Interview with Mark Wilkinson

AAA: Mark, first of all tell me something about your childhood. Were you one of those fledgling artists who couldn't stop torturing his parents by making drawings on the living room walls all the time?
Mark: As a small boy (and this is true) I used to creep inside a huge green cupboard, close the doors and out of the shadows came two imaginary friends called "Biss" and "Bess," little devils that played tricks as we flew inside a magic chariot to "Nonsuchland," a cross between Narnia and Neverland. My parents grew used to my tales of the underworld and obviously thought I would grow out of it. But I still work inside a big cupboard only now it is white and the little devil "Biss" is still with me, producing tricks! The men in white visit me every other day with the medication!
AAA: Well, that explains the white van with the darkened windows parked outside... Besides your battles in Nonsuchland, music was also a strong influence and attracted you to starting a career in art-is that right?
Mark: Oh yes, definitely. Music provided the adventure playground of my youth. If you didn't dance to it, you watched it played live and then read the lyrics on the inner sleeve when you got home -or tried to decode the hidden messages in the sleeve painting. "Designed by Hapshash and the colored coat;" now what did that mean
AAA: Uh.. no idea Mark. What does it mean?
Mark: It meant that you had to discover who they were! It was all part of the game of reading album sleeves. The more obscure the information-the better the game.
AAA: How did you finally succeed in getting your first jobs?
Mark: Well, after knocking on many doors, my first commission was a portrait of James Brown for a compilation album, the next-a compilation album of heavy metal called "Hot Shower." The next-four compilation albums of classical music for Deutsche Grammophon
AAA: ... So you got all compilated! I must assume that this was not exactly what you were looking for.
Mark: No, not really... Boy, was I getting fed up with compilation albums! But where was the strangeness and charm to which I could hitch my magic chariot? The tide turned in 1982, when I was asked to submit some samples of my work to EMI records for a new band called Marillion. I went to see them in concert and met up with the band a couple of days later to discuss their ideas for the first album, "Script for a Jester's Tear." They wanted a highly detailed gatefold sleeve for the first in a trilogy of "concept" albums! Such extravagance was unheard of for a new band in the early eighties. But they doggedly swam against the tide of fashion, and with the third album they went on to become one of the most successful rock bands of the eighties. This was the band I had been waiting for. In Fish, their charismatic singer and lyricist, I had at last found my soul mate. Not Peter Pan exactly, because he jerked my imagination away from "Neverland" to his heart of darkness, "The Wilderness of Mirrors." It's fifteen years later and I am still working for him in his solo career. His latest album. "Sunset on Empire," was released last April. From that one contact I have worked for many other bands over the years, including The Scorpions, Judas Priest, Europe, Status Quo, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.
AAA: In an earlier conversation you told me Punk and New Wave music had thrown out all that "flowery nonsense" that had inspired you in the sixties. This must have been a setback, although you clearly succeeded in doing what you always wanted to do- record sleeves. What was the secret of your considerable success?
Mark: Persistence, I guess. When I graduated from art college, Punk music was at its peak and suddenly the anthem was "destroy." It was a necessary catharsis, but the whole scene changed. Members of the local college band Wire all shaved their long hair off and snarled their way into a record contract with EMI, but it was worth it They went on to become very influential. R.E.M., Elastica and Blur are now citing them as an influence on their music. The point here is self belief, don't take no for an answer. If it means riding a new wave to get noticed, then try it. Once you are in, you can grow! It is the same for illustrators. I had been waiting five years for that call from EMI, but when it came you can be sure I was ready. All kinds of doors that had been closed before, suddenly opened.
AAA: After that you also got to work in the comics field, illustrating icons like Judge Dredd, as well as doing designs for Star Wars and posters for the immensely popular TV show Red Dwarf, to name but a few. Did people just come knocking on your door for that, or was there a bit more involved?
Mark: Catch 22. Art directors are reluctant to take a chance on a new artist unless they have experience, but how do you get the experience if you don't get the chance? It has always been tough and the standards are getting higher. One successful project, though, can get you noticed to such a degree that a whole career can develop. This was my experience. From the work I did for Marillion, EMI used me for other bands. The merchandise company Bravado Big Tours that produced the T-shirts and tour brochures for Marillion was anxious to keep the same artist that did their album covers. From that came more contracts in the music world. The film and TV-related work came from an offshoot of Bravado-Network Distribution Co., and so the T-shirt designs for Star Wars and posters for Red Dwarf and Judge Dredd came.
The chance to work on Judge Dredd came from meeting one of the regular writers, Alan Grant, who moved to my village. So I knocked on his door, too! We became friends and he introduced me to John Wagner, the creator of Dredd (with the Spanish artist Car-los Ezquerra). Dredd has an entirely different feel to it compared to American comics-something that the movie missed perhaps. I know that Alan was very upset by it, by how wide. of the mark the movie really was...
AAA: Didn't some of your work appear in the movie?
Mark: ... Yes, one of my cover designs was used in the opening title sequence of the film. For this I received a tiny fee, but went to a special preview in London attended by writers and artists of the comic, and introduced my two children to a chap dressed up as Dredd in the foyer. He was trying to look menacing, but to me, sweitering in a œ4000 rubber suit in the middle of the summer, he just looked hot!
AAA: You mentioned Alan Grant, a writer of Judge Dredd, being very upset by how wide of the mark the movie was... Being so closely involved with the original comics, what do you think of the transition of the Judge from paper to celluloid?
