Luke Oram is a visual artist from the Uk. I have covered him extensively on here due to his recent work with many solid bands from around the world. From left to right in the collage above, his album covers include: The Inveterate Fire by Firelink, Esoteric Malacology by Slugdge, Reminiscence by Empress, On The Attack by Iron Eagle, Synergy by Asymptotic Mantra and Prophetic Flame by Eluvian. Luke’s mix of fantasy, horror and sci-fi scenes met with a solid use of composition and colour make for epic, distinguishable covers perfect for any heavy album. So I’m stoked to introduce my interview with Luke where he delves into his favorite metal album covers, tips for commissioning and his insights into the craft.
What’s your art background and medium?
Formally speaking I have a diploma in art from college and a degree in animation from university. However, my general art background is quite broad. I learned to draw before I could read and I’ve been interested in drawing and painting for quite literally as long as I can remember. I grew up in the 80s so that has influenced me a lot in an ambient way; things that were happening at the time like 2000ad (British sci-fi comic) and heavy metal/punk imagery were part of the cultural background. My young self absorbed these things alongside classical painting and visuals from films with no real appreciation of the differences between them- just all seemed like fascinating and compelling portals into new worlds of ideas.
Currently I work in ‘digital painting’- essentially using a graphics tablet and software, but I learnt art in the traditional method so there is a strong influence of that which I hope is still quite evident.
What are some of your favourite metal album covers?
Iron Maiden – Seventh Son of a Seventh Son:
This was the first LP I joint-owned with my brother (other than a Postman Pat record as a very small nipper) and I was totally enthralled with the gruesome and macabre, yet evocative and mysterious scenes. It was definitely my earliest lesson in the importance of having good artwork in consort with good music to make something ‘complete’. Derek Riggs’ work is clean and classy here, as ever.
Cirith Ungol – King of the Dead:
Veteran fantasy illustrator Michael Whelan provided this great cover. It has an ethereal quality that I really admire, the hazy look of the atmosphere builds a sense that the warrior (Moorcock’s Elric, I think) has stumbled upon some eldritch crypt where he has no business being. Whelan’s style lends a vintage high-fantasy look that adds a ‘classic’ veneer to the picture.
Ulver – Nattens Madrigal:
Ulver are another band where it’s a complete artistic statement with each record. The raw texture of the painting works perfectly with the motif of a wolf howling at this enormous moon, you get the exact feeling of it. This meshes so well with the similarly raw production of the music. The artist is Tania Stene, she worked in that scene a lot and has a kind of poetic vision in her designs. Underrated.
Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos:
John Sibbick is a British illustrator in the finest tradition. These days I think he mostly concentrates on wonderful images of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts, but back in the day he worked for Games Workshop. The aesthetic of that lurid-yet-grim future war setting complements Bolt Thrower’s themes superbly.
Magnum – Chase the Dragon:
No list of best metal covers would be complete without the work of Rodney Matthews. I’ve loved his wistful illustrative style since childhood. This cover has a really strong triangular composition that draws you in, and a wonderful lizard-like creature to fire the imagination. That sense of an inviting fantasy world is, again, echoed in Magnum’s proggy 80s metal. Perfect for your (now cool again) D&D session.
You have “covered” a lot of recent metal and alternative releases. What got you into this kind of work initially? How was your first band commission?
To be perfectly honest I just fell into it. I’ve played in a lot of bands over the years (metal, punk, weirdo stuff) and those kind of underground scenes make ready use of anyone who can provide an additional skill (learn to drive a van to secure a place in any band). Said person will naturally be flattered, cajoled, or otherwise bribed into helping out.
I did a lot of stuff for my friend’s musical projects and eventually I started getting approached by others from the wider community. At some point I thought what I was doing was good enough to ask for some money in return, and thankfully people seemed to agree. I don’t recall what my first proper commission was exactly, but I expect it was a poster for a gig in exchange for free entry.
A lot of artists struggle with creative direction but as a cover artist that’s often your job. Do you have a work ethic that helps in dealing with sudden changes to the works?
When I’m working for a client they have to be happy with the results or I’m not satisfied with my work. I’m more than happy to make changes along the process- sometimes they can be quite major. For example, I’ve been asked to change an alien into a wizard on one occasion. Just the head though.
I keep in close contact with my client during the work and am very flexible, but usually there is no problem as I will rigorously sketch everything first and get direct feedback.
Luke’s initial sketches for the cover of Reminiscence by Empress
As a prolific artist I’m sure you’ve encountered all kinds of tricks and disaster prevention. What is something an artist should consider when starting on a commission?
It’s very foundational, but I always describe the brief back to the client. This is to ensure we are both setting off with the same understanding of what everything is, what’s going where, and when things need to be done by.
Especially as these days commissions often arrive over a social media chat. Clients can be very conversational and just vaguely describe what they want over several paragraphs of chat about where the band is going etc etc. I see it as vital that I get a strong understanding of what they are visualising in their head as I want their album to be as good as possible. People work hard at their music and most usually put a great deal of their time and money into it; I treat that with maximum respect and do the utmost I can to produce something that lives up to it.
And what is something a band should consider when approaching an artist with their ideas?
Pick the artist whose previous work you like. It might sound obvious, but people have their own style and the best work is done when artists stay true to that. The opposite is true if you want someone to copy the style of another artist, it’s going to be miserable for everyone concerned.
Also don’t underestimate the importance of getting cover art that is good and right for the music. A bad cover will put people off, a good cover draw them in.
Audio Nasty by Iron Eagle, a Luke Oram cover art with inspirations from 80’s sci-fi turned cult classics.
Is there something you hate drawing? I know a lot of people hate drawing certain anatomy due to difficulty.
Hate is far too strong, but I find architecture a very demanding task. Over-work the detail and you get something that sacrifices style for technical accuracy. Forgo the detail and you’ll produce an image full of broken angles. It’s a tough discipline, and people’s eyes are very good at spotting when something has been fudged. Sometimes you just have to commit to an unremittingly demanding, tight technical process that really puts you in a special place; it’s gruelling but with luck you emerge having made something really satisfying. My fine artist friend David Surman calls this being in the ‘hellworld’, and observes that on occasion we must all go there to do good work.
Have you seen much of your work on physical CD’s and vinyl? Is the difference between digital and physical significant to you?
Luckily I have a good collection of records and cds that feature my work. It’s a real joy to have something you worked on become a real physical object, very satisfying indeed. The difference is very significant. Perhaps this is a generational thing, but to me a 12” record feels ‘proper’ and streaming doesn’t inspire any sense of ritual or engagement with the music.
I have incredibly strong memories of being a 5 year old pouring over my parent’s copy of Jeff Wayne’s Musical War of the Worlds, just becoming so thoroughly captured by the richness of the artwork and the terrifying world it portrayed; the Martians ransacking England, the Thunderchild being scorched, the eventual demise of the invaders due to their own hubris. We’d put the record on and read along with the insert that came with it. Looking at a phone screen for 20 seconds whilst the stream loads cannot begin to come close to that experience and I think we are denying ourselves the greater theatre of recorded music by stripping this away. That’s just me though 😉
I don’t think you’ll read anything quite like it this week, a very informative and yet personal look at the art world. Looking forward to any future work from Luke, including his awesome portraits on Instagram.