Interview: John Coulthart

Today we are talking to illustrator, graphic artist and designer John Coulthart. He has produced numerous fantastic book covers, CD covers and illustrations, including several works inspired by Lovecraft’s stories:

IFP: How did you begin your career as an illustrator and designer?

JC: For me, it was always a case of luck rather than qualifications, meeting the right people and having something to show them which caught their attention. I left school at 17 and went through the usual retail jobs until I met someone a year later who knew the rock band Hawkwind. This happened right at the time I’d been producing a lot of illustrations based on the group’s songs and led to me creating album covers for the band, which I now find rather embarrassing. When I’d left school, everyone told me that without qualifications, I was doomed to failure, so it was a great boost to suddenly have my work on display all over the country.

cthulhu2004While I was doing the Hawkwind work, I moved to Manchester where I met David Britton and Michael Butterworth, both of Savoy Books whose science fiction and fantasy titles I’d been buying. I stopped the Hawkwind work in 1985 when I realised I’d rather be illustrating Lovecraft. Dave and Mike were both very encouraging when they saw this new work and it was on the strength of the Lovecraft comics that Dave Britton asked me to contribute to the Lord Horror comics he’d been creating with artist Kris Guidio. That was in 1989 and I’ve been working on and off with Savoy ever since.

All this was mainly illustration and comic art. I’d had an enthusiasm for design and typography since I was at school, and the teachers there wanted me to go into what was then called “commercial art” (ie: graphic design). One of the post-school jobs was at an advertising place when things were still being done with scissors and paste, so I knew something about the raw aspects of graphic design work. But it was only when I started using computers in the mid-90s that I really started to address what it was I wanted to do with design. The technology removed a lot of the physical awkwardness: you no longer needed Letraset lettering or typesetters or enlargement cameras. It was suddenly a far more attractive medium.

IFP: Could you walk us through your design process? Sketching, materials used, etc.

wonderlandJC: Different projects have different requirements. For illustration or large artworks, I’ll often draw something first, even if that’s only to get an outline which I then work over. A good example of that was the Lovecraftian “dream city” I created a couple of years ago, which was drawn in outline on a large sheet, scanned into the computer then painted over using Photoshop. For photo-collage works, I rarely rough anything out since I often have a vague composition in mind which I’ll work out on the screen. So long as you get a good background and have a strong central image, this is an effective approach.

The same with design work: I often find it easier to work from scratch on the screen rather than plan the different elements in sketch form. Even when you do sketch things, vector graphics tend to be so precise that you can find that something which looks okay as, say, a rough lettering design, looks rather poor when you’ve produced a very hard-edged digital graphic.

The other point about not sketching too much is that I like to improvise while I’m working and, when possible, surprise myself. Once again, this works so long as you have an underlying structure in mind, usually compositional.

Materials are pretty basic: 2B or 3B pencils and ordinary drawing paper. I used to use very fine Rapidograph ink pens for black-and-white work. I later combined those with brushes and nib pens for a while. For hand-drawn line work these days I prefer Mitsubishi’s Uniball pens, which can be found at any stationary outlet.

Computer work is done with the main Adobe apps, Photoshop, Illustrator and (for book layouts) InDesign. I very-occasionally incorporate 3D graphics into Photoshop pictures, but many of the apps I used to use for that have been discontinued. I still don’t have a graphics tablet, although every so often, I think I should try one out.

IFP: What are some of the artists that have influenced your artwork? What about books, music or movies?

JC: It’s often difficult to disentangle things you like a great deal from actual influences. I love Aubrey Beardsley’s artwork, for example, but I can’t say it’s been much of a direct influence beyond a couple of pastiches I drew for the Lord Horror comics.

nyarlathotep-cyaeghaMy earliest influences were the album covers and sf/fantasy illustrations of the 1970s. That was a fantastic decade for album cover design and I’ve said many times that the window of our local record shop was like an art gallery which changed each week. The designers I liked included Roger Dean, Barney Bubbles and the Hipgnosis team. The Hipgnosis covers owed a lot to Surrealist art and I was an enthusiast of the Pop artists and Surrealists, especially Dalí, Ernst and Magritte. My mother had been to art school and trained as a textile designer, so she had art books and magazines. Consequently, I was aware of art and painters from a very early age, but I never thought of pursuing what’s called a fine art career. Illustration interested me a lot more, not least because it was evident that the surreal imagery I preferred was no longer encouraged in the gallery world, whereas it flourished on book jackets and record sleeves. Illustrators and graphic designers seemed to have a huge audience for their work and also seemed to connect with people who would never visit an art gallery.

Other influences have tended to be people who inspire by example. Artists would include: HR Giger, Philippe Druillet, Ian Miller and Harry Clarke. Gustave Doré, Berni Wrightson and Bryan Talbot influenced how I approached adapting Lovecraft for the comics medium. Barney Bubbles and Neville Brody both inspired me to get involved in the design side of things rather than just doing illustration.

IFP: What’s the secret to a good book cover?

JC: That’s very difficult to say since the content varies so widely and covers serve different purposes. It’s generally true that, with any design, you want to get things to a point where the slightest change would make the design worse, so the finished work might not be perfect, but it’s as good as it can be. Any cover that works really well has this quality.

