If you’ve been paying attention, even moderately, to horror and genre advertising over the past few decades, the subject of today’s interview will be familiar. Even if you don’t know him by name, although many of you will, Graham Humphreys has become one of the most iconic artists for the community. From his early designs for films like Evil Dead or A Nightmare on Elm Street to his more recent slew of illustrations for Arrow Films and Video, his meshing of photorealistic portraiture and fantastical colors has helped to define horror art. While the world continually turns digital and more and more artists put down their pencils in favor of styluses, Humphreys hand drawn and painted pieces remain increasingly unique and important. Despite having an illustrious career, today marks the open of the first ever exhaustive gallery retrospective of his work at Proud Camden, located in London. In order to shed light more light on his lengthy career, we sat down with Humphreys to talk about his evolution of style, working with Richard Stanley, and the integration of digital technology into his process.
Diabolique: Let’s take it the beginning, at what point did you get into drawing and creating art and when did that turn into a realization that you could make it your career?
Graham Humphreys: From my very first memories, I knew I was interested in it. My mother was apparently really good at drawing herself, but she went into nursing and never pursued it. My father started off in technical drawing, so he also had an aptitude and I think that is where my skillset comes from. I just remember picking up crayons when I was a child and always drawing. I think I progressed quite quickly and, since I was drawing all the time, I think I advanced quickly for a child. When I was at school, for instance, I would always finish off essays with a lavish drawing. It was just constantly there. I am not one of those people — and I should really — who sketches daily. I know that some people do this as a discipline but I tend to keep it for the actual work, just train myself in things as they come along.
Diabolique: Is there a piece of artwork that you came across earlier in your life that just made everything click? You know, that moment when you were like, ‘this is what I have to do.’
GH: I guess yeah, I always tend to identify with the posters from the early 70s. I am thinking of all the disaster movie posters — The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, was one of my favorites — I loved those. And, the poster for Jaws, I have to say was such a powerful image, and I thought ‘its just paint on paper; this is what I need to do.’ It was probably when I was in college that I became even more aware of film posters, and the whole nature of putting them together: the simple graphic design, the coming up of ideas, and the whole creative process behind them. I guess because, by that point, my interest in cinema had grown. It was always interesting to see how posters correlated to the film and that is actually when I understood that film posters could often be better than the actual films. [laughs] That happens still, I think.
Diabolique: It may happen more [laughs], it’s hard to say…I think a lot of people look at what you do and think that they could never do it. Do you believe that there is a natural inclination towards art that people either have or don’t?
GH: I do think there is a natural aptitude that you can have. Certainly, I think that most can draw and be trained to draw. I just think that, for most people, there is a blockage. They just assume they can’t; it’s something in their head that disallows this visual process. When I went to art college, it was quite a big thing for me because, although I could draw, I didn’t really understand the technical parts of it. The rules of perspective and forshortening, for instance, that was a big eye opener for me. It helped me see things in a different way and it really kick-started things for me. I think all these visual tricks are things that you can actually teach people. It’s all about understanding what it is you are seeing and actually sometimes trying to appreciate things in two-dimensions. I think there are a lot of things you can teach people but you have to have an aptitude, want to do it, and have a discipline. People get frustrated when they can’t draw something, I still do myself, so you have to be confident and work around, beyond, or through it.
Diabolique: Post-College, you got your start working in music, right? What did you learn working with music publishers and magazines that helped you in your inevitable push towards film related work?
GH: I had been doing freelance work for the NME [British music magazine founded in 1952], and I think, for me, music had always been an important part of what I did. In my own head, every single illustration I have ever done has an imaginary soundtrack, and then, quite often, what I am doing is working from that ‘soundtrack,’ working on the image on the basis of the music that is there. So it is just a way of thinking that works for me. That became a lot more concrete when I began working with musicians like the Lords of the New Church, where the music was definitely an opening point for my own work. The expression in the music itself; the way the instruments work, the raw; visceral sounds that give you a subconscious palette to work with. When I listen to music, I am seeing colors all the time. If I am working on a horror related piece, for instance, I find myself listening to The Cramps, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or Killing Joke, there are different bands that I go back to because I find them to be the source for my work.
