Bristish illustrator Mark Wilkinson’s work has been adorning the cover sleeves of Rock and Metal albums for decades. His work for bands like Judas Priest and Marillion, as well as for posters for the Monster of Rock Festival, Star Wars movies, and book covers is widely recognized. His refined technique and unique fantastic visions have made of the artist a legend within the world of commercial illustration. To celebrate his career of more than 30 years, Wilkinson recently published the book “Shadowplay”, a recount of most of his work to date. In this interview the artist talks extensively about the new book, his influences, and his ongoing collaboration with artists such as Judas Priest and Marillion.

From where came the idea of putting together your new book “Shadowplay”?
Mark: I was approached by Fantasmus – a publisher of “magic realism” art books in Denmark. The owner – Claus Brusen – was a fan of my album covers and asked me if I’d be interested in compiling a book of all my best work, and he guaranteed that it would be printed using the finest materials. I was sent some samples of their previous art books and I was very impressed by the quality. A lot of art books use thin paper which can mark and crease easily, Fantasmus books use a specialist art book printer and heavier weight paper than most art books I’ve seen. They also proposed that I could design the book myself, which was another plus as far as I was concerned.

There are two different editions of the “Shadowplay”. Can you tell me more about it?
Mark: The book comes in 2 editions, the standard hardback and a very limited edition “Black Box” version which is signed, numbered and bound in black cloth inside a slipcase with a wallet containing 2 limited edition prints unique to this edition. “Shadowplay” has gone on to be Fantasmus’ best selling title and is still available through my website

You had previously released another book of your work, “Masque: The graphic work of Mark Wilkinson, Fish and Marillion”. How would you describe that book in comparison with “Shadowplay”?
Mark: “Masque” was specifically a book of transcribed conversations with Fish and myself. We discussed how each of the projects for Marillion and his solo years were created, and illustrated the book with working drawings, sketches and finished artwork. We thought fans would be interested to find out how the creative process worked between us, how an artist may work with his client and adapt their imagined worlds into a visual reality on to paper.

With “Shadowplay” was it difficult trying to capture 30 years of work on a single book?
Mark: Actually no, not that difficult – in terms of what to put in and what to leave out. The idea of a different chapter for each band or project seemed to work organically as I started the rough page plan when designing the book. The hardest part was how to end it. 🙂 I knew I wanted an “afterword” to bookend the “foreword” at the beginning, but how to do it. I get asked a lot about the impact of downloading, how an artist who designs album sleeves works within this brave new world, so I thought a short “coda” on the way the music industry is now, and how it has changed the approach to cover art during the 30 years I have been involved would work. Actually, there seems to be a real return of interest in album art, and imagery will always be important I think, even if it’s just for t-shirts to help finance a band on tour. Downloading an album without the artwork would be unthinkable for me – even on an iPod, I like to have a visual snapshot of what the band is about on that tiny screen.

The book covers plenty of your work for many Rock and Metal bands. At what point in your career did you become interested in doing artwork and covers for albums? Do you remember which was your first cover artwork?
Mark: I remember well my first album cover – it was a heavy metal compilation album called “Hot Shower” – a man in a fire protective suit playing guitar in a shower – with flame throwers as shower nozzles! Someone had to do it and I was “available”. 🙂 I wanted to create album covers for a long time, but had a few lean years of not getting anywhere, it took time. I was on the verge of giving up art altogether when I had the opportunity to work for (in 1982) Marillion for EMI. It was my big break and I will forever be in their debt for giving me that chance because that one contact has led to many more in the music world.

Are you satisfied with the finished product? Do you think it really captures your legacy as an artist?
Mark: I do – the printing is 100% spot on, the thickness of the pages, and the robust hardback cover ensures it will last. The special edition is beautifully constructed with the black cloth cover and silver foil print, a real collector’s item that I am immensely proud of.

How have people’s reactions to the book been so far?
Mark: I have had so many positive comments from fans across the world, from Russia to USA, Iceland to Indonesia… it has been a wonderful experience to communicate with some of them personally as I market the book myself through the masque website. It can be a solitary existence working in your home, dreaming up concepts for pictures, so until you get some feedback from people outside your little box – it is difficult to tell whether your work has any real impact or not. Thankfully I’m still doing the job I dreamed of doing all those years ago at art school, I feel very privileged.

The book showcases many of the works you’ve done for Marillion and Judas Priest. You have kept an ongoing professional relationship with both. What has been the key to keep these working relationships going for so many years?
Mark: Fish I consider to be a good friend who I have worked well with for over 30 years. He is a visionary writer and performer with really unique and interesting ideas for cover art. I am working on a 100 page book for the special edition of his next album Feast Of Consequences due out later this year. I have a great working relationship with Judas Priest too – the band and management keep coming back and provide me with some fantastic visual challenges that’s for sure.

Your technique is very detailed and precise and your management of textures (specially metallic surfaces) is superb. Most of the time your style it’s sort of a mix of realism and fantasy. Is there a specific technique that you prefer to execute your work or one that you use the most?
Mark: Airbrushed acrylic inks and paint on board or canvas. For speed I also use a mixture of traditional drawing and/or paint and scan in to finish off digitally, it depends on the brief and the deadline.

How would you describe your signature visual style?
Mark: I suppose Hyper Realism using whatever materials I can to do the job well.

Can you mention which are your favorite artists/illustrators?
Mark: There are fantastic artists working today who I greatly admire, John Baizley’s work for Baroness, Travis Smith’s last album cover for Opeth was amazing, Alex Grey for Tool, Paul Romano for Mastodon… the list goes on. I feel you can draw a line (no pun intended) from the great artists of my youth like Rick Griffin, Kelly Mouse studios and Roger Dean who were all big influences on me deciding to go to art school back in the 70’s.

Can you tell us anything about the current artworks/projects you’re working on?
Mark: I have Fish’s next album design for Feast of Consequences, an album cover for the Italian band Asgard, a set of postage stamps based on music festivals, a private painting commission for a fan in the UK, poster art for a music festival in London later this year, and I’ve just completed the package design for Judas Priest’s DVD Live at Hammersmith featuring my “Epitaph” art used for their last world tour. I’ve also just completed work for Brazilian heavy rock band Dancing Flame.

Next Time on AJFA: An interview with author Martin Popoff about his book on the album ‘Fade To Black’
Previously on AJFA: “Unmasked” – An Interview with Legendary Illustrator and Filmmaker Andreas Marschall