Pen & Pencil Power... Blade!
On the 19th of February 2017, RetroGameGeeks' Olly023 had the opportunity to have a chin wag with a man who's book is on Kickstarter. Now, this could be any old man I hear you cry, but fear not. We don't just pull 'nobodies' out the hat!
The following interview is with the legendary MIKE WINTERBAUER, the artist behind so many cool covers of retro past it'll make your head spin. You'll soon see (by reading, d'uh) that he's very much a man after our own hearts!
Hey Olly, go on an' tell 'em...
The curious case of the classic cover creator...
Today it is my great honour and privilege to chat to a highly talented individual that I can almost guarantee every one of you visiting this interview page will know the work of, even if you do not recognise his name (yet).
That's part the whole reason I jumped at getting the opportunity to do this piece. Obviously, I'm a man with a Bachelor of Arts (with Hons, you're welcome), so I'm certainly one who loves a good bit of visual interpretation. Though my personal focus is/was filmmaking, I've continued to use other means of artistic expression in down time, be it as simple and secretive as painting that then gets stuck in storage, or the more productive end of making pixel things for this here website and social media.
Box art specifically is something to be appreciated. Mike Winterbauer is one of the unsung heroes behind striking imagery that sent our young senses into overdrive. Magazines aside, what we saw on a cover could make or break a purchase, subliminally or not. This importance, in my opinion; should never be lost. Nor should the fine artists who made them happen in the first place.
So, let's move it on over to the interview itself and learn all about the man who practically sold Power Blade single handedly with one iconic piece of art. Oh yes, folks. THIS is Mike Winterbauer. One of the undisputed kings of classic video game art is about to take us to school, ladies and gents...
Stepping out of the shadows...
RGG: We have already given a nice little intro to you, but would you be so kind as to introduce yourself on a more personal level with the RGG readers?
Mike: My name is Mike Winterbauer and I have been a working artist for thirty years.
I am most notably known for my work in illustration having done a string of classic computer game covers in the 80’s and 90’s.
You may have seen some of the covers I painted which included Might and Magic Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen and interior maps, Wing Commander, Solstice, Wolf Child and Power Blade to name a few.
Recently, my work received worldwide attention after I self published my book Classic Game Covers about my experiences being an artist. It is an honest and fascinating read about being an artist and how I created my art. I made the eBook available for free on my website in 2014 and the response was overwhelming. It got written up on websites all over the world and was read in over eighty countries and was also an Ars Technica's editors pick for "The Web Worth Reading".
I was very happy to finally get recognised for my work after working in the shadows for decades.
RGG: Prior to jumping into the world of cover art specifically, you must've been artistically inclined. When did you realise you wanted to become an artist, what spurred you on in the early days?
Mike: I remember as a kid sitting in the playroom of my parents house where I grew up admiring the art on the record albums and thinking to myself "Wow that is really cool and I bet these album covers will become collectible some day". I thought if the album did well you would be a famous artist because you did the cover.
The other thing that got to me growing up was seeing so many older people unhappy with what they did for a living. I was full of vigor and energy and decided early on I would try something different, enjoy what I do for a living and get recognized for it.
Thanks to my Mom who took me to be tutored by a professional artist when I was ten. I used to really look forward to weekly lessons going to his studio and seeing all his beautiful drawings and paintings. His house was a wonderful combination of a home and a museum. I thought it was a great place to live and I liked his lifestyle.
It was then that I seriously contemplated becoming an artist.
RGG: What was it like back in the day, being a cover artist? How did you get noticed and what was the creative process like?
Mike: Honestly it was rough. Being a cover artist had dramatic highs and lows. I remember feeling ecstatic when my art appeared on box covers and on magazines all over the world.
It really is an awesome feeling when your art gets noticed and seen on a classic game cover all over the world. On the flip side I remember feeling very low in between jobs and wondering when my next big job was coming my way. I was entirely the creator of my destiny, I continually was looking for the next job to keep my momentum and income steady.
Having done it, I would not change a thing, my goal was to do projects that would have staying power, meaning they would be appreciated in the years to come. There is nothing sadder than doing something you believe in and not get the recognition.
Getting noticed in the 80-90s was easier I think than now. Most people that would hire cover artists you could call on the phone and set up an appointment to show your portfolio.
And call people I did, as in hundreds of cold calls and leads done on a very regular basis, I also did mailings and took ads out. But the telephone was my best way to get a job. If I could set up a personal interview where I could meet the art director and show my work, I knew there was a good chance I would get the job.
I use to set up three to four interview showings in a day in the Los Angeles area. My little red Mazda GLC hatchback and I became very familiar with the roads of Los Angeles. Through it all I realized the only person who is going to make your dreams come true is yourself. I am a highly motivated individual and the experience also taught me if you want to be an artist you better have thick skin and believe in yourself.
The creative process was really fun doing box cover art. You were the creator of the first point of contact with the consumer for the game. The art had to draw the viewers attention from the cover of a magazine, poster or box.
