Interview – Nic Dartnell – ELP’s debut album cover

RockPoP Gallery’s Mike Goldstein interviews artist Nic Dartnell about his painting used on Emerson Lake & Palmer’s debut album cover, released in 1970 on Island/Atlantic Records.

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Nic Dartnell had to consider himself a lucky man (you KNOW that I had to work that in somewhere, right?) when, at the age of 18 and serving as an assistant at an Edinburgh record store after studying painting at the Leicester Art School, his artwork was selected to be used on the cover of the debut album by recently-formed prog rock “supergroup” Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Once the line-up for the band had been finalized and their performance at the August, 1970 Isle of Wright Festival proved them to be a crowd-pleaser, Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun gave the go-ahead for their first release, on the Island Records imprint. When Nic’s boss, who was friendly with a partner at the label, heard that they were looking for artwork for the LP’s cover, he suggested that Nic send a painting he’d done to them for their review and the rest, they say, is history…

With such an auspicious beginning, you’d expect to see this as just the first step in a long career as an album cover artist. But, like so many creatives associated with the record industry have found out over the years, it takes more than just talent to thrive in an industry where questions about the use of an artist’s “intellectual property” can often be quite nebulous and, sadly (for us), this uncertainty can work to stifle what might otherwise, over the years, have been a fine portfolio of album cover art.

One of the most-interesting parts of my effort to create these interview articles for you is, of course, the research. Since many of the works of art I write about are from the “classic” era (1964 – 1979 or so, at least in my definition of the time), I have to hope that either/both the artists I’m interviewing have good memories and/or there’s a lot of detail available online. And, while many journalists are lulled into a false sense of security about the facts by turning to “trusted” sources such as Wikipedia, I’ve found – as is evidenced in today’s article – that sometimes it is best to go “straight to the source” to get to the truth. Armed with that information, I’m pleased to present this article to you today (I interviewed Nic in late May, 2012 at his studio in the U.K.).

In the words of the artist, Nic Dartnell –

In 1970, I was working at Bruce’s Record Shop in Edinburgh, Scotland. The shop was run by Bruce Findlay, who later became the manager of Simple Minds. Bruce’s shop imported American LPs well before their UK release dates and was quite a cult place to work.

Although I was an art school student, I was only vaguely aware of other contemporary artists working on record sleeves at that time. I was influenced by the general psychedelia that was happening at the time, and the cover art for the bands Quicksilver Messenger Service and Cream strongly influenced my opinion that paintings would look good on record sleeves. I came to the States and roamed around San Francisco, California and New Mexico. I did some private artwork for Arthur Lee and he wanted me to come and live in Los Angeles. Perhaps if I had done so I would have gotten more involved in Rock and Roll art but, around that time, I got more interested in European culture and artists like Magritte, Max Ernst, Duchamp and Miro. I also got interested in American East Coast artists like Rothko, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and Pollock.

Those were different times, especially here in stuffy old Britain, and there were clear demarcations between what was considered “fine art” and “graphic art”. If you wanted to paint record covers in Britain, you were a “graphic artist” and you were not expected to express yourself – you were just there to provide packaging. There was no respect shown to artists and there wasn’t much thought spent on developing images or themes. Klaus Voormann was the person who probably changed that way of thinking the most with the Beatles’ Revolver cover and then Peter Blake with the Sergeant Pepper cover. In my opinion, the best artist working at that time was Richard Hamilton and it is difficult to think of a better British artist since then.

I was basically interested in West Coast American music at the time, so the bird that was featured on my painting was vaguely inspired by the bird image that was used on Woodstock posters. Basically, it was a kind of “peace” image mixed together with a representations of “mind”, “thought” and “brain”. It took me about two or three weeks, I think, to complete the painting. There was no “high-tech” when I painted that picture. Things were so basic those days that we had to chew on sticks just to make our paint brushes – I’m kidding, of course! I just took a board, drew the image and painted it. I think the ear was the hardest bit. I do remember accidentally laying a cloth on it while the paint was still wet and then having to repaint quite a lot of it. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t very high tech in those days – just a scruffy young artist, in love and doing his own thing. Now, I’m just as scruffy, a lot older and a bit more high tech, in love with someone different, still doing my own thing.

BIRD
(Nic Dartnell’s 1970 painting “Bird”)

Bruce had worked in London and knew David Betteridge of Island Records and after he’d seen my painting, he suggested I send it to them. Evidently, they showed the painting to ELP and then David called me and asked if they could use it. I didn’t know much about ELP before they used the painting.

