Interview with Dave McKean on his Surreal and Arcane Art

Dave McKean is a groundbreaking multimedia artist whose work spans illustration, filmmaking, music, and direction.

David McKean is a talented artist known for his inventive use of various mediums, including traditional paint, digital art, collage, sketching, and photography. In addition to being a musician (pianist), sculptor, and film director, he is also a photographer. McKean developed an affinity for the arts at a young age. He studied at the Berkshire College of Art and Design, and during the last year when he started to make illustrations, he met Neil Gaiman with whom he established a collaboration. McKean’s illustrations for Gaiman’s books were acclaimed for their depth and breathtaking beauty. His designs, heavily reliant on painting and collage, are visually striking, conveying surreal, dreamy, and minimalist images. McKean’s work first caught the attention of editors at DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and Continuity Comics. He has since illustrated books by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Heston Blumenthal, and Grant Morrison. 

McKean works with a wide range of mediums, showcasing his belief that art should continually improve to benefit the public and art enthusiasts. In 1995, he wrote and illustrated “Voodoo Lounge,” a book released to coincide with The Rolling Stones’ album of the same name. McKean has received numerous honors, including five World Fantasy Award nominations in the “Artist” category, winning in 1991. His comic work “Cages” won the Alph-Art, Pantera, and Harvey Awards for best graphic novel. He has won three Spectrum Awards and been nominated six times in the book, comic, and advertising categories. McKean and Neil Gaiman won a 2004 BSFA Award for “Short Fiction” for “The Wolves in the Walls.” His film “MirrorMask” was nominated for a William Shatner Golden Groundhog Award for Best Underground Movie. “Luna” won the Raindance Award at the Möet British Independent Film Awards and Best British Feature at the Raindance Festival Awards.

Un Chien Andalou 2
Un Chien Andalou © Dave McKean

I read that you grew up in Berkshire and played the piano, as did your father. How has your passion for music influenced your art and creativity throughout your career?

My dad didn’t play professionally, but played for pleasure every day at home, so music was in the house, and I was encouraged to take lessons which gave some good technique, although I never learned to sight read. So my life choice at 18 was to go to art school or to go full time with the bands I was playing with, in the hope of getting a record deal. I ended up choosing the art path, partly because I could still play in the evenings, but also because I had a sense that I would never be a good enough player to be the world-standard jazz musician i wanted to be, but I thought I had a better chance of expanding the language of comics and illustration, so i jumped that way.

It was the right move, although when I got very busy in the late ’80’s, I missed playing even though I still practised every day. In the last ten years or so, I’ve enjoyed getting back to writing and composing for films and live projects, as well as playing festivals again with a couple of local bands. I work to music all the time, and I’ve found that if I’m spending a long time in the atmosphere and world of one project, and if I can find the appropriate music for that world, it allows me to get into the flow of the work much easier. I think a good comic should flow visually like a piece of music, you can flick through the book and get a sense of where the gentle moments are, where the crescendos are, where it’s spiky and atonal, and where it’s calm.

In 1987, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman worked together on the comic novel “Violent Cases.” This was followed in 1988 by a “Black Orchid” miniseries and “Hellblazer” covers for DC Comics.

sandman dave mc kean
Sandman © Dave McKean

What were the main challenges you faced at the beginning of your career? What lessons did you learn from your most challenging project?

The usual challenge is just letting people know you exist. When I started it was a pre-internet world, so I had to have a physical portfolio and take it to art director’s and editor’s offices. I was very lucky to get an early break at DC by just making some work to show. I did a short Mr X strip on spec and the publisher liked it and printed it. I made some comics with fellow students in art school and took them to London to sell at comic marts where they were seen by another art director who hired me to work on an anthology where I met Neil Gaiman. He’d written a short text story called Violent Cases which I turned into a comic. This was the work we showed DC when they visited London looking for new creators, and so the dominos fell.

Creatively, every new challenge is a steep learning curve but an opportunity to learn and play and find my own solutions to problems. The first moving picture work I did was hugely difficult. Shoots are always a struggle against the elements you can’t control. But on my second feature film I realised I was fighting the situation rather than rolling with it and improvising. You end up getting the best out of collaboration and circumstance by being adaptable and paying attention to what these new possibilities are, rather than going in with very restrictive preconceptions.

Dave McKean has also created album covers for many artists, including Counting Crows, Alice Cooper, Testament, Altan, Tori Amos, Download, Fear Factory, Front Line Assembly, Paradise Lost, Dream Theater, Stabbing Westward, Machine Head, Michael Nyman, and Skinny Puppy

Dave McKean portrait
© Dave McKean

You are known for combining various artistic styles and media in your mixed media works. How do you decide which elements to incorporate into a new project? How has your approach to mixing traditional and digital elements evolved throughout your career?  

