If you’re a fan of genre fiction, it’s likely you’ve come across the art of Ben Baldwin. I first encountered his work in Black Static (he illustrated the story from which the magazine takes it’s name, in fact), and in 2012 he was responsible for the covers of Interzone, following in the footsteps of Richard Wagner, Warwick Fraser-Coombe, and Adam Tredowski to name only those of my own subscription years. He’s been nominated for various awards and recently he won Artist of the Year in the This is Horror Awards. I’ve chatted with him a few times at a couple of FantasyCons but this time I’ve done it a little more formally…
Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. I thought I’d start by asking about the fantastic cover design for Black Static issue 39 – where did that come from?
Hi Ray, glad you like the image. I’m quite pleased with it and also a bit surprised with how the finished art looks. This was one of those images that at some point during its creation suddenly went off in a different direction from what I had originally intended so I didn’t actually have this image in mind at all at the beginning.
I’d started work on this sometime at the end of last year mainly for my own amusement but also with the thought that it might be something that Andy could use on a cover of Black Static but I got distracted by other stuff and didn’t get round to finishing it until a few weeks ago. Originally I’d wanted to create a demonic marching band but the main character started becoming more and more militaristic and less musical so in the end I decided to ditch the marching band idea and it just developed fairly quickly from there. The picture now has a slightly apocalyptic feel with the character’s red uniform and upright sword fitting in with the symbolism of “War” the second horseman of the apocalypse. Not sure what happened to his horse though. I imagine it’s probably been rotavated on the battlefield behind him.
You’ve illustrated some interior, too, for Steven J. Dines – how did you find that?
Steven is an author I’ve only recently discovered through various TTA Press publications but what I’ve read of his work so far has all been really good. So when Andy asked me if I’d like to illustrate one of his stories for BS 39 I jumped at the chance. It’s about a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who is still haunted by his experiences so it’s a bit of a ghost story but very powerfully told. I had the image more or less formed in my head straight away after reading it so it was quite a smooth process creating it.
How long have you been in the art business and how did you get started?
Well, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been doing art. It’s just something I’ve done all my life from when I was very young. Most people grow out of scribbling on bits of paper when they’re children but I just seem to have persisted with it.
In terms of it being a business and actually making a bit of money from it, my first book cover was for a novella by Stuart Young published by Pendragon Press in I think 2005. Before that I’d sold a few paintings and designed flyers and painted UV backdrops for various night clubs and at some point, I can’t remember when but I guess it was some time in 2004, I decided to try getting work doing book cover designs. I spent quite a long time emailing and writing to publishers and even visited a few in person up in London with my portfolio but they were all reluctant to publish me until I had something already published to show them. Also my work probably wasn’t that good back then either. So it took a while to get some work coming in but eventually I got a commission and then a few more and it’s gradually built up from there. But I still feel like I’m just starting to get my name and work known.
How did you first come to be involved with TTA Press?
The first bit of work I did for TTA Press was for the old magazine called The Third Alternative in 2005 and it was for a story by Paul Meloy called ‘Black Static’. TTA Press was one of the many publishers I’d sent emails to around that time and one of the very, very few who replied and offered me some work. I illustrated a couple of stories for The Third Alternative and then several years later after the magazine had been relaunched as Black Static I got back in touch with Andy Cox and he offered me some more work for both Black Static and Interzone.
Fraser-Coombe’s covers in 2010 were essentially pieces of a giant jigsaw illustration spanning six issues whereas Wagner and Tredowskiro approached each cover individually. Your covers work very well as stand-alone pieces and yet belong together as part of a particular theme: why did you choose the tarot deck as your inspiration?
I really liked how Fraser-Coombe’s covers were linked together whilst each working as a stand alone image so I guess he’s partly to blame. I obviously didn’t want to copy his idea though but as I had 6 covers to design I thought some continuity between them all would be good.
I’m not sure at what point I decided to use Tarot cards as inspiration although once I had the idea it seemed like something I could have a lot of fun with. Especially as I didn’t plan what cards to do but left it up to chance by taking a random card from the pack for each cover. I’ve got a fairly low tolerance for New Age nonsense but I’m pretty interested in symbolism, mythology, the “occult” and how various ideas or states of perception can be encoded in pictures. So I’m kind of fascinated with Tarot cards and their history and the temptation to go and play with these archetypal images and to let my own thoughts feed in to them is pretty strong. Lots of artists probably feel a similar way considering the thousands of different versions of Tarot decks there are around nowadays.
One other reason for using the Tarot was that I didn’t have to spend any time trying to come up with iconic images for the covers. All I had to do was put my spin on the existing images and then take the credit for it.
My favourite of your Interzone covers is probably The Hanged Man of issue 240. Is there a cover that you are most proud of?
Hmm… I’m not sure. I think ‘The Priestess’ on IZ 242 is probably my favourite as it just seemed to draw itself and gave me hardly any trouble. I quite like how ‘The Hanged Man’ on IZ 240 turned out too. The one that I really struggled with was ‘The Hermit’ on IZ 241. Not sure why but that one took a lot of work to get right and I’m not that keen on looking at it now.
Overall though I’m incredibly proud to have been the cover artist and very grateful to Andy for letting me use the cover of Interzone to indulge my obsessions.
How much of your art is planned and how much takes shape as you work?
