Roger Dean

Tue 23rd Jul 2013, by Paul Hellard | Productfocus

CGSociety :: Special Feature

23 July 2013, by Paul Hellard

Ballistic Publishing and CGSociety are extremely happy to announce the availability of EXPOSÉ 11, the Digital Art Annual on the Ballistic site below and at all good book sellers. This gathering of digital artist's work contains 548 images in 21 categories, from 406 successful artists, 185 of them new to EXPOSÉ. There was hearty agreement among the Advisory Judges for British fantasy artist and designer Roger Dean to be the Grand Master of EXPOSÉ 11. Dean's art has helped pave the way for incredible invention throughout the artistic community.  

Roger Dean’s father was in the army, so he grew up traveling all over the world. This gave him a unique overview of many different cultures and sparked in him an interest in the way design differs and changes in different countries. His family moved back to the UK from Hong Kong, and he left school at 16 and started at the Canterbury College of Art. “I had this idea that I’d like to design the future. A lot of my paintings at school tended to lean into the future. That was the one motivating force in my being where I was.”

As a younger man, Dean was also interested in natural history illustration. “I used to draw animals and birds ... but I was dragged out of a life drawing class by the principal at Canterbury, not for any reason but being young and impressionable. As I had maths and physics, I wasn’t allowed to do art, and I was sent off to do industrial design.” At the time, the Canterbury College of Art was trying to get accredited to offer an industrial design course. This meant that Dean bypassed the foundation course and jumped straight into heavy duty industrial design. “It was great that I was switched to design, but I didn’t like the way it was being taught,” he recalls. “I didn’t like that everything was a ‘box’. I used to challenge the tutors and ask ‘Why are we put in boxes?’ and I was given the old Bauhaus maxim in that ‘Form follows function’. I’d be directed to Corbusier, the founding father of modern architecture.” Corbusier’s idea was that the butcher, the baker and the banker should all live in identical boxes. Dean saw this as social engineering and was increasingly disillusioned with that aspect of design.

Although he completed his course, towards the end of it he had to make a choice between architecture and industrial design. “One of my tutors said I shouldn’t do either because I wouldn’t like them and they wouldn’t like me. He recommended strongly that I apply to the Royal College of Art and start a furniture design course, which I did.” Roger was using forms from nature as surface decoration and parts of 3D form in his creations. Organic forms were a huge inspiration for him. “I was designing a gyroscopic engine,” Dean explains, “and I had these cubes on my sketchbook, and I sort of jokingly put pine trees on them, and they were bouncing around in the air, kind of detached from gravity. That was ‘Flights’, around 1966.” (below)



At the Royal College of Art, Dean conducted some unique research on the psychology of the built environment, or, as Dean refers to it, “the psychology of architecture”. He studied what made people feel comfortable in buildings, and his research revealed that modern buildings presented problems for their inhabitants. It took a while longer for him to come up with some positive conclusions – a list of what to avoid and what to include in building construction. Upon leaving university, Roger quickly exhibited a ‘Sea Urchin’ beanbag chair, a piece of furniture borne from his research. Almost as soon as Dean was out into the job market, he won a contract to design the interior of Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in the Soho theatre district of London. The owner-saxophonist saw Roger’s paintings he always carried with him, and asked if he would design an album cover for The Gun, a band he’d recently signed with his management company.

This was Roger’s chance to make some noise in the right crowd. “Doing the album covers, I could generate a very big audience and demonstrate an enthusiasm for my architecture through that,” he explains. Over the next few years, he featured a lot of his house and furniture designs, and, after his cover work for The Gun, he took on the album cover art world. “I did a cluster of jazz covers stemming from that first job, but they had a very fixed idea of what they wanted,” Roger says. Even still, there were new clients lining up. Roger designed a cover for pop band Osibisa, a robotic horse image for a band called Paladin, and then some work for Uriah Heep. He also did work for the prolific bands Yes and Led Zeppelin.