In a way the process is always the same. There are ideas, emotions, and atmospheres to communicate. I simply try and imagine the most affecting way of capturing that content on paper. If it’s a story, usually the text gives you a strong idea of the style, colour, nature of the visuals that would compliment and express it in the strongest way. I’ve always loved playing with new technology, so my shift to working with a computer was natural. Photoshop allows a huge amount of play and control over the image. You can be bold and try many options quickly, it frees you up to explore an image fully. Generally I think the more computer manipulation you use, the more it smooths out to a state of plastic, so I still prefer to paint, draw or photograph my images, and then use the computer minimally to combine and blend elements, as well as control the colour and tone of the final work.

Global art fans concur that his use of dark hues in a range of forms and intensities gives the frame a distinctive assertiveness.

Your work frequently delves into dreamlike imagery and the subconscious. Have your own dreams ever directly influenced a specific piece?

Not much, I spend most of my life dreaming, or imagining, so I don’t really need to keep a dream diary for inspiration. Occasional dreams stay with me, and when they do it’s usually a narrative idea that sticks. Although I like exploring the ways we interpret the world through our imaginations, art and dreams, the way our minds work, I’m mostly fascinated by the real world, how we relate to each other, and how things really work.

Tell Tale Heart 2
© Dave McKean

You have collaborated with many notable authors. How do you balance their vision with your own perspective? How do you manage creative differences when working with other artists or writers? What are the biggest challenges and rewards of collaboration? How does the interplay between writer and artist influence the final piece?

I’ve been very lucky to work with collaborators who enjoy the equation of collaboration, that you end with something that is different from anything either one of you could do alone, 1 + 1 = 3. I try to understand what the author wants to communicate, and what is important to them in the text. I do want to serve their work well.

From the human body that he paints, one can feel the struggle, pain, emotions, and passion. Dave McKean puts all his passion and skill into creating muscles and tissues.

Slog dave mckean
Slog’s Dad, David Almond, Illustrated by Dave McKean © Dave McKean

But I also want to find something in the work for myself. I think the most interesting working relationship I’ve had is with David Almond. We’ve made four books together and although he’s written a perfectly cohesive text in each one, my visual element has changed. In one book, Slog’s Dad, quite radically changed the meaning of the work. And David seems to love this evolution of his words into another medium and another way of looking at things.

Slog’s Dad, David Almond, Illustrated by Dave McKean © Dave McKean

What are some unexpected sources of inspiration for you outside of traditional art and literature? Have unexpected events ever impacted your artistic path and creativity?

Travel is always inspiring, experiencing different places, cultures and people. I walk every morning, and the ritual and rhythm of that through the year has had a big impact on the type of work I want to do, and why I do it. I worked on two projects with Bill Mitchell and the Wildworks theatre company, and his way of growing a project in a very improvisational way has completely changed how I write and develop my own work.

He produced six drawings for the Royal Mail’s Mythical Creatures collection, which included representations of giants, dragons, unicorns, mermaids, pixies, and fairies, among other mythical creatures from British tradition. June 16, 2009, was the collection’s UK release date.

Ray Bradbury Dark Carnival Dave McKean
Dark Carnival, Ray Bradbury , illustrated by Dave McKean © Dave McKean

“Arkham Asylum,” in collaboration with Grant Morrison, is one of your celebrated works. What was your creative process for this project, and how did you approach the psychological depth of the characters?

The book started as a straight man-in-a-batsuit comic story. It had a more ambitious psychological Alice in Wonderland feel to it, and I felt we should fully commit to that, and turn it into a much more symbolic story, a dark dream, and ignore the usual way the characters are presented. This would be a stand alone story that quoted more from primitive religious iconography of man-animal spirits, and totemic archetypes. Once we’d agreed to go that way, I attacked each sequence in the way I thought best expressed what was happening and how the characters were thinking. In the end, I’m not convinced the flimsy children’s comic character of Batman was really a strong enough foundation for all the thematic layers piled on top.

Together with author Grant Morrison, McKean illustrated the Batman comic novel “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” in 1989. In hardcover and paperback, the book sold over 260,000 copies, making it a commercial success.

Your friendship and collaborations with Neil Gaiman have lasted for decades. What are some of your best memories and the most exciting challenges you have faced together? How have these experiences cemented your mutual esteem?

It’s always so different looking in from the outside. Neil and I worked together from ’86 (Violent Cases) to 2005 (Mirrormask), and we haven’t worked together since. When I was in art school I always wrote my own stories, so it was odd for me to have to work with a writer. I enjoyed it and it was good to start off with a confidant and collaborator, someone I could challenge and who would challenge me, and someone to gain experience with. But we were always very different people with completely opposite ideas of what we wanted to do and why we did it.

I think my biggest challenge was finding anything to get excited about doing Black Orchid, the one book from all 90 in my bibliography that I would happily delete. But a very important first lesson; if you’re going to spend a year of your life on something, make sure you really love it and believe in it.

McKean designed the covers for many of Gaiman’s spin-off series, including “The Sandman” between 1989 and 1997.

sandman dave mckean cover2
Sandman © Dave McKean

You illustrated all the Sandman comic covers for seven years, describing it as a diary that charted your evolving tastes and interests in different media. How do you respond to concerns expressed by some viewers about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ and Black characters in the Sandman Netflix series?