Diabolique: I’m interested in your use of color, because, in a strange way, it’s both very realistic but at the same time very fantastic looking, with yellows, purples, blues, and greens really standing out. How did you develop this stylistic tendency?
GH: I think, Hands up, it’s probably from the old Hammer posters. They would have these very unreal palettes. When you are working in something like horror, where there is an air of something unnatural and it almost has to exist in a different kind of plane, I think it is appropriate to use that color type because you are actually taking people out of real life and putting them into some kind of other scenario. If the face is recognizably human, then I think you can make the color anything you want [laughs].
Diabolique: Let’s talk about your storyboarding work. I think the idea of storyboarding is a part of the industry that people don’t think about too much and, especially with modern technology, I think it’s a part of the industry that has changed drastically. Can you go a little into your experiences? I believe you began alongside Richard Stanley, who was still early in his career at that point.
GH: Indeed, I think there was a learning process that we both went through. He always created his own little storyboards anyway but certainly new to be working with somebody who was apparently professional [laughs] — to be quite honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing, at all. The first few evenings that we spent together were quite torturous — and I find storyboarding quite torturous anyways, I’d rather not do it, to be quite honest. It is just endless drawings but one thing I did learn is that keeping it simple was the most efficient way of working. With Richard, the important thing was to get the basic information down, so on the day of shooting he knows where the camera is going to be, what set-ups are needed, what part of a room you might see. With effects, it’s the most crucial part, because it allows people to understand what the budget will be and allows stuntmen and the effects team to judge what can be achieved. When I was working with Richard on those early films there wasn’t the possibility of computer-generated imagery, and if there was it was very, very crude. I think Hardware used at least three glass screen matte paintings — something which doesn’t really exist anymore — and all of the effects were on camera and had to be done with a bloke in a suit, essentially. All of these things were important and needed to be storyboarded and I learned very quickly that there were certain things you just cannot do.
Diabolique: What is an example, for instance?
GH: remember we did an overhead shot of the robot walking down the stairs, and, of course, people looked at it and said, ‘actually that is not going to happen because its a man in a suit, it’s not practical for him to make those movements without falling over.’ So you learn very quickly what can and can’t be done. I think for Richard, as well, it was a good process because it really makes you think about the filming process. You are almost editing while you are storyboarding, as well. It allows people to break down what is required. When we were working on Hardware, I was still working during the day time and Richard was also still shooting music videos, so we’d have to get together in the evening, and what would end up happening was we’d probably go for something to eat and drink beer and not get to the office until 10 o’clock at night and, suddenly, I’d be getting a night bus home at about four in the morning and go back to work in the morning. That kind of went on for quite awhile. We were even storyboarding while the film was being shot.
Diabolique: Now that Lost Souls has been released, we are kind of offered an insight into Stanley’s mind. The film gives off a balance between the idea that Richard was just way in over his head and lost sight of the film and, the flipside, that the project was systematically taken away from him. Since you had one of the most intimate experiences with his vision prior to it being manipulated and taken away, I was wondering if you think that he would have been able to finish the film?
GH: I think that Richard had a lot of elements in the film which he had worked on even in student projects. He definitely had his vision but I think what the problem was, was that he was suddenly dealing with a big budget, big actors, and a lot of executives. He was working against an immovable object in many ways. Richard wanted a lot of subversive elements in the film. For instance, there was the marijuana plantation, that had to go; there was animal sex, that had to go; there were all these quite radical ideas within his own kind of Moreau Universe and it was quite heartbreaking to see all those things be erased out of the script, layer by layer. When I went to Australia to do some storyboarding there with him for three weeks, Richard would confide in me, and say thing like, ‘I think they are going to take the film away from me, I think that they are talking about it already.’ If they weren’t actually saying it, he knew that it was probably going to happen. So perhaps there was an element of paranoia that began to make itself apparent — and justifiably so — and there is no doubt that certain persons were making life very, very difficult: making demands in the script to enhance their own parts. You could see that the battle was being fought on many, many fronts.
