Arik Roper on Creating Art for SLEEP, HIGH ON FIRE & SUNNO)))
I got a chance to speak with Arik Roper for the third installment of the Metal Injection Artists In Metal series. Arik is a freelance illustrator and painter whose worked with legendary heavy acts such as Buzzoven, Sunn O))), Sleep, and High on Fire. He has also worked on several projects outside of music, like his illustration book Mushroom Magick.
In this interview we talk about his early upbringing as an artist, his introduction into making artwork for bands, the current state of visual arts in the music scene, and much more!
Michael: I found out that your parents were artists, what was that environment like and did it play a role in you becoming one?
Arik: Both of my parents were working artists; my mother was a fashion illustrator and a graphic designer in the 60s and 70s in New York City. She was working for magazines doing a lot of spot illustration, typography, and things like that. That kind of environment growing up exposed me to materials and now computers have replaced many of those, so the process was very meticulous. She was a really great Illustrator and she would draw things for me, so I really picked up a lot from her.
My dad was a sculptor and painter, more of a fine artist rather than commercial. He encouraged me as well, but his contribution was more of the aesthetics of his taste, which became an influence to me, more than his actual artwork. He was really into underground comics, music, strange movies, and stuff like that. That informed a lot of my taste.
We moved around a little bit when I was younger, for instance we moved to Alaska. We were living in a log cabin where there wasn’t much to do besides draw, so I spent the winters drawing indoors. My mom was doing a lot of nature watercolor illustrations of mushrooms and other natural elements. That was probably when I really immersed myself into drawing as a “first activity,” and ever since then I knew I wanted to do it primarily as my occupation ideally, and a hobby if nothing else. I have been fortunate to keep doing it as an occupation.
My parents were always very encouraging, thus I had the proper backing to really pursue it. I also had a lot of access to materials, which helped me build up my skill in the proper manner.
Michael: Where did you end up going to school for the visual arts?
Arik: I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, where I studied cartooning and silkscreen printing. I was already really into drawing before I got there and I can’t say I learned a lot of skills from school. I learned other things like exposure to new mediums, for instance I was doing oil painting and acrylic painting, stuff that I might not have checked out on my own. I think it turned me on to a lot of things, so it was valuable in that respect.
Michael: You mention you studied silkscreen printing, what made you interested in that? I look at screen-printing as the origin of poster designs for rock music, something you ultimately became known for.
Arik: I believe my interest in screen-printing started with wanting to make my own posters and tee shirts. I was into the 60’s screen-print poster art.
My time in school was in the early 90’s, and that was the revival period for that sort of work. Frank Kozik was just rolling out his stuff, I found his work exciting, and wanted to try my hand at something similar. That was the main reason I pursued it.
It fit my DIY lifestyle where I could make my own shirts without having to buy them. It’s a cool medium, and I wish I would been able to pursue it more, but I just don’t have space, physical space is hard to come by in New York City (where I live). I couldn’t devote my time and attention to the more technical aspect of it as well, I just wanted to focus on doing visual art. Now I have other people printing for me. Some of the screen printers I've worked with are Monolith Press, Burlesque of North America, Kayrock, VG Kids, Shirts and Destroy.
Michael: What inspired you to make artwork for bands?
Arik: I was heavily into music growing up, and when I was 12 or 13 I started buying records, mainly used ones because they were cheap. The stuff that caught my eye was really fantastic art like the Yes covers, the Iron Maiden covers, and album art Rick Griffin did. Those things really stood out to me, sometimes even if the music wasn’t exactly what I liked, I would still buy the album just for the cover art, since it was a piece I could collect. I think I found a lot of bands because of their cover art. The artists who fascinated me where the ones who did it well, like Roger Dean, who created this world where the music could live. This coupling of visual and audio experience created an atmosphere that I could really dive into. The consistency of bands working with certain artists was really interesting to see as well.
Michael: How did you get started making work for bands? Did you do a lot of free work, pay your dues, work with the right people?
Arik: When I was in high school in Richmond, Virginia, I started making flyers for local bands. It was a really natural thing for me, and in the process I met more bands in the early 90s, becoming friends with Buzzoven, Sleep, Eyehategod, and I just started doing stuff for them by request. Eventually I did a CD cover for Buzzoven, which became the first published thing I ever did, and that got the ball rolling. I then became friends with Tony Presedo of Tee Pee Records, and I started doing work for some of his releases.
It kind of snowballed from there, because some of those bands became legendary, and over time people would contact me from that early material I had done. More or less that’s how it all happened.
