Chaotic Canvas of Creation
CoC gathers the insight of metal graphic artists Travis Smith, Niklas Sundin, Juha Vuorma and Pedro Daniel
by: Pedro Azevedo

I shall not pretend to know what really influences your first impression of some album you pick up from a shelf in a store, see in an advert somewhere, or receive in the mail. But as far as I am concerned, the cover art, layout and general imagery definitely help set the mood for the music. This is not to say that there cannot be a great album without fitting artwork, but, as is the case with lyrics, something seems to be amiss in the album if the artwork does not befit the music. Far beyond the first impression I mentioned, the artwork can blend with the music inside, complementing and enhancing it.

I could talk about "unsung heroes" when discussing the artists behind some of the CD covers in your collection, but names such as Dave McKean and Travis Smith are quite well-known these days. Some others, however, despite their talent and potential, are far from achieving that status. The following article aims to harvest ideas and opinions from some of these artists whose work adorns the records we own. Instead of attempting to contact every one of the most well-known artists I could reach, I opted for some variety and instead contacted artists of varying fame and reputation -- the main link between them, besides metal, being the quality of their work.

The reason behind the decision to place this article in Writer's Wrath is essentially the somewhat unusual nature of the subjects discussed throughout the four interviews, which is occasionally hardly related to music at all.

Here, and also at the end of the article, you can find links to the artists' respective websites, where you will find samples of their work. I hope and trust you will find something worthwhile there, and also in this article.

Travis Smith:
Niklas Sundin:
Juha Vuorma:
Pedro Daniel: (temporary)

A Portrait of the Artists

This section is far from pretending to serve as a biography of sorts for these four men. Rather, it intends to briefly mention some of their work to help you visualize their creations -- although perhaps ideally you should start browsing their websites as you read on.

Travis Smith is undoubtedly the best known of the four as a graphic artist. As far as metal is concerned, and given his impressive rise in the last couple of years, currently he is perhaps second only to Dave McKean. Katatonia's _Tonight's Decision_ and _Last Fair Deal Gone Down_, Opeth's _Blackwater Park_, Nevermore's _Dreaming Neon Black_ and _Dead Heart in a Dead World_, Suffocation's _Despise the Sun_ EP, Novembers Doom, Anathema, Death, HatePlow, Devin Townsend... The list literally goes on and on, and seems to keep getting bigger by the day. Travis Smith is possibly the most fashionable, and unquestionably one of the most talented, graphic artists in metal today.

Niklas Sundin is currently one of the bright rising stars in the field. Well known for his guitar work in the band Dark Tranquillity, he has recently created cover art for several Century Media acts, including his own band, and business seems promising for him. In addition to Dark Tranquillity's _Projector_ and _Haven_, he was responsible for Sentenced's _Crimson_, Eternal Tears of Sorrow's _Chaotic Beauty_, ...And Oceans' _AMGoD_ and Flowing Tears' _Jade_, among others.

Juha Vuorma is a name that may sound familiar to some of you, but is unlikely to be widely recognized. He hasn't been involved in projects with major bands, yet with his distinctive style he has created some of the most impressive artwork in the metal world. My favourite has to be the illustration for In the Woods' song "I Am Your Flesh", but he also created remarkable art for Arthemesia's _Devs-Iratvs_, Unholy's _Gracefallen_ and Kalmah's _Swamplord_.

Pedro Daniel is a name you may remember from the Chronicles of Chaos website. He was the one responsible for the creation of our introductory page as well as our logo. More relevant to this article, however, is his work for several more or less underground bands, mostly within Portugal. Although less visible to the masses, his talent is comparable to the others' and he complements the spectrum of artists I aimed to gather for this article.

Let us then begin where it all begins for the artist.

The Process of Creation

"What makes me want to create the images is whatever makes a writer want to write or a musician want to create music", begins Travis Smith. "It's just something inside that you need to let out. The process is usually very chaotic, because I tend to have more than one thing to concentrate on at a time. The hardest part usually is getting the best idea for each thing, and then it's a matter of finding the best way to make it work. If it's for a CD, I have to study the theme or find out some details about the songs, and then see what comes to mind. Usually a few good things do come to mind, and I pick a few I'd like to do from them. Then it's just a matter of doing the photos and drawings to build the piece."