IFP: Do you have a favourite album or book cover you’ve designed?

finchJC: I was pleased with the cover I produced for metal band Cyaegha last year, it was a piece of Photoshop art which came together very easily. The album’s title, Steps of Descent, refers to “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”. The band recommended a scene from which I produced a small sketch. That was approved then, a couple of weeks later, I had the cover finished. Some parts began as pencil drawing, some parts are photos of mine, the rest comes from a variety of old photo sources. It’s a collage piece, in other words, but it looks like a fully-realised scene.

With book covers, there’s a lot I’ve been very pleased with, especially the recent one for Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Finch, which has been well-received by the author and his readers. In terms of design as opposed to illustration, it was a pleasure to be able to provide a decent cover for David Lindsay’s fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, when Savoy Books republished it in 2002. Lindsay’s novel has been presented for years as a sword-and-sorcery book, which it isn’t at all; it’s more of a philosophical allegory with a fantasy storyline. For the cover, I selected a Symbolist painting, The Treasures of Satan by Jean Deville, which matched the book’s metaphysical drama, then designed some suitable title lettering. That choice of painting was copied by Gollancz when they republished the book a couple of years later.

IFP: What about other artists’ covers? Can you mention some of your favourites?

JC: There’s too many to mention; I can only point to categories or creators, really. With album covers, it’s all the ones that hit me when I was younger, things by Roger Dean, Hipgnosis, Barney Bubbles and Neville Brody. With books, I’m a minor Penguin cover fetishist (not as obsessed as some) and also like the early run of Picador covers a great deal. Like Penguin, Picador made a virtue in the 1970s and 80s of having a uniform design to which they added a carefully-chosen photo or illustration.

IFP: What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on? Why?

JC: Probably the Lord Horror comic series, Reverbstorm, in the 1990s. It was challenging on the drawing level since I was forced to address my lazy figure drawing; then it was challenging on the content level, being very violent and deliberately avant garde in content and style. As the series progressed, I was drawing panels in the style of Picasso and other artists – something I never thought I’d do – and forcing the comics medium to do things I hadn’t seen other artists attempt before. It was also a challenge since we were creating it in a very improvised manner rather than working out things in detail the way most mainstream strips are created.

IFP: What is your dream project?

hotdstairsJC: That’s difficult to say since many of the things which would have been dream projects years ago are things I’ve managed to do, such as working with people like Alan Moore, Jon Hassell or, most recently, designing two books of Michael Moorcock’s work. I used to think it would be great to work on a feature film, but these things are so compromised now that the idea is a lot less attractive. A few years back, I was talking to the producers of what would have been Guillermo del Toro’s film of At the Mountains of Madness. They were keen for me to provide some conceptual designs, but when I spoke to the director, he seemed rather cautious and not so enthusiastic. That project fell through, in any case, and now I’m very involved now with some work of my own, which hasn’t been announced yet. This new work is 100% my own thing, no compromises, collaborations or adaptation of prior work; that’s a pretty good definition of a dream project.

IFP: What projects are you working on?

JC: This week, I’ve been putting the finishing touches to Into the Media Web, a 720-page collection of Michael Moorcock’s non-fiction which Savoy will be publishing early in 2010. I’ve also been finishing off another book cover for Underland Press and designing a flyer and a poster for a gay music event here in Manchester.

IFP: What artistic accomplishment are you most proud of in your life?

JC: My Lovecraft book and the Reverbstorm series. And the new work mentioned above…

IFP: How did you discover Lovecraft?

hplJC: In ghost story collections when I was about 11 or 12. Puffin Books published a few, which featured reprints of Victorian and Edwardian stories, and these were the first places I encountered MR James, Sheridan Le Fanu and the rest. I remember “The White Ship” being in one of them. Later on, I got to read “The Colour Out of Space”, which astounded me. That’s when I started buying up the paperbacks.

IFP: You’ve produced a number of Lovecraftian illustrations. What draws you to this type of art?

JC: It was always the atmosphere, I think. People complain about his writing style, but at its best, the descriptions are very precise and he turns the screw (as Henry James would say) with exceptional control. That evocation of atmosphere and sense of place made a real impression, as did the invented mythology and the whole panoply of cosmic horror. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith mapped out new areas to explore visually. You didn’t have to spin out the old Gothic clichés anymore, you could explore the whole world or even other planets.

IFP: What is your favourite Lovecraft/Mythos story?

cthulhu0JC: For chills, it’s probably either “The Colour Out of Space” or “The Dunwich Horror”. The escalation of dread in both of these is tremendous and I’m always fascinated by the idea that the people who come close to destroying humanity aren’t James Bond-style supervillains but a bunch of inbred hicks with a book of spells. For imagination, it would have to be At the Mountains of Madness; you can’t beat a million-year-old alien city buried in the centre of Antarctica.

IFP: If you could be a Lovecraft character or monster, who would you be and why?

JC: Being an artist, I suppose I should say Richard Upton Pickman, but I think I’d much prefer to be Henry Anthony Wilcox, the artist in “The Call of Cthulhu”. He doesn’t have to hang around with corpse-chewing ghouls and gets to live in the beautiful Fleur-de-Lys Building in Providence.

jcBio: John Coulthart is an illustrator and graphic designer. His work as a comic artist includes Savoy Books’ Lord Horror series, Reverbstorm, with David Britton, and a collection of HP Lovecraft adaptations, The Haunter of the Dark and other Grotesque Visions, which was published worldwide in 2006. Recent book work includes interior design and cover illustration for Tachyon Publications and Underland Press. He lives and works in Manchester, UK.

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IFPInterview: John Coulthart