Richey Beckett’s ambitious and powerful visions, allied to a stunning level of technical accomplishment, have made him an artist in demand.
You know that rare feeling; you’re perusing the endless, faceless rows of a record shop and suddenly one makes you double-take. Before you can help it, it’s in front of your face, you’re deciphering it, taking it all in, itching to tear through the plastic and examine it further. Richey Beckett deals in that feeling.
Through work with an extremely distinguishedroll-call of clients, from close to home (Welsh rock stalwarts Funeral for a Friend, Swn festival, for which he designed an uniquely jolly collection of percussion-playing dinosaurs back in 2010) to internationally renowned (thrash-punk leading lights Trash Talk, hardcore royalty Sick Of It All, Swedish dark surfers The Illuminators) Beckett’s singular style, as striking in creativity as it is in pure technique, has made sizeable inroads.
It’s an impressive story. Associating himself with a series of influential commissioners, his work has reached a broad and eager populace. To have pieces displayed at exhibitions in Brooklyn and Austin, Texas is a truly admirable accomplishment, and as exemplified in the way entire runs of strictly limited edition, lovingly prepared prints find homes within days of being released, his work has had a powerful, tangible impact. While he remains Cardiff-based, Beckett’s vision extends far beyond.
The world he forges in densely cross-hatched or stippled ink is at turns sombre, surreal, and at points imbued with a curious levity. A sense of movement permeates much of what he does, providing an intensity which takes the viewer beyond the singular image. So much character, aggression, vigour seeps from the torturously pored-over lines. Imagination is the work’s lifeblood, but it’s an imagination rooted in a proudly referential approach. Shards of literature, mythology, great art of history, Doré to Dürer to numerous illustrators; these provide a grounding from which Beckett’s process springs.
His creations frequently allow ample room for interpretation, worlds extending beyond the page’s edge. See Fractals; one’s eye is drawn to the female figure at the image’s heart, but if allowed to wander is left clawing at innumerable contexts, the phantom hand an irresistible enigma. Or Polar, where imagery and reference build into a sublime framework, fantasy, mythology, religion and nature intermingling with grace.
A sense of gratitude is a staple of Beckett’s correspondence. He eagerly responds to praise heaped in his direction, keen to ensure nothing is taken for granted. Speaking about art, “geeking out” as he calls it, is a source of great joy, leaping on the opportunity to respond to our questions and share his inspirations and motivation. For him, the endlessly patient hours spent with pen in hand seem set to remain a labour of passion and pride.
You’ve gained considerable attention from the US, being involved in shows in Brooklyn and this year’s SXSW and gathering a bit of a fanbase along the way.
I was privileged to be invited to exhibit in Brooklyn, and then being approached by Mondo to contribute to their gallery at SXSW was incredibly exciting, having admired their work for many years. Seeing my illustration exhibited alongside a classic piece by Drew Struzan, a true childhood hero, is so humbling. It also featured other contemporary artists like Tyler Stout and Aaron Horkey; these are figures that have proved to me working as a freelance illustrator in this realm is achievable. I saw a picture of Robert Rodriguez checking out the Mondo gallery; growing up as a movie fan, and that also being such an influence on my art, it’s all very gratifying.
You’re Cardiff-based, but your success suggests that geographical location bears little significance in the current climate, would you agree?
I think the world definitely feels like a smaller place these days, and with communication being as it is, it’s so much easier to work on a global scale. If I was to show you my current project list, you’d see that the clients are literally spread worldwide. There’s no pattern to it. I don’t think I’ll ever take that for granted. It’s always exciting to be contacted by someone from a totally different territory, different time-zone, and then share and build ideas and concepts with them. It’s a wonderful thing.
Will music and art always go hand in hand for you?
Until you asked this question, I’d never really pondered it. But the truth is, for me, they certainly do. Somehow, I feel that’s where I fit in, as some kind of visual decoration to others’ music, and I’m very happy to fulfill that role. Having played and toured in bands for many years, it was that network that really kick-started a client base for me, and all of the projects were naturally music based. If I work on a project that doesn’t have a musical background I do feel a bit exposed, but I am planning on creating some original work for my own exhibition, so that could be inspired by something entirely different.
