Warwick Fraser-Coombe: 2010 Cover Artist
Warwick Fraser-Coombe: Noughts and Crosses
Interview by James Worrad
Interzone has the right artist for every occasion. And if Adam Tredowski is its utopianist visionary, Jim Burns its planetary romantic, then its post-apocalypse king must surely be Warwick Fraser-Coombe.
Warwick’s figures strut through the wreckage of today-made-yesterday, hefting Bren guns and leering through face protectors. Check out the cover of issue 218 and you’ll see exactly what I mean – it’s our world, but with the safety catch broken.
That said, it’s not all rust and radiation. Far from it. You only have to consider the illustration for Tim Lees' 'Corner of the Circle' (issue 218) with its spacecraft jumping into Manhattan, or the surgical terror-show that accompanies Carlos Hernandez’ 'Exvisible' (issue 211), to appreciate Fraser-Coombe is an artist with impressive range. What unites all his work is a vibrant and unmistakable style. British SF should be shouting about this guy right now. A lot. He’s easily amongst the best we possess.
Interzone readers can’t have missed Warwick's front covers over the past year – six spiky images that combine into one huge image called Playground (Hide and Seek). It’s arguably the apex of all his themes within Interzone – sharply comic, full of kinetic appeal and brimming with that trademark sensadestruction.
I should explain that I am interviewing Warwick because of this very picture. A while back now, I posted some theories on the forums over at SFF Chronicles about what all those noughts and crosses might signify. I sensed a hidden message. In short, that all the bad guys’ games were essentially unwinnable in nature, whereas the goodies’ graffiti-daubed counterparts held the promise of victory. A battle stasis between progress.
My attempt at being the fanboy answer to Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code didn’t go unnoticed. The guys at TTA passed on Warwick’s phone number to me. The following Monday, I pressed him for answers and – despite simultaneously enduring Brighton’s traffic, rancid weather and drunken, bellowing yobs – Warwick obliged.
So was I right at all? Even a bit?
You were quite close, actually. I’d certainly intended for the ‘evil’ side’s noughts and crosses games to have been played to a standstill whereas the kids games are still open.
It was an instinctive process, though. I didn’t think about it quite as consciously as you. I just wanted the whole image to have this playground aspect to it.
How did the offer to illustrate six covers come about?
Andy [Cox, Interzone editor] asked me if I’d like to produce a year’s worth of Interzone covers much like Adam Tredowski did in 2009. A heck of a challenge, because Adam really pulled it out of the bag last year, with some truly astounding images.
I wracked my brains over it because I knew I’d have to push the boundaries and come up with something really different. I thought about it for a couple of days, really letting my mind go, and I woke up in the middle of the night, with the linked covers idea nearly fully formed. Everything clicked into place. I reasoned that, if nothing else, it would ensure that I’d get to do all the covers. Once I'd started they’d have to let me finish it!
Thanks. But Andy took a real gamble on me with this one, because he didn't know what the final image would look like, or even what direction I was heading in, because I was sending them out one at a time. There was a lot of trust on his part, for which I’m very grateful.
How on Earth did you go about it? The planning alone…
It was definitely a learning curve. I had the entire thing sketched out, then approached each of its six panels individually over the course of 2010.
Some were more planned out than others. For instance, panels four and five – which later became the covers of issues 229 and 230 – were only rough ideas in my head until I actually started them.
Altogether, it was a mammoth project. Now it’s finished I want to move on in a new direction.
Time for that dreaded question. Where did you get the idea from?
A lot of images dredged up from my childhood. The noughts and crosses, obviously. You probably noticed all the toys and playground stuff in there. I wanted it to be real fantasy adventure stuff. Who didn't dream about fighting giant robots and spaceships when they were at school?
Hell yeah. The last frame (issue 231) has a King Kong feel about it.
I was thinking more of the Iron Giant – a child in a robot’s hand. I wanted that last cover to be a sort of punch line. You get the first cover, then the next and it’s like a story, a mystery you have to unravel as each issue appears. Each frame adding another clue. And it sort of gets quite dark, quite bleak near the end. The little girl skews everything that came before, warps expectations.
The centre piece is the robot, of course. But the picture contains a lot of ideas that I had knocking around in my head for a while.