So the concept was very important, but the concept has to lend itself to a visually dynamic cover that people like to look at. Cover artists were always going after the WOW reaction when painting this kind of art. I designed covers that hopefully made people want to imagine and play the game. This was a very fun creative approach. When the concept was approved you started drawings comps to narrow in on the final design.
After the final drawing was approved I did color comps in prisma color pencil to show clients what the final cover could look like. Once the color comp was approved I would transfer the drawing to the board and start my painting. The painting process is always exciting as I thought of it like try to breath life into the picture so it would come alive and be exciting to look at.
Who's that stud muffin on the cover?
RGG: Of course, box art like that of Power Blade is absolutely iconic; I've read that you'd used your own reference photos, which is pretty mind blowing and has me seeing it in a different light. Fancy enlightening us more on this?
Mike: I always took my own photos to work from whenever I possibly could. The reason being, your work will always be original and created entirely by you. The other reason being it is much more affordable to use myself and friends for models than paying models. I was on a budget and wanted make sure I kept my costs down on the projects. I believed I could model the character very well as I knew exactly the attitude and pose I wanted to paint. Also, it was just a ton of fun to act out these different characters with my friends and take pictures to work from.
PowerBlade was a wonderful project and I felt very lucky to have been able to get the job. I remember being told the game had a Terminator feel to it and could I do a cover that had a similar attitude. I was very excited to work on the project being a huge fan of the film.
I realized I would need original reference to paint from and started figuring out the best approach. So I set up a photoshoot that had a Terminator feel to it, which is really all about attitude.
The fluorescent lights in my studio provided an ominous and stark feeling when the model was under them. Dramatic lighting on the model is absolutely critical to getting an awesome photo to work from. I started by photographing two of my friends posing with a metal T-square. The photos were good but not great, they lacked the attitude that was needed to make the cover awesome. So I asked them to let me try the pose and take a picture of me holding the T-square. The photo turned out very well so I decided to use it to paint from. The cover of PowerBlade is a self portrait of myself and I smile every time I see the cover. It's not every day you get your portrait on the cover a classic game box.
When the cover published I received a letter from copyright lawyers asking what reference I used to paint from. I sent them the picture of myself holding a T-Square and that was the end of it.
The funny thing is I actually appear on a lot of my cover art and it became a running joke with my friends and family.
RGG: Video game box art is in itself becoming a bit of a lost art these days, with everything looking so very vanilla. Do you think this just hightens the nostalgia when it comes to retro collecting, etc.? What are your thoughts on where the industry is right now, in terms of traditional cover art and lack there of on a major scale?
Mike: It is very sad that traditional illustration has become a lost art today. There is a strong nostalgia for retro collecting and it keeps attracting an ever growing audience. Technology levels the playing field when it comes to box art. There is magic in creating a painting done on a board with real brushes and real paint. So many of the new covers have that slick CG feel that is created on a computer, everything looks the same.
It is the same reason people love music from the 70-80s, it was special, unique and awesome. Technology has cheapened the arts and created an overabundant mass market. There are way too many games, movies, and songs that are riddled with mediocrity. Most of them are forgotten soon after they are released, this is because technology has enabled people to create them quickly, cheaply and abundantly.
That is not to say there are not any great CG covers or products because there are many truly awesome ones. It's just that there are way too many with the same look and feel.
There is a keen and growing interest in traditional cover art in the collectible market. I believed the art I produced would be valuable one day, and hopefully in my lifetime. I was fortunate to retain most of my original cover art that I did for games and movies. I kept my art stored for over twenty five years and in 2012-15 sold over seventy pieces to collectors all over the world.
This made me realise the historic impression traditional cover art had left on the art world.
Physical media rises again...
RGG: How did you feel as a more traditional artist seeing the rise of digital art, which has coincidently run along side the more digital focused games industry as a whole?
Mike: I was hugely disappointed. I remember by 1993 feeling a sense of accomplishment. I had established myself as a competent illustrator whose work had appeared all over the world on game boxes, VHS boxes, movie posters and magazines. Suddenly by 1994 it became very difficult to secure well paying, highly visible traditional art projects.
By 1994 it was clear Photoshop and computer generated graphics were here to stay. I remember a conversation with my Dad, telling him how disappointed I was about the sudden down turn in traditional illustration. He said "you are going to have to learn digital to stay in the business". He was spot on as Dad's usually are and I dove head first into the digital art world.
I was one of the first to learn Photoshop and CG (Power Animator and 3D Studio). The year 1994 was a turning point for many artists, you either joined the digital age and applied your traditional skills to the new software and worked in game and animation studios or struggled in the diminishing traditional art world.
Many artists like myself embraced the digital age and went on to have great careers working in game studios and animation studios. I went on to really enjoy being an in house digital artist. I started at the company I had done the Might and Magic cover art for, which was New World and then went on to Kronos Entertainment, Boss Games and Microsoft Game Studios.
