Is Michael Winterbauer the last of the great game cover artists? We sure hope not! Has he designed some of the most iconic game covers ever? Hell yes! Here he has kindly joined us for this fascinating insight to his world and what often went unnoticed. Michael, we salute you. Readers, enjoy.
Your excellent work on Wing Commander is probably your most famous video game work. Why do you think this particular piece of work has become so iconic and is it one of your favourite pieces?
Wing Commander is a great painting that had the good fortune to get noticed. It got noticed because the game was so incredibly successful. Wing Commander continues to attract new fans all over the world today. This is a great example of art that is tied to a successful franchise. I wanted my art to get noticed and have staying power decade after decade. Games and movies are a great way to get your art noticed, especially if the movie or game becomes a hit.
I realized the only way for me to become successful was to get these glory jobs. I spent all my spare time researching and trying to get these wonderful and highly visible entertainment commissions. It was very difficult to get these jobs as they were highly sought after by many talented people. You could be the greatest painter in the world, but if no one sees your work who’s going to know? There is great art created every day but sadly most it is swept into obscurity because it is not aligned with a successful game or movie.
It was during this time I realized a lot of being successful is being at the right place at the right time or being smart enough to put yourself in the right place at the right time. I enjoyed painting Wing Commander and it is one of my favorite pieces of work. I realized early on that it was a very special job and used the image in my advertising.
When did you first release you wanted to become an artist?
I remember as a kid sitting in the playroom of my parents’ house where I grew up admiring the art on the record albums and thinking to myself, “Wow that is really cool and I bet these album covers will become collectible some day”. I thought if the album did well you would be a famous artist because you did the cover (we like the thinking – Ed).
The other thing that got to me growing up was seeing so many older people unhappy with what they did for a living. I was full of vigor and energy and decided early on I would try something different, enjoy what I do for a living and get recognized for it.
Thanks to my Mom who took me to be tutored by a professional artist when I was ten. I used to really look forward to weekly lessons going to his studio and seeing all his beautiful drawings and paintings. His house was a wonderful combination of a home and a museum. I thought it was a great place to live and I liked his lifestyle.
It was then that I seriously contemplated becoming an artist.
Do you remember how the opportunity to first create video game art arrived?
In 1989 I was asked to do the cover for a World War I simulation game that was for the PC, the game was called War Eagles. This was my first experience doing a cover for a computer game and I was very excited and fortunate to get the job. I got the job from either a referral or me contacting them and showing work. I remember thinking that there must be many other opportunities for computer game cover work. I immediately started creating lists of all the computer game companies and finding out who the art directors were so that I could contact them and show my work. I was living in Pasadena in the 80-90s and discovered there were many computer game companies in the surrounding areas. I would make hundreds of calls weekly setting up appointments to personally show my artwork. I found I had a much greater chance of getting the job when I presented my portfolio in person. I use to line up three to four portfolio showings in a day all over Los Angeles.
My little red Mazda GLC hatchback and I became very familiar with the roads of Los Angeles. Through it all I realized the only person who is going to make your dreams come true is yourself. I am a highly motivated individual and the experience also taught me if you want to be an artist you better have thick skin and believe in yourself (great advice – Ed).
What was the first ever video game cover you worked on?
That is an interesting question because I painted the NES DoubleStrike cover in 1985 but the cover was published in 1990. DoubleStrike was actually a painting I did for my advanced Rendering Class at Art Center in 1985. In 1988 I used the painting in an American Showcase ad. In 1989 American Video Entertainment saw the ad and asked if I could put a fighter jet in the sunglasses. I promptly added the two fighter jets and sunset reflection to the sunglasses and sold the painting (to my delight). American Video Entertainment used my revised painting for the cover of their new game called DoubleStrike. This was one of several Art Center paintings that were published commercially.
Can you run through a typical day of artist and has it changed over the last 30 years?
Thirty years ago I would get up and start my day by getting a cup of coffee and walking into my studio. My studio was full of traditional drawing and painting tools and paints. I always had a project I was working on the easel and would sit down and take a long look and then either start drawing or painting.
