Brent Elliot White has created artwork for Trivium, They Art is Murder, Death Angel, Arch Enemy and Job For A Cowboy, among others. He also created the stunning artwork for Megadeth’s Dystopia. We caught up with White to talk about his inspiration for art, and what led to the futuristic-looking album cover.
Where are you from, where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in Washington State, then moved to California for my “formative” years. My parents are great and because they split up when I was young I got a great step mother out of it too. Two brothers, step brother, step sister…good times. While we didn’t have it as easy as some, we definitely didn’t have it as hard as others.
Who or what inspired you to get into art?
Kind of hard to say. I guess it would be comics, I really loved the X-Men and I always tried to draw like my favorite artists (Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee). Loved sci-fi films like Blade Runner and of course Star Wars (episode 4-6 not the new stuff). There was a game artist named Janet Aulisio that I loved. Her style turned me on to the Orientalist painters, I knew I wanted to pursue art after that.
How has your approach to art working changed over time?
The computer is a big one. I used to to paint and do water colors. I started doing more realistic-looking stuff when I was getting into illustration. For a number of reasons it just made more sense than traditional media for me, first and foremost is ease of edits. Working in the music industry can be pretty interactive so this process has helped oblige certain collaborations. I still draw like I always have, I just paint it digitally. I wish I could say it’s sped things up but it’s actually done the opposite.
Is there a memorable moment you can look back and and say ‘that was a huge personal success?
My first cover for Job For a Cowboy: Ruination. I beat my head against the wall on that one but something kind of clicked and I realized I got it near the end. Like I got an obscure joke, not a funny joke it’s just like I got the meaning of the whole thing. My girlfriend often tells me “you need to get Ruination on this one” or something to that effect. It’s become an adjective for “getting it” I guess. Dystopia of course is huge for me. It feels like a success to me and I’m very proud of the art.
What’s the best response you’ve ever had to a pice of work?
“Sick!!!!!” – Sometimes I get deflated if I don’t get more than one “!” Seriously though, I’m always aware that the art I do for bands is a collaboration so it’s fans of the band that are usually chiming in. It’s always nice to hear, helps keep me going and is so much better than the alternative. One kid did write to say he was taking art classes in part because he was a fan of my art. Awesome!! Kids asking permission to use me in a report for school. Awesome!! Also people have reached out to say they’ve picked up an actual physical album or cd because of the cover. Great compliment for an illustrator to get period, that’s what I’m here for. Also great for the part of me that wants to support our industry. Buy your music!!!!
Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which one was your favorite and why?
Hard one… I put the same amount of thought and effort into every piece I do,project size and reach has zero bearing on that. I did like the Carnifex “Hell Chose Me” piece. I thought it captured something. Ruination was definitely a moment for me. Still, Dystopia was like my teenage self that wanted so desperately to draw Wolverine ripping through The Adversary with a “Fastball Special” during “Fall of the Mutants” finally got his moment. It’s gonna be a hard memory to top.
What aspect of your work do you enjoy the most… and the least?
I really like coming up with the concept and initial sketches even though it’s often the hardest part. Close second would be the finish. Once all the questions have been answered and I have confidence it’s gonna work. Least? Figuring out how the fuck I’m gonna execute the concept I came up with and settled on with the band. If you put my process on a 1 -10 scale (1 being sketch, 10 being a signed off finish) then 2 – 8.5 looks like total garbage to me. It makes me cry. I hate it before I like it.
What has been the most touching or amazing moment you’ve experienced as an artist?
I finished a particularly difficult project. It took me forever. Label was scared, band was pressing me for a finish and I was still immersed in my “oh shit this totally freaking sucks” phase. Then I emerged into the “this is gonna kill it” phase and just finished. I was 36 hours or so deep on that stretch and was delirious with sleep deprivation. I can’t identify just one really, at least not totally art related. After I finish projects and deliver a piece I’m proud of, I allow myself a moment where I reflect on the whole experience. The good, the bad and the ugly of it all. It’s one of the few moments of calm and peace I can find for myself. I try not to look at the finish, in fact in order to get to sleep I need to try to forget the visual that’s etched into my retinas. Since I can look at anything I’ve done and pick it apart it’s nice to do a kind of Star Wars wipe cut of the whole experience. Just feel like I accomplished something and leave it at that. It’s a nice time of personal reflection and I strive for it.
Can you share a time when you experienced a big failure or setback and what you took away from it?
Numerous… I totally let a band down that I worked with on a few projects. I really liked them, really put everything into it but just couldn’t get through it. There were personal things going on and if I had a “regular” job I would have taken time off. But, for better or worse it’s not the world I live in. Deliver or die. Sucks to fail. Really sucked with them. I had another time where projects and deadlines built up and I lost a dream project of mine. Or maybe it’s better to say a project with a dream client. Single worst moment of my professional life. There are some unpleasant realities in this industry that I try to fight with shear determination and willingness to sacrifice almost anything. Sometimes it’s not enough and I let people down and in doing so let myself down. Life can get worse, much worse than that, but professionally that’s as low as you can get.
What would you say to a young artist looking at your work who might be inspired to get into art for themselves?
Go for it! Research, ask questions, try, try harder, keep learning, be realistic about your abilities, find what you’re good at and concentrate on that. And develop a thick skin.
Were you a fan of Megadeth before being asked to create the cover art for Dystopia?
Yes, I’m a fan but I wouldn’t say uber Mega fan. I know them, I like the music and I have always dug their art. What I really appreciate is Dave and Co. have been doing this for so long. Legends in the industry. Kids love them. People my age love them. People older than me love them. It’s crazy being in the mix with absolute legends. Also, Vic Rattlehead is just a metal icon. Very proud to be able to do a version of this iconic character.
Tell us what you feld like when Megadeth gave you the keys to the Dystopia album cover?
Holy shit, I just got Megadeth’s new cover!!! This is huge.
What inspired the style and setting for Dystopia‘s cover art?
I wasn’t handed the cover. I was asked to throw my hat in the ring so to speak. As such I was given some visual reference and themes to work from to come up with a concept. Megadeth is huge, so they weren’t gonna just hand over lyrics if it wasn’t full go. Dave had some solid ideas. I don’t think it was named quite yet or maybe I didn’t get the title right away, I can’t remember. Style, setting and overall theme were clear however: We discussed post-apocalyptic films and imagery. 12 Monkeys and the Mad Max films for example. Dystopia is applicably named. I just took the themes and ran with it.
Was the piece always a futuristic setting or did you play around with the alternatives?
It was always going to be futuristic. From the first day I got involve it was going to be about the near and dark future the album depicts.
Can you take us through the initial process of developing the concept?
After reading through the initial inspiration and overall theme I just saw Vic by himself surrounded by this world. I wanted to play with the traditional depiction of Vic. The goggles, the ear chains, the bolted mouth…I see it as see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Don’t know if that’s literally what his look represents. In Dystopia I gave him these VR goggles that he sees the world through. That’s connected to a headset that blocks the audio white noise of the world and maybe gives him some walking music to enjoy. His mouth is traditionally sealed with hooks but I wanted the skull to look more like a mask. He’s kind of a cyborg, similar to the Liberty Bot head that he holds.
The cover overall is an homage to a handful of things:12 Monkeys – deserted and destroyed city, Mad Max – the bridge is the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (They showed a destroyed version of it one of the films… Beyond Thunderdome maybe?), Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Vic’s pose and the sword) , a bit of The Walking Dead ( his captured drones were meant to be like Michonne’s enslaved zombie buddies) and past Megadeth covers of course.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on this project?
The bridge. I’m not really good with 3d art but I had to create a model of the bridge to go from. I didn’t want to PS (Photoshop) something and drawing it in the angle I wanted it was gonna be difficult and then I wanted to use it more than once. Turned into a can of worms. I learned a lot. In the end I had to paint over it and change quite a bit but I learned a lot. Always cool.
At what point did you think ‘yep, that’s it!’ and the artwork really started to flow?
I guess when I drew Vic with the sword slung over his shoulder. It changed the tone and I guess it set a direction for the overall mood. I think that’s partially what got me the cover too.
What tools did you use to create the Dystopia artwork?
Research. Lots of scanning books, comic books, Internet, movies etc…I do numerous small sketches on plain typing paper with my trusty Parker pen. It’s easy to disengage from bad directions and throw them across the room while practicing my free throws. I then did sketches digitally on my Wacom monitor. Program wise, I draw and paint with Corel Painter on a Mac. I use Photoshop for technical things like scanning, resizing, big colour alterations and such. I created a model of the bridge in Sketchup and used a rendering package to set the general light direction. The drones are also based off of comically rudimentary 3d models. I think I make up for my bad modelling skills with a willingness to noodle things up by hand till the wee hours of the morning.
How does it feel now that the album is out and the world is consuming your creation?
Feels good but it’s honestly a little weird. The Dystopia cover is on the sides of buses. It is most definitely out there. My mom even texted me to ask if I did a new cover because a friend of hers said something. She got the name of the band wrong (won’t mention her faux pas but I’m sure any Megadeth fan could guess). My dad works in one of the most remote areas on earth and he has co workers that know the work. My niece toldm e it was a topic on reddit or something like that (I asked “what’s reddit?) It’s kind of crazy.
How does this project rate on your all time list?
Definitely the biggest one. I don’t really have a list or anything like that. Hopefully I helped and did my part on the project which was huge and multi faceted. I seriously have email threads that have hundreds of entries on numerous topics. This album is/was going to be a big moment for Megadeth. Going through those emails really sheds light on how big this was for many different parties. Have to say though, being in direct contact with the very centre of it all was not only helpful, constructive and all of that, it was completely necessary. Dave has a singular vision for his work and everything else seems to fall into place. Having his approval and enthusiasm behind what I was doing really made it happen. He has the respect of everyone around him and he deserves it.
This interview originally appeared on Megadeth.co.uk.