Dusty Peterson is an artist whose work transports the viewer to a dark fantastical place, that no matter how unnerving it makes you feel, you want to come back and visit. I know his work is supposed to be dark and evil but there is something so comforting about it…perhaps it is the lush colors or the painterly style.
How did you get your first paying art job?
In 2000 (at age 20), when I started my video game art career. I got hired at Treyarch and worked on a baseball game (Triple Play Baseball).
If we are strictly talking about album covers, it was in 2008 with Bloodbath’s “The Fathomless Mastery”. I had done their contest for the EP previous to that (“Unblessing the Purity”), which was unpaid (Label did a contest to submit your own album cover and the band picked mine), but they liked that so much that they hired me for the LP. After that, it sort of injected the fire in me that I had been missing and I pursued the illustration/album art side-career further by sending my portfolios to bands and labels. Since then it’s just been perseverance.
Have you always worked in your current style and if not how did you work before?
Mostly, yes. The only thing that has really evolved is the different media that I use. Like any artist, it’s a process of finding what your favorite tools are. But in general, I’ve always been influenced by the same people so my art style remains the same even if my tools or ability change over time.
Who are your artistic influences?
My biggest influences are Michael Whelan, Wayne Douglas Barlowe, and HR Giger. I own all of their art books and have studied them countless hours over the course of my life. Other favorites are John Jude Palencar, Brom, Ed Repka, Mark Tedin, and Jeff Easley. Basically, if they ever did a great fantasy/sci-fi novel or an album cover, I like them.
What words best describe your artistic style?
I’m just going to repeat what people tell me, because I honestly have a hard time describing my own style, but the most popular one seems to be “intense”. I think that is a suitable enough description as it is what I strive for when making art. I want to make art that grabs people from across the room, so intensity in subject matter and color is the best way to do that.
Tell us about your studio space?
There is nothing romantic about my studio space at the moment. In fact, I quite hate my desk, which is really pathetic because I bought it thinking it would be the ultimate desk ever and it’s really uncomfortable. It’s your basic L-shaped desk from Staples with a chair from Ikea that broke after a year. I’m really cheap and lazy about buying furniture, though, so I ended up attaching some kind of frankenstein’d brace on to the broken plastic arms so the whole chair doesn’t flop back. It’s really embarrassing. It’s one of those things where it’s bad enough for me to whine about it, but not bad enough to where my work suffers in any way. So I just tolerate it. I aspire to have one of those amazing artistic spaces one day, though!
When you create art for a band…Do you listen to their music during the process?
Sometimes. I think there is definitely some kind of sub-conscious effect that happens while you listen to a band and work on their art as long as you like their music. Thankfully, I haven’t worked with any bands yet where their music has completely turned me off, so in general the only time I don’t listen to a band while I do their art is if they are new and don’t have proper samples yet.
Take us through a typical day.
My day starts at about 8-9am. I get up, take my shower, skip breakfast, and slog through Seattle’s 520 bridge traffic to get to Kirkland so I can spend 8 or so hours making video games. Then I slog through that traffic again, come home, eat dinner, and decide how productive I am going to be. Usually, I’ll start job #2 right away (my freelance art) but if I am feeling a little burned out, I’ll play some video games. All of that is sprinkled with time with wife and cats. After my evening, I’ll go to bed around 1am, throw in a horror movie to pass out to and call it a day usually around 2-3.
How do you create your work? Take us through the process from concept to final.
I start with a basic sketch. This will either be in pencil or directly into photoshop, it just depends on my mood and where I am feeling the most creative that day. After I get the basic shapes and composition down, I’ll throw in a few details, but not so much where I will feel limited once I get to the painting stage. I find that painting (obviously traditionally, but also digitally) offers a lot of “happy accidents” at times that I may not have “seen” on the page when I was drawing, so I do try to keep this stage loose. Then the next step will either involve going straight to digital or painting up some roughs in watercolors to help my eye see where my brain is going. At the end of the day, though, I do all of my finish art digitally. I just don’t have a space big enough to get the same detail level in real paint.
