Interview: In Depth with Mark Richards of Heavy Hand Illustration

We talk to Mark Richards a.k.a. Heavy Hand Illustration about his artistic origins, his profound work with some of the world's heaviest bands, and the interesting story behind his recent Possessed tribute Primus gig poster.


Art and music go hand in hand, there's just no splitting the two. The world's greatest and heaviest records have been accompanied by an illustrator's profound artistic abilities displayed on the album cover. If not on the record itself, an artist leaves his mark on the gig posters we buy and have hanging from our walls, bringing us back to very special nights, aside from making our dull walls look pretty badass.


Mark W. Richards, who displays his art through the moniker Heavy Hand Illustration, is a San Diego based artist that specializes in creations that our horror and metal loving communities strongly adore. He's created merch designs, gig posters, album covers, and more for renowned heavy bands, such as Pig Destroyer, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Ghoul, The Black Dahlia Murder, Internal Bleeding, Revocation, Horrendous, Funebrarum, Psycroptic, Aborted, Iron Reagan, and a shit ton more. In addition to his killer band work, Richards designs excellent movie posters for the likes of It, Army of Darkness, and Halloween.


We talk to Mark Richards about his artistic origins, his profound work with some of the world's heaviest bands, and the interesting story behind his recent Possessed tribute Primus gig poster.

At what point in your life or artistic career did you decide that horror and metal would the ideal path for you?


I had been drawing all my favorite metal band logos on school notebooks and recreating album covers since I was probably 12 or 13. I don’t remember if I had decided at that point to pursue metal artwork as a career choice, but I knew it would always be something I was interested in. I’d say later in my teen years I really focused more on metal and horror art, but it wasn’t until my mid/late-20s that I really started taking it seriously.


You’re based in San Diego, CA. Would you say that the metal scene in California and the overall music culture in the state had an influence in your current artistic direction?


The New England metal scene is really what had the most influence on my artistic direction. I grew up in Massachusetts and lived there until a little over a year ago, when I moved to San Diego. I have been able to make some solid connections and get some cool opportunities in San Diego though, mainly continuing work with Pig Destroyer and starting relationships with Napalm Death and a local metal/rock venue called Brick By Brick. Since I work with bands and clients all over the world, there isn’t one specific place that has more of an influence on my artistic direction, but I will say that the general art scene and culture in southern California facilitates a lot of great artistic endeavors for me.


A large percentage of the dark art one comes across uses darker tones and colors, whereas your work uses a good mixture of vibrant colors. Would you say that this separates you from the bunch? Or is this just your way of having a bit of fun with the gory and grotesque aspects of the work?


I’ve honestly never really thought about my use of color as separating me from the bunch, but I suppose there could be some truth to that. I get bored with basic colors and want things to pop, so I’m pretty liberal with my application. I’m mostly concerned with having fun on every piece, and ultimately doing what’s best for each design. Using wild or unorthodox color schemes is a lot of fun for me, mainly because of the nostalgia of 80s horror/sci-fi movie covers.


You recently created a Primus gig poster inspired by Possessed’s classic ‘Beyond the Gates’ record as a nod to Larry “Ler” LaLonde’s involvement in the band in the 80’s. You perfectly fused the goblins from ‘The Desaturating Seven’ with the classic Possessed flames and I have to say that this is easily the best gig poster of the year so far. Guide us through the creation of this masterpiece.


Thanks, I appreciate it! When I was approached for this gig I knew I had to come up with something really special. I must have spent hours doing rough thumbnail sketches for various ideas, coming up with nothing worthwhile, until I realized one of the goblin faces would be perfect to mash up with Beyond The Gates. After submitting the sketch I had to patiently await approval from the merchandise organizers, who luckily gave it the okay. I was slightly nervous that it would get turned down for being too metal, but there was enough balance between the Possessed tribute and Desaturating Seven visuals. Like any other piece, I just built it up from the sketch to the linework to the color, making sure to utilize a color palette similar to Beyond The Gates while creating my own unique design.


It seems like Possessed took a liking to the poster, seeing as they posted it on their Instagram. However, the fans had mixed opinions for whatever personal reason. As an artist, do you feel that it’s essential to satisfy one’s own artistic desires despite feedback?


Yeah, I was pretty pumped to see that Possessed was into it! Jeff Becerra got in touch to let me know how much he liked it and appreciated the nod. I read a lot of people hating on the design—not the art itself, but the idea—so it was great to see members of Possessed praise it and view it as the tribute piece I intended. A lot of people thought the design was a jab at them, and some even thought Primus specifically requested it, which is stupid and ridiculous. One person said I deserve to be punched, haha. I highly doubt I’ll ever get punched over a drawing, but honestly it makes me feel accomplished that it affected someone so much. I’ve heard plenty of times that Ler disowns his past in Possessed, but I’ve never actually seen any proof of it. I have, however, read plenty of interviews in which he’s open about the band, so it seems the consensus should be updated amongst Ler’s critics.