For Niklas Sundin, "the process itself can vary a lot. It is very important not to sit in front of the drawing board or computer all the time, and instead constantly feed the mind. The process can be very organized as well as very chaotic and incidental, but the best artwork is often the result of a hard working discipline." He adds: "I've always been drawing and painting and was interested in art long before I even touched a musical instrument -- so it's a natural urge for me to be visually creative."

"If I create a CD cover and get very detailed information about the image from a band, I just do exactly as I'm told, usually a "traditional" figurative painting", reveals Juha Vuorma about his own process. "But sometimes I just get a title or so. In such cases I can create the picture pretty much the way I want to. I usually start with something the title reminds me of and experiment with that -- create sketches, or start painting something -- and when it seems to feel right, I add the details. If it's not a CD cover but rather a painting I create for myself, I usually have some kind of an idea what it's about, and the process is quite similar to the one I described before. Or else it can be just plain playing around with colours and forms until it clicks." He concludes: "I've drawn since I was a child, and just never stopped ever since."

"There isn't a sort of process table that I follow every time I'm on this type of project", Pedro Daniel contributes. "Although art and design processes usually follow different creative paths, I really believe that, in such case, I get to follow a middle path... in between the two. A design project is generally based upon solid, objective definitions, and must accomplish the purpose of selling something -- literally or not. As for art, although nowadays it also serves the purpose of selling, the starting point is far more subjective and volatile than what design is all about." He continues: "It's hard to say where it all begins. The first thing I usually ask from the band is the name of the album or demo. I guess that is truly the starting point. The creative process itself obviously begins afterwards. Usually the band has a pre-defined idea of what they want for the layout -- some are pertinent and others are not that pertinent, but they are all valuable to me because they enlighten me on how the band thinks about aesthetic subjects. Someone once said that there is order in chaos, and that's quite true. From a myriad of apparently unrelated elements, beauty is created and order is restored. When I start a project, my desk is a small model of what chaos might resemble; slowly I get to put aside what's worth using and what's not and things start to gain shape."

The Customer Is Always Right

The degree of detail artists get from the customer -- usually the band -- tends to vary greatly between projects, at least to these four gentlemen.

"Sometimes I am given total freedom; some other times I am given freedom to start with any ideas I might have and the band will give direction or make changes along the way. Sometimes, however, the band already has a specific idea they want, and I try the best I can to realize it for them", states Smith.

Sundin shares Smith's experience. "Sometimes there's already a clear concept from the band or label, and then it's my job to communicate that concept as effectively as possible on the front cover. On other occasions, there aren't any ideas at all and my hands are free to come up with a suitable concept. Both situations suit me fine."

Vuorma has more to add: "I think most of the time bands just pick up a painting from my collection, one that they think fits their concept. Sometimes I also create paintings according to the bands' visions, though, and that has very often turned out to be pretty good. I think Usurper's "Skeletal Season" was a good piece; the Usurper guys had a clear vision about what they wanted. Classic horror, old style, blue and greyish painting -- like an old movie poster. It turned out pretty good and I also like the album, kind of like classic '80s thrash/doom era metal. Some ideas from some bands have not been very interesting, though."

Daniel elaborates on this: "Some bands can express their ideas about the layout better than others. Usually, the band says what they do -not- want to use, rather than what they do want. Some just say they want a gloomy look, some others say they want a more modern and clean look, and others say they want something simple -- you name it. This is usually the degree of detail I get. Which is, by the way, fine as far as I'm concerned. I prefer it when the band trusts my judgement."

Still, I imagine that if I was in their place, having to create something that would hopefully connect or complement the music, I would be quite interested in hearing some of the band's material beforehand. Pedro Daniel agrees. "Besides the name of the work to be published, I always ask for samples of the band's sound. Although I might know they play a certain style, it's obvious that until I hear it, it's a bit like working blindfolded. Sometimes I get to hear it... some others I don't."

