By Jason Thibault
Beauty and mysticism meet the grotesque. Tom Denney creates some powerful and striking imagery. He’s a reknowned poster, CD and t-shirt artist for many notable underground bands. He’s always pushing his own artistic limits and also happens to be a very skilled video and motion graphics artist. To put it simply, Tom has some heavy shit on his mind.
First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.
The first design I did for a band was Tusk, who later became Pelican. This was when I moved back to Chicago after I graduated college. I started to do allot of the local bands like Buried at Sea and Lair of the Minotaur. That all started in ’02 and has sort of snowballed.
Self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)
I studied art and film in school. However, that was mostly art history and color theory that I found vapid and hardly applicable. As far as the practical and most important business aspect of serving as a freelance artist, I had to learn on my own. I have been very lucky in the way of having many talented working artist friends who could teach me these necessary lessons, like Tony Koehl and Stu Helm who could be turned to for experience based counsel. So in a sense, I have had a long string of impromptu mentors along the way. It has all been a matter of watching, learning, and asking questions when I get stuck. I spent allot of time emailing my favorite artists about technique. I used to write letters to my favorite comic book artists as a youth and would usually get important advice. It was a long hard road, and It would have been allot easier if someone said “look, being an artist is a personal business, here is a five year plan, and the software skills you will need to make it”. Unfortunately, I had to learn EVERYTHING the hardest way possible. Through trial and error, and error and error. So I consider myself to be self taught, and learning.
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?
I started with traditional nibs and dipping pens but was frustrated with the lack of control. It wasn’t until I started hanging around in tattoo shops that I figured out Micron pens. They are cheap and you can beat ’em up and they lay a smooth black line. Now I use a combo of fine tip Rapidograph pens too. Brushes I like to use once in a while then leave them out to dry for a week or two without cleaning, and come back to them angered by their insipid uselessness.
Favorite brand of ink:
India ink, Higgins seems to be the most affordable. I can’t really say that I have the means to mess around with anything fancier than that.
Type of paper:
I used to prefer Borden and Riley’s Paris paper, it is smooth and the ink floats over the surface. It is hard to find where I live, so I had to switch to the Strathmore smooth Bristol paper. It is thicker and it is difficult to see detail when you’re using a light board, as I do. I sometimes have to turn out all the lights just to see the detail of my pencil work underneath this heavier paper. The benefit is that the thicker paper feels more impressive, and there is a stronger sense of the art having more value on the rigid Strathmore, rather than the flimsy Paris paper. I feel like a dork talking about paper.
Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?
Frank Frazetta…How the fuck did he do all that? I acquire vast amounts of inspiration from Philippe Druillet, his work is just epic. Symmetrical alien landscapes and other world ornamentations, along with a simple yet complex coloring method, are just a few of the aspects I refer to in his work. Tom Crites I must say blew my mind. When I first saw his art, I didn’t even believe that those sorts of designs were possible. The mixed up mandala/occultistic trans-dimensional absurdities with precision inking made me realize that the summit was allot higher than I previously thought. I can’t deny a heavy influence. Of course Pushead, who set the precedence. You have to be AT LEAST that good, as far as technical ability. Same with Alfonse Mucha. The real trick is, once you have grasped the style, the true test begins. Trying to be as clever with subject matter and composition, without being a Xerox of someone else is the most essential element of what I consider relevant art. Frank Kozik was really important in that sense, he isn’t the greatest illustrator ever, but his compositions carry the load. Anyone can draw a sexy woman with scull face now, but the world needs something new. Just when you think you’re really on the right track, you look at what John Dyer Baisley is doing, and you quickly realize that you need to spend another 30-40 hours rendering stippling effects. The list goes on and on but I think those fellas are tops on this day.
Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job. Could you give a quick overview of your process?
I first stress out a bunch and do allot of procrastination and bike ridding. Eventually I calm down and I employ allot of strange mental exercises that help me get to a place where my creativity can reach its full expression. I will spend a whole night working my ideas into a composition that I feel confident with. I don’t find thumbnails to be very useful. I just attack a full blank page; there is nothing more intimidating than a blank page, so I frequently stab at it a few times with the pencil to break the ice a bit. I come up with three different images, which the client can choose from. If everything is accepted, than I put it on the light board and ink on a separate piece of paper. Once I scan it, I do allot of secret things that I can’t tell you. Then it goes off to the printers.
What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?
I can’t stop listening to Burning Witch and Electric Wizard. I try to listen to other things, these efforts are wrought with failure. Inevitably I succumb to doom. Alderbaran, Graves at Sea, Buried at Sea, Corrupted, all those types of sounds are what keep me…human.
What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?
I have this Sepultura poster that Michael Whelan did. I have carried it since I was about 14 and it has hung in every room I have ever lived in, and will likely have a spot over the fireplace well into my future. I have spent years studying it and can look at it right now and find something that I have never seen before hidden within its great abstractions. Also, an HC Clark image that I simply worship. I have David DAndrea prints on almost every wall…These images are quite groomy. Alex Grey and Stephen Kasner play prominent rolls as well as many others that are affixed on every bare surface to be found. Because blank walls, like paper, are much too intimidating.
Last novel you read and last movie that you saw (that you’d recommend)?
If you’re into “Zeitgeist”, I found a great one called “The Esoteric Agenda”, you can see these types of movies online. I have also been really into David Wilcock lately. I finally finished Robert Anton Wilson’s “Cosmic Triger III” and “Martian Time-Slip” by Philip K Dick. I don’t have allot of time to read, but the one I am working on now is “Atlantis, the Lost Continent finally found” by Arysio Santos. I’m not sure if these types of books and films are for everyone, so for good family reading, I must recommend “The Montauk Project; Experiments is Time” by Preston B. Nichols. I mostly hate TV, and find it much more interesting to scour the vast resources of youtube for things by David Icke and Art Bell and the like for entertainment and inspiration.
Current and upcoming projects.
I have a book of my illustrations being published by Lulu. This should be available in a couple weeks. This book took me a year to compile with 74 pages of full color prints on quality paper. It will be available on Amazon, Borders, and similar online book stores websites or you can order it direct from any store that sells books as it is listed in the ISBN directory under “Tom Denney; Illustration vol 1”. I am finishing up the ISBN registry this weekend, so if you go to www.tomdenney.com, there should be more info and a link to purchase there if you’re interested.
I am always involved in short films or music videos and even music of my own. I try to keep my site updated with these sorts of things, and links to images and sounds are always concentrated at www.tomdenney.com
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?
Myspace and the internet in general is an amazing tool. In this day, you don’t even need to work your ass off, all you need is to put forth just a tiny bit of effort and your art can be seen by the entire world. This is new to history. So, if you’re working your ass off and no one is responding, than that is a strong indicator that the effort you’re exerting into promotion needs to be redirected to the art itself. If you first master your craft, and are serious enough, and dedicated enough to do so, then the break through will come to you naturally.
Personally, I followed Pushead’s method of; starting with DIY local flyers and band shirts, this then gets the attention of touring bands who come through looking for new art, who in turn, go on tour and thusly show your art to a great variety of potential admirers. It is not easy, and it will likely not pay the bills at first. However, if you’re dedicated and passionate it will translate into your art and people can either relate…or decide to exploit you. So, don’t be a slave, follow your personal highest excitement, and be unique and true above all things.