As far as the bigger picture goes, I definitely feel it’s essential and important to satisfy artistic desires despite the potential of negative feedback. If we all played it safe because a select few may take offense, art would be soulless and impersonal. I don’t necessarily promote overtly provocative or controversial art, but there’s a certain level of satisfaction seeing people get bothered or unsettled by artistic expression. I will say, however, that I completely denounce any “artwork” that exists solely to promote any form of bigotry or hateful ignorance.

Did Les or Ler respond to the poster?


I’ve never had direct contact with the band, but I was told by a member of their personnel that they both loved the poster and talked a great deal about it. Les always doodles something on their setlist, so for that night he doodled Ler holding the poster, which was cool as hell to see.

Picture by @helloimesteban on Instagram

You’ve done work for Aborted, Pig Destroyer, Napalm Death, Revocation, Black Dahlia Murder, and a few other renowned heavy bands. What’s it like working with the bands for merch, cover, art, posters, etc.?


Overall, working with heavy bands is great. Every now and then I’ll encounter a band who micromanages/nitpicks a little too much, but the bigger names are usually the easiest to work with. Some bands will have very specific requests, some give me lyrics and song titles to work off of, and some trust me 100% and let me go nuts. It also feels very natural for me to work with metal bands since I’ve been listening to/creating metal for the majority of my life. Even though I’ve been doing this for a while now, I still get excited to create relationships with bands I love. It’s especially rewarding when bands like Napalm Death and Pig Destroyer, who I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager, come to me with ideas on a regular basis.


You’ve also done work with Psycroptic, who just released an incredible new record this week and are also featured on the site following an interview I had with Dave Haley. Have you had a chance to check out their new 3 new singles? Just killer stuff!


I have to admit I’m very bad at keeping up with music as it’s coming out, mainly because I’m too busy with art, haha. I have heard 2 of the tracks and they’re quite nasty. I hadn’t listened to Psycroptic for years until my buddy Todd started playing bass with them over the past year or so. I fell out of all the tech death stuff for a long time because it all just got way too monotonous for me, but Psycroptic have always kept it interesting.


I actually own the ‘Blood Atonement’ design you made for Revocation. Just incredibly detailed and gory. Did the band specifically ask for the design to be focused on this track or was this one of your own undertakings?


Oh sweet, I didn’t know that was available yet! Dave gave me some brief rundowns on a handful of songs and I pitched ideas for each one. He felt the strongest visual description was for Blood Atonement, so it was kind of a 50/50 split. This is the 7th design I’ve done for them, logo included, and I’ve known them since something like 2004 when they were Cryptic Warning, so we’ve built a solid and easy-going relationship. They’re great at presenting really visual lyrics, so it’s easy for me to come up with sweet imagery for them.

Revocation - Blood Atonement | Heavy Hand Illustration

Another one of the works that I’m fond of is your tour poster design for ‘The Speed of the Wizard Tour’ with High on Fire and Municipal Waste. What’s the deal with the bad-ass gas masked wizard?


Thanks, glad you dig it! That was a fun one to work on. Tony from MW came to me with it as a rush job and said they were thinking of a wizard in a gas mask. I felt it was a pretty solid idea that fit well with the tour lineup, and didn’t want to hold up the process with any extra brainstorming, so I went with it. A fun side note: I don’t know if it even registered with anyone, but I purposely made the staff’s dragon claw and crystal ball look like one of those goofy necklaces that were popular in the mid-90s.


When working on new pieces, do you have a heavy setlist playing in the background? If so, what’s on your current rotation?


Most of the time I just binge watch shows on Hulu and Netflix while I’m working since it’s easy to zone out and let the TV make choices for me. Even though I don’t exactly watch, for whatever reason I find it’s easier to stay focused when I can see the constant movement out of the corner of my eye. Every now and then I’ll put on my favorite horror movies for the sake of variety; I’ve probably watched every Evil Dead, Re-Animator, and Basket Case movie a hundred times at this point.


