If you're a physical collector, a fan of horror sleeve artwork and/or a film poster aficionado then you're probably already fairly familiar with some of Graham Humphreys work, even if you don't know it. Graham has been an illustrator and designer for over 40 years now and while he has always felt it necessary to dip his fingers into various different areas of cinema and music, the horror genre remains his bread and butter for the majority of his output. Graham's particular style of painting is almost hypnotic and very distinctive. His artwork spans across legendary franchise's like 'A Nightmare on Elm Street', "The Evil Dead' and a horde of classic 70's and 80's films.
Writer Gavin Logan recently had the opportunity to speak to Graham about his influences, how he got into the industry and his process of creating his artistic masterpieces.
GL: Let's go way back to your childhood. Did your upbringing influence the type of films you enjoyed when you were young and were you always attracted to horror or genre films??
GH: Whilst I was always attracted to the unusual, I’m not sure that my upbringing had any bearing on my tastes. My early years were spent in the West Country with traditional values lived with rather than enforced. Although I was fortunate not to be born into poverty (in it’s usual understood form), my father’s father was a chimney sweep, his wife a seamstress, my other grandparents ran a local store, my father was an industrial training instructor and my mother trained as a nurse (she gave up any career to become a full time housewife when I was born - as was typical of the time). So culturally, there was no notable influence, the family was not particularly religious and film was not a point of interest. My tastes really developed from watching TV, ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘The Munsters’ stand out as my first introduction to ‘horror’ as such. But I could always identify weird elements, where none were overtly obvious. A notable moment came with an episode of 'Coronation Street', in which a ‘hand of glory’ candle appeared in a scene - I can only imagine that it was a Halloween reference, probably a bar decoration in the Rover’s Return! It terrified me - as did the character Ena Sharples! Probably not many people can say that 'Coronation Street' led them to a career in horror!
However, I do remember being refused the opportunity to use my pocket money to buy a copy of the Hammer Horror LP (the cover featuring a photo of Christopher Lee’s 'Dracula' - and a blood soaked Caroline Munro) - my parents expressed dismay at my disturbing interests - what they would have described as ‘morbid’. Of course, this only served to increase my interest in horror - I realised it provoked a profound reaction.
GL: Was art something you always had an interest in when you were a kid? When did you know that this would be your career path?
GH: I always liked drawing. My favourite subjects were Daleks, dinosaurs and skeletons (even though they all scared me!). At school it was clear that art was my strongest subject, so that by the time I was 15, art college was already on the cards. At 16, having completed my ‘O’ levels, I began my four years at Salisbury College of Art, specifically to study Graphic Design (considered the ‘useful’ subject, from which I might make a living - unlike ‘fine art’, which
seemed to be for the wealthier students - presumably a future income being less of a concern. The Graphic Design course provided a good grounding and stands me well today, but I also knew that illustration was my real area of interest, I used my final year to refine the techniques that would define my work.
GL: You have a very distinct style. Was that something that came naturally to you over the years or did you have to "find" your own style?
GH: Those four years in Salisbury came at a moment of cultural change - in music. By 1977, Punk Rock had become the tabloid target of choice and the image of ‘hippy’ art students confined to the dustbin of history. Our visiting part-time tutors all lived in London and brought with them a taste of the cultural shift. Their work was aggressive, raw and completely unlike the imagery that many of us had previously aspired to - the glossy lure of airbrush and depictions of fantasy worlds. Taking inspiration from the music, and under the guidance of the part-time tutors, I found a style that reflected the aggression but also took inspiration from horror film posters.
GL: Can you remember your first commission work?
GH: Leaving art college was terrifying. I knew I would need to move to London if I was seriously going to pursue any career in illustration. Fortunately, one of my fellow students had the advantage of finding easy employment at his brother’s design studio, from there I received my first professional paid commission, a large number of line drawings that would illustrate an educational publication ‘Handling Language’, this enabled me to make my move to London. My first actual ‘horror’ commission was my rather crude film poster for ‘The Monster Club’.
