Dave McKean & Andy Vella on designing gothic album covers
As part of my role at the British Library, I took part in our ‘Cultures of the Dark Side’ Fashion and Music day with Dave McKean and Andy Vella, to tie in with our current exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The exhibition is fabulous: it spans 250 years of books, posters and films from Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick and Alexander McQueen.
Dave McKean is an English photographer, illustrator, comic book artist, graphic designer, filmmaker and musician, and is famous for his work with writer Neil Gaiman and The Sandman. He also produced the British Library’s exhibition artwork which you can currently spot across London (and above).
During the event, Dave talked about his love of experimental, tactile design. After struggling to be inspired by traditional graphic design processes, it wasn’t until he saw designer Vaughan Oliver’s work that he understood about layout and type in a way that was meaningful to him.
For Dave, this is about playing with mixed media of paint, photo collage, drawings alongside technology. He likes to play – whether it is with a photocopier (he says they play back), deliberately over and under exposing photographs or making fonts by photographing sparklers. He spends time photographing local junk yards, finding interesting textures in decayed oil tanks and is fascinated by the x-ray images from airport scanning machines.
In contrast with his love of tactile, homemade design, he is also an avid Photoshop fan – “It’s the only manual I ever read, and I felt they’d written it for me.” After creating initial sketches and tactile work, he uses Photoshop to complete his images.
Talking about his cover for musician John Cale, he was sent a bag of photographs from an archive to play with and had two weeks to make it. Since he was a child he loved the Captain Fantastic album, so wanted to do a dark version of it (below).
So what does his studio look like? It’s in his home, but in a separate building which helps get him in the right frame of mind. It has lots of stuff in it – a piano, lots of books and Polish posters. It’s split into areas: a painting area, a scanner, computer area, and so on.
Andy Vella is most famous for producing artwork for the Cure, after a chance encounter on a train with its guitarist, Porl Thompson. His photographs caught the eye of the Cure’s front man Robert Smith, who asked him to design the covers of the album Faith (below) and its single Primary. In the mid-90s a commission with Bloomsbury Publishing launched his career as a book designer; he has produced covers for the likes of John Berger, Tobias Wolff, Larsson and Margaret Atwood.
Andy's creative approach has a lot in common with Dave McKean's. On his artwork for the Cure’s Faith album, he took out of focus images of Bolton Abbey until it became so distorted it becomes a beautiful, ghostly shape with jagged edges. He created the font for the Cure’s sixth studio album The Head on the Door using a cotton bud, some household bleach and photographic paper.
Andy highlighted the impact of financial restrictions on his work – using black and white film instead of colour because it was cheaper. Making his own fonts because to buy them was too costly (pre-computer days).
And what is his studio like? “It’s a mess – I like it like that.” It includes everything from a double bass to clothes on the floor. It shows the history of his ideas. I liked the description by Dave that neither of them want their studios to look like a ‘dentist’s laboratory’ (although that ironically could be an interesting starting point for a gothic-inspired album sleeve).
Lastly, what really struck me was Andy and Dave’s passion for music. They both fully immerse themselves in the album for a day before they even start work on its cover. They want to get a strong reaction to the music and then pour that response into their artwork, so that they can create something beautiful and authentic for the artist.