An exceptionally busy month spent finalising everything for my ‘Electric Rock’ exhibition at Highbury Hall, Birmingham, UK. Held over two days, the 19th and 20th, it marked my 50-year career as an album cover artist! Time flies, eh? With 365 exhibits to display, preparation, which started some months earlier, was immense – originals were framed; pencil drawings mounted; 18 new giclée prints were reproduced; easels were bought and hired; planning was done with military precision; the list goes on. Saturday was VIP night, with family, friends, fans and some rather fine musicians in attendance. Praying Mantis played three outstanding acoustic sets to a receptive crowd. The atmosphere was “electric”. It’s a shame that none of the invited Press turned up to review the historic occasion, but hey, we’re grateful for the time freely given by Simon Dunkerley (SD Photography), who provided us with the most amazing shots - click here to view - and for Merrick and Phil (Capturvate) for their footage of the event, compiled into this wonderful highlights video:
The two-day exhibition was over, but the aftermath had just begun! Orders had to be fulfilled – printed, signed, packed and posted. The unsold pencil drawings and the new giclée prints had to be put up for sale on the webstore – it was a long task and quite aptly the last print to go on was ‘Lament for the Weary’ – I think Sarah was trying to tell me something!
What next? We made a decision that it was time to concentrate on some of the intellectual properties that have been brewing in my mind (and on paper) for many years. To give it our all we realised that I would have to say no to any new commissions (except of course for those that I have long-standing commitments with). We decided to begin with Oddney’s Otherland, a project that had begun in 1976, that we hope to produce as a children’s book and ultimately an animated series. By the end of the month I had compiled everything “Oddney” that I had illustrated to date – there was quite a lot, but more drawings had to be done (and still have to) and the accompanying stories that I had written would need some attention.
I began March in full “Oddney” mode, producing illustrations quicker than ever before. I was going through pencils at the rate of four a week. It felt good to finally work on one of my projects, on a subject matter that I really enjoy. Meanwhile Sarah, with one hand, began editing, tweaking and embellishing the first Oddney story, and, with the other hand, gave our website a complete overhaul. The fresh new-look website inspired me to start blogging:
“I’ll blog every Sunday at 7pm on the dot!”
Not the easiest commitment to stick to, but I have tried. To date I have done a series of blogs on my fascination for insects; my children's TV series Lavender Castle; working with Michael Moorcock; my logo designs and conceptual designs for computer games; my music; and more.
We both continued work on Oddney’s Otherland, but at the same time we were becoming increasingly aware that if my album ‘Trinity’ was going to be released in 2019, then moves had to be made now. We met with Robin Ayling of Gonzo Multimedia, who liked the tracks and agreed to release the album under his label – great news! With a September release date proposed, we knew that we would have to start getting serious about designing the album package. First task however, was to have another “final” mix made of the album at M2 Studios, Wolverhampton UK … and who should I meet there? Tony Clarkin of course, with a commission for the next Magnum album cover!
We were spread quite thinly in May. I knew I had to get my head down and design Magnum’s new album cover in pencil, but I couldn’t resist a couple more pencil drawings and watercolours for Oddney’s Otherland first, and of course on the 11th there was the charity progressive rock festival Trinity (same name, but unrelated to the album) where we were asked to exhibit some of my more proggy artworks in the same room as Oliver Wakeman was to give a performance on the keyboards. Together, Oliver and I did a Q&A – for some reason he ended up on the high stool and I on the short one, exaggerating our already noticeable difference in height, making him look like Gandalf and me a Hobbit!
Speaking about Oliver, I called him up a couple of weeks later with a bright idea about Christmas – as you do in May – I wanted to make a single based on the traditional carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and wondered if he would be on-board. Thankfully, he said yes. Another thankful yes came by way of Tony Clarkin at the end of May, when I presented him with ‘The Serpent Rings’ pencil drawing for his approval, allowing me to proceed with the colour piece.