What are the techniques used in Playground (Hide and Seek)? It seems fairly old school (if you’ll pardon the pun). Is it entirely painted?
It’s impossible in this trade not to use digital techniques, unfortunately. Not today. But I like to keep to the original disciplines where I can. So it’s a mixture of traditional and digital media.
For the cover of issue 227 I taught myself a 3D art programme, a challenge I’ve been meaning to take on for some time. Always wanted to do 3D spaceships. I use a lot of reference models too.
What’s the process for illustrating stories at Interzone?
Andy will send me a sample batch of stories and I’ll look for something that gets my creativity going.
You look for the right image?
Yes. If nothing pops out I move on to the next story. But, hey, you’ve read Interzone. You’d be hard pressed to find anything more image-intense. I’m spoilt for choice.
Is there an Interzone writer whose stories you particularly enjoy illustrating?
I don't think I play favourite. I enjoy all the stories I illustrate for Interzone; I wouldn't do them otherwise, and it's always good to become immersed in as many different writing styles, perspectives and worlds as possible, because you build a fertile imaginative breeding ground.
There are running themes in your images. Rust, collapsed walls, gas masks. Is it fair to say you’re in love with desolation?
Yeah. The same can’t be said for some of my old art tutors, unfortunately.
You served as a Rifleman in the Parachute Regiment during the Iraq war…
In the south, the Ramallah oil fields mainly, and Basra. I’m from a military family. I joined the Parachute Regiment Reserve out of boredom, out of not knowing what to do after university, and got mobilised. I had some good times, though.
I have to wonder if your tour there didn’t have some effect on your themes.
It’s not an influence. I’d like to say it was but my artwork was as dark then, before I went, as it is now.
You’re also a writer, having written several novels and film scripts. Is the process of creating it similar to that of your art?
Absolutely, without a doubt. I’m afraid nothing's been published thus far – perhaps agents don’t get on with all that desolation! I did get a story shortlisted for the Orange New Voices competition a few years back, though, which was very pleasing.
The problem with writing is it’s a lot harder to get noticed. You’re just a manuscript to the people you send it to, and they all look alike. Someone has to pick it up and read it. With artwork it's different, it’s immediate. Wham! There you are. People know in a second if they want it or not.
And then there’s your comic stuff, too…
The Revenger concept work, which is currently a work in progress, is a personal project, an attempt to completely develop my own characters and brand. You’ll find it on my blog. I'll be developing it further, if time permits, and at the moment I'm having a lot of fun with it.
On my website there’s some comic work I did for Sony Commuter Entertainment Europe, some black and white, gritty underworld stuff. The project got scrapped in the end, what with the present economic situation. A lot of companies are cutting back right now, choosing to use stock images and the like. It’s a bad time for freelancers.
I guess things are tough all over.
The trick is to keep being adaptable and noticed. In the latter respect Interzone has been a fantastic billboard.
But I’ll take on work from all angles. I did some pictures for a barber shop recently, a whole series of staff portraits.
Ha! I’m really trying to imagine that!
Don’t worry – there’s no barbed wire or ruins or anything!
Any advice for budding artists out there?
Learn the basics. Anyone can use Photoshop, but companies look for good traditional drawing skills in a freelance artist. You’ll get found out if you don’t have them.
Oh, yes, and stick with it.
Finally, you mentioned something about wishing to move on from what you've been doing in Playground (Hide and Seek), having fully explored it. Where do you see your artwork going next?
Hopefully I'm going to try and lighten up some of the themes in my work. But we'll see how that pans out, because there are elements that I just keep coming back to, and sometimes this does seem to be beyond my conscious control. I also want to try and loosen up my style a bit and become a little less reliant on obsessive detail and photo reference. But again, we'll see, because it’s going to be hard since all that's firmly ingrained in my work. But I'm always looking for fresh challenges.
Expect a change of colour palette as well. No more moody yellow skies and post apocalyptic purple tinged foregrounds. At least for a little while.
Playground (Hide and Seek) is now available to purchase as a high quality print. The print is a full size (60.6cm x 55.8cm) signed and numbered limited edition, on either gloss photographic paper or matt watercolour paper, priced at £75 plus p&p. Order yours direct from the artist via the link below.
Thanks to Jim Worrad for conducting this interview.
Section items by date: