Arik Roper’s Mind-Altering Art and Illustrations

By Jason Thibault

Arik Roper is an artist who transcends time. You stumble across his art and you think you’ve found some long-lost illustrations from the late 60’s to mid 1970’s era. Yet somehow his work perfectly complements the various album covers and concert posters of modern-day rock and metal groups. He is endlessly toiling with new materials and techniques it is of no surprise that his art is growing in popularity.

What inspired you to first start drawing? Did you struggle in your formative years or did it come easy to you?

I started drawing around age 3. Both my parents were artists. My mother was an illustrator and graphic designer and my father was a painter and sculptor, so the influence came from them and the environment in which I was grew up. They always encouraged me. There was never a question as to what I wanted to pursue – it was always art. My formative years, when I was trying out different styles and emulating things I liked, progressed fairly smoothly. In retrospect I can see different phases I went I went through as I learned. I started out on the 1960s Mad magazines, and underground comix ( my father’s collection). Later it was Heavy Metal mag, Iron Maiden covers, Vaughn Bode, some skateboard art and so on. At first I somewhat emulated my favorite art as most people do when they’re young, but over the years I think I’ve distilled it into a more unique thing although some of the early influences are so deep that they show at times.

First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.

I’m not sure if this would be considered “professional” since I didn’t actually get paid for it but one of my first published pieces of work was a comic in the third issue of Grand Royal magazine in 1994. I met the editor Bob Mack when he visiting New York through some friends. We hung out one night, went to bars , acted crazy, had a blast and ended up staying in touch for a time after that. He asked me to contribute to the magazine, so I submitted a primitive one panel comic which was used. I later did another for the next issue ( I think it was the next issue) but some others at the magazine weren’t into it because it was insulting to owners of pit bulls- it was basically just a parody strip about how people who own pit bulls as a status symbol are idiots. I think the magazine folded soon after, for different reasons I assume.

Were you self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)

I learned a lot from my mother. She started as a fashion illustrator then became a commercial illustrator in the 1970s, when they had to actually draw advertisements and do it all manually. She was good at creating anything. Her style definitely influenced mine. I picked up a lot of technique from her and started using her markers and paper. She also had volumes of art books laying around the house for reference which I was exposed to. By the time I got to The School of Visual Arts I had been into drawing and coloring for many years and was well on my way. In school I was exposed to other mediums like painting, figure and life drawing, silk-screening, etc, so in that sense school helped but most of what I learned happened when I was younger.

Tools of the trade: Taking a quick glance over at your pens, brushes etc…what tools have you mainly been using over the last few years?

These days I use a crow quill pen, Micron markers, various watercolor and acrylic paint brushes, plus other watercolor pattern making tools like sponges.

How has your toolbox evolved compared to when you first started out?

I used to work with permanent markers like Prismacolor, sharpies, etc., but the fumes were too much, plus they’re limited in regards to what you can achieve. Now I’m into permanent inks, watercolors and gouache. These give me the effect I was looking for with markers- deeply saturated but much more versatile. I’ve been moving more into painting lately too.

Favorite brand of ink:

Dr Ph Martins Radiant Concentrated and Transparent water color inks are what I’ve been into lately. I’ve been also using various brands of gouache for some opacity.

Type of paper:

I use primarily Arches Cold Press 300 lb paper. Sometimes the 140 lb Hot Press also. The Cold Press heavyweight type works best for me because I use a lot of layering, I mix the colors into the paper and do washes so I need the paper to hold up. The Arches is good at this, it gets soaked and dries into a nice deep tone. If I’m doing a sharper illustration in which there’s a black outline for example, then the smooth Hot Press is better. If it’s a single sheet, I get it wet then iron it out to keep it from warping and tape it down on a board.

Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?

Just to name a few: Edmund Dulac, Ivan Bilibin, Augustus Knapp, Gustave Dore, Theodor Kittelsen, Heath Robinson, Robert Pepper, Richard Corben, Frazetta, Berni Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Ian Miler, Julek Heller, Rodney Matthews, Roger Dean, Greg Irons, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Dickinson, Giger, Ernst Fuchs, Rick Griffin, Barney Bubbles, R Cobb, Bruce Pennington, George Hardie, Phillipe Druillet, V Courtlandt Johnson, William Stout. There are many contemporaries who I admire as well, too many to get into here.

Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job. Could you give us a quick overview of your process?

Fortunately I get to be creative with a lot of my work, meaning that I get to come up with the imagery on my own. Sometimes brainstorming can take a while. I spend some time thinking about the concept or client and what I want to represent with it. I try to take cues from the client, a band for example, I’ll use the music to guide me. Sometimes I’ll get into researching ideas or themes, I’ll read about the history of some theme that I’m working on. I sketch out ideas for a while until I get something I like then go to the final. The rest of the process varies depending on the project and style. I’ve lately been working in a style in which I don’t draw the image in black line, I use only inks to make the scene a more realistic style. That’s a whole other way of thinking for me, because I have to think about the order in which I lay down the colors, and use the ink and water to create effects. It requires a little more patience and consideration.

What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?

On the turntable sits The End of the Game, by Peter Green.

What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?

I can’t say it’s necessarily my favorite but it ranks high on my list, it’s a poster print of a painting titled A Walk Through the World of Drugs by John Pitre. A friend gave it to me from his collection. It’s a scene of some naked shaggy looking young men and women basking in a world made of phantasmagorical oversized pills, mushrooms, cocaine and pot leaves. It’s really a beautifully done oil painting with incredible detail and amazing psychedelic renderings plus it’s insane in concept, which I like of course. I’d never heard of Pitre but after researching him, I discovered he’s a huge talent.

I also have a screen printed poster which is apparently from the 70s by an Israeli artist named Shoher ( it’s in the fine print ) that depicts Jesus on the cross wearing a gas mask and all kinds of demonic post apocalyptic chaos surrounding him , and the words “And Then Came Smoke”.

What’s the last novel you read and last movie that you saw that you’d recommend? Which movies and books do you always return to?

Most of my life I’ve been reading nonfiction (except for Philip K Dick) but over a year ago I read Dune for the first time. I never got around to reading it when I was younger, and I’m glad I didn’t because it blew me away after reading it at this age. I think I related to it more and had some reference points for it that made it all the more outstanding to me. It’s so incredibly psychedelic, I can’t believe no one told me before. I heard from a firsthand source that Frank Herbert created the story from his psilocybin experiences and that certain characters and the overall vibe of the story are directly influenced by the mushroom lore and biology – and it shows. Dune has some of the most spot-on altered state descriptions I’ve ever read, it’s a heavyweight masterpiece to be sure. I saw the David Lynch film version as a kid, I liked it but didn’t quite get it. It’s an interesting film but of course it’s hugely abbreviated and a bit frustrating because of it.

Another inspiring book is the Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall, the giant tome of occult and secret sciences through history. That stuff get’s my mind on its’ feet.

Solaris by Tarkovsky is one of my favorite movies and it’s always inspiring. Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and El Topo are classics in my world as well, the symbolism and humor are amazing.

Current and upcoming projects?

I’m currently working on art for my show which opens in late October at the Fuse Gallery here in New York. After that I start thinking about the new High on Fire album art, and some other projects including a graphic novel idea that a friend and I are developing. I’d like to get into animation but since I don’t yet have the skills to do it alone, I think I’d need to collaborate with someone.

What would you tell an aspiring artist who is working his ass off but still needs and wants to break through to the next level?

You gotta be good at what you do. Keep making art, looking for inspiration, and refining your craft. I suggest looking at art through the ages for inspiration, not just modern trends. In terms of getting to the “next level”, it’s often a matter of just getting yourself seen and then letting it grow from there. It’s easier now than ever. You can show your work online , you can make your own prints or shirts, etc., you can self publish with those print on demand books. You can do work for bands which is like an advertising circuit unto itself. Build a world around you, make your personal aesthetic universe for your art. Then, if you want, you can send it out to potential clients or agencies to get some work. But you have to be good at what you do of course. It may take time. You may not feel like you’re reaching your goal yet, but that’s alright because time is on your side as an artist. If you keep doing it you’ll presumably evolve and by the time it starts reaching people it will be even better. Don’t rush it, develop it.

Keep up with Arik at his website.