Sundin discusses his preference on this subject and balances it with what usually happens in reality. "Usually, cover artwork is commissioned months before the band even enters the studio, so it's not always possible to listen to the music. But it does feel important to hear at least a sample of what the band is doing, in order to get a better view of how to present their music in a visual form, so I try to get something to listen to before starting to work on the project."

Smith concurs: "I don't ask for samples very often, but I like to. If I can, it really helps to have the band's music playing while creating the images. If I can't get something new while working, I usually play the band's older albums, if any, to help with it. It's not necessary, but it really helps with the motivation and inspiration if I have something."

Vuorma's opinion differs, however: "I don't usually hear any samples. Bands often just pick up a painting I've already done. Sometimes, though, I've heard the music as well... but I must confess I don't get much inspiration from the band's music. The best bands I've done art for (SFB and Immortal Dominion) were unknown to me musically until I got their CDs after my art was printed on them."

McKean Enters the Picture

When time came for the "influences" question, I had to mention Dave McKean (unofficial website at Sundin was not surprised. "It's hard to avoid mentioning Dave McKean when talking about digital art or the kind of mixed media collage techniques that he pioneered -- so, yes, he has definitely inspired me. Other artists I admire range from contemporary ones such as David Ho, Odd Nerdrum, Alessandro Bavari, Ashley Wood and Wayne Barlowe to old heroes like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch, Max Ernst and so forth. In the album cover field, Travis Smith and David Long are doing excellent work. I'm also a great admirer of comic artists like Art Spiegelmann, George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Joakim Pirinen. My tastes are very wide and not limited to the style of illustrations that I do myself. Inspiration can come from all sorts of places, really."

Travis Smith was hardly surprised, either. "Yes, I guess McKean is an obvious one, but it's really not intentional. It's more of a subconscious thing. He is probably my favorite artist. I discovered him about the same time as I discovered Photoshop and he made a big impression on me, so I'm sure it filtered in as I was learning. There have been some things I've done that I had to throw away because I discovered later they looked a little too much like his stuff", Smith reveals, "but even so I really liked them. I've heard that from the beginning." Sundin had mentioned Smith as one of his favourite artists, possibly unaware of a certain reciprocity: "I also admire Niklas Sundin, Hugh Syme Mid, Ashley Wood, Necrolord, etc.", states Smith.

Pedro Daniel chooses a different route: "I really don't know how to answer that. The brain of a designer or a graphic artist is like a sponge. You absorb every damn thing around you. It's like goddamn Kubrik's "A Clockwork Orange". Sometimes I may be using influences from HR Giger, sometimes McKean, sometimes from some shocking photo I saw in a newspaper three weeks earlier... I don't know. All I know is that I can use my memories, my knowledge of art history, my sensibility in knowing that a certain palette of colors suits a certain set of feelings and notions. All that combined with a camera, a Macintosh computer and a scanner gives the final result.

Vuorma is rather more surprised when I mention McKean, since the Finn is not a digital artist himself. "Dave McKean? Well, he does mostly computer art, right? I'm a painter. I like his stuff, though, his impact on the scene is tremendous. Most of the cover art in metal nowadays is computer art -- digital collages, like his stuff -- and many of them could have been made by McKean. He was the first with that kind of style and it seems everyone has been influenced by him -- probably myself too", says Vuorma. "I must admit I'm not really an "art freak", and do not follow the art/illustration scene much. So I don't know whether I have any special influences. Artists I like, besides maybe McKean, are Frank Frazetta, Ivo Milazzo (a comic artist from Italy whom I see as a genius -- not so famous, I guess, but can draw a whole personality with just a few lines; he is mostly known for his work with the Italian western comic Ken Parker), Gino d'Antonio (also a comic artist from Italy), Edward Hopper, Mike Hoffman and some Finnish painters like Hugo Simberg."

Travis Smith

Inspiration? "I get a lot of inspiration from just little things in life, people I meet, and watching my daughter in her daily activities -- a lot of the ideas I use a child in are inspired by her", answers Smith. "Usually music and stress guide me while working, or just anything that happens to come to mind. Sometimes I glance at something and it looks like something different, and then I see it for what it is but I keep the memory of what I saw for an idea."

