The Artist’s Way: The Album Art Edition

Posted on February 25, 2015, 3:54 pm
18 mins


Seattle’s music and arts scene are both robust, and the two worlds frequently collide in performances, as well in figures who create in both realms. Album art is a particular meeting of the two worlds that presents unique challenges for artists tasked with presenting an image that captures the sound, mood or theme of an album or song. Here, we highlight three Seattle artists who are putting their personal approach to use in creating iconic images for musicians around the country.


Christian Petersen: The Digital Wiz

Christian Petersen has created album art for a range of musicians, including Erik Blood, The Soft Hills. Shabazz Palaces and most recently Silver Jackson. Jackson (aka Nicholas Galanin) is an artist in his own right who one of three members of artists collective The Black Constellation that presented work at the Frye Museum’s 2014 show Your Feast Has Ended. (Shabazz Palaces are also part of The Black Constellation.) Petersen’s multidisciplinary practice includes video art, digital collage and photography, all of which are strongly evident in his designs for musicians.

Vanguard Seattle: What is your personal process for developing a single image from a whole musical work?

Christian Petersen: It really depends, but for an album it is mostly about capturing the mood. I’ll talk to the artist and listen to the album a few times and try to figure something out that, hopefully, captures something of its essence.

That can sometimes be hard because what you personally take from a record can be very different from how the artist imagines it. If your visions do not match then further discussion and listening is needed. But that’s the same as any design work really.

VS: How collaborative is the process with the band?

CP: That also depends. In a way it’s always collaborative because what you create is a direct result of the music. Beyond that, the musician will usually have some idea about what they want, not usually specifically, but they’ll reference other things or talk about how they want it to feel or what they want it to represent. I like that because it gives you a certain amount of creative freedom, but sometimes also makes it a bit more challenging.

VS: Specifically when designing for Galanin’s album, what was the concept and the process?

I did two single covers before the album, so the basic style was in place before I started work on that. I wanted the singles and album to have a cohesive design style, because that’s something you don’t see too much of any more. Silver Jackson’s music is romantic, melancholy, beautiful, mystical, magical strange and very unique, so I wanted to capture all of that in the covers I created. Thinking about it now, there is also a subconscious thread running through the three covers. The first features water, the second earth and the third sky. It’s like each one is moving further upwards toward space and ending up in the cosmos. That suits the music perfectly and also reflects the artist’s deep connection with the elements. To find the specific image for the album, it was the usual matter of working through some ideas until hitting on one that clicked. The goddess of the heavens image I made seemed to represent all the angles really well.

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VS: What music is inspiring you when you create other work for yourself?

That’s hard. I collect records, so I usually listen to what I bought recently. I guess it’s easier to mention the only contemporary record I’ve listened to constantly over the last year, apart from the people I’ve directly worked with: Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris. I’d almost given up on hip-hop until I heard it. It’s not even a perfect album. It’s actually quite flawed, but that somehow adds to its woozy, tweaked mystery. I don’t really care about the rest of Odd Futures. I just feel like they’re just there to back up Earl!

VS: What are some other bands for whom you’d like to make an album cover?

Earl Sweatshirt! If you read this Earl—I’m ready! Other than that—and even less likely—Kanye West. I’m not a massive fan, but I think there were some really great songs on his last album. He’s a genuine character who is honestly interested in creativity and he’d probably encourage some radical ideas. It would also be a great thing for the CV and he’d probably pay decently! Oh…and Ween, when they get back together and do a new album.

Check out more work by Christian Petersen on the I Want You Studio website.


Angel Ceballos: The Ace Photographer

Angel Ceballos is an extremely prolific and intrepid photographer whose touring and and traveling puts her around some of the hottest emerging talents in a range of genres. Her portfolio of tour, festival and roadside photography is a feast for the eyes. Their spontaneity and raw physicality offer a beautiful contrast to the careful compositions of her album work. Taken together, they reveal a trained eye that always knows when to take the shot.

Vanguard Seattle: Give us your personal highlights of covers and collaborations you have done with musicians?

Angel Ceballos: The Zola Jesus covers have a very tight collaborative focus. Those have a special place for me. One of the covers is for a David Lynch remix. I can’t tell you how nonplussed I was when the label [Sacred Bones] relayed to me that “David said your cover was very classy.” Definitely one of those unbelievable life moments.

Other cover art that was part of a first official release from musicians that grew to be such amazing forces like Foxygen [and] Perfume Genius also hold a special place for me. I feel fortunate to have captured them at the beginning of their journeys. There’s something very romantic about that. Aside from covers, I have been insanely lucky to have worked with Jello Biafra, Daniel Johnston, Wire, The Slits. The Slits ended up making me a ‘Slit for the Day’ and I went on their whole daily schedule with them. It was so special!

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VS: What is your personal process for creating and choosing a single image from a whole musical work?

