WHEN THE BRUSH (OR LENS) IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD
When was the last time you, the esteemed reader, came across an album sleeve whose cover art left you in awe? I myself have no qualms admitting having discovered several excellent bands (Stratovarius, Iron Maiden, Graveworm, to name a few) thanks to the art that adorned their albums, all striking works of art that had demanded my attention. Sometimes giving graphic art and photography due emphasis is considered a materialistic attitude, distracting from the ultimate product which is the music. This rationale is as negative as it is unrealistic. I personally regard the aesthetic aspect of a Metal / Rock release as an integral part of this music I love so much.
For Jowita Kaminska, the love for Metal music and graphic art is even less distinct. Of Polish origins, Jowita graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts (Dept. of Graphic Arts) of Warsaw. Her artwork adorns the album sleeves of countless bands, such as Manilla Road, Forsaken, Exodus, Attacker, Deceased, Frost, and Dantesco. Jowita also photographed Candlemass, Jag Panzer, Overkill, and several other big names in the Metal universe for well-known mags. A number of logos, such as the 'viking' logo of the Keep It True Festival, are also the fruit of her creativity. She probably will soon need to buy a house simply to accommodate her ever-increasing record collection, which is currently approaching 3,000!
When I met her in Germany, she struck me as highly enthusiastic about her work. So make yourselves comfortable while I bid you welcome into the world of Jowita Kaminska...
Chris: Jowita, how would you describe your style of art?
Jowita: I'd say it's just figurative art with a focus on details and realistic execution created using traditional media and tools: oil paints, brushes, pencils. I am more an illustrator than a painter, meaning that I always like to have some text to work with and derive inspiration from, so the motifs on my cover arts depend mostly on this, as I believe the sleeve artwork should reflect both the music and the lyrics on the album. I feel I'm best at what is generally considered Metal imagery: from dark landscapes through all the knights, warriors and demons stuff to gore images, but most of all I like to depict emotions of a haunted mind. There's surely a lot of dark atmosphere in my paintings, but I don't avoid the fun side either. I really enjoy to draw and paint caricatures.
I don't think I have a very distinctive style, even though some people told me that I do. I just do it my own way, not trying to copy anybody although of course there are a lot of artists whose works have been very inspirational for me. So maybe some similarities can appear from time to time.
C.: When working on a sleeve artwork, do you let the music concerned inspire you, or do you just follow your description brief?
J.: I always listen to the music of the bands concerned when painting for them - it's definitely a very important element for the inspiration and the creative process. However most of all I like to have the lyrics before getting down to work.
Sometimes a band wouldn't yet have them written down, so I base myself on the title of the album to be or just on the band's ideas. It's always a bit different and I work on every commission individually. One band can have a very detailed vision of the artwork and even send me a sketch (such as happened in the case of Arctic Flame), another may just give me general guidelines and others might give me a free hand to do whatever I think would fit their music best. Sometimes they add their own ideas to my primary sketches based on the lyrics or suggest some changes. Sometimes I take their ideas in the first place and then the sketch would evolve into something new before I get down to painting.
The bottom line is that the music, the lyrics and the artwork should complement each other and it's the ideal situation when just by looking at the cover art you know what music you can expect.
C.: In your personal website [ www.jowita-kaminska.com ] you mention some fairly obscure Metal bands in your "favourites" list (Heathen, Toxik, Exorcist, ….). You seem to possess a good knowledge of Metal. What attracts you to a band's music?
J.: It's not easy to define what attracts me to a band's music, because if I tell you I love both Hellhammer and Dream Theatre, you won't find too many common values in their music. I have quite an extensive collection (circa 2300 titles and growing), but I still consider myself fastidious and I don't dig a lot of the stuff coming out these days. There are almost no Black or Death Metal albums in my collection, but I have always been a big Thrash Metal fan. Then came the fascination with a lot of traditional Heavy, Speed, US Power and classic Doom Metal bands and I admit I'm still mostly into '80's stuff.
But what makes a band special to me? I guess that it would be their honesty - no matter if they straightforward Metal or if they're virtuosos of their instruments. Thus I can enjoy Venom and Savatage in the same way.
Regarding obscure bands - I've always loved discovering new bands and very often those were the bands from the "attic". When I started getting into Metal I was a 12 year old kid and I got to know a lot of those bands thanks to tape trading. At the time (late'80's) it wasn't easy to get Metal albums in Poland - unless you had connections abroad and a lot of money. Not having either of these, all you could do to appease your hunger for Metal was tape trading or - yes, shame on me - buying bootlegged cassettes that had been widely available (!) in the shops until they were finally banned in '93. Since then I've been trying to get all the most important albums on original C.D. format.
