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Game Talk - Graham Humphreys

While it's only been in the last few years that I met Graham, I didn't realise that I'd grown up with his artwork; that of The Evil Dead and A Nightmare On Elm Street being prime examples. Distinctive work and nothing short of masterful, I'd have to talk game with him.

1. For those who don't know, who are you?

I am a freelance illustrator and designer, my name is Graham Humphreys. I have been in this ‘game’ for 40 years.

Born in Bristol in 1960, my formative and educational years were spent in the West Country of England. At the age of 16, I entered Salisbury College Of Art to embark on a diploma in Graphic Design, this was followed by a further year in which I explored illustration as my prime objective. Completing my art education I moved to London, where I continue to live and work.

My specialist area is in horror film promotion. In the latter part of 1982 I designed a poster for the UK campaign promoting ‘The Evil Dead’, then a couple of years later I designed the UK poster for ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’. These remain my best remembered paintings, defining my role in UK horror history.

I found myself at the beginning of the home entertainment revolution that centered around VHS, painting many covers for terrible films (and a few that were good). From VHS to DVD and Blu-ray, my work in home entertainment continues. Along the way, I’ve designed many film posters and record sleeves, I’ve illustrated book jackets and editorial features, a smattering of advertising work, plus event and festival posters. My brief foray into storyboarding is represented in the early films of director/writer Richard Stanley: ‘Hardware’, ‘Dust Devil’ and ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’. My current schedule includes revisionary film posters, commissioned, non-commercial takes on well know horror films.

All my work is created using traditional paint on paper. It’s not digital.

2. Game talk – how do you organise and manage your game? How has it evolved?

Being freelance requires a dedication, both to the craft and to the need of the clients. With rare exception, all my work has a commercial intent. I have to answer a brief to the best of my skills and knowledge - and respect the trust the client places in my abilities. All the work tends to be deadline driven, thus presenting challenges in what can be achieved and how I approach the work (particularly in budget constraints).

At a basic level, my painting techniques have evolved to deliver my work as swiftly as possible without compromising the end result. For example, my earliest work used a technique whereby a base layer of scribbled oil pastel could be partially revealed by scratches on the finished paint surface, producing sparks of bright colour. This was my attempt to recreate the laser light of holograms that I’d witnessed at a laser art exhibition during my college years. I abandoned the technique (seen in my ‘Evil Dead’ poster) by the time I worked on ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’. This was a practical decision as well as an artistic consideration; I had found that the water-based paint could flake away from the oil-based pastel, plus it had become a stylistic conceit that added nothing to the finished purpose.

When I am presented with a new job, the first things I need to know are the deadline and the fee. I can then judge if the job has value for my income, there is little point in indulging time on a project if it can’t pay basic living expenses - otherwise I’d swiftly be out of work and home! For this practical reason I have determined a daily rate that is my guide to charging. Most jobs take between two and five days, unless there are complex design elements to also consider - for instance an LP box set that requires illustrations, plus box, label and sleeve layouts - and the final delivery of print-ready files).

I instinctively know how long a job will take and can advise the client accordingly, sometime requiring compromises on what can be delivered within the budget.

3. Talk us through one of your biggest achievements in your game – give us the story behind it. How did it play out?

Despite obvious similarities, each job is different, requiring its own disciplines and approaches. This might be better illustrated by two examples from many years ago.

Case one: ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’.

After the success enjoyed at the box office and in video rental/sales of ‘The Evil Dead’, I was commissioned to work on ‘Evil Dead II’. You can see a change in the style and techniques, though the sense of caricature and humour is still there, the imagery verges on cartoon.

Although I’d attended a packed preview screening of ‘Nightmare...’, I wasn’t expecting to be approached for a poster. I was a friend’s ‘plus one’ and not actually invited myself. The poster commission fell to some friends who had just set up their own design business and were now working with the same client (Palace Pictures). However, the illustration approach was still favoured, but the client had to be convinced that my style could adapt accordingly (fortunately, a couple of my book cover commissions already demonstrated flexibility). At a meeting we discussed the ‘look’ of the poster, ie. NOT cartoony or humerous (like the ‘Evil Dead’s’, but something more ‘classic’, ‘classy’ and muted - less ‘horror’.

I took my inspiration from the unlikely source of poster works by Jules Cheret and Alphonse Mucha, both known for printed theatre posters (C1860-1920). Although it may not be obvious from my final painting.

My challenge involved understanding how to convey the film without revealing the ‘monster’ or illustrated blood letting. I took the unusual step of choosing to portray the actor’s face with closed eyes, asleep. Eye contact creates engagement, eyes are also expressive and add character. Here there was none!

The only reference I had at my disposal was an early pre-production flyer that showed a lamp lit suburban street. It isn’t the street seen in the film, nevertheless, it’s the one I used.