Afterwards, I had a brief conversation with Greg Lake and asked him who was going to design the cover. He said that he assumed I was, but that was all I ever heard. I was a young lad and had very little idea of how these things worked. The record label people were not interested in talking to me at all. I thought I’d be involved in the design of the sleeve and I really was amazed that it was not used as a gatefold. (considering the way the image works). Quite honestly, I was very disappointed with the result – especially the lettering and how it is stuck inside the wings of the bird – a typical example of insensitive British graphic design. The print quite clearly should have been a gatefold cover. I think it was a gatefold in Germany and I remember seeing a European cover that was printed with better colors.

All in all I thought the print quality and lettering on the sleeve really didn’t represent or compliment my original painting. In the end, they didn’t pay me anything like enough money, and I had expected to get the painting back, but I never did. As a result, I’m thinking of publishing an edition of high quality art prints of the painting for sale internationally if for no better reason than to set the record straight about what a ‘vibrant’ image my original painting really is.

After the ELP episode, when I finished College, I moved down to London and got more involved with record companies, where I did a number of other rock-and-roll projects including a couple of paintings for Genesis that were used as box set sleeves for some special albums sold at their Earl’s Court gig just after Peter Gabriel left the band. I also did some artwork and photographs for my good friend Arthur Lee of Love (sadly, he’s no longer with us) and then found myself exposed to the nastiness of the “work for hire” side of the publishing business which, ultimately, drove me completely away.

At the time I decided to stop doing record covers I was working on a sleeve for a band called “Starry Eyed and Laughing” (a Byrds-style “copy” band from the UK) who did two records with CBS. I was half-way through doing the sleeve when the band showed up at my house and started making all kinds of criticisms. We then had a meeting at CBS where half a dozen overblown egos engaged in a “slanging match” around the office and, as a result, they decided to abandon my artwork. The sleeve art that was eventually used was, in my opinion, uninspired. After that. the Art Director at CBS wanted me to work on a series of classical albums they were publishing. I think he had ideas of taking me “in house” at CBS, but I didn’t want that.

Around that same time, a guy from another company asked me to paint a sleeve for Hawkwind. When we finally discussed the details of the project, it was clear that he expected me to put a painting together in four days. In addition, I was also involved with an arts agency that hired me to paint book covers and, while I got a couple of good commissions from them, I got frustrated with that because I didn’t get to meet the clients to discuss project details with them, so I was always working with second-hand information. It seemed that, whenever I was involved in work for publishers, it was always at arm’s length. After I did the work for Genesis I was asked to do a cover for the Genesis album Trick of the Tail, but I didn’t get any guidance of what the band wanted and didn’t get to speak to the band so, in the end, I think the cover they used – someone else’s work – was quite interesting, but it was disappointing for me because I realized I had been doing something quite separate from what they wanted.

I began to realize I was the kind of person who had something in his head that he wanted to say – just not necessarily to the world at large. I just wanted to do it so I started painting privately and not really with the idea of exhibiting or anything like that.

It was at that point that I thought “forget it, I’ll just go and paint my own stuff”, which is exactly what I did. After that, I didn’t really even exhibit – I just painted until in the 1990s when I met Sonja, my current partner/lover, who encouraged me to exhibit the work I had been doing, and that is why I’m back to exhibiting these days.

My artwork draws on influences from a variety of cultures. In general, I identify as strongly with poets, musicians, song-writers, etc. as with visual artists. In fact, I often struggle to understand visual artists. When I think of the careers of the artists who have done well in the field – that is, those who work corporately – I think that the end result of this sort of commission has been that the art has tended to end up looking “corporate” and repetitive. Roger Dean did loads of covers but, to me, they all looked very similar. Storm Thorgerson and H.R. Giger have done several covers as well, with Giger’s very well done, but a bit Teutonic.

With the exception of these few – generally speaking – paintings used on album covers have been done by band members or friend’s of the band and so often this has led to the artwork not being very “high quality” from a technical point of view. Maybe that is a good thing, and maybe album covers should be more personal to the band and less like branding. From a fan’s standpoint, maybe they should be like sitting in the musician’s bedroom with their stuff around you, providing something like a personal link to their lives. Captain Beefheart’s paintings are not exactly great, technically, but they look good on his albums. Sometimes “snapshot” covers – the ones that look like someone’s holiday photos – can be the most effective sleeves for their music.

I’ve been thinking recently that it would be good if .jpg files of images and paintings were put onto CDs along with the music and attached to individual tracks downloaded from iTunes so that they would come up as screensavers on your computer screen as the track was playing. This would provide a nice new medium for artists to play with and give more scope for art to be seen. The images could then link to artists’ web sites so that people could see more of the things they like. I love having a web space that gives people immediate access to my pictures.