GL: You've been a popular character on the convention scene for years now. Any particularly wild stories you'd like to share? What's the weirdest thing a fan has said to you or asked you to sign?
GH: I’ve only really been attending conventions within the last few years, but it has been an increasingly good way to gauge my work and help me refine what I do. I can’t really recall anything particularly weird that has happened at any of the events, other than usual travel issues and arriving at a hotel to be told you don’t have the room the promoter promised. Visitors to the table are almost always polite and engaged and I’ve never signed anything odd that I recall. This could change!
GL: You're regarded as being one of the top artists in the world in your particular field but do you still get star struck when you go to conventions and events? Who do you consider the most famous person you've ever met or interacted with?
GH: I used to be very shy and unable to talk to people that are, for whatever reason, famous. This has changed over the years, probably because I’m older and more able to approach other people as fellow human beings, rather than their public persona. Fame is relative and how you interact with another person will be dependent on how much they are prepared to interact with you. So although I may have met certain ‘famous’ people, I may not have actually engaged with them, usually because the moment is fleeting. I’ve never met an ‘A’ list Hollywood ‘star’, although I’ve met a number of known and respected actors. Usually, it’s more about the opportunity to thank them for their work and inspiration and then if you get any further, finding a common ground that allows for a more relaxed meeting.
GL: You're quite interactive on social media with fans. What's your thoughts on the various different platforms and their positive/negative influence?
GH: Facebook has been a fantastic boost to my working profile. My work is now seen by far more people than would have been possible before. I’ve only recently started using Twitter and Instagram but only use both for displaying work, to proven advantage. Many artists prefer to keep work and personal accounts separate, I’ve just stuck with one Facebook account because I’ve always felt my work to be part of who I am - but I have also learned to temper my postings! Engaging withn the wider world and having opinions opens us all up to potential issues!
GL: We love that you share the different stages of your work on your social media but for those who don't follow you, could you explain the process from commission, through concepts, right to the finished piece.
GH: I can only share progress images once a job is complete or where the commission isn’t subject to confidentiality issues. I enjoy sharing the process because I don’t fear competition, in fact I respect it because it’s how I learn where my own strengths and weaknesses are. I like people seeing how the work is built up, there’s no mystery and if it inspires others,
even better. Each job involves a viewing or reading and a basic (or occasionally complex) client brief. Once the parameters are established (what should or shouldn’t be included) I compile my reference. This is sometimes supplied, or involves making screen grabs or generating my own photography and often a google search. Concepts are the result of my own judgement and the client’s wishes sometimes resulting in a compromise. I look for key moments that will create impact. I always look for expressive faces that communicate a reaction and emotion, trying to encapsulate a character or situation. Additional elements (the setting, objects, etc) help tell a story and set up an expectation. I always check previous artwork and campaigns for a film (or in the case of a new title, a historical precedent), this helps me try to formulate a new perspective. When appropriate, I offer the client a number of options. These are jpeg layouts created in photoshop, from scans of pencil drawings created by tracing the selected photographic elements that have been printed out to a workable size. The scanned elements can be moved around in photoshop and resized in order to play with different types of focus (characters and objects) thus presenting a variety of narrative options, ie. more focus on one particular character or object, changes in the relationship between characters and objects, etc. The point of tracing the elements in pencil is simply to reduce the elements to a uniform line. Reference material can be a mix of varying quality, blurred images and pin sharp pictures. My painting will eventually need to disguise the disparity of the reference.
Once a layout has been approved, I use photoshop to introduce the original photographic source over my drawn layout, so that it is an exact match to the sketch... traditionally, this helps the client who may already be using the sketch as a positional guide as they begin their marketing. For instance, they may already be using another designer to create a final layout with titles and text, therefore my final art need to match the original sketched layout as precisely as possible.