AC: When it comes to covers, the lyrics and the music are the most essential ingredient. I spend a long time listening on repeat before I shoot. With some artists, we work closely on inspiration in the abstract. This can range from a color palette to a film they are obsessed with. With others, we build a concept together. I really strive to unite the visual representation of the music on this outside sleeve to pull the music listener in with a truth and an impression for what to expect when they put this album on. It’s so important to me that the artist feels connected to the cover art as an extension of this wonderful thing they are giving to the world. It’s always a tremendous honor for me to be a part of this process.

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VS: Photography is uniquely collaborative with the band/musician because it generally requires them to model and participate, and so every shoot is different. Is there collaboration in determining the style and setting, and do you find you direct a lot during these shoots or is it more spontaneous?

Musicians are not models, and usually are uncomfortable having their portrait taken. This is a tough paradigm in an industry where your listeners want to see you. I am heavily directive, silly and nurturing. Shoots do range in deep collaboration, and absolutely things get spontaneous after we’ve gotten all our goals done. As for style and setting, it really depends. Sometimes there are third parties that help with production. Sometimes the artists do all the styling. Other times, I will do make up, hair, clothing styling and set design for a shoot.

VS: You are doing a shoot for King Dude’s upcoming album. What has the process been like for that shoot specifically?

AC: TJ and I worked over time building the concept. He had an idea in his mind that started with wardrobe. We built the shoot around this article of clothing that he had made specifically for the shoot. We spent time discussing the new music, how he felt about it, what he wanted to convey with the artwork. I got lyrics and a couple tracks while he was writing the album to ground the idea for me. He would send me photos of his studio’s carpet and his piano and we sort of set designed remotely together. When I got to his studio there was a solid hour of set design, and in the end it looked perfect.

VS: What else are your photographing these days?

AC: My next shoot will be on Vashon Island for an artist that has more than one band. We’ll be doing a couple covers in one day.

VS:Who are some other musicians with whom you’d like to work?

AC: I’m in love with Curtis Harding’s new album. I would really like to do portraits with him.

Check out more of Angel Ceballos’ work online.


Joe Rudko: The Analog Artist

"Chromatic Gradient," 2014. Shredded photographs on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Chromatic Gradient,” 2014. Shredded photographs on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Seeing the result of Joe Rudko’s signature process is one of those a-ha moments where you at first think, “What a neat, simple concept,” and then, looking closer, “but what a tricky thing to pull off properly.” Rudko slices off sections of photographs and vintage postcards and then extends the colors of the edge in fine lines. It is reminiscent of data corruption or loss where pixels are repeated, but it is all done with basic tools of the trade, giving it a natural noise and texture that would not be replicable using digital tools. Matching the color and producing the perfectly straight lines over and over is just one half of the work; a clear composition that adds dimensions to the source material doesn’t just happen. Even when he is manipulating photos and ephemera using more traditional collage techniques, the results are always striking. (For those in Portland, you have a few days left to see his show, closing February 28, at PDX Contemporary Art. For everyone else, check out the exhibition online.)

With the work he is producing for Death Cab for Cutie’s upcoming album Kintsugi, he has turned a black and white family portrait into something raucous and striking, an ambiguous image with many possible interpretations. There’s a personal aspect to it, as well.

Vanguard Seattle: Is this your first time doing an album cover?

Joe Rudko: In 2012 I did a cover photograph for a band my brother was in, Seas to Skylines. I sent them an image of soil that had been distorted by light leaks. There was a period of time when I was doing my BFA at Western Washington University that I was photographing a lot of dirt.

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VS: What is your personal process for developing a single image from a whole musical work?

JR: For the Death Cab cover, I used the Bellingham connection as a starting point. I went to school there, and that’s where Death Cab got its start. There’s a whole mythology about them in that town, and I remember picking up on it when I moved there. I remember listening to “A Movie Script Ending,” and realizing that the lyrics were about the street I was living on. That blew my mind.

For the cover of the record I looked back through photographs that I’d collected while living in Bellingham. I stumbled across a snapshot that looked to be taken at Larrabee State Park, a place that I frequented in Bellingham, and somewhere that the band members would likely have explored themselves. With that in mind, this one specific image felt charged with new meaning, and that’s something that fascinates me—when a physical object can suddenly glow with purpose and significance because the right combination of information changes your perception. Breaking apart the image is a way of understanding its physical makeup and its potential to transmit infinite amounts of new information.

VS: How collaborative is the process with the band?

JR: The collaboration was more with Hum Creative, a Seattle design and creative firm, than with the band itself. The folks at Hum talked in-depth with the band about the concept of the album, and relayed that information to me. Hum sought me out for the ideas and images that I was already making, because they saw a direct correlation between my process and Kintsugi, the style of Japanese art that the album is named after.

VS: What music is inspiring you when you create other work?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Ty Segall in the studio lately. But I also like to put on music that I know really well, like the first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record.

VS: What are some other bands for whom you’d like to make an album cover?

JR: I’ve always liked the cover for Grizzly Bear’s album Veckatimest, and they used a Richard Diebenkorn painting for the last album. It would be really cool to be a part of a good streak of album covers like that.

Joe Rudko was also just interviewed by artist David Hytone for The Maker’s Podcast series. It went live last night, so check it out.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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