Smith's artwork for Opeth's _Blackwater Park_ is amongst the most impressive I've seen to date. Was it created specifically for Opeth from the beginning? "Yes, it was created specifically for that album. I started off in my usual more photographic style and it wasn't working at all; so I kept some of the photos and tried incorporating painting and pencil, which worked very well. I just started doing pictures based on how I interpreted the lyrics -- for instance, the cover was based on a line I read in the lyrics involving mist and a group of liars. The band just picked what they felt was best for them."

I was rather dumbfounded to find out in his website that Smith had actually created two more images in the same vein for _Blackwater Park_ which have been left unused -- and the album's booklet is pretty thin. What happened? Didn't Music for Nations want to spend any more money on the artwork? "No, it wasn't a matter of money or a label decision. The budget was fair and I was willing to go a little extra for the artwork, as I usually like to do. The truth is, the band simply didn't want a lot of art in the booklet, and declined to use any more of the art I submitted -- which was, I think, six or seven other finished ideas."

I also greatly admire the work Smith did for Katatonia's _Tonight's Decision_ and _Last Fair Deal Gone Down_ -- both of which are quite different from the Opeth work. "Actually, to this point, creating the Katatonia CDs has always given me the most adventure", Smith reveals. "For example, when starting _Tonight's Decision_, the band told me a story about trains and old tunnels, and memories and "ghosts"... And I got a vision of tracks going off into the distance as far as you can see. Well, there's nothing like that around here, but I knew of some out in the desert that I saw when I was a child, so we did an eight hour drive just to get the photos of the tracks. I never found any tunnels, though, and time was running out, so I tried to think of other ideas to do and the first one I thought of became the cover."

"For _Last Fair Deal Gone Down_", he continues, "Jonas basically described the kind of imagery he wanted, which is what you see in the package. I had to go into a really bad part of the city to get the shots. It was kind of creepy, but I think that helped it. The cover was supposed to be different at first, but I remembered Jonas telling me about an idea with a bathroom, which I found in an old abandoned house in the woods. I broke into it with a friend and it stunk of rat shit, but I saw the bathroom and remembered Jonas' idea, so I shot it. They liked it so much that with just a few alterations they picked it for a cover. I really like the way those CDs came out."

Are there any particular pictures on either of the Katatonia collections especially meaningful for Travis? "I like all of them", he answers. "But yes, on _Tonight's Decision_ I love the cover, The man sitting on his trunk with the train ghost, and the hanging chair. For _Last Fair Deal Gone Down_, I like the cover, and the piece with the rock that looks like a headstone with "love" written on it. And I also like the piece with the sign that says "end" but the road keeps going, which was taken by a friend of mine."

One work of Smith's that I am a lot less fond of is the new Anathema cover art for _A Fine Day to Exit_. It just looks too light and commercial to me, despite the subtly dark theme behind it. How specific was the request behind this particular project? How pleased is Smith with the result? "That idea was the band's", he replies. "They told me what they wanted. They came up with it after long discussions of what to do and some of the ideas I had. It's very light because it is supposed to be a clear, sunny, "fine" day. In spite of that, it is a very dark piece and I really love it. It was up to me how to make it work. I shot the beach separately, but the car all at once. I didn't want to put in all the little details in the car later because I was afraid of it looking fake. Problem was, I had to do the setup a few times and reshoot, because some of the details weren't right, and it is very hard shooting something like that in a car."

I also wondered about the story behind Diabolical Masquerade's _Death's Design_ -- Blakkheim went on about it being a soundtrack for a movie that never existed, yet the album's artwork is Smith's... "I think you better ask Blakkheim about that one", he answers with an amused grin.

I could go on and on with questions about albums -- Nevermore, Death's _The Sound of Perseverance_, HatePlow, Devin Townsend, etc., but I had to wonder whether any of them were especially relevant in Smith's portfolio, whether he was especially pleased with any one of them. "Yes, I still keep a few older things in my portfolio", he says. "I like to keep it small so I can concentrate it mostly on newer stuff and a few things I am especially proud of. Of the ones you mentioned, I am most proud of [Devin Townsend's] _Terria_, with Nevermore following -- but there are many others as well. I think the stuff I've done this year is my best so far."