It was time to start working on the 2020 calendar. It seemed natural to follow on from last year’s award-winning calendar ‘Electric Rock’ with ‘Electric Rock II’, so I compiled a list of images that could work, and we spent some time choosing the best ones and for what month they should represent. As everyone probably knows, I don’t do any of the digital work, that’s down to Sarah. She works on all the layouts, in this case it was a long, time-consuming task, considering each date had to be put into position separately! At the same time Sarah also began work on the layouts for ‘Trinity’ – CD and vinyl centres; CD and vinyl gatefold covers; CD and vinyl booklets; two giclée prints; eleven postcards and a certificate of authenticity! With Sarah busy on the computer, I divided my time between making cups of tea to keep her going and painting ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, the image that would accompany the single, which at that point was feverishly being arranged by Oliver Wakeman. As if we weren’t juggling enough at this time, Sarah came up with an idea:
“How about we host art retreats?”
“Yes dear,” I said, “but how about printing some reference images of Highland cattle for me first?”
Also, of note, a new limited-edition print was released this month, following a visit to Aerospace Bristol with my son. Having had the opportunity to view a Concorde supersonic airliner, it inspired me to dig out my own fantasy version titled ‘Speedbird’, which Sarah carefully restored and reproduced as a fine art print, limited to only 50 copies!
We had a welcome visit from Jon Burton, co-founder of computer game development company Traveller’s Tales and director/producer of the Lego movies. He dropped by to collect a piece of original artwork that I had illustrated for his retro gaming website ‘GameHut’.
Elsewhere, I turned my full attention to painting the colour version of ‘The Serpent Rings’ for Magnum. As I painted, Sarah continued work on the album layouts … and began planning, such that within no time, two fantasy art retreats were organised for the following month. By the end of July, ‘The Serpent Rings’ was complete and met with a great reception from Tony and the band.
The ‘Electric Rock II’ calendar went to print in August and pre-orders began. We released the limited-edition print of ‘The Ether Stream’, which appeared on the cover of Rick Wakeman’s 2000 A.D. Into the Future. The print is co-signed by me and the prog legend himself, Rick Wakeman.
After much persistence over the years, Sarah made a breakthrough, and we finally regained the rights to my Alice in Wonderland images, leaving us free to get my Alice book reprinted – watch this space!
The two events of most note in August however, was our art retreats: the ‘Organic Experience’ and ‘Fantasy in the Cotswolds'. Sarah and I thoroughly enjoyed both of these weekends. I must admit I was little nervous, I do prefer the solitude of my drawing board to the giving of talks, but with thanks to the wonderful attendees I found myself enjoying every moment. Within next to no time those on the first retreat began calling themselves "retreat family" and it was astonishing to witness "strangers" bond so quickly and provide encouragement to each other so abundantly.
Could the second one really be as successful? Yes! Again, a group of people that had never met made instant connections, treating one another like family, and fondly calling Sarah and I "Mum and Dad!" Complete beginners and professional artists sat side-by-side producing pieces of art that both were proud to take home.
I spent the first half of this month practicing on my drums – much to our dog Barkeley’s disgust – in preparation of recording my parts for ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ at M2 Studios.
The rest of the month was hugely stressful, as most of our 2020 calendars arrived damaged. The majority had to be reprinted and resent to us. Unbelievably, those all arrived damaged too! Fortunately though, we received enough calendars in perfect condition to allow us to begin fulfilling pre-orders.
Meanwhile, work on the layouts for the album packaging continued.
Things didn’t start very well; the third delivery of calendars arrived – and no we still haven’t plucked up the courage to check whether they are okay – and then, an hour later, I began an unexpected week-long stay in hospital. Lesson learned there, do not get stressed, or at least try to avoid stress at all costs (hence not looking in the calendar boxes!) My lovely wife took over running the show single-handedly, while I took some time out to get my breath back. By the end of October, another new print had been released – ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’:
Magnum had revealed ‘The Serpent Rings’ artwork; ‘Trinity’ was available to pre-order; and my designs became available on a huge number of products on the website Redbubble – 213 if I remember correctly. Sarah continued working on the album layouts whenever she had a second to spare.
