Picture the covers for Kiss’ Destroyer, Rainbow’s Rising, or Manowar’s Kings Of Metal. These works of art all posses the epic feel and masculinity that only an artist like Ken Kelly is capable of conveying. For more than 40 years the Connecticut-born illustrator has been working non-stop, creating Comics, book and album covers, film artwork, private commissions, and much more. In fact, his KISS artworks have been featured as part of the band’s merchandise more than any other visuals in the band’s history.
At his 67 years young, Kelly is still working as the powerhouse artist that he is, producing some of the most amazing illustrations, period. Recently we had the opportunity to speak with him about his career, especially within the music industry. Here’s what he enthusiastically had to say.
You’ve had the opportunity of working on both Rainbow and KISS. Did you have any of your works published?
Kelly: Yes, I worked for five years in kind of a comic book for Warren Publishing; doing covers for little horror magazines for five years.
You were a disciple of the late great Frank Frazetta. In fact, he was the one that encouraged you to pursue a career as a commercial illustrator. How did that happen?
Kelly: His wife Ellie is my aunt. So he had been in my family my whole life. So it was only natural when I grew up and I got out of the military that I asked him to help me and he did. He’s family. He helped me start in the industry. [He was] tremendously influential in my stuff.
Your works for KISS’ Destroyer and Love Gun cover artworks are legendary. Do you remember how you got involved with them and the music industry?
Kelly: The only way that I got involved with them was because they picked my cover off the newsstand. They sent their art director downstairs in New York into the street to lurk in the newsstand to see who the New York artists were, and they picked my cover. I’m thankful it was me.
So you began to work on album covers with Destroyer and Rainbow’s Rising covers?
Kelly: Yes, Destroyer was first, before Rising. And after Destroyer, two years later I did Love Gun.
Your images are extremely expressive and detailed. They possess a very old school feel. Do think this is related to the technique you usually use?
Kelly: I’m an old world oil painting artist. I strictly use oils. I don’t use any of the acrylics or computer animation or anything like that.
Do you also add the lettering on your cover artworks?
Kelly: No. I never do the lettering. I just leave room for where they’re going to put the letters.
Do you think your artworks, especially in the KISS’ case, were crucial in the albums’ eventual success?
Kelly: There always a possibility… I talk to a lot of people and a lot of people think that I helped KISS with the artwork. But I don’t know that.
Let’s talk about your longtime relationship with Manowar. You’ve been working with them since 1987’s Fighting The World. It’s probably your longest collaboration with any artist.
Kelly: Manowar is more personal because we’re friends and we talk offsite together and we chat basically almost like family. We’re that close. We’re very close… I’ve done certain Manowar covers where I listen to the music and it gave me some really nice pictures in my head.
You sell your books and prints of some of your most important pieces on your website www.kenkellyart.com. Have you ever have any copyright issues about reproducing your own artwork, especially for the KISS and Rainbow artworks?
Kelly: I kept the rights with Rainbow. With Kiss, I have the rights to just reproduce them. That’s all I have the right to do.
What are you working on, currently?
Kelly: I’m working on many projects, commissions. Because of the fans, now with the Internet I can actually email and answer their requests and do personal paintings. I have many of those I’m working on too.
Of all your album artworks, do you have an all-time favorite album?
Kelly: It’s a tough call. But I think Manowar’s Triumph Of Steel. If you look that up is a warrior with four or five babes around him and a fire pit. It’s beautiful. So, I think that would be my favorite.
Next Time on AJFA: Ioannis and his artworks for Fates Warning
Previously on AJFA: “The Chuck Schuldiner Reissues” – An Interview with Death’s former manager Eric Greif