What do you listen to while you draw? Do you think the music you’re listening to has an effect on your work?
Absolutely. As cliched as it sounds, I like to get in ‘The Zone’ if I’m working on a big piece. If I’m in for an all-nighter I might put on some Earthless or Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii … anything with big cosmic jams that I can lose my mind to is perfect, burn some incense and drink some ale. If I realise that I’m working too slowly then I’ll throw on some Zeke or Turbonegro and that will always do the trick to ignite some energy. Productivity is directly proportional to soundtrack. In the daytime, I’d usually listen to something unintrusive, like the Flying Burrito Brothers or Peter Green.
What makes a good album cover to you, is there a specific function you aim to achieve? What are your favourite album covers/album artists of all time?
I take more inspiration from book illustration than I do directly from record artwork. When I look at the way Harry Clarke illustrated Edgar Alan Poe, or take Beardsley or Mucha’s poster and magazine illustrations, the Art Nouveau/Jugendstil movement; this feels closer to what I’d wish to achieve in illustrating a record. It serves to intrigue the viewer, represent the music, and ultimately become inseparable from that soundtrack, but at the same time it’s there purely as a decorative element. My aim is that if someone put that record into their collection, they’d want to put it on display, on top of the pile. And then maybe they’d play it more often too.
How much time do you spend achieving a solid referential base for your work? Much of it seems to draw on elements such as mythology or fantastical creations. Do you spend a lot of time reading and doing research?
I can’t stress enough just how important the preparation is, sometimes
I’ll spend more time on that than the illustration. I’ll create collage sheets for each project, either for reference or just a collection of imagery that has the right feel and atmosphere, and then I’ll surround myself with that whilst I work. Symbolism is not only important, but also interesting, and I enjoy using a project as a catalyst to discover new things. If there’s a logo, symbol or motif, even a type of flower or plant, I’ll want to find out what it might represent – you’d be surprised how hard it is to find an object, natural or manmade, that doesn’t hold some sort of symbolic power.
Another frequent inspiration of yours seems to come from nature, are you an animal lover?
I’ve always been fascinated by animals, I collect natural history books and I’m a huge fan of the classic natural history illustrators: Audubon, Thorburn, Bewick. But I equally love the more macabre interpretations, of Jan Weenix . I collect taxidermy and enjoy bird spotting.
Is there a difference in process between the freedom of fantastical beasts and monsters and the relative restriction of nature? Do you prefer one to the other?
I’ve started to find the appeal of pushing those boundaries, pretty much because there really are no boundaries. It starts out when you draw a stag, and think ‘wouldn’t it be cool to add a few more antlers, and throw in some ram’s horns …’ and then you draw an elephant, and think ‘why stop at one trunk and two tusks?’ It’s one thing creating a unique piece of artwork for a client, but if you can create a new species, then they’re really getting a good deal.
How about the horror aesthetic which creeps into much of your work? What are your favourite movies?
I say this a lot, but my favourite movie is undoubtedly John Carpenter’s classic The Thing, and I finally found the time was right to illustrate a scene when I was asked to do the Mondo piece. From the first time I watched that movie it just spoke to me. Everything about it, every last detail. It’s also the epitome of everything I loved growing up as a kid, not really the horror element, more the fantasy, the creature effects especially. Rob Bottin stands for everything that was great about 80s movie effects. I grew up as a fan of Harryhausen, Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad, Clash of the Titans. I have the severed Medusa head and the two-headed wolf tattooed on my forearm in tribute. I loved the old Doug Maclure creature movies, and that’s undoubtedly had an influence. I suppose this is also retrospective, as I don’t feel that current movies really influence my artwork in any way. In another lifetime I would’ve loved to work in this realm, but definitely between 1975-85. It was such a groundbreaking and pioneering time for special effects.
Are you generally a positive person? Is there a reason you’re drawn towards such dark and often macabre imagery?
I’m probably the most positive person I know! It’s really important to me to be positive, and although it makes me sound like some kind of hippy – and I hate hippies – I think if you maintain a positive and optimistic outlook then good things will happen and good decisions will be made. I’m always told that my work is really dark and sinister, and yet I never really see it that way. I think recently it has become less dark, and more fantastical/surreal. Either way, it’s a case of pushing the imagery outside of ‘real life’ and creating something visually stimulating, rather than trying to represent some kind of bleak reality.