Richard’s vision was probably, initially, a fairly low budget piece, in which all these ideas could be explored. When it became a big American picture, it became someone else’s film. I’ve seen it happened before. I mean, contractually Richard had to be there to direct it on those first days of shooting, because it was his project and script. Without him, it wouldn’t have existed. But what happens is that on that initial day of shooting, if it is deemed that the director is not capable of shooting then they will remove him at that point. I’ve seen it happen three times now and you just think, well, actually, all the way along that director was never going to be directing. They were always going to be removed but they had to just go through this pantomime process. I think the director, at that point, knows it’s going to happen but just think how disappointing and upsetting that must be, to be removed from a project you’ve actually given birth to. It’s like having a child taken away.
Diabolique: Well, it’s not completely gone. You still have all these beautiful concept drawings and storyboards from the film. Has Richard every approached you about working on a book, or comic that would reflect his original vision?
GH: That’s been talked about and I suspect that it probably will happen. I won’t be doing it myself because comic book art isn’t my thing anyways, but I think it’s going to happen. There has just been a contractual period from the point when the film was made. For instance, he wasn’t allowed to speak about it for a number of years and nothing could happen with that project up and until now. It’d be great if he could revisit it as a proper movie, again, and actually make the film he wanted. The way that the world is, it probably won’t happen but I think he is ready to revisit it himself. [laughs] Even if no one else wants to have any financial part of it.
Diabolique: To go get back to your style, how long does an average illustration take? I would imagine it is quite a long process?
GH: Well, actually, not really. I don’t think so myself. Your average DVD or Blu-ray cover, for instance, one of those will take anywhere between one-and-a-half days to three days. I remember doing one piece and thinking, ‘blimey, I managed to do that in one day. How the hell did that happen.’ It’s the portraiture that is always the thing that takes time because getting that right is essential, and the more faces you have on a job, the longer it is going to take for that reason. The reference materials you have can make things quite easy, in terms of time. If you are working with blurry pictures or you have to source your own reference — maybe take pictures that you are going to use for people’s expressions, movement, hand details, stuff like that —, all that stuff will add time. But, for the physical painting process, if anything goes beyond four days it’s unusual.
Diabolique: How, if at all, has the advancement of technology affected your artistic process?
GH: For myself, all of my illustration work is still paint on paper and that makes me increasingly a bit of a rare object, I guess. In the 80s, when I was doing all the VHS stuff, there wasn’t the technology to do it any other way; you know, magazines, record covers, posters, would routinely use illustration. Obviously, when mainstream computing became available, Photoshop killed work for a lot of illustrators. I’ve spent a lot of time using Photoshop, myself, doing photo comps and the like. Having an artist’s eye is an important part of using Photoshop, I always thought. I see people doing photo comps now that are technically perfect but actually they are quite soulless. There is no understanding of the visual side of it. All that people are doing, is cutting things out and sticking them together, and ss long as they are hi-res they think that it’s fine. You just look at these very stilted and static images, and maybe they are technically beautiful but in fact they are actually lifeless. It’s quite upsetting to see and you think, ‘this should be an illustrator doing this.’
Diabolique: Do you think that doing hand-drawn illustration gives you an edge on competition then?
GH: It’s almost as if that there has been so much Photoshop stuff that people are looking for something a bit different. Arrow Films is one of the first companies that I started working with, who had that idea to go back to the 80s, to create an 80s style for their stuff. But I think it’s gone beyond that now, that actually illustration has found a niche of its own once more. Certainly, if you look at companies like Mondo, who are doing these limited edition prints, you know that there is obviously an interest in seeing an artist’s vision as opposed to a photographer’s vision. It is interesting how it has regained its popularity. One can imagine that perhaps it is a passing phase and people will want to go back to the technical stuff again. I don’t know, it’s impossible to tell. For myself, being able to scan stuff and send it across the Internet to my client means that I am able to retain all of my artwork. I use to lose a lot of my artwork back in the 80s, because it would go off to be scanned and then printed and, often, I wouldn’t get artwork back at all. I used to have to beg for it back, occasionally. I now have piles and piles of art because I retain everything. So, I’m not worried about the technical part of computing. For me, it’s a friend.
Diabolique: Do you think that there is an intrinsic difference between hand drawn artwork and digitally created art.
