GREG INTERVIEWS MARK WILKINSON
Mark Wilkinson has been working as a freelance illustrator for over thirty years. Most of his current work is in the realm of fantasy, and he has seen his illustrations used in a wide variety of formats, from book jackets, magazines, record sleeves, and posters to stamp designs, advertising, and film merchandise. His big break in the music industry came when he was commissioned to create cover artwork for Marillion's 1983 debut album 'Script for a Jester's Tear' which was an overnight success. Mark went on to design the covers for the band's next three albums which were also very successful and this opened up a career which has included work for Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, The Darkness ande many others. Mark has also created a string of album sleeves for Bloodstock 2018 headliners Judas Priest and curated a special section of this year's RAM Gallery devoted to Priest.
Q. How did come to work with Judas Priest in the first place?
“Jayne Andrews their manager saw the posters for the Monsters of Rock festival at Donington which I used to do every year and contacted me via the festival promoter. I went to the management offices and met with Jayne. She'd spoken to the band and shown them my work and they really loved the Monsters of Rock stuff in particular. That was probably the only stuff I'd really done with metal subject matter, although a few years earlier I did a heavy metal compilation album called 'Hot Shower'. It's bloody awful! Basically they wanted a guitarist in an asbestos suit in a shower and instead of water coming out of the nozzle there were flames ha ha! It's pure Spinal Tap. On the other side was just the shower head so presumably the guitarist had expired. The first one I did for Priest was 'Ram It Down' in 1988. There was an idea to have a metal fist striking an anvil but in the end we kept the fist and got rid of the anvil.”
Q. Were you already aware of some of the artists and artwork Priest had used on past releases?
“Oh yeah, yeah. 'Sad Wings of Destiny' is one of my favourite album covers of all time. It's a lovely piece and it was really one of those signature pieces that made me want to get into doing artwork for album covers. I actually got to meet the artist Patrick Woodroffe a few years ago although sadly he died in 2014. We were taking part in an exhibition in Denmark, so that was a real thrill to meet him. I also loved the Doug Johnson ones. 'Screaming For Vengeance' was classic. He worked in a very stylised way with flat colour. I couldn't do that so if I was to work for the band I decided to hark back to the worship I had for 'Sad Wings of Destiny'.”
Q. After 'Ram It Down' your next album cover for Priest was 1990's 'Painkiller' which is widely regarded as one of their best. The artwork really captures the sheer energy and exuberance of the music.
“I love that album, it's fantastic. I remember reading reviews at the time saying that if only punk music had half the energy of this album. It was getting incredible reviews everywhere so that was a real thrill. There's an element of bringing the Angel character back from 'Sad Wings of Destiny' but changing it in some way. Updating him as maybe a metal character, a cyborg character. There was talk it would maybe be a guy on a motorbike with the metallic angel behind him but I couldn't make that work. So it was the Angel actually riding the bike. At the time my studio was above a hardware store and I had to walk through the store to get to the stairs to go up to my studio. I just happened to see these circular saw blades hanging up. I was just stood staring at them and the guy I knew in the shop said 'Are you gonna buy one of those?' and I said 'No, but can I borrow one for reference? I've got an idea!' So I took it upstairs and did some drawings and the idea to make the bike wheels as saw blades came out. It just worked. The idea was to develop a character that could carry on forwards and link up throughout the next few albums. I later came back to the idea with 'Angel of Retribution' and that carried the character a littler bit further. The idea with 'Angel of Retribution' was to have it quite simple – no explosions or anything like that and think 'Angel of the North'. I don't know why but that cropped up in one of the conversations. Something very iconic and simpler with a very plain background. One of the drawings I did actually had the Angel in a volcanic environment with lots of fire spitting, but we'd kind of done that before so we decided to keep it simple as the Angel was such a strong figure.”
Q. Your work for 2008's 'Nostradamus' was quite different from anything you'd created for Priest up to that point.
“I worked on that one in tandem with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was always a plan to have the Four Horsemen but I don't think that was a cover particularly. So they asked to keep working on that concept but also on a portrait of Nostradamus but make it more dynamic in some way. Because that album was a real departure – a metal opera if you will – we also didn't use the Priest logo.”
Q. 2014's 'Redeemer of Souls' was definitely much more in the traditional style.
“The ideas around that were let's keep the Angel in some way and find a different way of approaching it. Maybe a Mad Max vibe. That was pretty much the brief that I had. I found that a little difficult to envisage and I always think of Mad Max as the costume and a long, tattered Clint Eastwood-style coat. Then I had to imagine what the body of this cyborg character would look like. It couldn't be the same as anything I'd done before so I took almost like an organic approach to the metal. In the end I really enjoyed doing that one.”
Q. You were asked to come up with concepts for the band's latest album 'Firepower', but the job of actually creating the cover ended up going to Claudio Bergamin. However, your work can be seen all over the rest of the packaging.
“I did everything on it apart from the front cover. I did the back cover with the emblem on fire which Rob [Halford] really liked. He said it reminded him of Excalibur, like a sword. That was just one of many ideas floating around from the band. They weren't absolutely sure what they wanted and it sort of changed and developed. I put in three or four different proposals for the cover but they didn't really feel it was quite right. I think Richie [Faulkner] knew Claudio and just asked him to come up with some ideas and he came up with a rough version of what you see as the final album cover. They sent it to me and said 'What do you think?' and I said 'That's it! It's brilliant. Use that.' I think they were quite surprised that I would say that ha ha! But I'd reached a point where I was a bit stuck for ideas and when I saw that I thought it just works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
Q. In some ways 'Firepower' is like a blend of your style for Priest and that of Doug Johnson who did 'Defenders of the Faith', 'Turbo' and, as you mentioned, 'Screaming For Vengeance'.
“It is quite stylised and I love the way it has the logo at that same angle. It's a perfect representation of what they were after. They were talking about having some sort of metallic creature but forget the wings, we're not going for wings this time. They weren't worried about developing that character any more. They just wanted some machine, some huge metallic monster with all guns blazing.”
Q. You were tasked with designing a 'Priest Wall' in the RAM Gallery for Bloodstock this year. Tell us about that.
“When the news broke that they'd managed to get Priest to headline Bloodstock, Paul [Gregory] rang me up and said that he had commissioned not one but two Priest guitars and what he would like to do is devote one side of the gallery to the history of Priest, with the guitars either centrally or either side of the artwork. When you go back in time and see how many albums they've done, it was gonna make them quite small if we tried to get them all in. So, it's a selection and some are slightly larger than others. There's emphasis on the real signature albums like 'British Steel' and 'Painkiller' and obviously the new one 'Firepower'. I think it's going to be a really impressive display especially with the guitars which from what I've seen look incredible. [Guitar builder] Cynosure got the saw blade in there which I was really pleased with ha ha!”