Michael: You spoke to it a little bit, but have you seen an evolution in your popularity during stoner/doom scene’s recent rise? While bands like Sleep or Yob were big in the underground back in the day, it seems like the rest of the music world has really caught on to them today.
Arik: Yeah definitely, I was fortunate to be able to take a ride with them, in a way. Sleep was a bit of a sleeper band, no pun intended. When they started they had a really hardcore fan base, but it was nothing compared to now. When they came back there was a bigger interest in the stuff I had done, and the new stuff I have worked on since then.
In the mean time I was doing stuff for Matt’s band High on Fire, and that was also getting a lot of attention. It really helps to be linked with a band that does well, because it can be a vehicle for your artwork.
That being said, I’m always doing freelance art for various clients, not even music projects necessarily, but working with bands is the stuff I really love to do.
Michael: What’s your process when working with a band?
Arik: I try to get ideas from them to start, if they have a vision I want that direction, it’s easier for me. I also don’t want to take a shot in the dark, having the’s band’s opinion is useful. If they don’t have ideas I will try to extract something based on what I know of them, or songs lyrics if I have access to them.
Some bands are more specific about what they want, Sleep was always extremely specific. Working for them is rigorous and rewarding, it’s a really meticulous process to get that vision to paper.
Michael: As an established artist, do you like sticking with the line up of bands you have been working with over the years, or do you look for new acts?
Arik: I like to do work with new bands, but at this point it’s fairly limited. Time is so limited these days, I’m quite busy with things and I just can’t accept/take the time to do things that don’t meet the standards of what I’ve worked on, mainly in terms of budget. Ideally I could just do what ever I wanted, and I certainly appreciate the fact that most bands don’t have a huge budget, but in addition to the other freelance work I do time is money. I don’t mean that in a crass way, but I have to make a living. I have a family and I have to really try to use my time wisely when I work, so if something doesn’t have much of a budget then I unfortunately can’t make it a priority.
Aside from that, there are a lot of things that I prefer to work on. I like to do new types of projects; I don’t always want to do the type of work people associate me with. I try to work with different genres and different types of art styles. I have a lot of interests, and it’s not always dark imagery. I don’t even think most of it is all that dark compared to other illustrators in the scene. While I do try to take on different things, I have to pick and choose a bit, based on those things I mentioned.
Michael: You have done animation work for MTV, how does your execution change when working on those projects as opposed to a painting or print?
Arik: It feels pretty different; dealing with that medium they’re a lot of things to keep in mind. When I sit down and draw, the process flows in a more organic fashion that feels very natural to me, but when doing things like animation and even screen print design, they’re all these other aspects that are not exactly intuitive. I have to use the computer for one thing, and I’m fine with that for the most part as a tool for the process, for instance in screen printing I use it to block out the colors, but it’s not something I’m as comfortable with as a brush or pencil.
It falls into just using another part of my brain, more or less, and in those projects you have to switch over from hand drawing to using the computer. I almost equate it to fixing a car, or something where you have to do a particular thing to make it work rather than just letting it turn out.
Michael: You previously spoke about drawing landscapes in Alaska when you were younger, which appears to be a continuing thread in your work. When creating imagery today, are you working from life or reference shots?
Arik: I use a lot of references; I look at a lot of natural objects and try to see how things form, using that to create how I make shapes, lines, etc. It is one of my main inspirations.
I certainly use references for things I cant draw out of my head, like cars and mechanical objects. Some people like to work on those types of things without references saying this is their interpretation of it, but I guess I’m more of a realist when it comes to that. It still all comes through my filter; I don’t go for hyperrealism.
I do however try to work certain elements out of my head sometimes, especially a lot of the forms and things I do. Some of it just happens on the spot, especially with colors, I like to a new path and then work with what comes out, that in itself is an organic form, you can grow it from there, that’s how it feels to me.
Michael: Since we have already discussed music as an influence for you, what are other elements that help create your imagery?
Arik: I read a lot of books, I’m into religion, mythology, philosophy, science, and it all really fascinates me. I also have a lot of books on various occult subjects in art, graphic design is an influence as well.
It’s a pretty wide array of stuff, and I’m not into only one type of art or imagery.
Michael: It seems like narratives play a role in your work as well, is that something you could speak to?
Arik: Probably not directly. I’m not trying to put across narrative unless it’s requested, or I find something that mirrors the subject the client is depicting. I find environments and landscapes to be really pregnant with feeling and emotion if they are interesting and well done. I feel something more is going on around before you put a narrative or a character performing acts, I feel that the potential is always there, like a mysteriousness about it, something’s about to happen or something just did. That may just be my personal thing, I don’t know if people are picking up on that with the work. To me I find that really heavy, for a lack of a better word. Could be menacing or even inviting, that complexity it can create I find to be more powerful than something literal.