I can then print out the collage to the final size I will paint. The layout is traced onto the watercolour paper for as accurate a representation as possible. (Note: this is not cheating! I am delivering a commercial piece of art that needs to fulfil the client’s brief as best I can and within their deadline - it’s not an art challenge, a memory test or an exercise in prowess) Once I start the painting process, although I am using the guides, everything from there on is reliant on my own ability to make use of the reference, using my experience and skills to deliver a single unified image. The final painting is scanned for digital delivery.
GL: You've had plenty of work outside the horror genre too helping to create record cover and sleeve artwork for bands. You've already mentioned that music was a big influence on your work. Is there a particular band you've enjoyed working with the most?
GH: I take each job as it comes and treat it as an individual entity. Working with bands can be an experience that varies according to who is briefing, expectations, ego, compromise and experience. There has been no particular ‘special’ relationship, but there have been people with whom it’s been easier to work than others! Largely, I try to remain respectful of requirements and the individuals with whom I deal. I’ve also learned that it’s up to me to advise and explain why certain options are better than others.
GL: Famously you've worked with Arrow Video on many of their DVD/Bluray re-release titles. Would you say that this has re-invigorated your career to some extent? How is working with Arrow or other distributors differ from other commission work?
GH: Indeed. I have no hesitation in identifying my work with Arrow as being instrumental in an upsurge in work and exposure to a wider horror comunity. My first Arrow commission was offered on the basis that I was an artist best known for work created in the 1980s to create a new cover for a film from the 1980s with the sensibility of that era. I always believed that my work is influenced by posters and designs from the previous 50 decades, but a job is a job! Arrow tapped into something that had been thought lost, the VHS artwork that people remembered from their formative years. It also suggested that there is a ready appreciation of ‘craft’ and ‘curation’ that seems missing from the photoshop images that had dominated the DVD (and latterly Blu-ray) market previously. (For instance, over my ten year period working with Tartan Films & Video, only one job was ever illustrated, it was never used!).
GL: We know this might be a very difficult question to answer but do you have a favourite piece that you've worked on? And if so why is it your favourite?
GH: I’ve no favourite, every job has a different place in my memory for different reasons. I always prefer to think my favourite illustration has yet to be painted! Although I think that ‘Freddy’s Revenge’ still packs it’s punch.
GL: You've stuck with traditional methods throughout your career while others have moved on to digital work. Have you ever entertained the idea of digital painting?
GH: Simple answer, no! Not because I’m adverse to digital work, on the contrary, I admire the skill set it requires, but see no point in doing what others do far better than I can. I prefer the visceral and physical contact of brushing paint on paper and knowing that it is increasingly unique. In addition, I retain artwork that has a value beyond the original commission and can be sold or exhibited in a way that digital work cannot.
GL: What would your advice be to aspiring young artists who might want to get into the field? Do you believe there is enough help out there these days for young people to potentially choose a career like yours?
GH: Going to art college gave me skills that I would have struggled to learn independently. I gained ways of seeing things and an understanding of building an image with a sound foundation. I learned about perspective, forshortening, form, colour, lighting and texture. Additionally I gained a basic knowledge of art history that surprised and thrilled me, leaving a mark on my methods and processes I would not have found otherwise. The benefit of the experience and knowledge of the various people that taught me was invaluable.
I learned to observe and process my own ways of seeing. I learned to take inspiration but not to copy. I also learned that I can’t pick and choose my work and that I’d never get rich by painting! I was also patient, knowing it would take years to establish myself, but was prepared to take the long route. But everybody finds their own way.
GL: How has the national lockdown affected your work? Are you finding more time to devote to it now? Is there anything of note that you're currently working on right now that you can tell us about?
GH: The initial lockdown removed distraction and helped me focus. Some of my best work has been produced over the last year. But I’m wary about being indulgent. All my work has to serve it’s destination purpose. Because my work is mostly commercial, I have to work with an understanding of confidentiality, so it’s not an option to name specific upcoming jobs, but there will be a few ‘crowd pleasers’ ahead!
GL: Well we certainly can't wait to see more of your amazing artwork once we're finally allowed to.
To find out more about Graham and his work please visit his official website
- Gavin Logan