Interview with Metal Classic painter Philip Lawvere
Involved in the punk scene in Boston in 1980 - 82, Philip then moved to Berlin, where through the local music scene he was introduced to Karl Walterbach, the mastermind of early German Thrash. Philip and Karl's love of Fantasy artwork, combined with their penchant for hard music, combined to produce the imagery of the newly emerging metal genre. He is most known for the covers he created in that brief period for Kreator, Celtic Frost, Deathrow, Warrant, Vendetta and Rage.
HMA: Welcome Philip to Heavy Music Artwork?
Philip Lawvere: Thank you for honouring me with your interest.
HMA: First off, you are responsible for some of the most recognizable and iconic album covers. Your art has indeed contributed and helped reaching cult status for bands like Kreator, Rage, Celtic Frost and Helloween. Was this part of a master plan?
Philip Lawvere: No master plan, it was just the classic case of being in the right place at the right time - and thereby being able to leave my fingerprint on what later evolved into such a huge thing. If it had been a plan, I'd have been milking it all these years, instead of disappearing like I did right? Unless of course that was all part of the master plan too… nah, I'm not that organised, ha ha.
Karl Walterbach's label Noise was putting out records from Henry Rollins, D.O.A., and other punk artists I liked too, so to me it was just a cool, underground Berlin label. Their new 'Thrash' bands were simply a fusion of punk and metal, and my love of fantasy art was appropriate for the genre. I was happy to be able to paint in a style I loved, and yet still work for a real indie label.
And Metal was getting a bit too commercial at the time…
HMA: How did your interest in art and in particular your take on style began?
Philip Lawvere: I've been drawing since I can remember, and was addicted to copying Michelangelo and Da Vinci as a child, but later I got into the Conan books of Robert E. Howard when I was around 12 or so, firstly because of the amazing covers by Frank Frazetta. In fact, I became such a purist about him that I remember not buying the ones that featured other illustrators on the cover.
I had already read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Lion The Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc, which were all things that you could only find in book form when I was a boy, so you had to visualise everything yourself. The difference today, is that instead of the images being just in your head, they're all available to kids now in CGI. I wonder whether that will improve their imaginations, or dull them…
HMA: You often refer to Frank Frazetta as hero and inspiration. Did this serve you as a basis for your own individual (correct me if I am wrong) fantasy art style?
Philip Lawvere: To be honest, I never thought of myself as a comic book or fantasy art lover. I loved Frank Frazetta, and with few exceptions most of the other stuff seemed a little silly to me. So I didn't consider myself a Fantasy Illustrator, just a Frazetta fan.
Now, I am quite proud to be considered one though, and in fact I'm more interested in returning to classic, vintage fantasy work now, rather than doing blood and guts only… Frazetta himself was dismayed by people seeing his art as only about that.
HMA: I read from your site that you no longer have the original paintings. What happen in all these years?
Philip Lawvere: All my old Berlin Thrash work was thrown out by my ex girlfriend's mom years ago. It was my fault for leaving them all with her. The poor woman found them frightening… I really loved her too, and don't feel the slightest resentment about that. I've guess I've learned to let a lot of things go in this life…
Only the painting that was used for Pleasure to Kill by Kreator may still exist. It was traded for a guitar with a guy named Jurgen Shwartz who owned Be Bop music in Berlin at the time. I have tried to track him down lately, with fans helping me, but even the website for Bebop doesn't answer emails.
HMA: What is your style now, what is latest work like?
Philip Lawvere: My intention now is to move more towards, and emulate the classic Fantasy art of the seventies that I grew up with.
For me, back then there was a huge dichotomy in that kind of art that I defined as being between Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, who was equally proficient (if not more), and is still painting today with his wife.
All of Vallejo's work is based on photographs of models though, and while impressive, I was much more attracted to Frazetta's way of drawing on his imagination, and years of comic illustration to create his figures. They are beyond real. They break the laws of physics, anatomy, light and motion to exaggerate all three, and excite your mind. I wanted to go there, and still do…
HMA: Have you done work outside the Heavy Metal scene?
Philip Lawvere: Funny enough, at the same time as I was painting blood and skulls for Thrash bands, I was also creating cute cartoons for greeting cards printed by the company Herlitz. (which is basically the German language equivalent of Hallmark in Austria, Switzerland and Germany). I also designed and patented some paper folding mechanisms (pop up) then too. Besides greeting cards, we also used one for a Helloween album for Noise too, which you can see on my website.
