Interview with Arik Roper by Keith Boyd 11.14.10
Arik Roper is an artist whose work has helped form the visual aesthetics of contemporary underground Rock Music. His posters, album covers, shirt designs and logos have been integral to projects from SUNNO))) to High On Fire to Boris and countless others. Along with his music work he has published an amazing book, “Mushroom Magick: A Visionary Field Guide” which even further highlights his mastery over form, texture and color.
Drawing from a vast, encyclopedic knowledge of the history of illustration and esoteric lore, he has crafted a highly personal and recognizable style that sparks with lush detail and elegant layers.
In approaching him for this interview I had no idea what to expect but over our correspondence I have found that not only is he an exceptional artist, he is an exceptional person. His work is among my very favorite and the fact that it so often accompanies music I enjoy, makes it all the better. I look forward to whatever his next piece might be and I want to wish him all the best on his recently born child!
1. So Arik why don’t we start with some background information. Where are you from? What got you stated in art? Did you attend school for art?
I grew up in Virginia. At first outside of Richmond, we lived in the woods. I spent a lot of time exploring on my own, playing in the wilderness. When I wasn't outdoors I was often inside drawing which was always my main thing. I was surrounded by art as both my parents were artists, especially my mother who was a commercial illustrator and graphic designer as well as a painter and photographer on her own. I used her art supplies and picked up a lot from her, she's still very good at it..My father influenced a lot of my aesthetic- he was into fantasy/sci fi books and comix ,and music. Later during the high school years we moved RIchmond where I went to school. At age 18 I came to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. I studied cartooning and screenprinting. Being in New York exposed me to new styles , like graffiti/street art which was popular during that time, the early 90s. Those styles started to seep in and combine with my early influences during my art school years. I think I've moved away from the street art interest and back toward my original roots.
2. How would you define your particular style? Is there an underlying connective theme in your art?
I don't know about a definition of style, but if I have an intention with my art, it would be the take the viewer on a ride and submerse them into another world. Escapism is the best sense of the word. A glimpse into another reality.
3. Who would you say are you biggest influences? In the case of one or two of them-what is it in particular that you draw inspiration from?
My earliest memories about this sort of thing... I was into anthropomorphic animals- animals acting as humans. I didn't like to draw people ,i thought hey were boring, animals were more expressive and interesting. So I skipped a lot of the superhero comics and went for the talking creatures, starting with Disney when I was very young. The film Watership Down had an affect on me when I saw it in the theater at age 5. There was something mysterious and unlimited about animals as representations of the human animal. Samurai Cat by Mark Rogers, Cerebus by Dave Sim, Ralph Bakshi's films and underground comix like Crumb (Fritz the Cat was a minor obsession). I discovered Vaughn Bode at that time as was drawn to his work because it reminded me of my own style even back then. Frazetta was always there. All this was before high school. I then got more into music and art connected with packaging of it. I loved fantasy art and psychedelic/heavy metal music was vehicle for it. That combined with the 60s psychedelic art easily merged for me. I'm also influnced by a lot of the old classic illustration from late 19th/early 20th century like Dulac, Rackham, Ivan Bilibin, Theodore Kittlesen etc. And on into 60/70s graphic design.
4. As a freelance artist and illustrator how do your projects come about? Is it via an agent or…? Is this a fairly typical model for a contemporary artist/illustrator?
The work comes to me. People inquire about hiring me, and we discuss it from there if it's something I want to do. I'm fortunate to be able to work that way, I'm sure that's not common. For some years I've been meaning to get an agent to deal with the negotiation and seek work in different illustration and design fields but I'm often too busy to pursue that, plus I don't know where to look for an appropriate agent.
5. What are your main tools? (Pens, brushes, inks, paper, paints, etc.) How do you achieve such brilliant and vivid colors in your work? Your characters are great but the technical feats of your textures (things like smoke, rocks, skies) are simply stunning. How are those layers achieved without blurring into a uniform blob?