You’ve cited Gustave Doré as a figure of inspiration; do you think there’s a reason illustrators are turning back to such figures for influence? Something to do with a general decline in emphasis on technique, hence moving back to these kind of incredibly technically gifted individuals?
This is another thing I’d not thought hard about until it’s been questioned, and yet it really is fundamental. Since a young age, I was fascinated by cross hatching pen and ink techniques. Since then I’ve developed my own ways of using these ideas, and this visual vocabulary will expand with every project. I’ve been on this path for a long time; whilst other illustrators are pushing forward with new tools, such as graphics tablets and Photoshop/ Illustrator, I’m just naturally drawn in the other direction because I feel that there’s still so much further I can go with a pen and paper. If I look at what Doré achieved with such primitive tools, I have one hell of a long way to go until I’m ready to move away from basic line work.
The detail in your work is remarkable, as well as being technically very labour intensive. Typically, how long does a piece take to complete?
I can’t deny that it’s very labour intensive. When people look at the stippling especially, they say “That must take you ages”, and I can only reply “well, yes, it does”. There’s no trick. Every dot is drawn as a dot, every line is drawn using an appropriate gauge of pen. But when you talk about detail, through my eyes it’s never detailed enough. I suppose I see it differently, but I could happily spend another month working on one piece and make it ten times as detailed. I can’t get behind the ‘less is more’ mentality. On average, the physical illustration part would take around five days, but preparation, sketching and research would’ve taken place prior to this.
Your prints seem to sell exceptionally well, and you seem to take great pride in producing the best quality prints of your work possible. Tell us a bit about those reproductions.
Yeah, it’s taken me a while to realise that people do actually want to own my work, even in print form, and so I want to give them a really nice item with as much value to it as possible. I don’t mean financial value – I want the paper to be something really interesting and high quality, and it’s really important to keep them super limited. I love numbering and signing them and wondering where they’re going to end up. So I’m currently using rare 100% cotton archival paper – it’s the stuff they print bank notes and government documents on, so it should last forever!
Has drawing and making art been part of your life for as long as you can remember?
My earliest memories are of laying front down on the carpet with a black crayon, working away on an oversized jotter pad. My hero was Rolf Harris, I loved movies, comic books and cartoons. And I literally spent all of my time drawing, rather than doing sports or getting into fights – I just always had projects on the go. If it was my birthday, everyone would buy me drawing materials. So as much as people say “well, it’s easy for you because you’ve been given this skill”, the truth is I’ve invested so much of my time in drawing and trying to figure out techniques and ways of making things work, I’d be disappointed if that had all been a waste of time. But it always felt the most natural and appealing thing to me, and if you asked me as a child how I saw myself as a working adult, I’d describe myself exactly as I am now: a beardy, thick-rimmed glasses wearing guy who draws pictures for people and occasionally bashes out some questionable music. So basically… Rolf Harris.
How have your style and tastes changed during that time?
Well the funny part is, as a child I was totally stubborn and only used the black crayon, or black marker pen and abandoned the colours; and now I’m equally stubborn, and only use a black pen. I’m more happy just sticking to black lines, and I really have to push myself to use colour if it’s asked of me. I think I can handle two or three colours in addition to the black.
In dialogue from you there always seems to be such an air of gratitude and appreciation. Do you still feel very lucky to be able to do this for a living?
Absolutely, and I’ll never take that for granted. I’m currently setting up a new studio in my flat, I’m attending a meeting next week to discuss plans of putting on my own exhibition, and I’m about to create some more new work for Mondo. There are projects in the pipeline that I can’t even talk about. Sometimes the work can be monotonous, the deadlines can drive you without sleep for days on end, or the ‘business’ side can become nightmarish. But it doesn’t take much to realise that I’m blessed to have the support to do this every day, and I hope I have a long way to go.
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Words: Geraint Davies
Photo: Ben Price
Thanks to Alpha Omega Tattoo for use of their shop