Michael: You mention time is money, and as an artist/illustrator you have to be all over the place with projects in order to do it as a living. On top of all of this you have a family as well, what’s it like trying to juggle that in the mix?
Arik: It just made me prioritize my time a lot more. Before that I basically had all day to work or even all night if a project called for it. Back in the day I didn’t have a lot of other things that I had to do other than brainstorm ideas. That all changed when a child came into the picture, time management suddenly became really important. My time drastically decreased, and I really had to make the best of what time I had, which was at odd hours, and there was no sleeping late anymore.
I’d say it’s pretty challenging, but I’m grateful that I’m able to work it out and be around my daughter a lot, I wouldn’t want to be off in an office somewhere missing her growing up everyday. It can certainly challenging to be an involved parent, and having to make time for myself, overall its put a damper on some of my extra curricular activities. My main two things now is work and family, instead of before when it was work and socialize.
Michael: Fewer shows too I’d assume.
Arik: Yeah, for sure.
Michael: Since music plays a major role in your work, are you listing to it during your process?
Arik: I do a lot, I also listen to podcasts/radio, but yeah I love listening to music while working.
Michael: What bands are you currently listening to? Old stand bys or new acts?
Arik: They’re a lot of new bands that are good, but it’s not always what I want to listen to. I tend to listen to a lot of older bands; a lot of psychedelic rock, early metal stuff, or rock in general. I still love Pink Floyd, I think they are probably my favorite band, and obviously Black Sabbath as cliché as it sounds, but if I want to hear something like that I just listen to the source rather than something that sounds like it. Most of the new bands I listen to now I have to hear about through other people, I’m not always aware of the latest stuff. With the older stuff there is something in the production that fascinates me.
I think Darkthrone is one of my favorite contemporary bands. They continue to be fresh, and don’t stagnate, which I respect a lot. I try to keep track of them because of that.
Michael: Absolutely. You look at a band like Darkthrone who is constantly trying to change the mold of what is expected, and I think that is intriguing to us as artists. You mention that you are trying to change up a bit as you go through projects, could you comment on that a little more? Is that harder to do as a commission artist?
Arik: Yeah, I don’t like to stagnate, and I see a lot of people doing the same things until they find their niche, and it becomes repetitive after a while. I always like to challenge myself, and a lot of that doesn’t get seen by anyone. That more experimental stuff would be outside of publishing, which is why I’m always looking for new opportunities to bring it into practice.
I think it’s important as an artist to keep pushing yourself to get better and try new things. It might take a while to get the new stuff up to level compared to drawing skulls all the time, but it’s worth it! There are already enough skulls in the world.
Michael: A lot of my students that listen to metal always put a skull in their work at some point.
Arik: Don’t even get me started. I’m really burned out on skulls, among other cliches. Not that I haven’t drawn a few in my time. You can see it across the board though; there’s a sameness to a lot of the style that is going on right now. Like you said though it’s younger people copying the stuff that they like, which I understand, we all do that at some point in our life.
I do really keep up with a lot of the artists coming up, and it’s a constant trend that’s been going on in metal/mystical music art.
Michael: I actually used them for a new Midnight poster, that’s not the norm for me though.
Arik: Laughs That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a good skull when I see one. I still end up having to draw them and I try to get away from them, but sometimes for a friend I’ll do one. I guess I don’t hate skulls; they just are too frequent at the moment.
Michael: That and goat heads, Skinner hates goat heads.
Arik: Laughs I catch myself doing that type of imagery by default, when I’m on the phone and I start drawing something it’s often a skull with a helmet on it or a goat. It’s obviously my comfort zone that I’m trying to fight.
Michael: What’s your typical studio day like for a commission?
Arik: Depending on the stage, it varies. If it’s the beginning I will do a lot of sketches and brainstorming as I talked about before. This all gets down the composition, which is very important, and after I get something I like I will show it to the band.
Usually I blow the early sketches up on a photocopy machine, because I feel the sketch is the best version compositionally that you can get. It makes more sense on that bigger piece of paper to me, and it helps when creating the final piece. It’s really tough to nail that final product if all you have are the thumbnail sketches. That larger copy I’ll take to a light table and I will go through and start tracing some pencil lines to try to keep the energy of that first sketch, and then transfer it to the final sheet of paper.
There are a few different ways that I work up the image from there. With watercolor inks I will work up the background first to the fore ground and I will build up from light to dark, using opaque gouache to do the highlights. It’s a process where things have to be done in a certain order; it’s not like acrylic painting where you go over colors with lighter colors and things like that. The watercolors are translucent and it’s a different process for me. That’s basically how it gets going, followed by many stages from letting things dry and continuously building on top of it. It can take a long time.
