In an age where music is largely comprised of information getting bounced from one computer to another it’s easy to forget all the work that goes into building a band. Of course at the end of the day all you need is a guitar, a voice, and maybe a few other people to put on a show, but to grab people’s attention and speak to an audience you have to have an angle — something that hints at a broader story to get the listener’s imagination going and draw them in deeper. Even in a genre as hardcore as death metal or as retrotastic as synthwave.
And that is where Bo Bradshaw comes in. He owns the company Brilliant Engine, which works with all manner of bands to help them create album covers that speak to their audience. He was gracious enough to accept an invitation to be interviewed about his work, inspirations, and what it’s like working with those in the trenches of the music industry.
ACTION A GO GO: When did you decide to become an artist?
BO BRADSHAW: I didn’t really decide so much as fumbled into it. This requires a bit of backstory to appreciate the answer.
I have always been active in the arts since I could hold a pencil, but commercial art as a living was never part of my life’s plan even though just about every adult had to ask if I was going to grow up to draw comics. Drawing was only a means to communicate bigger ideas for me and my main interest was filmmaking. Throughout high school drawing wasn’t something I took as seriously as writing or acting. I did a lot of script writing and theater back then. After high school I went to Savannah College of Art and Design where I majored in Film and Television, but also had the luxury of taking a lot of fine arts classes as both foundation courses and electives. But again, not my major. I spent the next several years after graduating pursuing various careers in the film industry, doing a lot of commercial video and some documentary work.
The music industry wasn’t even on my radar at the time. I had barely ever even been to a concert let alone local heavy metal shows! It wasn’t until a friend of a friend was looking for a video guy to record his band during their album sessions and my name came up that I ended up on this career path. I hung out and shot their behind the scenes video, and when it came time to put their album together I was like “Hey, you know I can do that too, right?” So I did their album cover, the digipak design and their shirt. I started going to their shows and photographing them and other bands, which led to more bands seeking me out, at first for photos and videos, but slowly for more and more art. It wasn’t until maybe, three years ago that I really committed to the idea of doing art full time and it wasn’t until last year that I completely ended all of my film business.
After decades of doing everything but art, life had been giving me all the training I needed to do it as a career when I finally got my head out of my ass about it.
AAGG: Did you have any formal training as an artist? If so, where did you go to school?
BRADSHAW: While I am very largely self-taught, especially with what I do for bands, I did have the luxury of strong foundational drawing and composition classes. I did go to Savannah College of Art and Design and got to learn from some really great people like John Larison, Paul Hudson and Bob Pendarvis in the Sequential Art department. I also had the privilege of learning from some of their guest teachers like Mark Schultz (who is seminal in helping to form my self-respect as an artist) and Klaus Jansen.
The kind of work I do for bands though I had to learn the hard way by studying other artists in the field and reading a lot of tutorials. It’s not really a matter of style as much as it is a matter of technical planning for screen printing and for commercial printing, which my Sequential Art classes helped prepare me for a bit. I’m still constantly learning new things, though, and I can’t stress enough that your education as an artist should never end.
AAGG: What tools do you use to create your art?
BRADSHAW: Photoshop. Lots of fucking Photoshop. Plus my trusty (or not depending on which model I’ve owned) Wacom tablet. I do 99% of all my concept sketching and thumbnails in a physical sketchbook though. I then scan them in and blow them up in Photoshop where I do multiple drawing passes on several layers to gradually tighten the details, correct proportions, etc. I’m very heavily process oriented. I’m less of an innate drawer than I am a very patient technician sometimes.
And, while not a tool, I do have an assistant, Nell, who collaborates with me from time to time. I guess she’s more of a protégé but she can really help take a load off my shoulders when I’ve got too many projects going on. She helped with the under drawings for several of my pieces last year, as well as the upcoming shirt for Lascaille’s Shroud.
AAGG: You’ve worked with a lot of musicians. How do you come up with a concept for a band? Do they have input, or do you just run with it?
BRADSHAW: That really depends on the band. Some are super picky, others give me carte blanche. In the case of Soulmass I literally bullied my way onto the project and told them exactly what I was going to do and that they were going to like it! Haha! Brett and Bryan have since become some of my best friends and almost all of the clients I have today are because of work I’ve done with them. Brett is also the project lead for Lascaille’s Shroud, which he mostly pitched a vague idea at me that I had freedom to turn into the cover that’s been upsetting metalheads and synthwavers alike! Seven Factor is another band where I generally have free reign to create. Seven’s very comfortable with my creative direction and doesn’t mind me diving right in.
Cover art and process photos for Lascaille’s Shroud
Most often, however, bands have a concept that they’ll throw at me or have images that they feel represent what they’re going for that I can reference or draw inspiration from. I like to hear bands as I come up with ideas, it helps to shape how aggressive, surreal, or epic the art needs to be. In the case of Wirethrone, my two most recent shirts were about representing the different sides to the band’s sound since they’re melodic death, but the first shirt I did was directly inspired by their song “City of Angels.” Seven Kingdoms similarly hit me up to do shirts specifically themed to songs on their upcoming album, the first of which, “Undying”, went on sale in February and is almost completely sold out now.
The toughest is when you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen though. I have a strict policy that I only deal directly with one member of the band regarding changes to avoid a lot of confused or non-committal input.
AAGG: What advice would you give to up and coming artists?
