Interview with cover artist Scott Murphy8 min read
Stephanie Jacob: Mother Nature is a dramatic image. The muted palette and striking imagery convey such power. Traditionally we see Mother Nature as an ethereal, bountiful being, bursting with color. What prompted you to create her darker side, a side that is captivating and thought provoking and yet inspires more than a little fear?
Scott Murphy: I think, for me, images that always strike me most and stick with me for a long time are those which tend to be unexpected and unusual. Breaking the visual mold, so to speak. For example, If I always see the card with Santa Claus on it looking jolly with a sleigh and presents then I’m usually going to forget about the image pretty quickly as it just blends together with every other image of a jolly Santa I’ve ever stored in my memory. But if for some reason the image is of Santa as a bad-ass biker with tattoos on a big old motorized sleigh with fire coming out the back, that I will remember! So when creating Mother Nature, I decided that I wanted to go against tradition and show her dark side–the other side of the story. Just yesterday she could’ve sprouted all of those lovely sunflowers, and now they’re dead and withered. That’s the beauty and terror of Mother Nature, she gives life and can just as quickly take it. She can do whatever she wants and we have no control over it. How often does a beautiful sunny day get recognized for more than a second? But a hurricane, a blizzard, or an earthquake can change history.
Since this was a personal painting and had no client constraints I wanted to make it fun for me. A typical painting of Mother Nature could be nice depending on what visual are in it, but for me, I wanted to paint something that made a strong visual statement. Plus, I think I’ve always had a bit of a dark side so any chance I can get to paint bones and skulls and dark imagery is always welcome. At the time, I was also trying to unify the colors a bit more in my paintings to bring the image together. So I wanted to do a piece that had a very muted palette and not many bright or jarring colors. That way I could convey a better sense of mood through color, and help to drive the overall feel of the image. It also let me leave the burnt umber undertone to do most of the work in the ground area of the field and also her hair.
SJ: As I was looking through your portfolio I was really taken with the Goblin Engineer. I love the focused light in the foreground that illuminates the goblin. It allows us to feel the intensity the goblin must feel as he becomes engrossed in his work. What can you tell us about the painting?
SM: The Goblin Engineer—and also Mother Nature—were both created for a group blog called Running With Paintbrushes that I created with a few other illustration pals. The purpose for the blog is to create themed projects for ourselves with deadlines, and then share and critique the illustrations in a more public setting. It’s a good way for me to keep on track with portfolio images when it’s easy to slack off without any real deadlines or consequences otherwise.
The project was to create a painting that involved some sort of mechanical engineering. At the time, I really wanted to make a painting that I could market towards the World of Warcraft or Magic card games. That’s why I had chosen to go with a character often found in those games, as well as the decision to make the colors really high intensity. Also, I hadn’t really done too many characters that weren’t human so it was a joy to create something a little different. I knew I wanted to have a strong light source coming from the bug so I could show the effects of colored light on his skin, and contrast with the blue light coming from the window and his workspace in the background. The decision to get in close on him was to make the viewer part of his project. I wanted to tell a little story about this guy and his creation, but leave it open as to what the full story is. Is he good? Is he evil? You decide.
SJ: You mention on your blog that you studied under Dennis Nolan, Doug Anderson, and Bill Thomson. Are there any artists who have influenced your style or content? Is there a particular art movement that you identify with or are a fan of?
SM: I studied undergrad with them at the Hartford Art School. They are great guys and I really don’t know where I’d be as an artist if it weren’t for them.
As far as other artists who have influenced me…We could be here for a long time! Haha! I literally have hundreds of people I could name off that have had some kind of influence on me. But, for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick to some of the big ones that are my go-tos for inspiration. The early 20th century academic artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton, and John William Waterhouse have always influenced me through their mastery of paint and insane attention to detail. I also have a special love for some American artists of the same time period: John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Edwin Austin Abbey, and most of the Hudson River School artists.