There were no computers, mobile phones or internet, just paper, board, pencils and paint. It was challenging and exhilarating to turn a blank board into a beautiful painting. I enjoyed the hands-on process of creating a real piece of art that was an original painting that could one day be sold or collected.
Nowadays, computers and software programs have replaced paper, boards, pencils and paints. What I did by hand can now be done in a computer much easier, quicker and cheaper.
Technology has dramatically changed the role of the commercial artist in the last thirty years. The artist skill set thirty years ago was based on traditional techniques. The artist of today uses software and computers to create virtual artworks that exist inside computers and storage devices.
1994 was a turning point as it was getting more difficult to secure big commissions as desktop publishing was on the rise. By then it was painfully clear that to stay working as a successful commercial artist you were going to have to learn the new technology and embrace the new studios and special effects houses popping up everywhere. It was then that I took it upon myself to learn Photoshop and Power Animator and work for the game studios creating the actual computer games that everyone was talking about. My first studio job was at New World where I had done the cover art for Might and Magic.
This was an uncertain and exciting time as I had the opportunity to create concepts with pencil and paper and then translate them into 3D worlds on the computer. I whole heartedly dove into this technology and leveraged my traditional skills to become a very competent CGI artist in the coming years and fortunately stay employed.
To this day I continue creating my traditional illustration but also work steadily in the digital art world creating new images and combining my traditional art with the digital art world.
How much freedom are you given when painting video game covers and artwork?
This was a great time to be a cover artist as you were given significant freedom to create a super cool box cover. I was asked to come up with an idea that would portray the game but also make a fantastic box cover.
The coming up with the concept for the cover illustration was the first and very important task of creating classic cover art. The box covers had to have a WOW factor that would separate them from the many other boxes on the shelves and in the magazines. There was no digital media or internet to advertise in. Advertising was done in print, mostly box art and magazines were the point of contact with the consumer.
I designed covers that hopefully made people want to imagine and play the game. This was a very fun creative approach. When the concept was approved, you started drawing comps to narrow in on the final design.
After the final drawing was approved I did color comps in prisma color pencil to show clients what the final cover could look like. Once the color comp was approved I would transfer the drawing to the board and start my painting. The painting process is always exciting as I thought of it like trying to breathe life into the picture so it would come alive and be exciting to look at. I always felt that when the painting was done that I had literally given a piece of myself to it.
Out of all your great artwork for video games, do you have a personal favorite and can you explain why?
The Might and Magic paintings, maps and drawings I did for New World were my favorite projects. I really enjoy the genre and story of the game and it lends itself beautifully to wonderful fantasy artwork. I was fortunate to paint The Clouds of Xeen box cover 1992 and the map that went inside the box, The DarkSide of Xeen box cover 1993 and the map that went inside the box, and many of the drawings for both game manuals.
The painting for the Clouds of Xeen is one of my favorites. When I got the commission I realized it was a lifetime opportunity to get my art noticed and be recognized long after the initial release of the game. I had a very reasonable timeframe to paint the picture and I devoted all my time and creative energy into the painting to ensure its success. Most of my paintings I did quite large on very heavy weight board in hopes that one day they would be collector pieces. The paintings I did for New World are all 30 x 40 inches which is a good size for collectible art.
I remember drawing Xeen and thinking to myself I need to make him exude an evil, sinister confidence with a sardonic appeal and have his sinister dragon sneering with predatory appeal. This painting has been seen all over the world and is one of my more well-known illustrations.
The maps I painted for The Land of Xeen and The Darkside of Xeen were wonderful projects and very large in scope.
There are so many characters and creatures in these paintings that when I first started I felt overwhelmed. I soon realized I needed to draw the maps to a very high level in order for them to be successful, I spent hundreds of hours figuring out the drawings for both maps. Once I had a solid drawing I was confident I could paint them well.
I also did many black and white drawings for both The Clouds of Xeen game manual and the DarkSide of Xeen game manual. These drawings were a lot of fun and I enjoyed working on them. There were many and the experience helped me become a better draftsman.