Well, from the bands you mentioned [as examples], actually only Exorcist have that special place in my heart; I still remember when I heard their album for the first time - man, I was blown away! I had never before or after heard a band like them - well, no, actually there was one band whose music had a lot in common with Exorcist (and not without reason). I'm talking about Pile Driver and I don't give a damn if they were not a 'real' band. The music totally kicked ass (and it still does!) and that's the only thing that mattered to me. Well, Chris, we both have had the chance to meet the mastermind responsible for "Nightmare Theatre" and the songs on "Stay Ugly" recently J . And Pile Driver is finally back with their metal guillotine!
C.: Most of the bands you mention in your 'favourites' list only have (had) vinyl releases. Do you think that, compared to vinyl, the C.D. format reduces an artwork's beauty? Furthermore, an album is easily downloaded today - as a result don't you think your livelihood could be threatened by the Internet since Metal fans might lose interest in the C.D.-sleeves?
J.: You're absolutely right about the format. Obviously a lot of details are just lost when printed on a C.D. cover. I always paint on the format matching the L.P.-sleeve though, so that even if the album isn't released on vinyl, fragments of the painting can be used in the booklet without losing the quality. Of course I keep in mind printing the artwork on T-shirts and posters too.
Fortunately even in the days of C.D.s or rather on the eve of their demise (I still hope it won't happen any time soon!) a lot of albums are still being released on vinyl as well. I think there will always be vinyl maniacs, for as long as Metal will remain alive. Maybe they shall become fewer in the future, but vinyls will be just collectors' items.
And yes, I am much concerned about the whole Internet downloading thing. Who knows what shall happen in a few years time! Maybe I shall have to requalify. However bands would probably still need designs for their T-shirts and other merchandising, so hopefully I shall still have some work within the Metal scene. At least I have my conscience clear as I have never downloaded a single album from the Net. While I think that putting MP3 samples on websites is a great idea, because this way you can check a band before buying a C.D. or get to know the music and decide to go to their show, downloading whole albums is downright wrong. Well, I hope I will not live to see the day when Metal becomes extinct, meaning that the old bands retire and the new bands play just….well "nu" or whatever other hybrid-metal that doesn't have much to do with REAL Metal.
C.: Who are your favourite album artists (and sleeves)?
J.: Do you want a short or a long answer? There are so many! Who doesn't know Marschall [Running Wild, etc…] ? I think his works are still just about the best around. Whelan is another of my favourites - covers such as Cirith Ungol's "Paradise Lost", "Frost And Fire" and Sacred Rite's "Rites Of Passage" are true masterpieces. Kelly's paintings for Manowar are just classics, but I also have to mention other artists whose paintings appear on C.D. covers only sporadically: Giger (Celtic Frost's "Into Mega Therion"), Brom (Destiny's End's "Transition") and Royo.
From the artists known mostly from Metal covers my other favourites are Benscoter (Deceased's "Blueprints For Madness" and Mortician covers), Sasso (Dio's "Killing The Dragon" and "Master Of The Moon"), Krüger (cover arts for Tankard and Risk, and other excellent caricatures), Repka (Evildead's "The Underworld", Nuclear Assault's "Game Over", Megadeth's "Peace Sells…"), Gregory (Saxon's "Crusader" and "Dogs Of War"), Hao (Iced Earth's "The Glorious Burden"), Riggs (not really for all Maiden covers but most of all: "Live After Death", "Powerslave", "The Trooper" and "The Number Of The Beast" single covers - and by the way, I think his new computer-generated stuff is pure crap and a disgrace!), Meninghaus, Klinnert (covers for Rhapsody and Gun Barrell). I also like some works of Wahlin and Fournier too and appreciate the distinctive style of Seagrave, Storr (Skyclad covers) and Patchett (the 2 first and 2 last releases of Cathedral).
In general I don't like digitally created covers (excluding the artwork actually PAINTED, using a graphic tablet like those of Sasso or Meninghaus!), be it just Photoshopped pictures or a mixture of photos and 3D-art. They tend to be quite impersonal and often seem to be made by a factory guy who is not necessarily an artist (well, at least he wouldn't be able to create anything if deprived of his computer). Such a person would produce covers in a few hours, sometimes not even knowing what band will be using it. However there is one "digital" artist whom I hold in high esteem: Travis Smith. His art is truly captivating and you can see he's a visionaire. I have to mention Joachim Luethke as well whose artworks for Annihilator's "Carnival Diablos" and Kreator's "Enemy Of God" are really great even though created digitally.
C.: When and how did you become active as a photographer of Metal bands?
J.: It's difficult to say exactly when I became active as a photographer of Metal bands. Like many others I started this adventure with smuggling a compact camera to some concerts I attended and just trying to get to the front row to take a few snaps - this was back in the '90's. The results were usually far from great, but at least I had some pictures to support the nice memories. Then I started co-operating with a few Metal magazines (first with the Polish Metal Hammer, then with Heavy Metal Pages). Since then I had the chance to take photos from the photo-pit with a professional camera and develop my skills. Right now I'm a freelance photographer, still co-operating with HMP, but also showcasing the photos on my homepage as well as on many other websites and working directly with bands who use the pictures in their C.D. booklets or promo-materials.