This varies quite a bit depending on the image and whether I’m working with a publisher who has a clear idea of the picture they want and who needs a lot of rough sketches before I start. I much prefer letting things develop organically though. I often have a fairly specific idea or feeling about the type of image that I want to create but it can sometimes take a bit of time for me to work out how it should look. I like to try out different ideas, let things germinate in the back of my mind for a while and allow a lot of the elements to develop by chance until I have all the component parts and composition narrowed down. At that point I can then get quite obsessive about the details but I really like the initial stages where the picture could go in any direction.
Nowadays, I use Photoshop for nearly all my work but that’s in combination with my own photography and hand drawn or painted elements. Sometimes I’ll start with a rough sketch on paper, sometimes not, or I’ll sketch out the main elements directly onto the image on my computer using a graphics tablet. Then I decide which bits I’ll draw or paint by hand and which bits will be photographed. If I’m going to use a lot of photography then I’ll work out what I need and where I’ll be able to go to photograph it. I also have thousands of photos I’ve taken over the years and often I can go back and find something I need from them. I try not to use much stock photography unless it’s unavoidable but I’ll often look for reference images on the web to help me work out how particular elements should look.
I also add quite a lot of texture to some of my images and this is often hand painted with watercolour or acrylic or comes from photographs I’ve taken of decaying concrete or scratched metal etc. So I just layer this mix of different traditional and digital techniques together in photoshop and try and make sure it all looks more or less cohesive.
How would you describe your own artistic style?
Well I think it’s quite erratic. But hopefully I’m progressing with it too. Progressive Erraticism maybe?
Are you influenced by any other artists, and if so who?
I expect at some level I’m influenced every time I look closely at another artist’s work as I’m always interested in looking at the techniques and processes behind different artists’ images. I think that by showing how you can combine traditional art and photography with modern digital programs Dave McKean was probably the biggest influence on me in terms of technique when I was starting out. However, my favourite artist has to be Austin Osman Spare who I’m pretty obsessed with. Other artists I like are the photographer Joel Peter Witkin, H.R. Giger, Francesco Parisi and several surrealist painters like Max Ernst and Remedios Varo. So there’s probably quite a few different influences from different artists.
What do you seek to achieve with your work? Does it differ much between cover art and illustrations for individual stories?
I think with short stories I generally try to capture what I feel are the emotions or essence of the story rather than illustrate a particular scene, although that does vary a bit. With book covers the image needs to be quite visually striking and that often means finding a scene in the story that will make a good illustration to hook readers.
At the same time I want all my work, whether they’re commissioned pieces or art done for my own amusement, to feel alive and be emotionally compelling. So I try and produce images that are striking and evocative and that hopefully convey a bit of myself and my thoughts too.
Are there any other artistic mediums you’d like to try/use?
I’d quite like to do some 3D work and animation but the chances of me getting the programs and finding the time to learn how to use them are pretty small. I’d also really like to do some stop motion animation along the lines of Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay but I’m not sure if I’d have the patience let alone the skill to do anything like that.
What is it about ‘genre’ art that appeals to you?
I think it’s the visionary and imaginative aspects of it that attract me the most as there are no real limits apart from your own creativity so that’s very appealing along with the whole sense of fun that comes with that. Also, I’ve never been that interested in producing art that is just a direct copy from real life. I like to embellish things and exaggerate elements to make them more fantastical so I guess I like that element of it too.
Do you read much genre fiction, and if so who are your favourite writers?
Yeah, I read a fair bit, I guess. Not sure who my favourites are as I like some authors for certain qualities that probably wouldn’t be as effective in the work of other authors that I like, and vice versa. Off the top of my head I’ll say Philip Dick, JG Ballard, Jeff Noon, Christopher Priest, Peter Watts, Jeff Vandermeer, Lauren Beukes, Steve Aylett…
Also one of the great things about working with Interzone and Black Static is that I’ve read and illustrated some fantastic work from authors like Nina Allan, Ray Cluley and Jason Sanford who I hadn’t come across before.
(Thanks for the mention.) Is there anyone in particular you’d like to illustrate for?
Any of the people I mentioned above would be great although a few of them are dead so that would complicate matters… Speaking of that I’d love to have been able to work with William Burroughs and to listen to any ideas he would have had about images for his stories.
Can you reveal anything about your future projects?
There’s always a few projects I’m working on and I’ve got several completed covers that I’m waiting to reveal once the publishers start to advertise the books. One of which is for one of my favourite authors and for some reason I decided to try and have part of the cover made up of Escher like tessellations combining various different images. I think the concept really fitted with some of the ideas behind the book although it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve attempted to do visually. I ended up cheating a little bit with it so it’s more of a repeated pattern than a true tessellation but I think it looks quite effective.
I’m currently working on some cover art for a debut novel from director/writer Jim Shields called “Baby Strange”. This will be published by PS Publishing in a few months and I’d advise you all to keep an eye out for it as it’s a hugely enjoyable novel full of gritty horror and madness!
I also have a very exciting personal project that I’m working on in my spare time. Well, it’s exciting for me but I hope it will be exciting for other people too once it’s completed. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage though as it’s still fairly early days.
Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions, there’s just one more – for all those wanting to do what you do, any advice?
Persistence is all.
You can check out more of Ben’s work at his website by clicking here.