We’d already had a hard couple of months, and things were about to get worse, as we realised that the record label was not going to release ‘Trinity’ before Christmas as planned. This was a huge disappointment for us. After months of talk and promises to fans that the album would be ready in time for pre-Christmas delivery, we just had to make some serious decisions. We had no other option but to part ways with the record label and do everything ourselves. We knew this would be a mammoth task – neither of us had released an album before. We made all decisions together, but not being computer savvy, the majority of the workload fell on Sarah’s shoulders. She researched, sourced and arranged the printing of everything. The layouts that had been painstakingly worked on for months had all to be amended to fit new templates. Our 3rd wedding anniversary passed by with no complaint, as she worked hard on getting everything pulled together. Barkeley and I were always close at hand with a filled kettle, a cuddle or a glass of cider as appropriate. We chose a release date of 13th December and were determined we would stick to it. Finally, with everything in place and all products due to arrive by the end of the first week in December we returned to other work that was shouting for attention. The layout for the ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ Christmas CD had to be done for sending to the printers, along with the music. We got everything sent off without a moment to spare. It was nail-biting stuff, but it got done on time and arrived perfectly. We made the release date of 29th November!
We released the print ‘The Serpent Rings’, the first 30 of which was signed not only by me, but also by Tony Clarkin and Bob Catley!
We designed and released ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ Christmas cards:
We even arranged for the image to be printed on the lid of Lily O’ Brien’s chocolate boxes:
Oh, and very importantly ‘Trinity’ got a whopper of a 4½ star review from Joe Geesin at Get Ready to Rock! which you can read here.
We awaited the arrival of our products for the album with eager anticipation. First to arrive was a pallet full of vinyl in gatefold covers. When we took a closer look, we realised we had been sent ones with the record label’s logo on everything – a whole pallet of products that we could not use. “It’s okay” we were told, “the vinyl with the correct centre labels” is en route. Next to arrive were the vinyl gatefold covers, but the printers had got the colour badly wrong - a blue border instead of purple and colours that literally hurt your eyes. We’d worked so hard to get everything right and could not let the album go out this colour. We told the company that they had to reprint, quickly. The correct vinyl turned up, but as yet we had no covers! In the midst of all this Sarah suddenly realised that the chocolates had never arrived! A quick call to Lily O’ Brien’s and we found out they were ready, but hadn’t been sent – they were going to be dispatched immediately. Back to the album, next came 1100 postcards, we dreaded opening the box and quite rightly so, they were oversaturated beyond belief. Thankfully the company took this very seriously and arranged a reprint and delivery immediately. The next arrival was the 100 boxes with the gold foiling, and they were perfect. The CDs arrived and they were perfect too. We got those orders packed up and ready to send - things were starting to look up. Well not for too long, a delivery of 100 sheets of foam custom cut with apertures for the CDs and postcards turned up, but they were too deep for the box! Again, give the company their due, another 100 sheets of correctly cut foam were dispatched next day, arriving on Friday 6th. Time was getting tight, with only a week to go to the release date! At this point we found out that we because of all of the delays we would miss our distribution slot – this meant one thing – we would have to do all of the packing and posting ourselves. Sarah quickly contacted packaging companies and ordered in suitable packing as quickly as possible. We spent the weekend putting foam, CDs, postcards and certificate of authenticity in boxes, but with no vinyl cover or booklets we couldn’t start packing. Monday 9th arrived and so did the chocolate order – we packed those up in “record” time and got them in the post on the same day:
The vinyl booklets arrived on Tuesday 10th, but the vinyl covers were still nowhere to be seen?!! To make matters worse, the packaging boxes for the vinyl, that were due to arrive that day, never turned up – apparently the driver had returned to the depot and forgot to deliver them! Wednesday 11th and the vinyl covers finally arrive. We could start putting the records and booklets in, so that as soon as the packaging boxes arrived we could begin fulfilling orders. Guess what? Still no boxes. Two days in a row now and the driver returned to the depot with them in his van!! Then, at long last on Thursday 12th they arrived! We packed up orders all day, all night and all the next day, so that by Friday 13th, the release day, all orders were fulfilled!
The RM Studios ship hit some rough waters in 2019, but thanks to Sarah’s handling of the rudder we pulled through. In fact, looking back, we did some things I thought impossible, including the release of the album that I had dreamed of for the greater part of my life.
So what now? Well, God willing, we will continue in 2020 to add to our range of products, hopefully that will include another Christmas single (which I have already discussed with Oliver Wakeman), more giclée prints and perhaps some new greetings cards collections. However, our thoughts are now clearly focused on our intellectual properties that will include children’s books and animation, for which I have accumulated an extensive portfolio.
Over the last couple of years RM Studios have not only arrived at the point where we can print and publish our own images, but we can also write and record our own complementary music together with our associates. That said, we can only make things work if we continue to receive the support of all you wonderful people!