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Behind the Cover: White Reaper — Asking For A Ride

Deciphering one of this year's most standout music illustrations yet.

white reaper, mark stutzman

Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):


On January 27th, White Reaper's seminal Asking For A Ride hit shelves via Elektra Records and staggered audiences keen for a strong dose of hard-hitting power pop. Soon after, the band took the eclectic album out on the road and brought its joyous nature to stages across North America. Our own Joshua Alvarez documented the festivities from The Fonda Theatre in Hollywood (photos below), capturing the cheerfulness present on stage. The album itself and the smiling White Reaper performers in the live setting reflect what is strongly introduced by the art of the legendary Mark Stutzman, who develops a maelstrom of distinct elements to form one cohesive and playful sight to indulge in. Stutzman, who is known for his young Elvis Presley Stamp and artwork for Jurassic Park, Space Jam, and author Steven King, was the ideal partner for this bewildering project.


From beginning to end, Asking For A Ride is simply an audiovisual experience best felt in the flesh as one holds onto Stutzman's prowess in their hands, letting the music sink into you from one track to the next. Like the Kentucky band's musical tendencies, the art of Stutzman is multi-layered and riddled with detail waiting to be uncovered with each passing glance, becoming one with the comprehensive body of work it represents.


Despite momentous shifts in the way the arts are consumed over the years, Stutzman remains faithful to tradition and puts graphite and ink to paper with a strong intention towards garnering curiosity in a wandering viewer. For that reason, the art of Asking For A Ride is madness, depicting witches flying through New York as three headed Dobermans bark away and hurricanes rage havoc in the background. A signature hitch hiking thumb gesture is the focal point to this maniacal scene of juggling clowns and King Kong catching lightning, becoming the most logical element of this wonderful painting given the album title. It all serves a purpose and came to be as a byproduct of passion, understanding, and true excitement.


Dive into an insightful Q&A with the great Mark Stutzman, who shares his approach to immersing audiences in partnership with the band, his compositional standpoint, the value he finds in partnerships, and more, all while gazing through the Asking For A Ride album cover sketches and phases:

 

Mark, with ‘Asking For A Ride’ now out and in heavy circulation, is it cathartic in any way to invest so much time and effort into visual compositions and finally see them realized for millions to consume and interpret in their own ways? This cover was a strong introduction of your work to a new audience that perhaps wouldn't otherwise engage with it.


Mark: The joy of illustrating is that it is art with purpose. That’s something that is motivating in every project I do. There is a feeling of release once a painting is completed. The actual rush is when “the client” gets excited and it hits the market. Consumers respond in a plethora of ways so for those who are enticed by art, they may otherwise pass by a band they don’t already know. For fans, a meaningful cover adds a layer to the music-buying experience. With the number of vinyl collectors growing, the larger format covers are becoming more important again.

white reaper, cover art, sketch
'Asking For A Ride' Sketch by Mark Stutzman

You mention time invested. In publishing, there is always a deadline so I have to be careful that a composition will fit into the amount of time I have. Not every job allows for the amount of detail seen in ‘Asking For A Ride.’ I work an average of ten to twelve hours a day so I can put as much time into a finished painting as possible. The time flies by quickly when you’re in the zone so I have to be very disciplined about the schedule and reaching the milestones as the days tick by. It can be easy to get caught up in one small aspect of the artwork if I’m not conscientious about the piece as a whole.

'Asking For A Ride' Sketch by Mark Stutzman

How a final piece of artwork is received is never with certainty, although, I share each stage with the creative team so there should be few surprises. Ultimately, I want people I’m working with to feel like it’s a creative expression of them as well, and I am ushering an idea to fruition. And of course, the audience, who is the end-user of sorts, should also get something from the art even though they were not part of its birth.


Occasionally, I’ll have someone look me up and shoot me a comment or question about a piece that has recently published. It’s always interesting to learn what people notice or relate to in art. Whatever small feeling or reaction that is generated give grounds to what I do. Usually, once a piece is completed, I’m on to something else, so echoes over time are pleasant reminders of my work. I’m immediately transported back in time. I don’t love talking about my work because I like for the viewer to develop their own interpretation. Over-explaining things can strip away the mystery and dilute what the viewer brings to the table.

'Asking For A Ride' Sketch by Mark Stutzman

I’m a dabbler on Instagram, so when White Reaper began posting about their pending release, it was exhilarating to read the positivity surrounding their new album. The anticipation was palpable as they carefully and slowly shared tidbits of the album release with each post. I did see an uptick in people checking out my meager number of Instagram posts. It’s nice to see interest in my work that is generated from this cover.


The newfound support is warranted. Scrolling through the cover in its phases, it's evident that it went through a few positioning and other changes that perhaps were a result of the collaborative process. You note that the band’s creative input and music influenced the cover’s creation. How would you describe the relationship between you and White Reaper throughout it all? I understand Alex Kirzhner played a role in design as well.