Mark: Well, it wasn't "Blade Runner," was it. I thought it looked tremendous and Sly Stallone was okay, but the fans really wanted Schwarzenegger for the role. The problem, as so often happens now with Hollywood, is in the writing. The best comics-related movie, in my opinion, was the first Batman. It had the look, but far more importantly it had a good script. I loved the new "Spawn" movie as well; Todd MacFarlane's inspired creation is one of the most exciting in comics today.
AAA: I always liked Judge Anderson more than Dredd, and I have heard this from other people. I wonder why... how about you?
Mark: You know, with Dredd I feel that the character is not so interesting as the plots. With Alan and John's stories there is so much humour and dry wit going on that the personality of Dredd HAS to be a blank canvas almost, to accommodate all that irony.
Also you have to take on board that Dredd was cloned. His mother was a test tube and his father a Bunsen Burner! With Anderson's history being what it is, an "abusive father"-who she destroyed with a voodoo doll, etc., and with her special "powers" just crying out for weird psychedelic stories, it's not surprising that you find her more interesting! Me too! In fact I asked Alan if he could write me a really weird story to illustrate, so he gave me the old "telepath flies to the centre of the Universe to find herself and gets to meet the awful truth of creation by a black hole" chestnut to work on. Whoa! That did it for me, I can tell you!
AAA: I hope this is just coinci dence, but in a previous interview Edward Reed told me that he's a regular visitor to the centre of the Universe, and he recently warned me that it is about to fold in on itself! Let's hope that's not the awful truth Judge Anderson is to discover!
Mark: Not for a few billion years yet, Edward! By then we will all be whizzing about through wormholes in space and warping time like nobody's business! Until then I guess the truth of creation, awful or not, remains ... well, a mystery.
AAA: Anyway, back to more Earthly matters... Can you tell me something on how you tackle a painting? Is there some kind of ritual you go through or some imaginary world you plunge into? To put it simply-this is my favourite question by the way-where does the inspiration come from?
Mark:Well, I don't climb into the green cupboard any more, if that's what you're getting at. One ritual I do like if I really need to "visualise" is to sleep on it. I read somewhere that you can "program" your brain by thinking about a set of given problems the last thing before going to sleep at night. In the morning, train yourself to recall those last thoughts and sometimes-not always-an answer or "picture" pops into your head. It has something to do with harnessing your brain's Alpha and Theta wave activity to solve a problem of any kind, so why not? The next step is to play around with ideas by roughing them out on a scrap of paper. I only make these roughs about 50 mm square and end up with dozens of them scrawled out. They help a lot with the composition, too. It's surprising how a few squiggles in a small box can suggest a complete illustration in your head. These shorthand roughs are usually indecipherable to anyone else; even my wife has difficulty working them out. But then I work one or two of them up and that is what the client wants to see. After that we're off! I collect together any reference material I have found from a large cupboard full of magazine clippings, or photographs I have taken, to help along the way. Then I start work on the illustration itself.
AAA: How about the technical side of your work. Do you consider the airbrush to be a holy relic?
Mark: It has been said many times before in your magazine, but it bears repeating nevertheless: "It is just a tool." I used to get very irritated when people called me an airbrush artist. I am not so sensitive anymore; you can call me a banana if you like, as long as I get the job! I work on Schoellershammer 4R paper (which is increasingly hard to get hold of in England. Why?) and I use acrylic and Gouache, inks and dyes, Chroma color paint coloured pencils, pastels, felt pens... all sorts in fact. Many of my pictures are painted to begin with, then airbrushed on top to get that "finished look" of realism that I like.
AAA: What about computers, do they affect the kind of work you are doing? Do you have one yourself. or do you intend never to touch those electronic boxes?
Mark:So far I have managed to survive without one, so they have not affected me or my work. I am aware of the changing climate, however, and I never ever say never. My London agent, Harry Lyon-Smith of the Illustration Agency, has recommended that I have a go. A few of his "realistic" artists have switched to computers, either completely or partially, with great commercial success in some cases. It's the learning curve that worries me. Some people reckon on a year, some say two, before you are competent enough to be able to compete with all the other computer artists around. How many pictures would I have painted in that time? Oh well, my son already thinks I am a "holy relic" for not using computers in my work, but I am suspicious that he is trying to goad me into getting one so he can zip around cyberspace on the Internet himself.
AAA: Recently you had another big commission for Red Dwarf that forced you to work day and night because of the tight deadline. How do you feel about deadlines-a necessary evil, perhaps?
Mark:Deadlines can be a curse when you have been up all night trying to meet them, but on the other hand if they are too relaxed you can overwork the painting to become a bit sterile. I never seem to have enough time, though.
AAA: What would be your artistic heaven?
Mark:My wife, who is also an illustrator, and I tried unsuccessfully to get a book project off the ground a few years ago. It was a children's story called "The Wastes Of Time," and was a fantasy adventure that we both wrote and illustrated. Having attracted a lot of interest from two agents and a TV producer (who saw it more as a film project), it was a source of great frustration for us that it never happened for various reasons. So I think that would be our artistic heaven-to see a project such as this take off.
AAA: If there is anything you would like to say to future artists-besides to stay the hell away from your clients-what would it be?
Mark: It's a jungle out there, is what I would say. If you are determined though, then keep knocking on those doors. Follow your dream! It all sounds terribly glib, I know, but it's true. Often with these things it is down to stamina, not talent. How many times have we all heard about people with talent who don't make it?
AAA: So very right you are. One last question, Mark. Please tell me what "Designed by Hapshash and the colored coat" means.

Mark: They were a design group in the sixties headed by that well-known "Airbrush artist" Michael English. They designed many posters and album sleeves, and even formed a band of the same name. Apart from Alan Aldridge their work, more than any others, forced me to re-evaluate my life and take a chance in the lines waiting to get into art college....
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