After I finish the sketch, I will bring it into photoshop and set the line-work to “Multiply” and start painting on a layer directly below it. I don’t use a lot of layers and I try to paint all on one layer most of the time. I say most, because sometimes if I am feeling nervous, I will make a new layer and then merge down. But, in general, I think that painting all on one layer best simulates painting in traditional media because you have to deal with the mistakes more. The more you do this, the more painted it looks, which is something that I have spent a lot of time trying to achieve. Even if I don’t have the space to paint traditionally like I’d like to, I still want it to ultimately be a hand-painted piece.
After I finish the “speed paint”, I merge the line-art down and start painting over the top of the line art. From there on out it’s just detail painting, which is the easy part.
What materials do you use? How much if any is done on the computer?
95% of it is done on the computer. And I realize that some people have a problem with that, but it’s not really their fault, either. There have been so many poor computer generated images over the decades at this point that you can’t blame them for seeing the word “Photoshop” and turning up their nose. All I can do, as an artist, is hopefully prove that art comes from the inside and produce quality art that doesn’t look “photoshoppy”. The computer is just a tool like a pencil, pen, or paintbrush and it has it’s own series of skills and techniques that must be learned to use it effectively. I’ve spent a lot of time studying all medias and this is the one that I have chosen for it’s cleanliness, it’s small footprint on my apartment, and it’s ease of correction for clients that desire tweaks on their works.
Do you use reference materials or does all of it come from your head?
Half and half. I always look up reference to check myself when doing human anatomy. Even after years of study, it’s almost impossible to not make an anatomical mistake or be a victim of your own style if you don’t at least look at a reference book or take a photo of yourself. Hands, feet, and dynamic poses would be my weak spots, but that’s what camera phones are for. I have a picture of myself for pretty much every painting that I do (although I usually try to delete them, since they are really embarrassing photos, haha). Then I just hold my phone in my hand and look at it while I draw (if drawing on paper) or I will send the picture to myself and alt+tab over to it when I need a glimpse (if drawing in photoshop).
As for the monsters and entrails and stuff, I just pull that out of imagination. You can get away with anatomical missteps in monsters and stuff like that because no one other than you knows what they look like. That said, things become more believable if you have studied real life animals or organ anatomy. I have dozens of wildlife books with cross-sections and all of that stuff, and I sort of go with the “Greek Mythology” approach, but hidden behind a veil a bit. That is, I’ll take one animal’s head and stick it on another body in the most simplest form (i.e. Minotaur, Centaur, etc). But to get more complex then that, you just go further and say “I’m going to borrow this lion’s skull, with a crabs shell and claws, with a shaven bear’s body, etc etc”. I’ve studied all of those, so I know what they basically look like and that is the pool that I pull from to make good monsters. The same goes with gore. Most people aren’t doctors so if you know how your basic slimy, gooey bits go together you can just riff on the same idea over and over until it looks like gore and no one is the wiser. And then it just looks cool.
Do the bands give you any direction?
It really depends on the band, the project, and the label. I’ve worked with some bands that have a very clear concept and I am basically interpreting what they say. I have also been lucky enough to work with bands that trust my artistic insight and let me run freestyle with it. Both have their pros and cons. It can be challenging attempting to see what is in the mind of the client and it can be just as challenging (if not more so) to please someone that doesn’t know what they want.
Do you have an advice for artist’s who wish to do artwork for bands?
You must have confidence in your work. Don’t be cocky, but create your work knowing that you are good enough to be doing what you are doing. If you aren’t good enough, you will know anyway. You must always remember that the band has hired YOU to do work for THEM and they are the ones that need to be happy. It’s always great to please fans of that band, but the fact of the matter is, someone will always hate what you have done. Maybe they won’t like the subject matter. Maybe they are comparing you to a previous, legendary album cover that is nigh impossible to beat. Maybe they don’t even like the band and are using you as a dart board for their insults. Or maybe, just maybe, they straight up think you suck. Maybe you do? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the band doesn’t think you suck and that they get what they paid for out of you, i.e. the best artwork that you can create. And so with this all in mind, you MUST grow a thick skin or you will crumble fast. Of course, if you are any sort of mature artist, you have probably developed this thick skin long ago when you get portfolio critiques (and you should always get portfolio critiques). You just can not take anything personally. You need to brush the dust off and move forward.
