patient with your art, don’t rush it. If you’re good at it and serious you’ll only get better, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get and the better impression you’ll make when you start to show it to bands or galleries or whoever. Develop your style and when you’re confident with it approach bands you like. If that doesn’t work out keep it up, keep trying. Or try to work out something with a local venue so that you can make posters for shows when your favorite bands come through town- that’s a good way to start. There are more ways than ever to get your art seen these days.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working on my print series with Monolith Press, other recent projects include a print design for Alamo Drafthouse, some snowboard and ski graphics for Burton and Atomic, album art for Howlin Rain and Astra, some possible work for a new musical project called Forestelivison, and a children’s book concept, among other things.
Do you have any dream projects?
One of my goals is create an animated film. I’ve been learning some animation programs so I can begin working on this. I’d like to create the epic animated movie that I’ve always wanted to see, something along the lines but beyond movies that inspired me as a kid like Fantastic Planet, Heavy Metal, and Wizards. The moving image is where I’d like to focus. I’m also interested in doing a graphic novel/book series of my own.
What are your favorite bands of all time and what bands are you listening to right now?
All time favorite is probably Pink Floyd. I like a lot of different music but they sit at the top of the mountain of rock music achievement in my opinion. I like wide range of stuff, a lot of old Brititsh psych, Brazilian psych, dub, and more. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of droned out analog synth atmospheric soundscapes like Klaus Schulz, and german rock like Ah Ra Tempel and Agitation Free.
You are one of the people that everyone said needs to be on MBA. What artists would you like to see profiled on the site?
I’d like to see Michael Whelan interviewed. I know his art from the countless old SF book covers but he’s also responsible for some iconic art for Sepultura and Obituary. Also, the artist Doug Johnson who did the cover for Judas Preist’s Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, is someone I’d like to know more about. I’ve got some old Illustration books with other work by Johnson but he’s fairly obscure to my knowledge. Both he and Whelan aren’t primarily album cover artists but considering their contributions to the genre I’d love to hear their stories on those particular works.