There was an element of fantasy and science fiction in Dean’s album work at the beginning, and he brought a degree of credibility to those genres with his designs. “If I put a machine into a painting, that machine had to look like it would work,” he says. Also, the architectural side of Dean’s work was based on a certain practicality. “Syd Mead once said he designs everything with the intention to be built, while I have designed buildings to be practical as well, and sometimes it just doesn’t get built. I am much more interested in things that could be built and perhaps, should be built, than science fiction.”


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As his main focus at college was on mechanical devices and patents, Dean never studied illustration and had to learn as he went along. “I didn’t have a clue about graphic design when I did my first cover,” he admits. When working for Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame, Dean couldn’t get his typesetting done because he didn’t know how to do it. “I went in with the letters done by hand just to show where the typesetting should be done, and their reaction was, ‘Oh my god you’ve handwritten it, how cool!’ From then on every single release he [Bolan] had me handwrite the label copy and lyrics.” In his training, Roger Dean was taught to produce almost photographic-looking drawings with pencil and Chinese ink. The ‘Ruleya’ image, painted for Yes in 1974, was a pencil drawing and colored with dirty water. This was typical of the way Dean worked.

His drawings were also very precise, another reflection of his training. “It wasn’t until 1979 that I switched to a much looser style of painting, for a couple of philosophical reasons. I switched from thinking my work was a window into a world, to being an object in its own right.”

“I work in two ways. I have an idea and throw it down in a sketchbook. Sometimes fully formed,” he says. Dean leaves it until one day he attempts to create that as a final painting, with the final looking pretty much the same as the original sketched thumbnail. “Sometimes, I experiment to see if the same scene in a different light might look better. I start with the canvas, and the initial sketch is incredibly loose and random,” explains Dean. “But it feeds back on itself. I can be working on some detail while the background is constantly suggesting things. That suggestion process is interactive and the painting evolves from there. It starts with some idea, and evolves. That is the slowest process of all, but it comes up with the most satisfactory paintings of all, so I enjoy doing it. I hate doing it to a deadline because it doesn’t work that way. But that’s not the only way I work, nor is it my favorite way of working.”

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Later in his career, Dean moved into creating video game box covers and designed Psygnosis’s famous owl logo. He sees a big difference between this work and his album cover art. “I’m looking to create a world on the package, the same way the music is looking to create a world,” says Dean. He never played the computer games like he’d play the band’s music before painting the cover. “But there can’t be any challenge as to whether it’s accurate or not ... Software development was so young at that stage, there wasn’t a great deal to go on, and there wasn’t any real relationship between what went on the box and what went in the box. The brief would be non-visual, essentially.”

Dean also created covers for Brataccus, Air Supply, Barbarian, Chrono Quest, Ballistix, Lemmings, Shadow of the Beast, and many others. Lately Roger Dean has moved away from the game and music industries. Dean feels western culture suffered a major tragedy in the 1960s when the art world disengaged itself from craftsmanship. “That tragedy is serious because art doesn’t exist without craftsmanship; for two reasons. Art is an expression of emotion and technique,” he explains. “The Japanese say you train the body, and the body in turn trains the mind. The old cliché that you can’t get a concert pianist without 10,000 hours of training, is absolutely true of art. If you dismiss the craftmanship, you’re dismissing the training of the mind. Then if you’re not training the hand to train the mind, you’re missing the point. What makes art? You can have aesthetic skills and physical skills. It’s when they are brought together.”

“Artists have always used aids to generate art. Be that a brush or a set of compasses or an airbrush to achieve effects that are their signature,” Dean says. “There’s always been a certain aid to the artist, but nothing like what is available now since the explosion of digital creation.” Dean sees digital art as combining physical skill and aesthetic sensibility, and notes that it can be used to create "extraordinary images that would be almost impossible to do by hand". Roger has used Photoshop and Illustrator for lettering, and for gradations and color selection, but most of his work has been hand-drawn from beginning to end. This work is more suitable to be shown in a gallery than on a screen. He and his daughter Freyja share a studio in North London, and in 2008 worked on an exhibition together celebrating the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth in Italy. “Her interests drift between science and art, like her father,” he says.




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