I’d like to take a moment and dispel a rumor that, according to Wikipedia, the image is somehow linked to the LA band Spirit. The fact is that, at the time I painted the ELP “Bird”, I also painted a portrait of Spirit which I sent to them in LA. A very similar bird was featured in the corner of that painting. I got a message from Spirit to say that if they had received their painting in time they would have put it on the back of 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus. I became friendly with Randy California over the years and I took the photograph that is on his 1982 12″ EP All Along the Watchtower (see below). The bald image in “Bird” has no connection to Ed Cassidy of Spirit and doesn’t look anything like him. Ed still has the Spirit portrait – so I’m told.

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As a post-script to my recollections about my painting used on the first ELP cover – I met ELP in Glasgow at a gig some months after the painting had been accepted for use as a record sleeve. The show in Glasgow was the only time I met the band, but Greg Lake called me in 2010. I can’t remember why, but I do remember that it was because my friend Johnny Black (the journalist) had mentioned me to him. I liked Greg when I met him back in Glasgow and he sounded just as pleasant when he called me all those years later. It was also the only time in my life anyone – one of their fans, in fact – asked for my autograph.

(Editor’s note – Nic has recently come to terms with ELP regarding this image and will be working with them to publish and sell an edition of signed, fine art prints via the ELP website later this Summer. More details will be made available on his website – www.nicdartnell.com)

About the artist, Nic Dartnell (in his own words) –

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I began painting in oils at age 13. I attended the Leicester Art School (Foundation) in 1968-69 and then attended Newcastle Art School from 1970-73. In 1973, I was a prize winner in the Stowells Trophy and exhibited my works in the Mall Gallery, London. In 1973, I moved to live and work in Hackney (North London). During the 1970s, I continued to work and exhibit, with highlights including special showings in London and Hackney.

I stopped painting in oils in the 1980s and, funded by the British Academy, I studied the art of Navajo sand-painting at Goldsmith’s College at the University of London, culminating in 1989 when I created a Navajo sand painting on the floor of the Kunsthaus in Essen, Germany, where I also lectured and exhibited various examples of Navajo art.

During the 1990s, I started painting in oils again and made a series of paintings based on photographs of children with whom I was working in Hackney titled “Children of the Future”. I then put together a general collection of my work called ‘Silent Songs’ and have used this as the general title for my work ever since. Throughout the periods listed above, I travelled regularly within the USA and Germany and in 2002, I moved to Bristol, where I currently live and work.

HendrixGypsy
(Nic Dartnell’s painting “Gypsy”)

In the late 1990s-early 2000s, I exhibited a wide variety of images at shows throughout the UK and, in 2007, launched my first website at www.nicdartnell.com. Since then, I’ve continued to exhibit and, most-recently, have had a show titled “Child and Flute-Player” at the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bristol.

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(Nic Dartnell works on “Earth & Sky”)

I have also had a particularly good painting on show at Amnesty International’s offices in London for the past year and, this summer, I am about to exhibit at the Blackheath Gallery in London.

Moving to Bristol, I have not been able to work with children as much as I’d like, so now I work with adults, particularly Somalis, and I also have a job with the City of Bristol College supporting students, particularly those who have difficulty with their English, helping them to get through their courses. This is fine because it involves me in the social life of the city and makes me feel valued and that I am contributing to the community.

I don’t drive, but I have a motorbike on which I can ride out into the countryside. I am able to live more simply here and this kind of fits in with my philosophy of going my own way with my art and not having to conform to traditional patterns simply to make money. There are quite long periods when I
don’t paint at all but when I do, I actually sit and talk through scenarios as though I am acting out to a play on the radio, but not in any consistent form.

It all goes back to that original motivating force during my childhood of playing with toy soldiers on the carpet, talking to myself and acting out scenarios and other worlds. It’s like as if it comes from somewhere else – it’s really just “a focusing thing”. I like where it takes me and, when I am working on an area of, say, four square inches, that’s actually where I go. The whole image comes together as a picture but at any given time my world is in those small spaces all over the painting.

It can be quite frightening and intense, especially working in oils, because something in a painting – which eventually must end up as one whole image – can go wrong and then you find yourself sitting there, trying to work out just why it has gone wrong and remonstrating with yourself for getting so upset because, after all, it’s only paint on paper.

But when it does all go right, it takes you into intellectual, spiritual and God knows what areas and then it’s just good to be there. So that’s about all I can tell you.

If you’d like to see more of Nic’s work, please visit his website at www.nicdartnell.com, or send him an email at nicdartnell@blueyonder.co.uk

About UnCovered

Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “The Making Of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each UnCovered feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.

All images featured in this UnCovered story are Copyright 1970 – 2012 Nic Dartnell – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2012 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) – All rights reserved.

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