INTERVIEW WITH AN ARTIST: Les Edwards On Being a Genre Fixture, Meeting Clive Barker, and Painting ‘The Thing’


T: When and how did you make the decision to become an illustrator?

L: I sort of fell into it. I wasn’t sure what to do on leaving art school. I knew I wanted to make pictures but I’d been told that life as an illustrator was too difficult and impractical. John Spencer, who was running an illustration agency called Young Artists, saw my work and offered to represent me. John became something of a mentor in the early years, as he was for several illustrators.

T: How did you approach your early commissions, and what, if anything, would you do differently now?

L: Looking back I wish I’d had more confidence in my own ability. I’m sure I tended to over-think things when I could just have go on with the job and trusted myself. I also worked insanely hard at the beginning which wasn’t really necessary in retrospect. I gradually learned that you reach a point where you just don’t produce your best work if you put in too many hours.

T: As you developed your illustrative styles, who were your major influences?

L: There are too many to list. When I was starting out Bruce Pennington’s work was everywhere and, while I didn’t try to copy his style, he was definitely a major influence. I bought any number of books because they had a Pennington cover. I still have his book Ultraterranium in my studio and refer to it often. I was also lucky to meet other illustrators through the Young Artists agency and I absorbed a lot from them. We would spend a lot of time discussing technique. I was a bit sponge-like, soaking it all up.

T: What elements make a piece a Les Edwards piece?

L: I think the constant factor over my career has been a strong belief in the simple approach. A simple image is so often more striking than a complex one, certainly in the field of book jackets. There was a period a while back of what I call “Photoshop Frenzy” where it seemed that the fashion was for illustrators to pile layer on layer of texture and detail to the point where you could hardly see what you were looking at. It just descended into noise. We seem to have come through that now and we are beginning to get some really nicely designed book covers.

T: You’re perhaps best known for your book jacket illustrations. As the sort of appetiser for the content of a book, what do you think are the most important things that a cover illustration has to achieve?

L: One of the reasons that I like the simple approach to illustration is that a book jacket needs to stand out from the competition. If you can startle someone or intrigue them or otherwise attract them to your book rather than the surrounding ones then the job is mostly done. You can’t make someone buy a book but you can draw it to their attention.

T: You’ve been a genre fixture over many years. What do you think of the state of modern horror, science fiction and fantasy?

L: I love the idea of being a fixture. I think there’s a strong argument that we are living through a golden age at the moment. The biggest show on TV is Game of Thrones. There are cable channels devoted solely to Science Fiction. Supposedly there will be a new Star Wars film regularly and there is even a new iteration of Star Trek; (it will just not go away.)

The biggest selling author of recent years wrote books about a boy wizard and Stephen King still sells by the cartload. There is more superhero stuff than you can shake a stick at. When I was young all these things were only of interest to weirdos and nerds. Now the lunatics have taken over the asylum. I keep thinking it can’t last but I bet even now someone is still trying to make a decent Fantastic Four movie.

T: You’ve created some pretty horrific images over your career. What do you think is the key to creating the perfect monster?

L: I really don’t think you can scare people with a painting. The best you can hope for is to be mildly disturbing. My Mum always said that what you can’t see is always more scary than what you can. She was right. Even with a great movie like Alien, when the creature is revealed at the end, whatever you think of the design, it’s just a man in a rubber suit and a let-down. It’s much more scary when you don’t know what it is. Ridley Scott knew that and he’s very careful about what he reveals until the end. The clever thing about John Carpenter’s The Thing is that you never know what form the monster will take next. That’s what builds the tension.

T: You’ve also designed some fantastic movie poster art – perhaps most famously the poster for The Thing. Do you approach film commissions differently to literature? 

L: The principle is the same. You want to grab people’s attention. Of course it’s a lot easier when your poster is enormous and splashed all over the London Underground where you have a kind of captive audience. I remember seeing the Thing poster on a station for the first time. It was lovely to see it so big. The movie poster I really enjoyed doing was for Nightbreed. There was so much weird material to work with. It’s a real shame that film posters are so seldom painted these days but times have moved on.

T: You’ve created two graphic novels based on the works of Clive Barker after being personally recommended by Barker to Eclipse Books. What do you think appealed to Barker about your work?

L: I met Clive at a World Fantasy Convention in London. I asked him if he would write an introduction to a book of my work to be published by Games Workshop (actually, my wife asked him as I was much too nervous). He agreed but he went off to film Nightbreed and I certainly didn’t want to hassle him for a few hundred words, not knowing then what a workaholic he is.

The intro never materialised and was eventually written, to my great delight, by Kim Newman. I just assumed Clive would forget all about me but when the graphic novels came up he recommended me to Eclipse. I was pretty nervous about it as I’d never done a graphic novel before, but I was helped by the excellent adaptation by Steve Niles and some good advice from artist John Bolton. It was pretty hard work and to a large extent I was learning as I went along but I had a good time.

T: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about? 

L: I spend most of my time on private commissions these days, however I am pleased to be doing the covers for a Ramsey Campbell trilogy published by PS Publishing. The first two, The Searching Dead and Born to the Dark are done and I can’t wait to read the next instalment. It’s nice to be working on some real quality Horror and I think it’s some of Ramsey’s best stuff.

Find out more about Les Edwards:

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