Of course, as an illustrator, I’m always influenced by the Golden Age illustrators, N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle more than anyone else simply for their incredible storytelling skills. And as a fantasy artist I’m constantly looking at others in the genre like Frank Frazzeta or Brom to see how they solved certain problems or how they designed a creature or costuming. Not to mention some of the great fantasy artists working today: Donato Giancola, Greg Manchess, James Gurney, Dan Dos Santos, and many many others. These guys have helped me personally throughout the years with great advice and amazing work.
SJ: Is oil your preferred medium and do you find oil to be best suited for you artistic style? Are there any mediums or styles that you have yet to try that appeal to you?
SM: I do prefer oils as my medium of choice. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many different mediums over the past few years and it’s allowed me to explore and decide what works best for me. But, while I do enjoy working with other mediums, I often find that they don’t work best for my style and working method. Oils allow certain flexibility because they stay wet for an extended period of time (which could also be a bad thing if you don’t manage your time!), enabling quick adjustments and easy color blending. I also like the ability to paint over areas after they’ve dried to fix a mistake or in thin layers of glazes to punch bright colors. I do, however, use watercolors when I’m on a trip doing landscape studies since it’s such a quick and portable medium. Additionally, a helpful tool for me the past few years has also been using Photoshop to make corrections to my paintings or help accentuate an element, such as magical effects. It’s proven indispensable with today’s market to be able to make changes to a final image when the time needed to repaint a certain part in oils would take 3 times as long.
SJ: Your day job has you working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the head drafts-person for the Egyptian Department. Will you give us an idea of what your job entails?
SM: I’ve been working at the Met for about five and a half years since I graduated from school. My job for the Egyptian department is basically technical archaeological illustration. I make line drawings of relief fragments with hieroglyphic inscriptions from an excavation site the museum has in Egypt. The drawings I do on site are with pencil on a thick Mylar paper, and when I bring the drawings back to the museum in New York I redraw them using Adobe Illustrator. Everything is very precise and to scale so that we can try to piece the stones back together in big reconstructions or at least try to get a better understanding of the inscriptions. Besides that, I also do some architectural drawings and the occasional pottery drawing.
SJ: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of creating cover art for books? How much freedom and creative license are you given to create the art?
SM: In my experience, creating art for covers has been really enjoyable because usually it is fairly open for creative license, but also has boundaries since the subject matter has to be about the book. I always tend to freeze up creatively when someone says, “Okay, you can do ANYTHING!” So having a specific story to focus all of my ideas around is great.
I’ve had a few different cover commission experiences. Most of the time, I’ll get the manuscript for the book beforehand so I can read it and come up with my own ideas from the story. These I like best because I just have my imagination and the text to go by and usually can create something really enjoyable. In other cases, the publisher will send me a synopsis and then provide character descriptions and other very specific ideas about what they want. These kinds of projects are still usually fun, but sometimes can be less artistically rewarding because the art director or editor has a preconceived image of what they’d like the cover art to be. So sometimes it can be tough if they are unwilling to work with you and your ideas.
SJ: How would you describe your art?
SM: That’s actually a tough one! I mean, I’d love to be able to spout off some kind of deep and meaningful insight into what I do, but it’d just be made up. We’ve all read the classic “artist statement,” and it’s just not my style. To be honest, for the most part I just like to paint fantastical subjects and try to make them as convincing and cool looking as possible. Sometimes there’s deeper meaning–as in the case of Mother Nature–but for the most part, I just enjoy trying to realistically create images of people and things that don’t exist.
SJ: Is there a fiction genre, such as fantasy, that has influenced your subject matter. If so, who are some authors that you read.
SM: I’ve definitely been influenced by science fiction and fantasy since I was very young reading comic books and drawing video game characters; though, I didn’t realize it was even a genre until sometime late in high school. The first fantasy series that I read was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and to say that Tolkien and his world had a huge effect on me would be a major understatement. Some other authors and books that have influenced me are Robert E. Howard and his Conan stories, and Fritz Leiber’s series about Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser. I’m a terribly slow reader though, so I don’t get through as many books as I’d like. But I’ve also been heavily influenced by video games since I was young. My all time favorite is Diablo, a dark fantasy action role playing game.
SJ: Thanks for being such a great guest. Where can we learn more about you and your work?
SM: Thank you!!