A few months ago Keith and I had the pleasure of attending our first ever retro gaming expo. And, despite failing to catch a lot of you there, we did catch amazing Knightmare and game cover artist David Rowe who kindly offered to answer a few questions for our little blog! The show was massive for us growing up, and it seems to a lot of you in the UK as well. Sorry to all our readers based in more exotic climbs, but if anything this is truly a fascinating insight to what it’s like working in TV as well as creating some of the most famous video game covers ever. Enjoy.
David, it was a pleasure meeting you at Play Expo London and thanks so much for stopping by Arcade Attack! Your artwork, through Knightmare and many many video games that we love, illustrates our childhood. How did you first come to be an artist and when did you know it was what you had to do in life?
I always had a fascination for illustrated works and would copy artwork from Marvel comics and the like. I can recall doing a drawing of the Incredible Hulk. On the estate that I lived on near Eastleigh my sister, brother and I were amongst the very few that passed the 11+ so we went to the local grammar school. Art was not really an option and academic subjects had to be pursued. I was a misfit in this situation and the frustration haunted me constantly.
Eventually I dropped out of 6th form whist doing Biology, Botany and English and left home. I set up home with my girlfriend Sue (www.susanroweillustration.com) and plunged into the world of artwork without a bean to my name. We trawled venues selling our designs for large murals. We even had a couple of meetings with the young David Bowie, but never did get to do murals for his Beckenham flat! Ah! Well!
I went on to apply to do a foundation course at Southampton Art College. I attacked it with great gusto and enthusiasm and managed to get into Brighton Polytechnic Faculty of Art and Design to do a degree course. 1 in 14 applicants were successful in getting onto the course. My wife joined the following year when 1 in 22 applicants made it onto the course!
I’ll come to Knightmare in a moment but when we met you explained how you first got into designing video game covers and a chance encounter with the founder of the company Quicksilva. It’s an interesting tale to say the least, could you explain how it all came about to our readers?
I first met Nick Lambert in the reception room in Winchester prison. He was in custody and I was the only one of his mates that had the cred to stand the £50 bail required to get him out!
Shortly after that we packed our bfs and headed off to Brighton and I thought no more about it.
We returned to the Southampton area after my wife finished her course. I would cycle around Hampshire with a large portfolio tied to my back and approach pubs with an offer to draw the building for £150. At first this was met with derision until I explained that I would arrange for a limited edition of black and white prints that I would sign. The landlord would then sell these and recoup the outlay whilst having the original hanging in his pub. This was my grounding in negotiating cover artwork deals 🙂
A chance encounter with Nick Lambert when shopping in Southampton changed the course of my life! He told me that he had co-founded a company (Quicksilva) and was producing computer games for the ZX81 and Spectrum. These little beauties had already bought my interest, but Nick explained that things were really taking off and they were going into full colour professional inlays which required sci-fi style artwork. This was a dream come true.
Electronic Arts was a much different company in the 90s, how did you end up doing the covers for some of their most iconic games (Madden, Populous etc.)?
I would go to the game fairs in London with the team from Quicksilva. These were held at the Westminster horticultural hall, Alexandra Palace and so on. I would take my portfolio with me and show it around the exhibitors. This led to companies other than Quicksilva commissioning my work. I also picked up a lot of computer book cover illustrations too as well as magazine covers. It got to a point where I had to give up teaching life drawing part time at Southampton Art School.
EA were based in a small unit next to Langley station. The admin and design was done upstairs and the warehousing and distribution operated from downstairs.
Your images perfectly capture the feel of the games they’re designed for. When being commissioned for them, how much direction are you given? Did you play the games before designing them? Would you meet whoever was producing the game?
I was very often left to my own devices. In order to avoid costly corrections, I would do a set of rough pencil sketches that I could fax on my A3 fax machine in hand-tone. Discussions then ensued, consequently I had very few changes to make to finished artwork. I was pretty well always given a beta of the game so that I could play it before thinking up ideas. This meant that I had to have a number of games machines…Amiga and Atari ST included! (hooray! – Ed) I remember the strict secrecy surrounding the Populous original beta. I was shown the game in a room that was locked so that even employees could not see it other than those directly involved with the game’s production. I was directed to visit the Bullfrog team in Guildford. It was just the original 4 back then and they had a room in the town centre. On one visit they showed me an animation based upon my cover artwork that had been made by Industrial Light and Magic…I was so impressed!!
What steps do you think are vital in creating the perfect final image? What rules would you recommend any budding David Rowe follow?
I always found that in playing the game, you had to summarise the fun and where your imagination took you. The cover artwork had to capture that in an explosive way, bursting out of the image towards the viewer. This would then double as a point of sale in a games shop as covers were all competing to grab the buyer’s attention.