It is certainly a very good sign when you can honestly say that, and the man behind the Seempieces studio seems determined to do even better in 2002.

Niklas Sundin

Much like Smith, Dark Tranquillity guitarist Niklas Sundin has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his future as an illustrator -- at least judging by the artwork he has created so far. But whilst Travis Smith has his Seempieces studio, Sundin founded Cabin Fever Media. "There are no masterplans or agendas for world domination with CFM", says Sundin. "When I decided to quit my old job in order to start freelancing as an illustrator, it was clear that I also needed to register a company in order to make the practical concerns (taxes, bookkeeping, etc.) easier. It's more or less what you have to do if you're self-employed in Sweden. Cabin Fever, taken from an old Nick Cave song, seemed to be a suitable name, so I went for that."

Back in November, when this interview took place, Sundin's CFM website was still closed. The Swede explains. "It's pretty insane that I still haven't been able to get a proper website online after nearly two years, but I've been constantly busy and have given the highest priority to client jobs. Also, I'm way more pedantic when it comes to my own personal projects, so I've had several versions almost finished only to decide that I want to try another approach to it. But something will happen on the site within a week or so." Indeed, the website is now online.

Sundin has also created artwork for his own band Dark Tranquillity; I ask Sundin about _Projector_ and _Haven_ and how the insight he had into the band's music helped him connect it to the images. "It's a very different situation when doing artwork for your own band", he states. "On the Dark Tranquillity albums, I'm obviously much more involved with the musical and lyrical content, so it's easier to really get beneath the surface. On _Projector_, the whole lyrical approach circled around an introspective, problems-getting-magnified theme, so I used a lot of circular shapes which implied camera lenses and projectors. The booklet footage featured torn pieces of film, and the whole atmosphere was one of perceiving things through a filter. _Haven_ was a much more colorful album, so it seemed suitable to have a fresher color scheme based on white panels. _Haven_ is a metaphor for our band activities and for using music as a means of escaping from everyday dullness, so I showed this connection by featuring pretty dirty and blurred photos of the band members in the rehearsal room. Nothing fancy at all, just the reality of six out-of-shape slobs playing metal."

Besides his work for Dark Tranquillity, Sundin has created cover art for quite a few bands already: Sentenced, ...And Oceans, Eternal Tears of Sorrow and Flowing Tears come to my mind. Sundin says it is just a coincidence that they are all signed to Century Media, and refuses to name any pet projects. "After a project is finished, it's more or less dead and buried for me, and I proceed to the next assignment. I usually notice the things that I could have done differently if given more time and resources, that's all. All the projects I've done are hopefully meaningful and worthwhile in their own way, but I don't really line up all the album covers I've done and masturbate to them. It's the same thing with music. People often ask what my favourite Dark Tranquillity song is, and it's always the one we're currently working on. Once a song has been documented on record, it's old news and not very interesting anymore."

Finally, I cannot avoid asking about the new Dark Tranquillity album on the works. "It's going very well indeed", Sundin reports. "We're rehearsing on an almost daily basis now, and the material is really starting to take form. It's still a bit early to give any accurate predictions on how the final recording will sound like, but the material we currently have covers every facet of the band. There's everything from _The Gallery_-like progressive melodies to acoustic passages to some really fast and intense stuff, so it's going to be a diverse album that will surprise a lot of people."

Juha Vuorma

"What guides my state of mind whilst at work on a given project? Uh... nothing special", Vuorma unpretentiously states. "I just concentrate on the painting, work hard, do my best... the painting will find its way, or it will get spoiled, like it happens many times."

The artwork that In the Woods... used for their song "I Am Your Flesh" (from _Omnio_) was the first time I saw some of Vuorma's work, and I was thoroughly impressed by the strength of that image and the way it connected to the music so well. "Yeah, Jan of In the Woods... also seemed to think it fit the title perfectly", admits Vuorma. "But I did not make that piece specifically for that title, actually. I had already made the painting beforehand, and it was on a sample sheet I sent to Jan. He called me immediately, as he felt that piece fitted their stuff 100%, and so they got it. And I liked the album, _Omnio_. I was pleased that the painting was on the LP cover [as well as inside the CD booklet], as I'm into vinyl myself. Don't ask me about the original meaning of the painting, though -- I don't know", he chuckles. "It was a half abstract piece that just turned out the way it did."