When I do listen to music while working, my absolute favorite artists to listen to are Judas Priest, King Diamond/Mercyful Fate, Black Sabbath, Napalm Death, Neurosis, Rick James, and Stevie Wonder. They all have deep catalogs with a lot of variation and great songwriting, so putting them on shuffle individually or together helps maintain my workflow. Weird death metal like Demilich, Blood Incantation, Morbus Chron, Lykathea Aflame, etc. also keeps me productive. If I’m working on some loose sketching or less technical ink work, thrashy stuff like Demolition Hammer, Hypnosia, and early Slayer are my top choices.


At the moment I’m bouncing back and forth between the full King Of The Hill series and a bunch of 80s B-horror. For music I’ve been listening to Tomb Mold a lot; they’re easily my favorite death metal band since the 90s. The new Outer Heaven album absolutely crushes. Other new and not-so-new stuff from Horrendous, Revocation, Pig Destroyer, Mortuous, Ossuarium, Rude, Necrot, Vastum, and Chthe’ilist have been in regular rotation.


With the rise of streaming, the physical medium is slowly diminishing. As a fan of vinyl myself, I feel that audiences don’t appreciate the overall package of the music anymore, from the cover art and liner notes to the actual musicianship. Do you feel that this is a growing issue that will continue to get worse as streaming becomes more accessible?


On a grand scale, physical media is undoubtedly diminishing, which is very disappointing. Vinyl has definitely gained a lot of popularity over the past 5 or so years, but I feel that it’s mainly a novelty that won’t last much longer for the mainstream crowd, like most trends. The diehards will always support physical media, so all is not lost. It would be really nice to see people care more about what goes into the music, art, packaging, etc. rather than how easily they can access it. Some of my favorite music became my favorite because of the overall experience: digging through bins at music stores, ripping up the packaging, checking out all the details of the art, liner notes, reading lyrics along with the songs, and displaying it on a carefully alphabetized shelf. On the flipside, I love the fact that I have the freedom to access music from a device that fits in my pocket wherever I am, so I’m not 100% innocent of contributing to “the problem,” haha. For certain markets I think streaming will make physical media obsolete. Since the requests for album cover artwork continue to flood into my email, us metalheads may be in the clear!


Aside from doing work for bands, you have an exceptional catalog of movie posters, including It, Halloween, and Army of Darkness. Is the creative process for these different than what you would normally undergo for band work?


Movie posters are definitely a lot different. With metal designs, there’s a lot of artistic freedom to create an image based on a concept that may only have been represented as lyrics or song titles previously. With movie posters, you have to either create iconic imagery that correlates to a strong aspect of the movie, or accurate likenesses of key characters/situations. It can be incredibly difficult to properly represent movie characters, but luckily it’s pretty easy to find photographic assets or take screenshots for reference. Overall, I have much more artistic freedom with designs for bands, but I can really flex my technical muscles with the movie posters and put together some fun compositions.


With licensing and other issues that may be involved with the film properties, does it become difficult for you to implement your own artistic endeavors with these properties?


I haven’t really had any issues with artistic restrictions. I also haven’t had to worry about licensing, mainly because the companies I work with go through the proper channels. The only piece I’ve made so far that involved any red tape was the Halloween poster; the licensers had to approve every element that went into the poster before I could finalize it. Fortunately I was cleared from the first sketch, but losing a few days while waiting for approval is the biggest downside.


Are there any pieces that you’re particularly proud to have worked on?


There are a ton, so I’ll narrow it down to my top 7, chronologically:


1. The first Pig Destroyer poster I did back in December 2014 was a huge milestone for me. It was extremely well received by fans and the band; it’s the first poster I’ve ever done that sold out 100%, was also used for t-shirts, and led to a great working relationship with both PD and Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Scott Hull has been one of my favorite riffers since I was 16 or 17, and now he’s one of my best clients and a solid friend.


2. The Meticulous Invagination design for Aborted, featuring a portrait of Ted Bundy, was also a proud moment for me for numerous reasons. That song in particular is my all-time favorite Aborted song, and there have probably only been 4 or 5 weeks since it came out that I haven’t listened to it. It was a really solid likeness to Ted Bundy and chilled me a little here and there. Having to stare into those sociopathic eyes for 20+ hours became a little much, haha. Sven from Aborted commented that no other merch design had created such a buzz for them at that point. I even gained my first enemy because of art, haha. Some dingus on Instagram criticized me for glorifying Bundy’s crimes, but he was running Jack The Ripper tours in England so it was pretty easy to call him out on his hypocrisy. I got blocked real quick after that, but no loss there


3. Ghoul’s Dungeon Bastards album cover was another huge proud moment for me. Aside from a couple friends’ bands local to the Boston area, Ghoul was the first band I was a huge fan of to hire me for an album cover. The excitement of working with them really helped me push the limits and get out of my comfort zone. I think I put 80 hours of work into it, and while there are a ton of things I wish I had done differently, I’m still very proud I had the opportunity. I also had a fanboy moment when I saw a picture of Karl from Bolt Thrower holding the album, so that boosted my pride a little bit more. Not really a huge deal, but it made me happy to know some of my art is in a death metal legend’s collection.


