Face The Music

Francis Jones talks to music illustrator Mark Reihill

The advent of MTV, the pivotal importance of the music video, a band’s ‘look’ and the increasing use of stylists and image-makers. Like it or not, music is never solely about what we hear.

From Peter Blake’s iconic cover for The Beatles' Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the classic AC/DC logo, artists and designers have been ensuring that the music fan hears with their ears and eyes. Pink Floyd

Here Fermanagh-born, Belfast-based digital illustrator Mark Reihill talks about his work and about the role that design and art has to play in music.

Reihill, whose work has been commissioned by the BBC and Alternative Ulster, amongst many others, explains the process behind the images he has created and the challenge in creating work to convey the artistic aspirations of the musicians he depicts.

How did you set about becoming a digital illustrator, what qualifications are necessary and what experience have you obtained?

‘I started off by doing a foundation course in Derry and that led me onto my degree at the Art College in Belfast. At that stage I wasn’t too sure exactly what I wanted to do, be it animation, illustration, advertising etc. After graduation I worked for a year with Genesis Advertising and since then I’ve been working as a freelance digital illustrator.’

What attracted you to the idea of music illustration?

‘Well quite simply I’ve always loved music and, for me, part of that experience is the artwork that accompanies records. You know like the really memorable album art, the album covers that stick in the memory because they’re really good or really bad.

'When I think about music I think about the visuals as well as the sound, for example artists like Marilyn Manson or The Chalets have a really interesting look and I would try to bring that out and to illustrate them in a cool way and to capture the essence of what that particular act is about.’

Cat MalojianIn practical terms, what is the actual process, from you deciding on a subject to the finished image?

‘I pretty much pick an artist based on their music, a performance I’ve witnessed, style or music video. Then I do a little research, collecting imagery etc. Once I feel I have enough information I will sometimes do a very rough sketch, it’s from this I get the composition of the illustration. But most of the time I illustrate straight ‘from my brain onto the computer’, using my research as a visual reference.’

And how do you adapt your technique, the look, to foreground the individuality, the distinctiveness of these often very different artists?

‘Each artist/artists will determine the style, look and feel of their piece. For example Josh Ritter is quite folksy, poetic, grainy, country and railroad –with a lot of his personality and charisma shining through his music and performances. (Main image, above)

'So I felt, for his portrait I should use a very neutral and earthy colour pallet –lots of browns, with some white as highlights. The erratic and energetic brush strokes, paint splatters, and roughness of the illustration - comforted by warm, soft and earthy colours reflect Josh’s own unique style of storytelling.’

Do you find that it is more difficult to be truly unique and distinctive using digital means as opposed to old-fashioned illustration methods?

‘Traditionalists might try and tell you it is, but really I think that is something of a fallacy. I use Adobe Thom YorkeIllustrator for most of my work. I tend to draw 100% in ‘Illustrator’. By this I mean I don’t need to draw my portrait on paper, scan it in and trace it. I can workout characteristics and the form of the artist in my head.

'To me using a mouse is no different than using a pencil. It’s down to the individual artist to translate what he can see and feel into a visual expression.’

Are there any trademark stylistic devices that you employ, or would you say your work has a particular look?

'No, I try not to restrict myself to one particular style, so the work can vary. I think it’s important to be able to adapt and change. Once I’m happy with one particular style and feel I’ve perfected it then it’s time to move on and try something else. However, you should be able to differentiate my work from that of other illustrators, it’s all in the eyes! The eyes of the subjects are always stylised.

The world of illustration and design, much like the music world, is incredibly fickle, full of fleeting hip. Do you find it difficult to create work that reconciles your personal tastes to what is currently ‘in fashion’?

‘You just have to concern yourself with developing your own style, whether or not something is cool or of-the-moment, well that doesn’t really bother me. I’m only worried about conveying something of the band or artist I’m depicting.’

The AnswerAs a music illustrator, what would be your dream gig?

‘I would love to do something for an act I really admire, someone like The Who or Led Zeppelin. But, really, so long as I get a brief that I can be in control of, then I’m happy.’

You’re quite a fan of the local music scene, which acts are you into?

‘I love The Answer, Swanee River and I think We Are Knives are a great outfit. And I must mention Duke Special, he’s just super-fantastic. Not an artist I’ve illustrated yet, but he’s certainly the next on my list!’