The Miles Davis Online Interview: Russ Cook

(Artist Series II, Volume 4)

I recently had the pleasure to chat with the very talented illustrator/caricature artist Russ Cook. He and I discussed his artwork, creative process, influences, and, more specifically, his excellent Miles Davis caricature (shown above).

Based in Oxford, United Kingdom, Cook’s unique caricature collection is most impressive, featuring notable musicians, sports stars, actors, writers, and so much more. I’d start listing personal favorites, but then the Q&A would become one giant list – and nobody wants to read that.

I only wish I were an accomplished art critic so that I could properly describe just how terrific Cook’s work is. In the meantime, just grab your favorite beverage of choice and enjoy checking out Russ Cook’s superb collection of caricatures, sketches, and illustration on his official website and Blog.

Miles Davis Online: What was the motivation to feature Miles Davis for your sketch artwork?
Russ Cook: Most of the digital pencil caricatures I create for personal work are for practice as they only take between one and two hours to do – if all goes well. Sometimes they are people I admire but in the majority they’re usually chosen for no other reason than I’ve sat down and decided to draw the first interesting face that has come to mind. They may be topical, they may be famous but they’re rarely real villains – but that’s another subject, and one which I’m going to blog about in the near future.

However, the reference image must give me enough to create an interesting caricature. Sometimes a known face has recently died so then that becomes a good reason to draw them – a little ‘in memoriam’ if you like. There are many great subjects from history who I’ve felt deserving and who possess great facial features but for one reason or another they’ve been overlooked. This was the case with Miles Davis. It was time!

Miles Davis Online: And what exactly is the creative process behind this type of sketch? How long did it take to complete?
Russ Cook: Caricatures can end up being a composite of various reference images, but most of the time one image stands out and becomes the main reference. Searching the web, I came across an image of Miles attending the Ali/Frazier fight with his young partner Betty Mabry. As an image it amused me; there seems to be a hint of discomfort as he’s being papped clutching what look like fries and drinks – normal for anyone else – but slightly odd for him, somehow.

I try and source images that other artists haven’t obviously used and this seemed to be one. My caricature of Miles was drawn in Photoshop on a PC using a Wacom Cintiq – a wonderful piece of kit which is a special kind of computer monitor that allows the artist to use a tip-sensitive pen to draw and paint straight onto its surface – so it’s very intuitive to use. Within Photoshop I have a set of brushes which give me a ‘pencil’ effect. I usually start with a rough outline; trying to get a morph of the face that I will be happy with. Then I start filling in features – usually starting somewhere in the middle around the eyes and the nose. Once completed it may just be left as a basic black & white drawing but sometimes I add color, effects and textures depending on what I think the finished image suggests.

How long did it take? Well, I didn’t do any major changes or re-starts with this – it went fairly smoothly – so I think it was a couple of hours, max.

Miles Davis Online: Who are some artists of the past and present that have inspired you?
Russ Cook: From history it would be Caravaggio, Dali, Singer-Sargent (who can capture rippling water like him?). I love Peter Blake and David Hockney. Sebastian Kruger’s work really showed and inspired a new way of how caricatures could be rendered in paint. I’d always loved caricature as an art form – starting when I was a kid on family holidays in France watching the street artists work. However, most of my influences in both form and color are from sequential artists and comic illustrators.

I grew up with the British comic 2000AD which was comprised of work by great artists such as Ian Gibson, Mick McMahon, Colin Wilson, Cam Kennedy, Kevin O’Neill and later on Simon Bisley, all of whose novel and highly individual styles made a big impact on my developing art. Around this time I also discovered Ralph Steadman, Scarfe and Derek Bauer who all eviscerated their subjects with a keen dip pen and splattered ink. With the internet came access to vast amounts of work by digital artists on various new art forums. More recently I’ve discovered artists like Sean Galloway (Cheeks), Bob Strang (Von Toten), Dave Dunstan (Loopy Dave), Dave Guertin & Greg Baldwin (Creaturebox) and Patricio Betteo who are all creating incredible art in their various fields. There are many others such as Sergio Toppi and Jamie Hewlett who blow my mind – I could go on and on…

Miles Davis Online: Are you working on anything special at the moment?
Russ Cook: I’m currently spending a large part of my time working on techniques and approaches rather than creating one large art project. Normally these skills come along as part of a natural evolution with time spent at the drawing board, but I’ve tried to accelerate the process with some intense study. Up until about four years ago I’d been very old school, but if you’re a commercial artist and you don’t embrace technology to some degree then you seriously risk the career doldrums.

So I’ve given myself an intensive course, and taught myself various new techniques and effects within the digital world. It’s just been a case of trial and error, experimenting with hardware and software, and poring over other artists work to figure out how they’ve achieved a certain technique. It’s been lots of frustration punctuated now and then with some very rewarding ‘a-ha!’ moments.

Miles Davis Online: Might you revisit Miles Davis in your work?
Russ Cook: Definitely. I’d love to produce a large color work. Miles has an intensity that would be great to really try and get to grips with. I’m not particularly interested in ‘pretty’ caricatures or portraits. I look to produce art that’s skewed or slightly warped but without ever being too grotesque. I love caricaturing subjects I think are wrestling inner demons.

Miles Davis Online: Favorite Miles Davis album?
Russ Cook: Ah, you’ve got me there. I come from an alternative rock background though my tastes are broad. I’m a Jazz noob, really. I possess a couple of Miles Davis albums, Kind of Blue (of course) and Bitches Brew. I prefer what I think is referred to as ‘cool jazz’ – so I also possess smatterings of Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, etc. I love anything with a walking bass line. So I’m going to have to say Kind of Blue is my favorite MD album – more out of ignorance of his other work. I’m still not sure what to make of Bitches Brew

© 2012, Russ Cook. All artwork, and images of artwork are property of Russ Cook. All rights reserved.


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