Interviewed October 2013 by Adam Gidney
BOX=ART – Hi David! How did you get into the industry?
David John Rowe - I bumped into Nick Lambert, who told me about his company Quicksilva who were starting to do colour covers on the cassettes up for sale on the Spectrum. He said would I like to try and do one, and I thought crikey yes! I put a lot of work into it. It was The Chessplayer, I did loads of rough sketches, which I still own. So I did those and they were quite successful and I went on to do a range for Quicksilva, I was one of three artists they used, who were Steinar Lund and Rich Shenfield.
From there I would go on to the Horticultural Hall in Westminster to the ZX Spectrum fairs, the Alley Pally, with a folder of actual commercial work with printed examples and went to see other people. There was Melbourne House, Interface Books – I did loads of covers for them, Addison Wesley, I found that they were doing books of computing that had a keyboard and grey box and a monitor on the front, how stimulating is that! And they liked the idea of doing fantasy art that was bursting out of the screen. I went to Electronic Arts to their small office by Langley station which had its own warehousing so they did their own distribution, and there I met Joss Ellis (head of EA’s European division) who would go on to do other things.
He called me in one day and said I had to go into the room upstairs and into a room covered off with blinds and a keypad. None of the staff were allowed in there except for Joss and one or two others. I went in there and I was shown the alpha for Populous and was given a copy of it to take away under strict guidance. I even went to see the Bullfrog guys (Populous developers), they were in some beaten up old tenement down in Guildford next to a bridge and the room was full of computer carcasses that I had to step over and they showed me more of the game there, and I came up with some roughs and sketches and eventually did the artwork for it.
After Quicksilva folded you didn’t struggle finding box art work? You’d made a name for yourself by that point?
That’s right, I just followed the trail. Quicksilva was bought by Argus Press Software that had offices around the back of Liberty’s in London and I went up there and carried on doing a fair bit of work for them. I met Jane Cavanagh, she was working there and she went on to work for Telecomsoft, as did Joss Ellis from EA, so I did a whole series [of box arts] for them. They’d bought Beyond Software and I did quite a few covers for them (Bounces, Infodroid, Dante’s Inferno).
So would it be correct saying that before Quicksilva there wasn’t much in the way of coloured box art in England?
Well before Quicksilva you did have a couple of companies but they were photocopied covers and that was what was sold up at the Horticultural Hall. When I first met Quicksilva, they were selling character boards and sound generators for the (Spectrum) ZX 81, so instead of just having X’s and Y’s bouncing across the screen they built characters and sounds. They worked on the version of Defender (Space Intruders) and that came out on the Spectrum and they started doing colour covers and selling them in WH Smiths.
Frenzy was one of your box arts?
That’s right, with the bright red robot. I realised by that time that what the covers had to do was act as a point of sale. [I wanted] people looking around the shop shelf to look at it and it would grab them enough so that they would read the back of the box.
People said to me in interviews with magazines, “Well, if it’s just a bunch of eight pixels going across the screen how do you get [the final box art] out of it?”. And I’d say “well, is that all you see? Because I don’t, you’re actually living a robot war!” Some of the art is probably naïve but it was genuine and from the heart and I think that’s what people cottoned on to.
Did you have to be conscious of your box arts appealing to other counties when creating them?
Well, I know that Rob Cousens, CEO at Codemasters came into Quicksilva and turned them into a real business. He went out to Spain and sold Flea and Fred (Quicksilva games), so I had to be aware that I was doing inlays in foreign languages as well, but that’s about it.
What was your favoured art media and how did you create a box art in the early days?
First of all I’d do the drawing rough, work it out to scale, and transfer it to an illustration board, mask off all the detail so there was perhaps just a gradient skyline, and use Magic Colour acrylic inks. Once I’d done the airbrushing and covered the whole piece, I’d start working with fine brush work, coloured pencils, and then gently rubbing off the dried acrylic paint with a typewriter rubber to reveal an effective highlight. I’d then take it off to the photographers to turn it into a 5X4 transparency.
Later on did your style or the way you created box art change, especially with the coming of computer art?
In those days I’d work about 12-inch sq for a cassette inlay, which was quite a big increase and always with space to the left to accommodate the spine and the little flap at the back. Then of course it became bigger box art with 18-inch posters and promotion, so I went up to 18-inch artworks and even A1 (size canvas). God knows why, they’re really cumbersome. I never did use computer art on box art though.
How did you come into contact with Psygnosis?
I did a lot of work with Roger Dean (Psygnosis’ first box artist) after I left art school [as] did my wife. Doing lots of work for Paper Tiger (Dean’s publishing company), and I think there could have been some introductions, but it could’ve just been the trade fairs and following up by quickly seeing them in Liverpool docks [where] I got commissioned. I remember a lovely [art piece] I did one Christmas was a drawing for Lemmings 2. I did all the little characters making mayhem in the instructions book. That was fun! I also did a promo piece that was used in an American mag where I used myself as a model and sat at a computer with lemmings bursting [out of the screen] and climbing up my hair!
Were you the character designer in your work for the James Pond series (Robocod, The Aquatic Games)?