Projects like these, at their best, should be highly collaborative. The input from the band drove every aspect from start to finish. It was super-cool that they graciously shared the full album with me so I could get a feeling of the collection. That’s not always the case with album art projects. I knew their music was going to be well received and be a building block for new fans and music critics. That’s the moment I realized I had a big responsibility on my hands.

'Asking For A Ride' Cover in Progress by Mark Stutzman

Alex and I have worked together on several music projects. Our first was a Panic At The Disco packaging project. We connected quickly and passionately about making music imagery. He’s smart about pairing the right artist with the right project. That may not be apparent to recording artists but he’s very good at it. Some projects have a ton more exploration before I’m even close to producing a finished piece of art, but in this case, Alex had already hammered out the concept of a hitchhiker’s thumb over a road of symbolic cameos. The band offered up a clear laundry list of how their songs would translate into visual content. My job was going to be making sense of it all.


You excelled in doing so. What were you looking to achieve when approaching the visual component of the record in partnership with the band? The cover is riddled with neat nods and detail, which is quite fitting to the record’s playful nature.


The challenge with ‘Asking For A Ride’ was to make the image feel like one, cohesive environment. Because the band had a variety of seemingly incongruent subjects and scenarios in mind, it could have easily become a compost of disconnected ideas. My task was to have enough interaction between the different characters that it felt like a twisted cast of urban characters who passed each other frequently throughout their busy days.

white reaper
Character Sketches by Mark Stutzman

The hitchhiker is the one who is out of frame with the exception of his thumb. He is at the mercy of the treachery that lies along the road ahead. It’s a fictitious place that could feel like heaven to one person and like hell to another.


It's amazing to see it all come together in a cohesive manner. Having this conversation, it’s evident that you value camaraderie and invest yourself into these collaborations as much as you would any personal piece. Your long standing partnership with magician David Blaine is an example. That seems to be the case for ‘Asking For A Ride’ as well. Where did you find common ground in terms of creative direction?


I do value all my working relationships and also see them as friendships tethered by a creative bent. David Blaine and I seemed to be kindred spirits from the first poster I painted for him, even though we didn’t work directly together until his third stunt. He’s been loyal and appreciative with each new image and vice versa. I am, of course, so grateful we met early on in his career. If not, my body of work would be devoid of some of my favorite pieces.

david blaine
Artwork by Mark Stutzman

What is most special about building long-term relationships is that you can hit the ground running with each subsequent project. Having an established working rhythm expedites the creative process. It becomes more fluid, free flowing, and trusting. ‘Asking For A Ride’ was my second cover for White Reaper. The first being 'You Deserve Love' (2019), a brilliant idea that Alex presented to me on a silver platter. My job was simply rendering the loving earth.

Cover artwork, white reaper
Cover Artwork by Mark Stutzman

I enjoy taking direction from people I work with. Projects start with a wish list or Q&A to flesh out a narrative and visual angle. Sometimes clients come to me with a very specific request that is fully predetermined and other times it can be just an idea or no idea at all. It’s a wide spectrum of where I begin making art. With ‘Asking For A Ride,’ Alex already presented the idea to the band who then offered up what would represent each track off of their album. The requests were simple and clear – a monkey, a clown, a pirate, a cyclops, etc. The hilarious disconnect between the cast of characters became the binding thread. From that point, it was a matter of sketching what each character could look like and then piecing them together in a way that would allow the viewer to bounce around the art like a pinball.

mark stutzman
Character Sketches by Mark Stutzman

The only shift from the original concept was changing the environment from a baron, deserted landscape to a chaotic urban one. It would become a much busier visual but I rather enjoy assembling multiple vignettes into a single picture. Adding the somewhat twisted perspective on the buildings was a way to infuse additional tension.


Some of my early sketches needed to be modified to fit the composition or express a different interaction in the scene. The possibilities are endless, so at a certain point, you need to commit to something or the project will never progress. Accepting a single idea as the final direction is the hardest part. You have to let go of some things that may not work in the overall composition.


You’ve completed a variety of music related projects, but I have to say that ‘Asking For A Ride’ is arguably among the best because every inch of that painting was crafted to bewilder the viewer in ways that many will gravitate towards, time and time again. Is that by design? As most of us observe the transition from the dominance of physical media to digital, it’s covers like that preserve the power of the arts.


I really appreciate you saying that. When I’m crafting a complicated image, I like to think of it as having layers of focus. It may appear one way from a distance and another when you get closer. Telling one larger story with smaller ones inside is a way to engage people longer in a piece of art. “Less is more” rarely applies to my work. The big thumb is clearly the hook. What takes place after that is just gravy.



As a teenager, I remember staring at album covers as I would listen to the music. The best covers, in my mind, were a reflection of the sound. If White Reaper fans feel a connection with this cover, it would please me beyond measure. If the cover is bewildering at first, it may become more comfortable once the music becomes familiar.