GH: I know plenty of illustrators who work purely on the computer now, painstakingly trying to recreate the look of a ‘paint on paper’ kind of image. We all work in the ways that we find is best for ourselves. There is something about paint on paper that, for me, is quite tactile and raw. There is a sort of craft going into it. I’m not trying describe myself as some sort of craftsman, but I have this discussion with people often and illustration is a craft. It’s considered different to art, per se. There was an amusing thing I heard recently: The British artist Maggi Hambling was doing a talk and she was talking about how she used to get confused about the difference between art and craft, going to art college herself. She remembered asking her lecturer what the difference was — because surely they are the same thing — and the response was, ‘well, actually, crafts are useful’ and just left it at that. So [Maggi] knew at that point that everything she was going to be doing in her life from then on was going to be useless [laughs]. That is why I say that illustration is a craft, because it is commissioned for a purpose. It’s a tool but it’s also art in its own right, as well. The digital artist, nowadays, is finding that they don’t have this physical artifact. You have to print something out or otherwise it is just digits in a screen. Meanwhile, I have all these big piles of stuff [laughs], which I will hopefully sell at this exhibition coming up.
Diabolique: Well that is the perfect segueway.
GH: Yes that was cunning, right? You see what I did there? [laughs]
Diabolique: [laughs] Yes, it was beautiful because that is what I was going to next. “Drawing Blood” will be the first comprehensive showing of your work, right?
GH: Yea, there have been a couple of small exhibitions but they have not been in London. So this is a good chance to show as many people as possible the actual paintings. It is actually odd because people have a grasp of what illustration is but until they see a physical painting, I don’t think people can actually square up what it actually is. The paintings do have a physical identity on their own. When something goes into print, it is ink on paper but when you see paint on paper it is a whole different thing. The way the light hits it is different and the colors begin to look different as well. People can appreciate the actual paint and brushwork. You can get a sense of the layering that goes into it, which is lost in print. In print, all you ever see is the one flat layer but in physical painting you can see the wash behind it and areas being worked up in particular. It’s something I want to share with people and it’s been a fantastic opportunity to do that…and it’s during Halloween which is fantastic!
Diabolique: In going through everything in preparation for the exhibition, have you had any major realizations about your style, evolution, and/or body of work?
GH: There are a 140 pieces in the book and choosing those was fairly difficult. There are bits of artwork that have been lost — and getting permission to put some of the pieces in the book was another matter as well. It took quite a lot of time because everything has to be identified and copyrighted legally. There will be some things in the exhibition that won’t be in the book, simply because I could not get permission to reproduce them. It’s true, for myself, it has been interesting looking at how my style has developed. Even today, I’ve been looking through some pieces and feeling quite embarrassed about them because when you want to try and express something but you don’t quite have the skills to be able to do that, it is quite frustrating. I can see that I have really struggled but I am so much better equipped nowadays to deal with things; knowing my limitations and things that I can’t do and how to work around those limitations. That is one the things that, looking back over my entire work, perhaps I didn’t understand in the beginning, whereas now I do.
Diabolique: Is there a single piece that you have in your body that sticks with you as the most important, or maybe best work you’ve had the chance to be a part of?
GH: Oh that’s a difficult one that I get asked a lot. It is very hard to identify a single piece. People ask, ‘what is your favorite piece,’ and I always answer, ‘well, I haven’t done it yet, it’s somewhere in the future.’ But I did a piece for a small festival of Hammer films and it’s a piece I am particularly happy with simply because I love Hammer films and it was a great chance to get Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing together in their finest roles. It’s unfortunately also one of the pieces that I couldn’t get in the book. I couldn’t get permission to get it in but it will be in the exhibition. Actually, I have to say that it is in the book but in a sneaky little way [laughs].
Diabolique: Any parting words on the exhibition?
GH: I just want people to enjoy the paintings and to see how the process works. Perhaps there will be some nostalgic stuff there for them, some of the Nightmare on Elm Street stuff, for instance. But also, for them to see how, over a 35-year period, there isn’t that much difference in the way that I work. It is a confident style that I have been developing over time. What I want, is to impart the sort of pleasure I get from painting and to inspire people; to say, ‘have a go yourself,’ you know what I mean? For me, the book, in addition to presenting this body of work, is about inspiring people and showing them that all of this is possible.
Drawing Blood exhibit will continue through November 22nd at Proud Camden in London