Vuorma also created artwork for Unholy's _Gracefallen_ -- rather extreme music there, and again his artwork seems strongly linked to the music. Could it be a coincidence again? "The artwork on Unholy's _Gracefallen_ is perhaps my favourite of all my album art. I only got a few lines from the band to express the ideas in the songs and was free to do it my way. The band gave me no lyrics or info on what the songs were about, just some feelings and impressions -- and that was a great way to do it. The paintings for the songs "The Wanderer" and "Daybreak" are my favourites. Not much detail, just feelings. It was a very refreshing thing to do -- not just the usual heavy metal "dark-horror-sadness" cliche stuff. I'm not too pleased with the cover painting of _Gracefallen_, though -- the booklet paintings are much better."

The stylish wolf Vuorma created for Arthemesia's _Devs-Iratvs_ album cover, is an example of the Finn's oft-used fingerprint-like traces -- which seem to have become a rather distinguishing characteristic of his. "Arthemesia liked that piece and picked it up; it was already done as well. But yeah, those fingerprint-like traces are like a trademark of mine. Too strong a trademark, obviously -- one record label said my work was too recognizable."

Vuorma hasn't been as active in the field as Smith or Sundin lately. Is he still interested? "Yeah, just not getting much stuff published lately. I guess I'm still interested in doing art for the metal scene as well, as long as the concept is interesting, but there's probably not so much room for painted art anymore since computer art stepped in. I've done a couple of digital collages myself, but that's not really my stuff... I want to stick with painting, and painting is what I'll be doing in the future too."

Pedro Daniel

"I mainly follow my intuition and pleasure when combining multi-sourced imagery. That's when design meets art. When you technically know how to combine visual elements along with feelings", states the Portuguese artist.

Amongst the work he has done for underground bands, Daniel has created art that can rival what gets done for higher profile labels these days. One of those works is the Autumnal landscape he captured for a Brazilian band called Akashic. "Well, Akashic was one of those rare cases where I had no contact whatsoever with the band. Everything was arranged with the guy at their label, Scallabis. I entered the Akashic process during its second phase. Some promotional flyers had already been designed by someone else. At that point, they asked me to follow the graphic concept on the flyers and adapt it to a CD cover. Later on, they decided to abandon that graphic concept and develop a new one. That was when the result you mentioned came up. Due to the name of the album (_Timeless Realm_), there was a wish from both band and label to use a watch, which had been an important part of the previous design, so I had to stick to that. Conceptually, I wanted to create an image that would reflect a place where time stood still, eternally frozen. I had a few pictures from a beautiful park in England, in a rusty Autumn, which had that "frozen in time" sort of look. The rest, as you might understand, is intuition and pixels..."

Daniel's answer when asked whether he has any favourite projects amidst what he has done so far is short, and yet carries an unusual twist: "Not really. They're all my "children" in the end. Some are less defective than others, and I like them all for different reasons."

The former Sculpture bass player is equally succinct when asked to highlight any particular bands he has worked with as especially worth looking into. "Even though I have to create an empathic link to the band and their sound, I rarely get "addicted" to it. I could name a few bands, but I prefer keeping that to myself."

The Portuguese metal underground has been Daniel's major source of metal customers so far. "The Portuguese metal underground scene is a tricky subject of debate. There is, without a doubt, an increasing notion that quality and professionalism score when it comes to achieving certain goals, and bands are truly beginning to understand that no matter how good the music may be, a CD is a product that has to be -sold-, and it must be sold as a whole. Some people might agree with this, others might disagree."

He finishes: "When it comes to criticizing, everybody has a word to say... But when it comes to getting a decent job done, words and talent are often lacking."

Do visit the websites listed below if you haven't done so yet, in order to find out more about the plentiful talent behind the words on this article.

Travis Smith:
Niklas Sundin:
Juha Vuorma:
Pedro Daniel: (temporary)

(article submitted 14/1/2002)

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