The album art of Mark Wilkinson is among some of the most eye-popping and colorful ever created. His kaleidoscope of colors, attention to detail, and blending of the real with the surreal have made his work stand out from his peers. From the covers of comic book icon Judge Dredd to the metal landscapes of Judas Priest, Wilkinson always pours his imagination onto the page. And it all started with a little inspiration from the Fab Four and Pink Floyd.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first album cover that sparked interest, specifically a huge window display he saw by a bus stop as a teen. The first artist that intrigued Wilkinson was Mati Klarwein, who did the covers for Santana’s Abraxas and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. “His painting still blows my mind in the same way it gets blown every time I see Alex Grey’s work for Tool in the modern era,” remarks Wilkinson.
When he was young, the budding artist became fascinated with the airbrush. The medium felt like magic to him, as if one were painting with light. He first became aware of airbrushing when he was exposed to the work of Alan Aldridge and his airbrush partner, Harry Willock, for The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics and their children’s book Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast.
“I bought a Devilbiss airbrush, a few bottles of ink, and some canned air and set about learning how to use it,” recalls Wilkinson. “A friend of mine had set up a silkscreen table in an old caravan in his garden, and I went there to see him at work one day. He used to design posters to promote bands playing the college/university circuit in the Windsor/Slough area back in the late ’60s and ’70s — everyone from The Who to Floyd to Bowie. He taught me how to use a cutting knife to create hand made stencils for silkscreen prints, and how to overlay and blend color onscreen. I used that knowledge in my airbrush art as the principle was the same, using stencils to create shapes with masking. It was my early attempts at airbrush painting that got me into Watford College of Art, and everything changed for me from then on.”
Wilkinson attended Watford School of Art from 1974 to 1977, which “was really a graphic design course with a module on illustration every few months,” he explains. The artist wanted to switch courses at the suggestion of visiting lecturer and illustrator Graham Palfrey-Rogers, who served as art director on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. “His work was distinctive and colorful, commissioned mostly for UK publications in the late ’60s and ’70s, quite similar in style to the American illustrator Peter Max who also used bright primary colors. He coached me for the second half of my course as the college wasn’t really set up to teach illustration full time.”
On his own, Wilkinson learned how to use print mediums like silkscreen and etching to increase his knowledge. For his final year at school, he produced a book where every page was printed using a different process. He even took classes in bookbinding to assemble it himself. Entitled Cancel My Rhumba Lesson (the title inspired by “a telegram sent to a friend”), the book included “around 20 illustrations and scraps of writing for my end of year show,” says Wilkinson. “It wasn’t a degree course. All I had to show for my time there was a diploma in the end, but art schools were never about the qualifications. The contents of your portfolio were what counted.”
“The key for the long haul, in my mind, was to be called upon to have some sort of artistic vision, to be allowed to develop ideas as well as technique … Gatefold album sleeves were what had fascinated me a few years previously, but I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do any.” – Wilkinson
For four years after he graduated, Wilkinson made a solid living from various commissions. He spent two years working at Palfrey-Rogers’ studio in Covent Garden then two more at another a studio in Farringdon which is when Wilkinson had his first agent. His work was good and recognized by art directors around London, but he felt stifled creatively.
He designed book jackets, VHS video sleeves, and editorial work for a diverse roster of magazines like Management Today, Accountancy Age, computing and car magazines, even a few girlie mags which frequently commissioned airbrush art. “I also tackled more commercial work,” says Wilkinson. “One that I recall was to design a ‘benign nuclear explosion’ – to imagine if Disney had designed something ‘not too terrifying’. A cuddly nuke! This was for an ad for Lemsip cough remedy. You can see why I was ready to move on.”
For Wilkinson, art was not a job, but a calling, and he had begun to give up hope for forging a satisfying career as a freelance artist. That is, until late 1981 when a band arrived that changed his life. He learned of the opportunity after overhearing a conversation in a bar, then found out where he needed to send his work.
“The key for the long haul, in my mind, was to be called upon to have some sort of artistic vision, to be allowed to develop ideas as well as technique,” elaborates Wilkinson. “When Marillion came along, that artistic freedom I craved followed through, although tightly scripted in terms of what the brief was. It was left up to me how to interpret it. Gatefold album sleeves were what had fascinated me a few years previously, but I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to do any. So to have this young band who referenced all the bands and artwork I loved in the ‘70s was just about as perfect a fit as I could have wished for.”
The most famous symbol for Marillion, the British neo-prog band, was the Jester, who appeared on all of their first four album covers between 1983 and 1987 (along with many of their single releases starting with 1982’s “Market Square Heroes”). The Jester first appeared in full garb for Script for a Jester’s Tear, his costume discarded by the young man on Fugazi, escaping out a window for the back cover of Misplaced Childhood, his clothes tucked into what looks like a duffel bag on Torch, and as the depressed barfly on Clutching at Straws. It was a clear evolution of the symbolism as it related to the trials of growing into adulthood.