The early studio work was fun because you got to build your worlds from concept to completion. Meaning I would use traditional drawing to create creatures and worlds and then get to build them in 3D software. It was exciting because you were using all the incredible features of this new software to bring to life your 2D drawings. As time went by the studios specialized the work so there are modelers, lighters, mappers and special effects people who do work in just their area of expertise.
RGG: Speaking of digital, you've digitized the majority of your work for your website and the awesomely free digital version of your Classic Game Covers book. How was this process? Also, how is the crowd funding going for the physical edition?
Mike: I really enjoy the cross over of the traditional art world and the digital art world. I am fortunate to be apart of both. After 1994 as I mentioned earlier I continued working as an artist in the digital world but always keep drawing and painting. Around 2010 I decided to create a digital record of all my work, which at the time seemed like a daunting task. I had kept most of my original art, drawing comps and transparencies so I started the slow process of digitizing and archiving my work.
Around 2012 I had a nice website and was selling my originals. In 2013-14, I decided to make a book about my art and experiences being an artist. I did the book to tell my story and give a historical context to all the art I had sold and created. Much to my surprise when I made the eBook "Classic Game Covers, Confessions of an Art Junkie" available for free on my website it got worldwide attention. This really made me happy because it made me realize people all over the world still remembered and appreciated my art.
In 2016 I decided to make available on Kickstarter a very nice softcover version of the popular free digital version of Classic Game Covers. You can still get the beautiful, free digital version of Classic Game Covers but there is something very cool about a nice collectible art book like the soft cover version. My kickstarter project is raising funds to do a print run of Classic Game Covers and get it to the fans who will really enjoy it.
At the time of writing this interview my Kickstarter project is almost fifty percent funded so that is really exciting. It further makes me aware of people all over the world who appreciate the cool, beautiful cover art of the 80-90s. There are a few of my paintings and my fun Clouds of Xeen poster 1992 and softcover book available on my Kickstarter, so check it out!
The positive power of crucially cool creativity...
RGG: Coming to the end of the interview now, but would like to ask a couple fun quickies: As a game, what is your personal favorite that you did the art for? Also, what are some of your favourite contempory pieces of your field?
Mike: My favorite game that I did artwork for is Might and Magic. I really enjoy Might and Magic, it still has a wonderful following to this day. I think it has a great story and many great artists have contributed to the success of the game. I feel very fortunate and lucky to be part of that legacy.
As far as contemporaries in the field, I couldn't really say with the same conviction as Might and Magic. But I will say I think Halo is pretty cool!
RGG: So, where are you now? How can people find you online and what have you got in the pipeline the RGG readers can look forward to?
Mike: I enjoy creating new work tied to my earlier game work but also have moved on into other artistic ventures. My current work embraces both traditional drawing and painting but also crosses over into the digital art world. I enjoy working in Photoshop digitizing and painting my drawings and photographs.
The current project that I have been working on for the last two years is a book I am illustrating and my wife Renee' is writing called "IF". It is a tremendously exciting project that is lavishly illustrated and beautifully written by Renee'. It is the fun story about the unsung hero called "IF" who is a court jester in a magical time. We will be self publishing "IF" soon, so stay tuned.
More of my work and info is available at my website and Kickstarter:
RGG: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us here at RetroGameGeeks, is there anything we haven't covered you would like to add before signing off? Go nuts with any plugs you want to do, etc!
Mike: Thank You to RetroGameGeeks and people interested in cool old box art who make it possible for artists like me to share my story!
On a final note I would like to say, I believe in the power of creativity. If you keep working on your art good things will come from it. You may never be rich or famous but the personal growth and satisfaction is priceless. (well said - Megs)
Thanks again RetroGameGeeks!
RetroGameGeeks Final Thoughts...
Well there you have it, folks! It was an absolute pleasure to converse with such an incredibly unique, talented artist who as he rightly stated has come out of the shadows and to the forefront to deliver his personal story of his vast body of work.
Of course, only a select few pieces of Mike's were actually featured in this brief interview, so make sure you check him out on social media and of course his comprehensive website that indeed features the free eBook version of Classic Game Covers. Yes, people! That is FREE! Don't get that very often in the modern retro world! I also find it gratifying that this is a man with a plan, a plan to live by his own rules and stand in defiance by doing his own thing. Here at RetroGameGeeks, we can sure as heck relate to that!
Mike Winterbauer is nothing short of a legend, so most definitely feel free to go and help fund the physical release of his book on Kickstarter before it's too late. Far too many coffee table books these days come out with a sheer lack of personality, this one is so far removed from that it's unreal. Classic Game Covers is full of fantastic information told very much from the heart. It really is a great read and full of gorgeous imagery, of course!
Box art is something we may well have taken for granted once upon a time, but many of the folk behind them are even more so overlooked in this day and age as much as they were back then. Let's give credit where credit is most deservedly due. If for you that starts with this interview with the one and only Mike Winterbauer? Then I will consider this a success!
Another huge thank you to Mike for speaking with me/us to make all this happen. It was a wonderful experience and I hope it was for him, too. Now go give the man some shout outs so he hears you loud and clear!