I find game covers of current generation video games to be dull by comparison. Are you still in touch with video gaming? And if so, what do you think has caused this shift?
Things have changed a lot since the early days of gaming. Small bands of enthusiasts would get together and have the greatest fun creating the games. Some whacky, some humorous and some very tongue in cheek. I got this buzz with Quicksilva in those days. Mark Eyles would write the surreal blurb inside the cassette cover and then it was my go to do the cover, I would do so with passion and a great sense of fun. I recall doing Fred and painting Rod Cousens as the explorer, Mark as a vampire and his partner Caroline as a character on the frieze.
It was inevitable that with such a new medium developing exponentially, the investors and corporations would move in and they did. Serious money was to be made and the work was undertaken by larger and larger teams. The packaging, advertising and promotion was contracted to large design and PR firms. That’s progress for you! I still think that I was in at the best part of it.
We’d agree! Now onto one of my favourite subjects, Knightmare. You’ve done a lot of TV work but how did the opportunity to work on art for the show come about?
I was delivering an artwork to Melbourne House in Richmond and the Art Director, Paula Byrne said that she had just come off the phone to Tim Child. Tim created and devised the whole Nightmare show and was looking for a games airbrush artist…I there I was having just walked in the door!
I was on the phone to Tim in a flash and proceeded to Norwich to meet him and his team.
The highlight of my week was coming home from school to watch Knightmare on a Friday afternoon, and it always used to finish far too soon for me. Your backdrops, to me, were phenomenal and provided fantastic escapism. What was your team like there? And how much creative input did you have?
Tim was always very clear about what he wanted for each room which is what you want from a creative director. Working as an illustrator, the need to know what constraints there are is paramount. What are the dimensions? What areas should be left fairly clear for type to be added? There was no exception with Knightmare. Characters were cast to appear in various rooms and so doors’ props stairs would need to be in positions that conformed to the script.
As the camera was fixed in front of an evenly lit blue painted studio, there also had to be a grid that copied the view from the camera exactly. This was so that the set designers could create props (painted blue so that they could be invisible to the camera) and those props could be placed in an exact position of the studio floor. They were painted blue so that they would disappear along with the blue studio and then be replaced with my painting, props and all. I began my drawings, overlaid on the grid, so that everybody knew that the final composite would work!
My creative input was the joy of developing techniques that would simulate wet stone and work towards the creation of the dark and mysterious rooms.
Did you ever don the helmet and ask Hugo (Myatt) to direct you around some of the levels?
Never. Everybody was really focussed on the work in hand when I visited the set. I worked in Hampshire and communicated with the team by fax, the occasional visit and by sending my finished room paintings by Red Star on the train!
You ran a successful Indiegogo campaign for the Art of Knightmare (the hardback is now a snip at £29.99) – what inspired you to start the campaign and what is your favourite piece of artwork created for the show?
I had so much material for the development of the artwork. I had drawings, sketches, colour roughs, tracings and many of the briefs that came over faxed from Norwich. They were shut away in a plain chest and weren’t going to stay preserved very well with my regular opening and closing of the drawers. I recognised the enormous interest that remains to this day in the show and it occurred to me that it was high time that we digitised everything and put it in a book. Tim agreed to put a forward in it and Hugo gave a wonderful dedication.
I have a few favourites. I enjoyed the well rooms and watching the Dungeoneer climb down into the web. I knew the perspective drawing, placed exactly on the grid that allowed the illusion to work!!
I suppose that my favourite was the serpent room with the Lilith character. I had to draw and paint the ledges that she sat on, her feet on the lower one and her robes draped over both of them. In reality the ledges were wooden boxes, painted the obligatory blue, and had to be placed in exactly the correct position. Thank goodness for that grid!! I found it very pleasing to see the finished composite working exactly as it should.
Were you sad when the show ended and where did your career take you afterwards?
All things come to an end. I must have created at least 40 odd rooms and can look back fondly to those heady times.
I carried on with games covers and had a go at co-founding a games company which lasted quite a while before succumbing as most small development companies do.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am considering making a book of my artwork in the same style as the Knightmare offering. I am also working with a couple of artists and programmers on some original IP for a voice controlled dungeon exploring project. That’s all I can say at the moment!
I have a vast garden that demands far too much of my time and I operate a low key artisan pizza business using only the finest ingredients and my large wood-fired pizza oven. It is on Facebook as Pantyfod Pizzeria.
My website is: davidrowe.net and I sell prints of all my artworks on there. I will be adding original artwork and sketches that went into making them sometime soon.
We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on that! Thanks again for stopping by David, all the best for your future endeavours!