When he portrayed him for Marillion’s debut, Wilkinson saw the Jester as “suggesting pain, and the mask represented how to hide that pain and obscure the everyday. Everyone looks for answers. Some play tricks on insanity to keep them going. Also, it was a neat marketing tool that kept the record company happy, so it served both the creative spirit and commercial necessity. If you can crack that nut, you’re well on your way.”
“My all-time favorite cover art may still be the very first album cover for Marillion. I think Script for a Jester’s Tear was overall the most visually successful I did for them. It’s not perfect. Nothing ever is, and I’m my own fiercest critic. I never, ever finish a picture. I walk away from it, or my clients crowbar me away as they need it urgently. Such is life!” – Wilkinson
After Marillion’s original lead singer, Fish, split from the band in 1988, Wilkinson continued on an artistic journey with him that continues to this day. He and Fish have a mutual appreciation for each other’s artistic skills, which Wilkinson says is rare between artist and client.
“He usually has a vision that we can both reference and riff off,” elaborates Wilkinson. “He loved Fellini and Coppola films, I loved Tarkovsky and Herzog. We had an interest in the symbolism they used, so in the early days, we could talk about something visual for album covers that we could both imagine as a freeze-frame. Symbolists believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly. Or as French photographer Robert Doisneau once said, ‘To suggest is to create, to describe is to destroy.’ Fish wrote using metaphors, and I endowed particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.”
Misplaced Childhood and its hit single, “Kayleigh,” made Marillion hugely popular in Europe in 1985 and 1986 and helped them crack the American market. In Europe, their shirts and merch were second only to Iron Maiden in 1985, recalls Wilkinson. As a result, merchandise company Bravado, who had the Marillion contract, commissioned him to work on Monsters of Rock festival posters for the likes of Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Whitesnake, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper. These then caught the attention of Judas Priest’s management. The British metal band had commissioned Doug Johnson for three iconic covers but wanted someone new for their 1988 album, Ram It Down, which was the first one Wilkinson tacked for them.
Since then, Wilkinson has created the covers for Priest’s Painkiller (1990); Metal Works retrospective (1993); Jugulator (1997), the bloody cover for which was crop-censored for retail; Angel of Retribution (2004); Nostradamus (2008); and Redeemer of Souls (2014), along with live and compilation releases. Whereas Iron Maiden has one mascot, Judas Priest has always had different beings and characters adorn their covers. While Claudio Bergamin did the front cover for the recent Firepower (2018), Wilkinson did the back cover and laid out the graphics.
“Priest helped me evolve as an artist because each cover has been quite different to the previous one,” Wilkinson says. “My own personal favorite cover was Angel of Retribution, which was the simplest of the lot.”
When asked about Wilkinson by Discogs, the members of Priest collectively responded: “Mark’s metal imagination has taken Judas Priest to amazing places. His intuitive mind and unique artistic skill have forged a special bond with us. We work together with him, giving him a rough idea, and he comes up with his magic.”
At the dawn of the 1990s, the airbrush craze of the ‘80s, of which Wilkinson was a big part, began to give away to digital art. His agent at the time, Harry Lyon-Smith, “suggested I embrace this new medium because my style of work — airbrush with all the hyper-realism that could be achieved — could be done in less time digitally,” says Wilkinson. “Market forces meant that clients would go for less expensive options as far as realistic illustration was concerned.”
Wilkinson wants to make his digital creations look and feel organic. He does not like the smooth surfaces of some digital art, although he says there is less and less of that now.
“I like to have some texture in the illustrations, which, of course, is an illusion as it’s all done on screen,” he says. “But you can use painting tools that mimic the brush quite easily and which will respond to movement and even the angle and pressure of the pen in exactly the same way as a real paintbrush. Also, you can change color, hue, and saturation to the n’th degree [and] work in many layers independent of each other and bring it all together to create something quite unique. It’s just a tool at the end of the day.”
“Mark’s metal imagination has taken Judas Priest to amazing places. His intuitive mind and unique artistic skill have forged a special bond with us. We work together with him, giving him a rough idea, and he comes up with his magic.” – Judas Priest
For Wilkinson, the idea has become more important than the technique. He says that one day he will “semi-retire” and go back to basics with paint and board full time to paint for pleasure. But for now, he enjoys creating images whatever way he can. Last year, he took on learning a 3D program, which has been challenging, but he likes learning new techniques.
For nearly 40 years, Wilkinson has created striking, unforgettable images for the likes of Marillion, Fish, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Tony Palmer, and The Darkness. His work on Iron Maiden’s multi-disc, tin container set Eddie’s Archive celebrating their 25th anniversary is eye-popping. The design concept came at his suggestion and required the involvement of a specialist in metal box creation to really “push the material beyond what had been attempted before with a very elaborate pattern for embossing,” explains Wilkinson. “It actually won an award for metal box creation that year.”
He got to revisit his youth by working on the psychedelic box artwork for the documentary The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story. He was a disciple from the start (fan club member 425). “See Emily Play” was the first single he ever bought, and Piper At The Gates of Dawn the first album. “I admired them more than any other band before or since and loved the artwork of Storm Thorgerson,” declares Wilkinson. “So to be asked to create a portrait of Syd and design the special packaging was a huge deal for me. I screen printed the border detail and lettering on to canvas first, then painted the portrait in acrylics and embellished it with airbrush.”