I have nothing to do with the Tv show apart from making some stand alone moving artworks for the end titles. I haven’t seen the show, and have no opinion on it or its casting. The comic covers were a pleasure to do, and I’m still very happy with the follow on series’ Dreaming and SM Presents. It was a world of work that had nothing to do with me emotionally, but allowed me to play in whatever media I was interested in at the time, colour copy machines, photography, multiple exposure, collage, and my first digital experiments. It did act as a diary of where I was and what I was interested in at the time. In that sense, it was strangely personal, probably why I still have a sort of proprietorial feeling towards it, but my personal connection to all that work has nothing to do with the characters or the stories.

Tales from Somnopolis
Tales from Somnopolis © Dave McKean

You have also ventured into film. Can you share a meaningful backstage story with us?

On Mirrormask, the only actor I had a tough time with was Gina McKee who played mum and the queen, and I don’t mind saying that because in the end she taught me the most valuable lesson in making film, and that’s not to treat my actors as if they are puppets or drawings in my sketchbook. They are creators in their own right and you get the best out of them if you are open enough to invite them into the creative process, and develop each scene with them. It sounds obvious, but I went into that film feeling I needed to know every detail of what would happen in advance.

Mirrormask poster
Mirrormask © Dave McKean

On Luna, I took that lesson on set, pre-planned almost nothing, and allowed it to evolve very naturally. I loved shooting Luna and had decided to shoot all the conversations with two cameras so I could keep the genuine connection between the actors going, and allow them to play and improvise if they wanted. I also realised at that time I tended to overwrite, I ended up cutting scenes right down to essentials. I also found that many natural and interesting moments happened during the tops and tails of a take, where the camera is running by the actors don’t think we’ve started yet, or they think it’s over. I found many little moments in those ends that made for more natural responses and pauses.

luna poster
Luna © Dave McKean

On The Gospel of Us, I really discovered the power of editing. I had ended up after three days with hours and hours of raw footage, a lot of which was compromised by the impossible shooting conditions and crowds. But there was a story to tell buried in all that material, and I took a year to shape my version of what occured in Port Talbot during that Easter weekend. Editing is my favourite and most creative time in the process of making a film.

Gospe of us lposter
The Gospel of us © Dave McKean

A.I. art generation is a growing field. Photography has not replaced painting.

That’s because photography can’t do everything that painting can do, so even though a few portrait painters lost work to photography, the art of painting moved on to what the camera cannot capture. AI is not a comparable issue.

Do you think concerns about programs like Midjourney stem from viewing them not as tools, like Photoshop, but as competitors? 

AI is a hugely powerful tool, but it’s not just a tool, any more than anti-social media is just a notice board. Neither are benign, they are huge social forces that affect politics, economics, social interaction and mental health, and now, the nature and definition of art and creativity. 

Is this fear linked to the global experience of job displacement? 

Tech always replaces human jobs, but that’s the least of my worries here.

How do you see A.I. impacting the world of illustration and graphic novels?

When I first became aware of AI generated imagery I was shocked and fascinated. I made a book called Prompt; Conversations with AI as a way of test driving it, learning what its strengths and weaknesses are, running some experiments to see how it thinks, so to speak, and then drawing all of this into some conclusions. A way of working out how I felt about this brave new world we suddenly find ourselves in.

The first thing to say is that the process of using AI by scraping other people’s work off the internet without their approval, or payment, or credit, is essentially unethical. So we all have a choice whether we work ethically or not.

Secondly, the stuff that AI generates does not meet my working definition of ‘art’. Art for me has one main reason to exist beyond simply being decoration in our lives, and that’s to allow us to see through each other’s eyes, minds and life experiences. A.I. understand nothing of this, it’s very badly named, it’s not intelligent, it’s just predictive. Also, the process of prompting AI to generate stuff is not a creative act by my definition. Creativity is not about pressing a button and getting an end result. Creativity is the process, the journey, it’s about testing yourself, taking paths along the way that surprise you. It’s about living and growing and learning. The end result is a by-product of this. typing six words into a bot, no matter how the techies would try and convince you that this is a skill, is a massively denuded idea of what constitutes creativity, and will never relate to the process of going out into the world, understanding something about how it works, and then developing a way of expressing those ideas through a chosen medium.

Nitrate folio 1
© Dave McKean

Now we can decide to change our definitions of art and creativity, but I think these are forces that are the foundation of who we are and how we think. It is a very dangerous game to play carelessly with these forces.

Thirdly, we are already seeing the appalling shadow side of the internet, how it is corrupting the notion of truth. AI will weaponize this.

And finally, it is too late to worry about it. I’m under no illusions that the values I’ve grown up with and that I’ve contributed to, will change, and in the case of AI, I fear, for the worse. Even though there will always be a few individual creators who will harness new technology in interesting ways, the net damage done to our basic sense of ourselves, how and why we make things and try and understand things through creativity and imagination, will be catastrophic. But Pandora’s box is open, and the fundamentalist tech evangelists will continue down this ideological dead end regardless.

the next in line dave mckean
© Dave McKean

Dave McKean’s official site and Instagram
Photos and illustrations courtesy of Dave McKean

Last Updated on June 27, 2024 by retrofuturista

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