In order to give myself the best possible reference material for Nancy’s (the character) portrait, I replayed my screener VHS to the scene where she is seen sleeping, I took a series of photographs in order to get at least one that would give me what I wanted. These were 35mm transparencies, requiring me to hold a hand held viewer to my eye whilst trying to draw and paint the face. I used a mirror to reflect my own hand as reference for Freddy’s own gloved fingers - finding reference for the leather and metal extensions from replaying the video. In order to create a more dream-like look, I photographed the final painting onto another 35mm slide, where the painting occupied only 50% of the available image area in the viewfinder. When enlarged to full poster size, the film grain softened the brush marks.

The title was hand-painted as a ‘horror’ touch and we decided to use a fluorescent orange ink to evoke the glow of the lit windows.

The poster was well liked and the film went on to became a huge success, thus my involvement with the subsequent sequels.

Case two: teaser poster for ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: Dream Warriors’

Ironically, the ‘Nightmare...’ franchise had taken on a humorous turn. The release of ‘Dream Warriors’ was set to coincide with a new James Bond film. We had the idea of making Freddy the 007 gun barrel Bond silhouette, with bold text playing on the famed Bond introduction “The name’s Bond, James Bond”, replacing it with Freddy Krueger’s name.

Without providing any sketches, we had our meeting at Palace Pictures, requesting the use of a video machine. Our VHS of ‘Dr. No’ was cued to the gun barrel sequence, we spoke our revised Bond quote. The client loved it! The simple black, white and red poster was printed and fly-posted around London. Eon (who owned the Bond franchise) were less impressed, demanding the removal of all posters pending legal action. The posters lasted a couple of days before disappearing. It was widely reported. The managing director of Palace Pictures, caught up with us in a pub and said we’d got them into so much trouble - but he was delighted!- they got so much more publicity than their budget could ever have delivered!

4. Good on you for contributing to such legendary properties. Are there any properties over more recent years that are on your bucket list, e.g. Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, etc?

I'm going to be working on 'Drag Me to Hell' and 'Dusk Till Dawn' (both private group commissions). Having recently created a licensed poster for Hammer's 1958 'Dracula', I'm hoping that 'The Curse of Frankenstein' might follow.

But more contemporary project... I also have 'Doctor Sleep' line-up as a private commission.

The most recent revisionist poster (from late last year) was 'Mandy'.

Other than these, I have nothing I can identify in a wish list.

5. It's great if things go according to plan. Tell us about when it didn't; how did you handle it? What were/are those challenges?

Not every job has been a success. Some just limp through the process without any impact. In the past I’ve had work rejected (it wasn’t considered good enough or it was ‘pitched’ the wrong way). I remember painting an album cover for a band, thinking it was one of the most accomplished illustrations I’d produced at that point in my career (1983). I eagerly bought the NME (New Musical Express), knowing that the LP was going to be reviewed, curious to see if my ‘masterpiece’ was going to get a mention. It did. In fact most of the review seemed to be centred on how terrible the cover was!

Mortifying as it was... I had to accept that it’s not possible to be an impartial judge of your own work!

There is an amusing twist to the tale. I counted the NME as a client, having produced a number of illustrations for them over a period of a year. I’d been asked to provide an illustration to accompany the LP’s review. My caricature of the band accompanied the dismal review of my LP cover!

You learn to take the knocks!

6. Give a pep-talk to someone on game in your field.

It may seem clichéd, but there is nothing quite like experience to consolidate your craft. I have occasionally been asked to provide contacts and names so that people can find work with my clients. Often they will be people with no formal training and no basic knowledge of file delivery and print considerations. Whilst these are skills easily learned, you can’t expect to work at a professional level, earning professional fees, without knowing how to deliver professional work.

Additionally, working to deadlines, under pressure, requires experience and a professional attitude that hobbyists often don’t understand. An amazing piece of art that has taken weeks, or longer to produce isn’t going to work for a blu-ray cover that barely pays for two days work and is needed ‘next week’.

Earning a living is difficult for illustrators (unless they are working in visuals for gaming and film!).

In the 1980s, most illustrators could expect to pay their living expenses... often earning more. Or, they would teach part-time. My agent (I have one, though we rarely get to work with each other) will not take on anyone that cannot provide an income for themselves outside of illustration work, he simply cannot guarantee work anymore. Thus, I consider myself to be very lucky and only earning through 40 years of persistence!

I do this because I still can - and because I love doing the work. I’m constantly learning and evolving, always pushing to improve. It’s an ongoing process that will continue as long as I’m working.

Over the last five years I’ve attended conventions where I can meet the people that recognise my work (I also sell signed prints). The feedback is always useful, I can better understand the weaknesses and strengths in my work. and build on the knowledge. Ultimately, I am working for the ‘end-user’ through my clients, not for my own gratification... I always keep this in mind when I deliver a job.

Instagram: humphreys7120

Twitter: @GrahamHumphrey8

A book ‘Hung, Drawn and Executed’ should still be available through the publisher

It’s shortly to go to a second print run and will be available again through Amazon.

I’m working towards a follow up collection (hopefully at some point in 2022).

Once the horror conventions are up and running again, I’ll be appearing at a number of those. I’ll post information on social media.



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