I use these Dr Ph Martins Radiant Concentrated Watercolor inks. They're liquid inks that act as watercolors or can be used as inks for coloring. I mix them, dilute them, and experiment. I prefer them because they're rich and versatile and they soak into the paper fibers ( which is usually Arches cold or hot press ) . Working with watercolors lets me allow the textures and forms to grow on their own, it all unfolds in an organic process, the colors bleed into wet surfaces like algae branching outward into fertile ground. If you allow the shapes to take their own form and work with the natural process it becomes intuitive. It's an ongoing learning process.
I have to make these forms in stages unless I want them to blend into one another. I'll make part of a piece then let it dry and start in with the next. Patience always pays off, waiting for something to dry then making textures within textures is meditative . Watercolors can be tricky and I've heard people say they're too unruly but they have such a life of their own and once you get to know how they behave you can achieve some truly ethereal textures. Especially with these liquid inks because of their transparency. The fluidity of watercolors feels like nature itself forming worlds through your hands.
I do my black line work in waterproof ink using a croquil pen, once that's dry I can do whatever to it and it won't decay. Later in the process I use other mediums like acrylic or gouache for some opaque elements.
6. How did you end up working so closely with so many Heavy Metal/Hard Rock bands, in particular High on Fire?
With High on Fire, I think it's a matter of the universe carving us from the same stone. WIthout getting too metaphysical about it, our aesthetics are similar and we've developed along our own close but separate paths. I'm including the process of Sleep into High on Fire. Or to answer more specifically, I knew Matt and Al from way back and it progressed from there into working with HOF.
Working with other bands comes about in various ways. These days Im doing less art for bands and focusing on new horizons for the art.
7. What are your thoughts on working in the commercial versus fine art worlds? Do they ever get in the way of each other? What is the most challenging part of working on commissioned pieces?
Fortunately I've been able to combine my own "fine" art with commercial ( making money from it) . A lot of the work I do is the sort of thing I'd be doing on my own anyway. Commercial art gets a bad rap by it's stigma of being driven by money, which is understandable. But i have no problem with the idea of making art for a living as opposed to sheer passion, or the idea of making something you may not like because it will help you pay the rent. There are a lot of ways to make money in this world, and making art is probably one of the most ethical and fulfilling ways to do it, if you can. What is Fine Art anyway? It's just a term in contrast with Commercial Art. Making art out of desire and expression is vital and one of the things that makes us human but I wouldn't confuse that with the "Emperors New Clothes" scenarios that transpire at the art galleries in major cities- that stuff is too often just a showcase of nepotism and contrivance. It's only a social stigma that separates a Fine artist from a Commercial one, and I'd say that the Commercial artist is often more talented. Most of my favorite artists were commercial and graphic illustrators.
With commissions, there's a certain pressure to get it the way the client wants it, and if the person has vision that doesn't exactly match yours then you may have to bend it toward their idea and compromise. It's not usually an big issue, most clients respect your opinion, but occasionally you have to find a balance between what they want and what you're comfortable with putting your name on.
8. What music/books/films do you enjoy?
Lately I've been reading a lot of cosmic/supernatural horror like Clark Ashton Smith, Argenon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and weird 1970s sci fi. The Dune series is one of my favorites, it's deeply psychedelic and full of heavy mythology. The richness of those themes expand my mind. I envision what I read as I read it, so these books become movies to me, in a way. I'm always reading 2-3 at a time and don't even have that much spare time to do it.
My music and movie tastes are too vast to even attempt to summarize.
9. What are your current or upcoming projects (any hopes for another book!!)?
I've recently been getting into doing some animation finally, I'd like to pursue that and design a feature length animated film. I think the world is ready for some non 3D , non kiddie, fantastic animation. I've also been working in collaboration with my friend Gabe Soria on some graphic novel ideas. He's a writer so teaming up seemed natural. We have some interesting ideas, one book along the lines of Creepy magazine for example , we're trying to get them sponsored.
I"m also thinking about want I want to do with a my own new book. Plus several other ideas growing.
10. What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
Make the art that YOU like, you won't regret it.