Since then too, I did a wide range of commercial art for advertising, mostly cartooning, and little of which I saved, since I never created a style of my own. I was more comfortable just changing styles for each job. I get bored doing the same thing again and again, and was also a fashion photographer for some years, owned a restaurant, did some acting, played music live, and did a number of other things in the interim...
HMA: Art and design has moved immensely since Celtic Frost released ‘Emperor’s Return’, what are your views on the current artists and their approach to art.
Philip Lawvere: While the images are far more impressive now through the use of digital programs, and I have a lot of respect for the new artists, I find myself becoming more and more happy about returning to oil painting. They're two different genres to me entirely.
Interestingly, for years I showed my friends jpegs on my computer or website of the covers I'd painted in the old days, and they'd respond "Oh, pretty cool…", since they assumed that because they were on a computer screen, I had done them digitally, Recently they've discovered that I actually painted them in oils, and respond "WOW, really? You mean you actually PAINTED that?".
There's such a difference between what people perceive as digital, where they wrongly assume that the computer did it all for you, and a hand painted piece of art. A lot of todays digital art actually contains photography too, which has simply been filtered or manipulated. I know because I was a photographer, and became a photoshop Guru myself… but you can get pretty lazy as an artist.
I did some digital covers for some bands this year, using PAINTER from Corell, which is amazingy like real painting. While I felt happy with the results, I realise now that oils is the world I love and am best at. Digital is faster, easier, and has no risk since you can simply undo and save different versions… but real oil paint produces something you couldn't do on a computer.
I also want to say that while my images were considered 'gory' at the time, I think that blood and gore has been so overdone that people are immune to any power it once had to shock. I also believe that good art works through subtlety, not overkill.
HMA: Do you have a particular piece of work that defines your style and artist vision?
Philip Lawvere: Well, until now it has been the painting that was adopted by Kreator for their mascot and used on the album 'Pleasure to Kill'.
It wasn't long after painting that though, that I turned my back on that genre entirely to pursue other things. I have never been a career minded person. It never occurred to me to create a body of work, or a unique style. I certainly never thought that I had one back then… although maybe I can see it now. I always thought of people who do only one thing over and over as dull, even if they do get rich doing it like a Keith Haring or a Warhol…
I always knew though, that later in life I would return to painting, and now I'm returning to Metal art too. Perhaps I'm at an age now where I can combine my old elements with what I've learned along the way in other fields, and create a more recognisable style of my own.
One thing I am proud of, is that I never went to art school or even studied anywhere, except on my own. I realise that I would be far more skilled if I had, but I would also fit in too well with everyone else…
HMA: In a time where records and CD’s are no longer part of the high street experience (in the UK shop chains like HMV, Virgin and Tower Records are now defunct) in Heavy Metal the artwork is still strong. Bands and the industry holds high standards and quality when it comes to music and art. Why do you think is still important, why it is so relevant in Metal more than any other style of music?
Philip Lawvere: Yeah, well that's what makes Metal unique in the music industry. Metal fans identify with their favorite bands, and want tangible things like printed CD's and records which they can hold in their hands, or T-Shirts that they can proudly wear. Who wears a Justin Timberlake T-shirt?
When I was a kid too, the only thing available from which to learn about bands was the back of the album cover, inserts, and sleeve notes. I remember being fascinated by every word, picture or illustration I could find from them.
HMA: We certainly want to see more Philip Lawvere work, are you back working as artist and available for hire?
Philip Lawvere: Absolutely. I had meant to return a whole year ago, setting up a website www.philiplawvere.com and Facebook page (which was and still is a bit alien, and uncomfortable for me) but once again, I got distracted by other things, like programming, and lately promoting the use of portable solar for live music performance www.sungig.com
Also, an international press release about me returning to Metal art with my first oil painted cover in 25 years, for HIRAX, put me in a bit of a quandary. I became really concerned about the reaction from fans, and ended up starting three different themes and paintings for them. I wanted to show that I had developed as an artist, while not disappointing people who expected my old style.
Finally I realised that like I felt back then, the important thing was only that I was happy with it - which I totally am. It's inevitable that some fans may not be, while others will love it. That's the nature of the internet, and the fans who have their own ideas and expectations.
HMA: Thanks for this interview and for your interest in Heavy Music Artwork.
Philip Lawvere: Thank you, especially to you Alex, for your perseverance in getting me to do this interview. I shied away all this time that I was still not done with the HIRAX cover, and I know I must have seemed a real flake, ha ha!
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