C.: When taking photos of a band, do you take as many photos as possible and choose the best ones, or do you just take a few, but take your time to take them?
J.: Still owning only analogue cameras I can't take as many photos as I would with a digital one, so I just wait for the best conditions to shoot. Sometimes I feel like a sniper. I can stand, crouch or kneel motionless and almost breathless for a few minutes waiting for the right moment - not always with much success of course. Drummers are particularly hard targets. You not only have to wait for the good light (which is usually bad over the drum-kit) and an interesting pose, but also be quick enough before the drum-stick comes across the face or a cymbal covers up to half of it, or simply one of the guitar players or the vocalist intercepts the view. It's very challenging, but I try not to discriminate those band members.
C.: As regards shooting bands 'live', which bands or musicians do you think are naturally photogenic for a Metal image?
J.: That's an interesting question. Let me think of the bands that I have photographed so far….Well, a lot depends on the lights at the particular show of course, but some musicians have that something that can guarantee good photos even under not so great light conditions. From the bands I took pictures of, I can say that the most photogenic were Overkill, Vortex, Wizard, Brocas Helm, Gun Barrel, Paragon, Majesty, Count Raven, King Diamond, Halloween, Destiny, Stormwitch and Primordial.
You don't have to have any theatrics or special outfits on the stage (though it does make the photos more interesting of course), but a little posing, you know…..stopping for a while…..showing an evil grin…..pointing your finger at the camera….these are always much appreciated by a photographer. The extremes are he worst: either standing (especially with their face covered by their hair most of the time) or being hyperactive without resting for a moment, because in the former you can't take too many interesting photos and in the latter a lot of them would be just out of focus.
C.: I really love the cemetery photos appearing on your website! Could you tell me more about them…..How did this 'niche' photography come about?
J.: Thank you very much, I'm glad that also this part of my creative activities caught your attention. Well, since my teen years I've been fascinated by those old and often abandoned places, their silent atmosphere of decay. Whenever I was visiting a new place, I've always tried to visit a local graveyard - going there with my camera. However I became more active in this field when I was studying during the 4th year at the Academy of Fine Arts, and it was then that I came up with the idea of a photo appendix to my diploma work for which I chose to illustrate M. R. James' "Ghost Stories" and I wrote my thesis about the motifs of death in the art of the turnn of the 19th century, so all three parts came together and complemented each other perfectly.
You won't see too many general cemetary views amongst my photos since I focus my attention mostly on the cracked, moss-covered tombstones, their texture and picturesque values. While my painting style is definitely figurative, some of those photos come very close to abstract art. Monuments and sculptures that look disease-ridden are a big part of my cemetery photos too and also here I like to come close to show a decaying foot or an expression on the stone face. I gave the title "The Grand Leveller's Domain" to this part of my website to emphasise the fact that we area all even in the subject of death - no matter what religion you have been professing (in fact you can see photos from Catholic, Evangelic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim cemeteries there).
C.: What is the biggest praise you've received for your artwork and / or your photography?
J.: I'm afraid I can't think of just one. Since I have always worked directly for and with bands (with one exception), I am lucky to get the feedback straight away, and this is also very important in the whole creative process. There are not many things as rewarding for the artist as words of true appreciation from the bands whose music I admire. With a lot of them I stay in touch and become friends and they support me by advertising me in one way or another, like Manilla Road, Attacker, Forsaken, Emerald…
The only case I waited for as long as a couple of months for to hear some feedback and opinions of the cover from the musicians was with Exodus, because when painting 'Tempo Of The Damned' I was keeping in touch only with their manager. And I didn't really know whether they liked the cover or not. Until that gig in Prague [Czech Republic] I went to in 2004. In the middle of the show, Zetro [Souza, vocalist] said something like: "I'd like you to know we have a very special guest here - Jowita, the artist who painted the cover art for our last album. We love our last album and we love this art" and he then continued and then Gary [Holt, guitarist] joined in with his compliments. I must say that I must have been blushing, haha, thankfully it was quite dark there. In the end Zet said: "So I'd like to dedicate the next song to her" and they played "Fabulous Disaster". That was one of those special moments that I will never forget.
J.: Thank you, Chris, for your interest and giving me the chance to talk about my work and passion. Cheers to all who have taken the time to pay some attention to my artworks. If you're need a traditional, old style cover art or any other artwork to match your style of music, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org . Keep the Metal flowing through your veins!
Chris Galea [ email@example.com ]
Jowita Kaminska Official Website: http://www.jowita-kaminska.com