The gatefold vinyl cover for Fish’s Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors (1990) is an incredible collage that encapsulates all of the album’s themes. He says the next Fish album, Weltschmerz, is providing him with the most difficult project he has worked on. The special-edition, 100-page book has been time-consuming.
“Although I’ve not illustrated every page, the ones I have done have been intense,” declares Wilkinson. “The subject matter of the lyrics is vast and very prescient, despite a long, five-year gestation. The world seems a very dangerous place right now for all sorts of reasons, and the pain all too evident. But apart from that, there is a nod to my very earliest work and techniques in there which will bring everything full circle as this is his final studio album, so my last ever for him too. The end of an era. After almost 40 years, it’s been a long, strange trip.”
The duo’s work together is well-represented in the art-intensive book Masque: The Graphic World of Mark Wilkinson, Fish & Marillion. Neil Gaiman is quoted on the back of the book: “What has always impressed me the most about Mark Wilkinson’s art is not the slick surfaces he does so well – that Mark’s a technical wizard of airbrush and Photoshop is obvious at a glance – but it is that, beneath all the surfaces, there’s a mind at work, brimming with imagery, and always capable of surprising you.”
Wilkinson’s favorite album art has fallen in heavy rock territory. “Book of Souls for Iron Maiden was interesting,” recalls the artist. “The brief was to make Eddie as scary as possible, and the cover was banned on the Paris Metro for precisely that reason. In Germany, it was covered up on certain sites as it apparently scared the bejeezus out of night-time commuters returning home and children during the day. I would say though that the inside cover was one of my favorites. It was certainly one of the most detailed I’ve ever done.” The artwork adorned the band’s Ed Force One plane for a time.
He also liked the Four Horsemen imagery he conjured for the inside of Judas Priest’s Nostradamus. “That one really stretched me artistically,” notes Wilkinson. “My all-time favorite cover art may still be the very first album cover for Marillion. I think Script for a Jester’s Tear was overall the most visually successful I did for them. It’s not perfect. Nothing ever is, and I’m my own fiercest critic. I never, ever finish a picture. I walk away from it, or my clients crowbar me away as they need it urgently. Such is life!”
Wilkinson has stretched himself beyond album art. In recent years, he has created designs for beer bottles and stamps, which require a different approach. The bottle labels were first commissioned by TYA Brewery in Norway in 2014, and he loves working on them. “The designs were based on local folklore,” explains Wilkinson. “That of the land-based siren the Huldra who enticed men into the woods with their beauty to have their wicked way and slaughter them afterward.”
Starting in 1997, Wilkinson has created Jersey stamps, first Victor Hugo’s literature than with themes including birds, planes, and recently the books of Charles Dickens. “The stamps were always something special,” says Wilkinson. “They work a year ahead which gave me time to consider the designs well in advance. The latest set has just been issued. You can only work up to a max of A5 in size, so the early painted designs were challenging to say the least. But now working digitally means you can simply enlarge on-screen rather than with a magnifying glass.”
Another exciting project that Wilkinson became involved with much earlier is iconic British comic character Judge Dredd, who was first brought to metal fans’ attention by Anthrax in the late 1980s. (If you haven’t seen the movie adaptations, skip the Stallone one and watch the Karl Urban version.) Alan Grant, the writer for Judge Dredd and Batman, moved to Wilkinson’s village many years ago, and the two struck up a good friendship. The artist recalls how Neil Gaiman had inquired into working together early in the writer’s career, being a fan of Fish-era Marillion, but Wilkinson felt that he would not work quickly enough for the medium.
“Never give up on your dreams. Create the right circumstances for luck to spark by being in the right place at the right time.” – Wilkinson
Grant suggested that Wilkinson consider doing covers, which he did for three years starting in 1992. “He recommended me to the editor of Fleetway Comics who published Dredd back then, and they gave me as much cover work as I wanted,” says Wilkinson. “I only ever tackled the inside once, for a special stand-alone story called ‘Voyage of The Seeker’ written for me by Alan and featuring my favorite character in the world of Dredd, Judge Anderson, who had psychic powers. It was an opportunity to get a tad psychedelic as it was quite literally a cosmic story. They published it as a special pull-out, double-sided poster included in the comic.”
When asked what life experience he can impart to artists following in his footsteps, Wilkinson advises, “Never give up on your dreams. Create the right circumstances for luck to spark by being in the right place at the right time. These days that means having a great website and maybe get your work seen on Deviant Art and social media.”
It’s been a wild ride for Wilkinson ever since he became smitten with those Beatles and Pink Floyd album covers so many decades ago. He’s proven himself capable of working in multiple formats that are worth collecting. “When it’s all down in black and white like this, it’s been varied, that’s for sure,” he muses modestly.
That’s an understatement.
For more information on Mark Wilkinson and his work, as well as his features in print, please visit his website.