If I’m doing a screen print poster that’s an entirely different story because all I’m doing is black line work, scanning that, then blocking out the colors on Photoshop, and laying it out.
Michael: What are your tools of the trade for drawing and painting?
Arik: Generally, for line work I use a croquil pen and nib or brush with Black Magic waterproof ink or fine permanent marker (various brands- Sometimes a Japanese Pentel brush marker) with smooth Bristol paper. For color I use Dr Ph Martin's Radiant Concentrated Watercolor Inks or Hydrus inks, Arches Hot and Cold press 300 lb paper, and a variety of brushes and sponges as well as gouache and acrylic paints.
Michael: When you do fine art show do you try to show your commissioned illustrations or do you make a separate body of work for them?
Arik: It’s all different work outside of the album covers typically. I usually don’t try to sell any of the published work; I sold one piece, which was one element from a High on Fire cover to a friend, so I know where that one is. I just prefer to hang on to all of that work for now.
For the shows, it’s all just other stuff that I come up with. It’s often what you would expect me to do, but hopefully not too predictable. That being said your not going to suddenly me making abstract art, or transitioning into cubism in this work. It’s all fantastic art and just what ever I want, ranging from natural stuff, to things that are more obvious and narrative.
The thing is most of the stuff I do for other people I want to do anyway.
Michael: So you would say doing commissioned work does not take you away from anything your truly interested in trying creatively, it really is a part of your process that you embrace?
Arik: Yeah, which is great! It satisfies my creative desires and it also helps me make a living.
Michael: What is the biggest mistake illustrators can make at the start of their career?
Arik: I'd say probably showing themselves too soon, before they're developed as artists. Artists always evolve and grow but representing yourself to the public when you're still inexperienced or not as artistically developed will give a lesser impression than if you wait to get really good then come out strong.
Along with this comes developing your own style instead of mimicking other artists. It's natural to be heavily influenced but living with your work for a while before adding it to your portfolio will magnify the quality.
If you keep doing it and be honest with yourself you should keep getting better and better. I think artists get better with age, or should if they keep staying inspired, unlike some other careers where it’s all physical like an athlete or even musicians sometimes.
Also be self-sufficient, start your own projects. And get it out there creatively in your own way.
Michael: How many years did it take you honing your craft before becoming a full time illustrator?
Arik: My last job outside of freelancing was 2003. I used to work part time for art handling companies while doing freelance on the side.
So I’ve been doing this pretty constantly since then, usually to the point where I can’t do it all and I have to turn stuff down. I also was building up clients ten years previous to that, so it took a long time, and it was a steady build up.
When I went full time with it, it wasn’t a conscious decision, it just got to the point where I was busy enough with projects that I never went back in to work.
Michael: ten years is quite a commitment before going full time.
Arik: Keep in mind that was all pre Internet social media. I didn’t even have a computer until 1999 or something like that. I feel it doesn’t necessarily have to take that long anymore.
People out of nowhere come up now and get really big, and could probably get to a comfortable level in a couple years.
Michael: I think they’re issues with that as well, coming up to soon like you spoke about. I think slowly grinding it out over a ten-year period gives you the experience to take on and manage several projects effectively, rather than getting overwhelmed and burned out too soon.
Arik: That’s true, and also working with people is something that takes a little bit of experience to figure out how to truly work well with a client. It’s not always an easy thing to do, being professional takes experience and that’s a whole other conversation!
I grew up knowing what being a professional artist was from my parents, and I kind of thought of myself that way as I was coming up. I wouldn’t want the client to see me as this scraggly kid, I would always deal with correspondence very professionally, and always turn things in on time and that stuff makes a big difference because no one wants to work with flakes.
Being the self-centered artist who gets it to you when they feel like it might work for the super famous, it most certainly doesn’t help starting out.
Michael: What projects do you have coming up that you can talk about?
Arik: I’m doing a Sleep poster for their east coast shows this month, design work for Roadburn Festival next year, which will be the main poster, logo, and overarching visual concept of the festival. I’m also doing an original art show in the town of Tilburg in Holland, which will be in a gallery just down the street from the venue that will coincide with the festival. I also have a two-person show with Skinner here in New York in November, and a Batman poster design for Batman’s 75th anniversary for DC Comics. I’m also working on a poster for the video game Dragon Age Inquisition. There are a few other things as well, but those are the highlights for now.
Check out more of Arik’s work at www.arikroper.com
Also, make sure to check out the video below of one of his recent art shows he was involved in titled Villains Mythos.