Also, do not get starstruck. At the end of the day, these bands are just artists (audio and performance artists, but artists just the same) just like you and you needn’t put them on a pedestal. When I was 16, I looked up to everyone. But now I see everyone else on the planet as colleagues, no matter what their ability. I think it helps focus on the artwork and just do what I need to do to make the best artwork that I can do. And since you are not a starstruck fanboy, this will help you contact these bands with professionalism when looking for work.
Don’t get screwed by the financial aspect of it all. Set up policies that you do not budge on such as:
1) Get a non-refundable deposit. This makes sure that if you are going to get ripped off, at least you get something. I take 50% down, personally.
2) Set fair rates that won’t make your clients wince, but make sure it’s worth your time. Making art is time-consuming and it has taken you years to get to where you are. Do not accept $50.00 for 30 days of hard work. Never *EVER* believe the “but you’ll get great exposure!” line that some people will try to peddle. You will not and the band will get your time for free.
3) Never take a “percentage” of sales, get a flat fee. It’s too difficult for you to prove how much the band makes to get your percentage. They’ll give you whatever they say they made, but at that point you’ll have to go off of their honesty. And with as much money as bands make these days, it would be very easy for them to say “Ah crap…and we gotta pay this guy still. Well, he/she doesn’t know how much we made, right?”. I’m not saying all bands are like this, I’m just saying it is POSSIBLE. And this business is all about protecting yourself. Why set yourself up for disaster?
4) And finally…no matter what…never, ever, ever, ever, EVER send the band the full, high resolution artwork until you have been paid in full. Once they have a full resolution image from you, they officially have everything they need from you. So if you give that to them right away, all incentive to pay you quickly just went out the door. If they still need something from you, they will make great efforts to pay you within a reasonable amount of time. If you give them what they need because of some excuse like “Awww man…we really needed that art for the merch for the show next weekend, but we SWEAR you’ll get paid the day after the show”, it’s a lie. They will procrastinate and you will feel like you are hounding them and that is a sucky feeling. Then the emails go further and further apart and then you stop hearing from them entirely. It happens, don’t think it won’t happen to you.
Take those measures so that you can remain a happy artist. I am a VERY happy artist because I protect myself from being taken advantage of. Unfortunately, some artists do not take care of themselves and get treated like a dog and become bitter quickly. You don’t want that or you will not be in the industry long.
Working with bands is severely rewarding and the pros definitely outweigh the cons, but you must be smart.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on the new LP for Six Feet Under, due next year sometime. Other than that, I am taking a bit of a personal break in the sense that I am not actively seeking out bands. This is so that I can work on some personal projects (like a book). But I still get emails from bands and I am open if the project is a good fit. The best thing about having a day job that is still art related is that it really does offer me the option to do whatever I want and not have to starve too much. At any point I can add or take away freelance depending on what it is I want to do.
Do you have any dream projects?
I’d love to do an Iron Maiden album cover, but they are pretty difficult to get a hold of. I also think Gwar would be super fun to work for since they are so over the top. Other than that, it’s a bunch of things that I’d love to do but wouldn’t really be likely because the band already has a go-to artist that they utilize (i.e. Cannibal Corpse/Vincent Locke etc). And that is okay, because that’s all any artist can hope for anyway…to be asked for repeat business. So I’d hate to break any artist’s awesome album cover streak.
What are your favorite bands of all time and what bands are you listening to right now?
My favorite bands of all time are really nostalgia-based. Basically the first bands that I got into when I first started listening to death and black metal. So old (i.e. anything from the 90′s) Cannibal Corpse, Rotting Christ and Samael. I also have always been a big fan of Immortal and all of their respective side projects. Then, I feel like it’s really unoriginal, but the greats like Dio, Maiden and Priest are all essential weekly listening for me. Right now, I’ve really been into the NWOBHM band, Hell. Their album that came out this year is easily album of the year for me, at least.
What artists would you like to see on MBA?
Ed Repka, Michael Whelan, Wes Benscoter.