4. Creating an Army Of Darkness poster is probably my all-time proudest moment. Granted, it’s a licensed poster and not a straight up “official” poster commissioned by the filmmakers, but still a great opportunity. The Evil Dead series have been my favorite movies since I was 15 or 16, and 20 years later I still enjoy each entry as much as I did when I first saw them. This poster started a great relationship with Hero Complex Gallery in LA, who also put out my It and Halloween posters. We have a long “wish list” of movie posters for me to make for future events, including some of my all-time favorites.


5. The Primus poster is a gigantic bucket list item that has been checked off with the grandest of authority. I’ve been listening to Primus for longer than I can remember, and seeing the insane amount of amazing artists they employ for gig posters made me proud as hell to be included. I was given the opportunity on my birthday of all days, so that made it extra special. The band spoke very highly of it, and frequently—which I’ve been told is rare for them--, the poster sold out in less than 30 minutes at the show, and has guaranteed future work with the band.


6. When I was asked to do a poster for Napalm Death, I’m fairly sure I loudly exclaimed “FUCK YES” on the elliptical at the gym. I immediately put on Harmony Corruption and worked my heart rate through the roof, haha. Napalm Death was the first “extreme” band I ever got into, so being able to do a piece for them (even if it wasn’t directly requested by the band) was amazing. I couldn’t really tell if the band was as into it as I was, but the day after the show Shane hit me up to discuss future designs. So I guess it went over pretty well!


7. Not necessarily one piece in particular, but the opportunity to work for Netflix was surreal. I got an email at some odd hour from them and assumed it was spam; I did some research and found it was legit, so I signed an NDA and essentially agreed to a full week of work for them without really knowing what it would be. It ended up being sketches of people’s nightmares as part of an ad campaign for their show “Haunted,” which details real life haunting experiences. The other artists involved were some pretty big names, and one major influence (Brandon Holt), so I felt extremely honored to be included in that lineup.


Are there any bands or film properties that you would like to work with in the future?


Black Sabbath would be the absolute pinnacle of my career, and I’d probably quit after that if it ever happened. Chances are pretty slim since they’re technically inactive, but I won’t count it out completely. Same goes with Slayer. Active bands who I would love to work for are Gorguts, Broken Hope, Suffocation, and Demilich. There are so many more, but those are bucket list bands for sure.


I would also love to be able to create something for pretty much any major pop act, just to say I did. Closest I’ve come so far is a t-shirt for rapper Pusha-T that may not have even been pressed. Evil Dead 2 is my favorite movie of all time, so it would be a dream come true to make something official for it. There are numerous other movie properties I would absolutely love to work with—some of which may or may not already be scheduled—including Re-Animator, Event Horizon, Predator, Basket Case, Hellraiser, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Society, Big Trouble In Little China, and the list goes on!


Are there any cool projects that we should keep an eye on?


I don’t know how much I can reveal, but there will be plenty of new work for some heavy-hitting clients, some cool horror stuff, some personal work I’ve been trying to get done for years, and maybe some slightly controversial stuff to get a few people riled up again, haha.


In closing, what would you say to aspiring dark artists and artists in general?


If art is truly what you want to do, be prepared to make some huge sacrifices and live a very different life than your friends and family. An absurd amount of time goes into making art a career, and it can get very mentally and physically taxing. You really have to push yourself beyond whatever limitations you currently have, and then push even further. Being critical of your own work is also extremely important; take a long, hard look at everything you’re doing and find something to improve so you can grow, meet goals, and reach new levels. It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of time and know-how, but if you have the dedication and passion, it all comes to fruition eventually. I could go on forever about this stuff, but the bottom line is that you need to be truly passionate about art to make it a worthwhile career. Whatever you do, don’t fake the funk.

Heaviest of Art thanks Mark Richards for taking the time to interview and give us all an insight of what goes on in that devilishly artistic mind of his. We wish Heavy Hand all the best and look forward to picking up more of his pieces for our collections.


Follow Heavy Hand Illustration on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and for bands and brands looking to add the magic 'Heavy Hand' touch to your arsenal, hit him up at heavyhandillustration@gmail.com. You can also pick up some of his pieces on his webstore here.


I leave you with this wonderful gallery of Mark's work for your viewing pleasure.


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