BRADSHAW: Everything is an opportunity to learn more. Every project is a chance to push yourself. Set goals for what you want to achieve for yourself and how you can incorporate those into the client’s interests. That way all of your work will be a little bit personal and help you grow the scope of your work. And don’t skimp out on the concept in favor of the execution. Drawing good is fine, but what really sells a piece is the concept behind it. Consider what you want to communicate, either conceptually or emotionally, and plan your art around that. And don’t sell yourself short. You’ll be tempted to. Every artist does it at some point, but don’t get stuck there. Your work is WORK. Don’t let anyone treat it like a hobby. You hand that fucker a pencil and paper and tell them to do what you do.
Oh, and loosen up. Don’t draw so tight or worry about getting it right the first time. Don’t be afraid to just draw like garbage. Make a mess on the page. It’s about communicating your ideas first and foremost. That’s the soul of your work. You can always refine the work as you go.
AAGG: As an artist, what would you say are your biggest influences? Whose work do you admire most?
BRADSHAW: Ho ho ho, oh… Believe it or not my big influences are usually early to mid 1900’s illustrators. Gustave Dore, Virgil Finlay, Hal Foster, Alphonse Mucha, Roy Krenkle, Frank Frazetta, you name ‘em. Pulp magazine painters? Hell yeah. Naturally there’s plenty of comic guys in there. Big Bernie Wrightson fan. John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala? Oh baby! Barry Smith? Oh my! There’s a draughtsmanship in their work that I deeply admire.
As far as modern influences go, I get a lot of influences from my friends. I get a lot of my sense of cartooning and color from my friend Sophie Campbell. I practically taught myself how to design for screen print from BeastPop before we were friends. I try not to geek out too much on him, but he’s pretty fab. I wouldn’t have the brush set I use to work with if Tristan Jones hadn’t recommended it to me. His stuff is really dirty and brutal and I wish I had that kind work in me.
I’m a big fan of Dan Mumford’s work. He’s got this whole intricate, almost engraving style landscape thing going on that reminds me of a neon soaked Dore. Becky Cloonan is another modern influence. She’s also got a lot of classical illustration in her style, like a modern Harry Clarke.
I’d say most importantly I would not be where I am without Mark Schultz. He influenced me both compositionally, but also professionally. He was the first professional artist who treated me like a peer and that’s an influence that goes beyond style and technique. I basically set the clock of my becoming a career artist by the hour and a half he sat and talked with me after one of his guest lectures back in college.
AAGG: Are there any particular movies/comics/music that influence your art?
BRADSHAW: I was a film guy first and will always be one in my heart. There’s so many movies I could list. Most of them are pretty bog standard though. Blade Runner, Robocop, Alien, etc. Lately Dredd and Fury Road have had a big impact on me artistically. Not gonna lie, I also just saw Deadpool a third time. I’m also really into 60s/70s exploitation movies. Especially from Japan. I have a saying that I have a distinct intolerance for tasteful restraint. Nowhere is that more evident than my deep affection for Japanese exploitation movies.
I listen to a lot of synthwave, but above all others my main squeeze is Dance with the Dead. I am a complete whore for truly great guitar work and their guitars get my ass out on a street corner in a short skirt PRONTO. They’re a regular in my group chats with metal heads too. Gost, Carpenter Brut, Lazer Hawk, Power Glove, and Perturbator get a lot of spin time too. I tend to skew towards the crunchier, darker end of the synth spectrum. I grew up on Miami Vice and John Carpenter so that’s the sound of my soul.
Comics-wise I listed off a bunch of comics people in my influences, so you can assume anything they’re involved with. I’m a huge Junji Ito fan. I am a regular patron of Slug Girls translations. Bless them and their hard work. There’s this AMAZING zombie manga called “I am a Hero” that’s (finally) getting released stateside. I discovered it about two years ago and was hooked. One of the most gripping, wild, and human comics I’ve read. The US comic I religiously buy is Ghostbusters from IDW. Ghostbusters is a big part of my popculture heart and Bernham and Schoening have kept it beating for me. I also make sure to get Jem and the Holograms every month ‘cause it’s totally outrageous!
AAGG: What are you excited about reading/watching when you have some spare time?
BRADSHAW: The stuff above? When I’m not working I actually play a lot of video games. I am, or used to be when I had more regular competitive players, a fighting game devotee. Arc Systems games are my favorite, with the new Mortal Kombat close behind. I’ve got a real soft spot for Dead or Alive. I’m also a big Koei fan. Lots of Dynasty Warriors in my game time, haha!
AAGG: What trends do you see coming down the road? What is coming out in the future that you are excited about?
BRADSHAW: Right now I’m really stoked about the new DOOM. I may even do a shirt design to commemorate my excitement! I’m eagerly anticipating the new season of Daredevil, the next episode of Gundam Tekketsu no Orphans, and the next time I get paid.
As far as trends go, I tend to keep my feet so firmly rooted in the past that I’m not very good at keeping up with trends. If I catch one it’s an accident and I just happened to be into something that’s popular for a minute. I used to try to stay ahead of the curb, but it took away from me actually producing good work, honestly. I do kind of wonder if the screen print poster market is starting to get too congested. It seems like such a busy industry now. Their gallery shows always look like a lot of fun though. Maybe one day!
ACTION A GO GO would like to thank Bo Bradshaw for taking the time to sit with us and go over his awesome art. You can follow Bo on his Social Media links below. There are also images of some T-Shirts you can purchase that feature his art.