Interview with Fantasy Artist Peter Mullen

Peter Mullen is a Fantasy Illustrator who's work graces the pages of many of the small press RPG books and magazines that have been published recently. I've been a fan of his art since first seeing the cover for Swords & Wizardry, and always pleased when he publishes something new. I was very pleased when Peter agreed to let me interview him about his work and post it here.

How long have you been doing fantasy illustrations?

I started drawing pictures that detailed the exploits of my older brothers' D&D and Star Frontiers adventurers at about 12 years old. (About the same time that I became really serious about being an artist.) My first venture into illustration (beyond the small circle of D&D with my brothers and the Abacus Ape) began in 2006-2007 when I contributed several pen and ink drawings to the OSRIC Project. (Which the Abacus Ape introduced me to first.) The first professional job I undertook was the cover of Matt Finch's excellent Swords and Wizardry Game.

What are the biggest influences on the subject and style of your art?

My development as an artist was very much influenced by my two older brothers. They took the time to give me some of the books they had read and enjoyed. "A Princess of Mars" with the Michael Whelan covers became a huge influence on me. I read it and started thinking about the alien and bizarre backdrop that Edgar Rice Burroughs portrayed in that series of books. At the same time, we were regularly playing D&D and Star Frontiers. So I had the influences of David Trampier and Erol Otus at my finger tips every time I had to look up what score I needed to hit that goblin or roll out of the way of that lightning bolt!

Along with the RPG's we played, comic books were also a big influence in my youth. After a long admiration of the standard Marvel and DC icons, I began looking for the less popular and harder to find stories that depicted a more alien and perhaps stranger idea of fantasy and sci-fi. Stuff like what I was reading in books like R.E Howard's "Conan", Fritz Leiber's "Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser" and in H.P. Lovecraft's writings. I found such stories in Hayao Miyazaki's "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind", in Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira", Epic's HAVOK and WOLVERINE (the Meltdown Series), "Appleseed" by Masamune Shirow, and in Dave Sim and Gerhard's "Cerebus the Aardvark."
What's the process for creating your artwork? What sort of tools do you like to use?
Everything starts in the sketchbook for me. I get ideas from all over the place. From the books I read, to what my kids say when we're building with Lego's or what I see on walks with the family. Once I get that small seed of an idea I begin thinking of how I can apply that to a scene. That thinking process begins with several pages of small drawings in the sketchbook. Most are just ridiculous. But there is always that one little bit of a drawing that gets my imagination fired and leads to something that speaks of adventure and exploration of the unknown. I enjoy trying to depict those little moments when victory can be grasped or utter defeat can come crashing down on the characters. I don't mind "action" drawings but I enjoy illustrating scenes that imply more than they show. I want the viewer to have to use their imagination to explore all the possibilities. (Similar to what you experience when you're reading a Gene Wolfe book or a story by H.P. Lovecraft.)
After the idea is sketched out, I transfer the sketch to a piece of illustration board or a toned piece of board or paper with chalk pencils and then begin blocking in colors with my trusty old Prisma Colors! The size of the drawing is usually within the 9" X 12" format so I can scan it on my machine. Once I'm comfortable with the overall image, I can start polishing in the details and highlights that will give the image that "finished" look.
Your artwork is popular for games that want to evoke an old school vibe. What differences do you see in fantasy art from the 70s and 80s compared to today?
I think there are several key differences between these two generations of fantasy art. In terms of subject matter, the fantasy art in the seventies and eighties had their fair share of super heroes and strange monsters but their work encouraged the viewer to use their imagination and ask the question of "What the heck is going on here?" To me, the fantasy art in this day's market has more of an instant gratification element to it. When I look at it, I say, "Cool!" But then I'm left with, "Now what?" I find that I don't pursue the, "What the heck is going on here?" questions beyond that initial "Cool!" When producing my art work, I try to get the viewer to ask the "What the heck is going on here?" questions.
Another important difference, I think, is that most kids in the seventies and eighties had a more "practiced" imagination. I grew up in the country and enjoyed the quality entertainment of two and a half TV channels. (On some days the antenae out on the top of the pine tree next to the house got NBC too! Depending on which way Dad turned it.) VCR's and personal computers with Internet weren't invented yet and the theatre was 30 minutes away. Kids depended on their imagination more due to reading books and whatever other entertainment one could dream up in their leisure time. With today's amazing CG technology and numerous media sources at the click of a button, people are "being entertained" more than "being entertaining." With the idea of having to be an entertainer of short attention spans, the fantasy artwork these days becomes more explicit and less implicit in nature.
Weird was just cooler (or perhaps more tolerable) in the 70's and 80's! I'm just thinking of the hair styles and clothes. Now (sadly) it's considered closer to the lame side.
There are some recurring characters in your work, can you tell us anything about them?
Some of the people who have commissioned work from me have asked to have some characters redrawn for purposes of continuity. I also have some drawings on my website done for our long running D&D campaign, which includes some of our characters that have been run for many years! As far as their personalities, they usually run the gamut of good and lawful to neutral indifference. In our games we try to flesh out our characters using their attributes as a means to develop their personality. An example was a cleric whose Intelligence was extremely low (was having difficulty speaking and could not read!). We always seem to play a character no matter what the ability scores. So the Ape came up with the idea that he was so stupid that he couldn't grasp the concept of regular gods and just worshipped something he knew a little about, himself. Due to his lack of intelligence, he didn't know how ridiculous that was, but due to his faith it seems to work. Thus Zverp cleric of Zverp was made!
Final Question: If you could meet one artist and get an art lesson from them, who would it be?
One of the greatest artistic influences on me and my work is Winslow Homer. His paintings are full of action! People are doing things or going somewhere. His mastery of composition, space, color, and value have always been that high water mark for me. I tend to think that a day or two watching Homer labor over a drawing or painting would be most insightful, from the first broad strokes of the brush to the last refining detail.