Are you a gamer yourself and have you played all the games you have helped create artwork for?
I am not a hard core gamer. I am an artist who enjoys games for the ideas, imagination, technology and the worlds they create. I love games and the stories they tell, games lend themselves brilliantly to the illustration world. I have been able to paint heroes, villains, castles, creatures, faraway lands, space ships and many other spectacular things because of computer games.
I have not played all the games I created covers for, but I played parts of them when available to understand and get the feel of the game. Sometimes I was given screenshots and a summary of what the game was about and asked to come up with a concept for the box. This was before full blown computer generated graphics and the games had a bit map feel and great game play was crucial to the success of the game. The box cover reflected the imaginative experience of playing the game.
It was a great time for artists to create fantastic artworks to sell computer games. The art was created to reflect the feeling and imaginative world the gamer would encounter playing the game.
This is a much different approach to game boxes of today. Today game boxes have a slick computer generated feel from rendered models or retouched screens from the actual game. Traditional illustration box art has become a lost art because of the rise of technology (sad face – Ed).
You were recently successful in a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a book showcasing your great art. Can you explain to our readers what will be in this book and when you hope to make it available to buy?
In 2014 my work received worldwide attention after I self-published my book Classic Game Covers about my experiences being an artist. It is an honest and fascinating read about being an artist and how I created my art. I made the eBook available for free on my website in 2014 and the response was overwhelming. It got written up on websites all over the world and was read in over eighty countries and was also an Ars Technica’s editors pick for “The Web Worth Reading”. I was very happy to finally get recognized for my work after working in the shadows for decades.
My book Classic Game Covers takes you behind the scenes of the creative process of painting classic game covers. The book is an honest and sometimes humorous read about what it was like being a game cover artist during the golden age of computer games. It tells how I got the commissions, what photo reference I used, shows the drawing and comp phases of projects and describes the creative process. The book is unique in that it is mostly unedited and reads like a stream of consciousness that details my thoughts and experiences being an artist.
The Free electronic version is available on my website:
Then I decided it would be very cool to do a printed version of Classic Game Covers and get it to the people who would enjoy a cool printed version of the book (oh yes!! – Ed).
My KickStarter campaign is funding a print run of my book and I will have some copies available from my website this summer so be sure to check back.
Apart from your own work, is there an artist or game cover that you are a huge fan of?
Some of my favorite artists are Frank Frazetta, JC Leyendecker, Roy Krenkel, Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, Alphonse Mucha, John Singer Sargent, Gustav Klimt, Claude Monet, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Auguste Rodin and Tolouse-Lautrec.
I am partial to the cover of Myst. The game was unique and beautiful and set the stage for future games. I think the graphics in Myst are very beautiful and the cover has a unique mysterious, ethereal quality that makes you want to see more of the game.
If you could go for a drink with any of the characters from your games, who would you choose and why?
I would like to meet NOVA, the main character from PowerBlade. I would like to see if he was anything like myself.
The PowerBlade cover painting I did was all about attitude. I was very excited when I was asked to paint a cover for the game that had a Terminator feel to it and I am a big fan of the movie. I realized that I would need original reference to paint from and I always took my own photos to use as reference. So I set up a photoshoot that had a Terminator feel to it, which really is all about attitude.
Initially I photographed two of my friends posing with a T-Square under the fluorescent lights in my studio. The pictures were good but not great. I asked one of them to take a photo of me trying the pose and it turned out very well so I decided to use it to paint the cover. The cover of PowerBlade is actually a self-portrait of myself.
Wow, quite a revelation to end the interview! It’s been fascinating to say the least Michael, thank you for giving us your time today!
Thank you Adrian and Arcade Attack for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work!
I am currently finishing making a new book called “IF”.
“IF” is illustrated by me and written by my wife Renee’. It is a fun story of an unsung hero who is an aging court jester in a magical kingdom in the clouds. You can see the art of “IF” at my site:
Readers, you can keep up to speed with Michael’s developments on his Facebook page