There were so many versions of that [game series]. Robocod was a mixture of the classic Bond with the gun pose and Robocop with the armour, I certainly came up with that one and there were others that came after. I remember saying [to the developers] “don’t keep using different [artists], settle on what you want and keep it consistent”.
What about Speedball, how did you come up with that one?
I met up with the Bitmap Brothers and looked at a copy of [the game]. I really enjoyed that game. I actually sold the original print to someone in Norway who also wanted Delta by Thalamus. It was done on A1. I liked the artist who did the sequel to Speedball, someone Bisley… (Glen Fabry). I liked his work, very good. Him and Bob Wakelin at Ocean. Bob Wakelin branded Ocean, absolutely classic. A great illustrator and did a lot of Ocean box arts, their credibility was based on professionalism. I never met him though, I knew Steinar (Lund) well and Rich (Shenfield).
Did you find that later in your box art career more was expected of you when you were dealing with larger development teams with bigger budgets?
Well, what eventually happened was that the publishers would go to design agencies for all their packaging. The budgets got bigger, they didn’t want to arrange it themselves, they just contracted it out to these design companies. It got more and more remote.
Do you remember the last box art you completed?
It was one for Neo Software in Austria. They’ve been absorbed into Ubisoft now. What was the name for it (Dark Universe, 1995)? It was a space station above a globe planet with three spaceships banking around the back and spraying out the front. It was really coming out of the page and into your face! I also did the logo for it .
I’ve also got a Risky Woods logo (EA game for the Sega Mega Drive), one of my better ones I thought. I used to do lots of logos and scan them in [on to the finished box art]. You never did them on the original artwork.
So it was the role of the box artist to do the logo as well back then?
Well it was certainly a job I was asked to do a lot; they must have liked what I was doing! I came up with quite spectacular logos sometimes. They weren’t run of the mill…
Looking at modern box art it could be argued that the lack of traditional media detracts from what you and your fellow box artists were creating. Would you agree?
Well, I think partly that but also I think it was… I was enthralled the whole time, it was so exciting, and because the games were so new your imagination just flew! There was this feeling of the air under your wings and all this enthusiasm, and an optimism for all the work I did. Some was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but everyone was having fun and I think some of that fun has gone now.
I think the artwork is very clever now, but you get these muscled, sweaty men covered in grime, and he’s got a gun and he’s looking hard. How many of those do you see? And they’re all in khaki camouflage colour, that’s quite flat. But it’s all very clever, a lot of bump mapping, 3D artwork that involves a lot of processing.
The role of a box artist today goes beyond just the cover and includes various art duties. It must be a harder role to fulfil compared to when you started out.
Yeah, you do get another level which is the concept artist, which is a role that would suit me. There’s nothing I love more than a blank sheet, chucking paint at it and finding the energy that goes into it, the composition, the dynamics. I find that the really exciting part!
What reasons made computer art so popular for the box artist?
Well cost would be one. I use Photoshop every day. I have to say that to get an air brush creation just right you have to get the room as dust free as possible, but you still have to pick out little bits of fluff and perhaps touch them in lightly to get the gradient. Now it’s just two clicks of a button. Also the colours, the hue and saturation, you’ve got so much control.
As an artist that acts as a huge amount of freedom. You have to make cold fast decisions when using paint because when it’s done, it’s done. Or you have to scrap it and start again. Of course everything is so variable now, you can put all the controls into each layer (in Photoshop) and you can make twenty box arts out of one artwork.
Do you not miss working on jobs that require traditional media?
I suppose if I really, really missed it I would be doing it! Maybe I will one day.
What traditional artists and box artists have been an inspiration to you over the years?
Well, certainly Drew Struzan (LucasFilms/Arts, poster/ box artist). I did Fred which was a spoof on Indiana Jones, the character in the foreground is based on Rod Cousens (Codemasters’ CEO), who was running Quicksilva at the time and the characters in the hieroglyphics are the Quicksilva staff. I would do something an awful lot closer to Drew Struzans if I did that one again.
There was another guy, a Japanese artist whom I forget his name. He did a lot of chrome work, something that these days is quite easy on Maya and Photoshop where you can get all the reflections and lighting perfect. But these guys were actually drawing it themselves!
Tim White (Amnios, Infestation, The Killing Game Show) was a big influence, any spaceship I did was definitely inspired by his work. Painters: Patrick Woodroffe and Philip Castle, the airbrush artist. I grabbed anything [of theirs] with airbrush in it and work out how they did it. John Sergent, I love his charcoal portraits, I used to do a fair bit of that myself.
Finally, what is the favourite box art you created?
I did enjoy creating Shadow of the beast III, I must say. I worked hard on getting the depth in the trees as they went back into all that fire. Obviously I have a very soft spot for The Chessplayer being the first game cover I did, and Populous was important. I went back and showed Bullfrog time and time again and everyone was very positive apart from one guy who said it just looked like a golf divot. He apologised to me sometime later because it sold so well and I remember that he was quite embarrassed! I thought it was all in good fun, I didn’t mind at all!