A friend of mine owned a vinyl shop for a few years. I asked him why people were gravitating towards this traditional media when other forms of listening were far more accessible? He recalled his youth and how having a vinyl album in-hand was a kind of ownership. He would take his albums to his friend’s house and they would share and exchange what they treasured most from their collections. I could tell his connection to the music he “owned" identified him as he listed his favorites. I related as I recalled the many records I listened to over and over again. The ritual of cleaning and caring for the records and the players were part of the entire experience. The covers were often iconic and inspired me to become an artist too. I would often draw in my room as I listened to my collection. It was my dream to be able to adorn music with my art someday. CD cover are okay but the large, square format is king!


I couldn't agree more.


Digital media lives in a virtual space, so it’s difficult to claim that media as your own. You are kind of just borrowing it. There’s nothing tactile about it and it doesn’t show wear or the passage of time. That’s why I still work traditionally. I need to touch the art I’m making from drawing it on the board to applying the final brush stroke. All of the steps involve my hands and elbows getting soiled with graphite and the colors I’m using. All the steps physically connect me to what I’m doing. I can’t imagine not having that be part of creating the creative journey. When it’s completed, I have one and only one original, which has to be protected and preserved.

I always love seeing cover paintings in their traditional format, sometimes framed and displayed to honor their grandiose qualities. You capture the power of an organic painting beautifully with this answer. Shifting gears a bit, the ‘Asking For A Ride’ cover has become synonymous with a special record in the White Reaper discography. You helped establish the band’s joyous visual identity in grandiose ways that have added a new layer of engagement to the band’s material. What does it mean to you, as an artist, to have your work live and breathe through new mediums?


If what I create visually is enjoyed along side what the band creates musically, I am humbled and honored by the association. The collision of artistic disciplines is a wonderful intersection. The overlap is one reason I love working commercially.



Seeing my work in print is still my favorite way. It was the only medium when I first became an illustrator. Digital reproductions are fabulously colorful, versatile, and vibrant but just as digital music and vinyl are distinctly different, so is digital media and print. There is an earthiness of holding printed work in your hands, it’s illuminated by the light in the room, you can touch it, even smell it, and prop it up in a corner to look at when you like.

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Work In Progress Photo by Mark Stutzman

I have noticed a trend in digital art to make things look more organic and aged where in the beginning it stood out for its tremendous polish and refined detail. Commercial art trends rest on the bob of a swinging pendulum. What goes out of style, generally comes back. I remember when I first learned to use the airbrush and everyone thought it would replace brush work. The newness of it was captivating, but in reality, it was merely an addition to how images could be rendered, not a replacement. I added airbrushing to my brush work to allow the broadest use of detail, texture, and surface modeling.


What I particularly enjoyed with this album rollout is how Alex utilized smaller bits and drawings that I did. He was very inventive in stretching every inch out of it so there was a bigger footprint left behind. Seeing the adaptations is a brilliant way to best exploit the life of the work.

white reaper, the best art
Work In Progress Photo by Mark Stutzman

As mentioned before, it’s quite a treat to see the gradual evolution of a colorless sketch to a vibrant final cover painting, all of which was completed through traditional methods. The entirety of this album's visual identity is truly a feat. In closing, Mark, is enticing viewers through your talents as exciting as it once was during the pinnacle of record stores and physical media? I understand you stepped away a bit from art to explore new interests, so this was perhaps a refresh.


The rush of making art never grows old. My favorite part is in the initial stages when fleshing out a concept and composing an image. I’ve always loved to draw, so I invest a good bit in that stage of the process. I only do assignment work so all my creative energy is devoted to projects I’m commissioned to do. I’m often asked what kinds of art I make for myself and I can’t remember the last time that happened. There is always something I’ve had to put on the back burner while entrenched in an immediate deadline. Sometimes it can be a juggling act that can get intense.

white reaper, mark stutzman
Completed Painting by Mark Stutzman

Because there are numerous digital platforms for reaching an audiences these days, some projects are created in layers, which I wholly dislike doing. The layers allow flexibility to fill vertical or horizontal shapes but making a piece of art is about juxtaposition and relationships between the foreground and its surroundings. Rendering disconnected layers is collage rather than composing an image that is fixed and certain. I have adapted to this physical need, but I feel the work is generally subpar and sometimes wooden. ‘Asking For A Ride’ was painted as a single painting, which pleases me. From start to finish, it was a genuine, creative experience.


When I was a young illustrator, I was all over the map trying my hand at anything and everything. I always liked variety and exploring new techniques I hadn’t tried before. My core work is generally color, water-based paintings but I also make line art, scratch board, design playing cards, and have even designed 3D glassware premiums for McDonalds. The applications of my illustrations have been diverse too including anything from a postage stamp to a lobby mural. I also started making videos about five years ago, mostly documentary style. Because I’ve always told stories with a single image, using moving pictures has become a delightful new experience. Broadening the scope of what I do has been good for me creatively. I am never bored or wishing I could do something else. Making imagery with purpose and meaning, no matter what form it takes, is just something I’m compelled to do.

 

Asking For A Ride is available now via Elektra Records (Stream/Order).

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Cover Artwork by Mark Stutzman

White Reaper Photo Gallery (from The Fonda Theatre)


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